Friday, March 31, 2006

Germanic Genealogy #1: Nice!

As a philological complement to the more literary Cool Quotes feature, the Germanic genealogy feature will occur at odd times to focus on the linguistic family tree of a randomly chosen word. Today's word: nice. And today's method: cheating, because I'm just linking to another page that's already done the work. (It hasn't been in the English language as long as Anglo-Saxon times, so you can't really expect it to keep my interest, can you?)

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Bitter Scroll Podcast

Previously, I tried out Blogger's feature for uploading audio files, which involves recording into a phone. It was ok. But it wasn't enough. My wish for more sound files of Old Germanic languages on the web has led me to experiment with the world of podcasting. I can't say I really know what I'm doing, but I'm learning. Anyway, as a supplement to this blog, I've set up The Bitter Scroll Podcast. The first podcast seeems to be working well enough, so perhaps this will be a good way to offer a way for people to hear what the various languages sound like. Expect mostly Old English at first; there are some passages in Beowulf that I think sound really great when read aloud. If anyone has any requests, I'm open as well. (E.g., I'll probably do the Our Father in Gothic for the guys over at Holy Whapping.)

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Carnival Time!

Beverly over at Em duas línguas hosts today the 2nd Carnival of Blog Translation. A little bit lower attendance than the first one, this one features English, German, Swedish, and Portuguese. Topics range from what is a language, to waking up one's inner parent, to the limits of face-to-face communication, to reflection on a recent loss.

The next carnival will be here at The Bitter Scroll (and not just in my castle, Beverly, but all over Anglo-Saxon Winchester!). I'll post soon to officially open the festivities.

"The Spiraling Shape Will Make You Go Insane..."

First there was the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Now there's the Turning Torso of Malmø. Also more info here.

[Disclaimer: Use of They Might Be Giants titles does not in any way suggest, infer, or imply insanity on the part of the Swedish government, people, or construction industry, or of those who visit or view pictures of buildings therein.]

Monday, March 27, 2006

A Linguistic Manifesto

Update: I've incorporated some of Johan's comments and corrections, but some things simply need explanation. Please see his very informative comments, below.

[In my ongoing attempt to learn Swedish (and every other Germanic language), I’m offering this imperfect translation for the Carnival of Blog Translation. This is a translation from Swedish of Johann Jönsson’s blogpost Ett ideologiskt manifest, from his blog Månskensdans. He makes some interesting points about prescriptivism, the degree to which linguistics is a science, what exactly a language is, and incorporating the inevitability of change into our own approach to language. It’s a perspective that would be useful for English speakers to hear, since we don’t have the experience of encountering speech that’s technically a foreign language, but that’s largely comprehensible to us. I'll add my own thoughts in a subsequent post; for now I’m just getting this translation in under the wire for the Carnival. I’m sure Johan will have corrections, so look out for updates. :-)]


The individual language

The only language that’s relatively static is a dead one. The Swedish language, fortunately, doesn't belongs to this group, and won’t yet for a good while, whatever some may say about the anglicization and abandonment of our mother tongue. The idea that language is an absolute unity stems from the myth that there should be one way to express a language, the idea that there’s Swedish, Norwegian, English, etc., all with razor-sharp borders, and that everything within a given language should be the same and uniform. It’s an opinion that blissfully ignores the fact that what makes a language what it is stands on the most arbitrary grounds, more often on political than linguistic grounds. For example, few will dispute the assertion that Swedish and Norwegian are two different languages. Yet the majority of Swedes have a significantly easier time understanding the Norwegian spoken in Oslo than the Swedish of Älvdalen [wiki.]. We have been characterized by the nationalist ideal: one country, one people, one language. Everyone who spoke one language was thought to belong to the same cultural zone and therefore to be grouped together under the same flag -- which by extension meant that those grouped under the same flag ought to speak the same language. Certainly this is how we think: If someone is Swedish, they must speak Swedish. If they’re German, the German language must apply; if they’re from Holland, they must speak Dutch. An exception is made only in the case where a person speaks a language that can be clearly identified as something different from the expected: but whatever does end up on “our” side of the imaginary language border is simply heaped into the bigger language, and all of a sudden a person can be accused of being wrong, and expressing himself incorrectly because he was adopted by a language that wants to constrain him by rules for how his speaking and writing ought to be done.

The point is that language, even within its own dialects, is not something absolute like mathematics, nor does it need the precision of nuclear physics, put into practice lest something should go wrong. Also, in some border areas, some of what serves to determine where one language begins and another ends also works for distinguishing one dialect from the next one; so actually usage is something that distinguishes not only between countries and languages, like Japanese or Catalan, but from person to person as well. Language is something personal, and it is up to each person to decide how to make use of it. I think, personally, that separated compounds [e.g. lastbils chaufför, truck driver, instead of lastbilschaufför, truckdriver] are enormously ugly, but there is nothing to say they’re wrong any more than to say that wearing a screamingly loud yellow jacket is wrong: It simply goes against the majority’s sense of aesthetics. One can admire purists in the same way one can admire King Leonidas of Sparta -– they lead a doomed struggle against superior odds, but deep down they must be aware that all they have to offer is a tiny postponement of what ultimately can’t be stopped. Unlike Leonidas, however, in this case there won't be any greater army to turn the tide of change -- and when you get down to it, language purism in its own way isn’t really much healthier than the ideal Spartan lifestyle. Both aim at lofty goals and an elitism that are in fact of no interest to most people.

“Swedish” must be seen as a generic name for several million individual ways of approaching language that more or less resemble one another. To see it any other way is to deceive oneself. There's naturally a certain standardization, but it’s nothing more than a loose agreement between people to be able to make use of speech and writing in an effective way. These compromises happen through communicative exchange more often than by decree from above: Kalle, a 43-year-old illiterate truck driver, can’t be more right nor wrong than anyone else in this case since there are no definite rules to follow, other than those of self-appointed prophets. But the language isn’t waiting for any messiah; we have it for only one purpose: to be able to understand each other. Will we be understood? This is what lies behind our striving after a norm; this is also why the language doesn't need any absolute rules, since those who deviate too long from that which is normal only punish themselves when they fail in their goal (to be understood). It lies in the nature of communication to make oneself readily understandable. It is this which lies behind a thousand years of change, leading to the language we have today. The [Swedish] language has been controversial before -– our present spelling (where hv, f, and v through reform have all simply become v) and grammar (today we don’t writan -- we write [idag skriva vi icke –- vi skriver; see comments]) were not accepted without protest; nevertheless they're simplifications that most people today are glad happened. When Sten [see comments] a thousand years ago erected a namesake with runes over his fallen brother, there were surely a handful of passersby that shook their heads at the youth’s overly creative take on the grammatical cases (even if ancient Swedish hadn’t yet been enriched with such a concept at the time). Still, many go around with the completely absurd idea that the language reached its highpoint some time in the middle of the twentieth century –- in other words, when they went to school -– and that, with the dubious concession that new occurences should have new words, it should be conserved in that state forever.

People want what they’re used to, and often rebel against change. Language is no different, but it is something that everyone uses and depends on, something so central to our lives that few things engender stronger opinions and feelings. Still, that a language should not develop and become more simple than it already has must be regarded as an image negative enough to challenge the most joyless philosophers, since it would mean that whatever happens, the language can only get worse, never better. Yet all historical development suggests the opposite, and probably many ideas that are prevalent today will be considered with great skepticism in a century or two.

I believe in development. I believe in renewal, and that our will to be understood will create an ever more easily accessible language. For when people begin to mutter about the twilight of culture and the impoverishment of language, there’s one thing that is easy to forget: Language wants to be understood.

Blogs Who've Cried Beowulf

There've been a couple of posts on Beowulf in recent memory that I meant to blog about when they came out and never got around to. Consider them officially around-to-gotten.

First, and more recent, is Michael Drout's post on Benjamin Bagby's performance of Beowulf. I don't have much to add, except that I'm excited and can't wait to get a copy for myself. I was also interested to see in the comments section that Bagby sang about the Volsung story with Sequentia. I have a CD of theirs of Norse music (as best as can be reconstructed, of course), and I know they've also set both Old English and even Gothic to music. (I wonder if Mikaela knows ... speak Gothic around her and she melts like buttah!)

The second post is Scott Nokes' post Beowulf Hobbyists of the World, Unite!, where he links to a LanguageHat post [2nd item] about Syd Allen's Beowulf site. Syd indeed has an excellent site, with detailed info pages on anything you can think of: various editions and translations, comic books, historical background, maps, a pronunciation guide, alliteration, even a word search. You want to know what the meadhall Heorot might have looked like? Syd's got this picture:
You want to compare the handwritings of the two scribes who copied the only existing manuscript of Beowulf? He's got this page. He's even got a whole page dedicated to the question of whether Beowulf, in his fight with Grendel's mother, pulled her hair (feaxe) or her shoulder (eaxle).

I consider Syd Allan's site, together with Ben Slade's Beowulf on Steorarume ("Beowulf in Cyberspace"), the two headquarters of Beowulf-studies on the web. The latter link also has many cool features, not least of which is a cool url: (since, after all, Heorot was in Denmark). Ben has also pimped his site with cool art from fan and Photoshop, a dual-language text which periodically sports audio files (which, oddly, while his, seem to live on Syd Allan's site), helpful lists of characters and monsters, and links to other Old English works like Deor, Waldere, and the Finnsburg fragment (which has a more detailed account of the Frisian kinslaying whose tale the poet ironically tells in Heorot before Hrothgar and his son (and Beowulf).

Finally, I'm in the process of rearranging my own sidebar. You'll see some additional links and resources (including the two I just mentioned). In the future, I'll probably try to categorize my blog links (I wonder if I need to create separate blogrolling accounts for that, or if I should just put them up manually. Any ideas?), and thereby add more to each category, especially medievalist blogs (after the spirit of this post).

Sunday, March 26, 2006

All-Knowing-IPod Meme

Well, you don't really need an IPod, just any playlist on shuffle. H/t Fr. Tucker.

Instructions: Go to your music player of choice and put it on shuffle. Say the following questions aloud, and press play. Use the song title as the answer to the question. NO CHEATING.

How does the world see you?
At the Agway (People Are Wrong / TMBG)

Will I have a happy life?
Full Circle (Loreena McKennitt)

What do my friends really think of me?
Rye or the Kaiser (Weird Al Yankovic)

What do people secretly think of me?
The Middle (Jimmy Eat World)

How can I be happy?
Walking on the Sun (Smashmouth)

What should I do with my life?
Hunt for Red Oktober (Soundtrack/Theme Song)

Will I ever have children?
um, Rock You Like a Hurricane (Scorpions)

What is some good advice for me?
You’re Not the Boss of Me (TMBG)

How will I be remembered?
Land Downunder (Men at Work)

What is my signature dancing song?
Stand (REM)

What do I think my current theme song is?
Redundant (Green Day)

What does everyone else think my current theme song is?
Dreams (Cranberries)

What song will play at my funeral?
Who’ll Stop the Rain? (CCR)

What type of men/women do you like?
Money for Nothing (Dire Straights)

What is my day going to be like?
[yikes] The Godfather Theme Song

Saturday, March 25, 2006

My New Neighbor Geoffrey

A hearty welcome to Geoffrey Chaucer who hath moved his blog to Blogspot. Now you can post a comment on his blog without having to sign up for Friendster. If you haven't seen his blog before, he's moved most of his old posts over as well, for posterity's sake. Now that he's posting more often, you must go visit, it's always a fun read, though his new-fangled French-mixed Anglisc may take some getting used to. ;-)

Þú eart micel welcumen to þæm Blogspote, Godfrið!

No Rules, Just Write

Lexicon: A Linguistic Game Without Rules

From HeiDeas, try your brain on this maddening little game. Frustratingly, I'm already stumped on Screen 3, and the first two screens were pretty easy. I'm going to dream of pears tonight....

Update: Ok, I've gotten up to level 17 now. Being the word-lover that I am, this puzzle with numbers is killing me. Worse, now I'm going to dream of numbers tonight....

Friday, March 24, 2006

Representing Deutschland

I'm posting the following videos here because I can (thank you, Google), because I simply can never stop laughing no matter how often I've seen them, and because, after all, they're all Germanic and stuff.

VW has had these three commercials airing in the US for a while now, and having just watched The Brothers Grimm, I'm almost positive that the guy who played the Italian Cavaldi in the movie is the same guy "representing Deutschland" in the commercials. Can anyone confirm this?

If so, we have a Swede playing an Italian and a German. I think he overdid the Italian accent just a tad in the movie, but I've been trying to listen for hints of a Swedish accent in his assumed German accent. (Some of my readers are more qualified to assess this than I am.) I especially like the one with the green car, where he purposely tries to make his accent hard to understand. Oh, and his facial expressions are awesome.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Gleðileg Patreksdag!

At least, that's my best attempt at "Happy St. Patrick's Day" in Icelandic. In honor Patrick Snakesbane, you've managed to navigate to a rather Germanically-focused blog. To get you back on track, here's something vaguely relevant:

The Viking Age in Ireland

Scandinavian settlements were pretty far-flung in the middle ages: North America ("Vinland"), Greenland, Iceland, Ireland (Dublin/Dyflin), Scotland, the Hebrides, Shetland, and Orkney islands, England (the Danelaw, York/Jorvik, etc.), Normandy, the Baltics, even into Russia and beyond.

Only in Iceland--"a retirement home for aging Vikings", as one modern editor of the sagas put it--did the language of Old Norse survive, and relatively unchanged at that. Everywhere else, linguistic indications of their presence are much more subtle: Mix Norse and Old French and you have the Old Norman dialect, which then was brought to England, mixed with the already Norse-influenced Old English, and Anglo-Norman is born, only to give way to Middle English by Chaucer's day.

Celtic and Germanic tribes have a long history of interaction--peaceful or otherwise. Celts already occupied much European land when Germanic tribes first moved down into Bavaria, west into Gaul, and over the sea into the British Isles. The Gauls saw rule by Romans and Franks, Celts in northern Italy dealt with Lombards and Goths, and the British Isles for the last 1600 years have been to varying degrees in varying areas a jumble of Pict, Irish, Scot, Welsh, Norwegian, Dane, Saxon, Norman, so that the very word "British", originally referring to Celts such as the Welsh, can refer to Celt or Germanic, depending on context and the time period you're talking about.

Happy St. Patrick's Day, and make sure you have a ride home tonight. ;-)

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Norse Poetica

[Note: blogrolling has been having problems, so I've commented it out in my blog template until they fix what's wrong, b/c it was keeping my page from loading.]

In my posts on old Germanic poetry I just barely touched on the varieties developed by the Norse. This page is a relatively straightforward easily readable rundown of Norse poetry. It doesn't have all the many variations of poetic form the Norse skalds developed, but it's got the basic ones, and is a good introduction. Note the features Norse poetry shares with Old English:

  • Alliteration is the main sound device used to connect words, not rhyme.
  • Vocabulary is increased by the fabrication of kennings ("whale-road" for the sea, etc.).
  • As usual, some archaic vocabulary survived in the poetry that didn't survive in prose.

It's the differences that are the most fascinating though. Many different forms developed, unlike in Old English which used one form for everything. The different Old Norse forms are all ultimately based on the common Germanic poetic form, but the skalds (poets) apparently had a lot more fun toying with meter and even introduced a form of rhyme (which they got from the Celts if I remember right).

Check out the form Fornyrðislag--it's basically the same as the Old English form. Now shorten every even line (to one half-line instead of two) and you have Ljóðaháttr. Or instead, add a bit of rhyme within a line (partial rhyme in odd lines, full rhyme in even lines) and you have Dróttkvætt. Actually strictly speaking you have Hrynhenda. Dróttkvætt has six syllables per line, not eight. Again, it's an introduction. For more, the Wikipedia article, with its links, is also helpful.

I also mentioned comparative terseness (not a lot of unstressed syllables per each stressed one) as one of the reasons the Norse were able to play with their language the way they did, at least compared with Old English, and especially compared with Old Saxon (check out the Heliand).* It's worth seeing for yourself: If you're ambitious, try composing your own verses in Dróttkvætt in English. Here are the precise rules:

Lines: 8 lines per stanza.
Syllable Count: 6 syllables per line for Dróttkvætt.
Meter: 3 stressed syllables per line. Every line must end in a trochee.
Alliteration: Each pair of lines is bound by alliteration: 2 out of 3 stressed syllables of the first (odd) line must alliterate with the first stressed syllable of the second (even) line.
Rhyme: This is slightly different from how we usually conceive it. There are two types. 1) For odd lines, the last stressed syllable must have partial rhyme with any other syllable in the line: i.e., they end in the same consonant and have close but not identical vowels. E.g.: up and weapon. (This is called skothending, 'a glancing hit'.)
2) For even lines, the last stressed syllable must have full rhyme with any other syllable in the line: i.e. they end in the same consonant and have the same vowel. E.g.: burn and learning. (This is called aðalhending, 'a direct hit'.)

Good luck! I think you'll find lines almost don't have enough room to say things the way the English language wants to say them.

* By the way, the Bibliotheca Augustana has a chronology of Old German (and Saxon) texts, all online. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Old Germanic Poetry, part 2

A little more about Old Germanic poetry. (Part One here.)

The Varieties

While this overall poetic structure dominated the various Germanic languages, still the sundering of the tribes that resulted in different tongues also resulted in different poetic styles. This was done not so much by discarding the basic rules, as by working within them and at times adding additional ones. The main difference seems to have to do with the relative wordiness or terseness of the language. Old Saxon, for example, was much wordier than Old Norse or even Old English at times. Reflexive pronouns were more common, so that where OE would have ongann, ‘began’, OS would have bigan imu (thus doubling the syllable count). Moreover, even where OE and OS prose syntax might be similar, OS poets were more likely to fit more into a single half-line. Thus, while there are still only four main stresses per line, there were a great deal of unstressed syllables, making their verse long and rather belabored. The following line has seven weak syllables before the first strong one (note alliteration on the w-sound):

bigan imu an themu uuege uuahsen;         thô it eft thes uuerodes farnam,
it began to grow on the path;         then it afterwards [was] destroyed by the people, . . .

Old Norse was terse by contrast, expressing the same ideas in very few syllables. This led to a lot of stylizing by later poets, who revelled in the beautiful efficiency of their language and liked to explore just how succinct they could make it. To the existing rules of alliteration and meter they added further rules concerning syllables count and internal and external rhyme. Notice the almost complete lack of weak syllables in lines like these from the Hávamál (strong syllabes are bolded):

Deyr fé, deyja frændr
Die cattle, die kin. . . .

Ár skal rísa sá er annars vill
eða fjör hafa;

Early must he rise who would another’s
life or wealth have.

More in a subsequent post on the many and various ways poets devised of "using the Norse."

Old English might be thought of as midway between Old Saxon and Old Norse, both in terms of wordiness and vocabulary. (And historically, in a way, too: The Anglo-Saxons had their roots on the continent, yet had more Norse influence than their cousins back home.) Thus the OE flavor of poetry demanded at least one weak syllable for each strong one (thus four syllables minimum per half-line), and in fact usually had between 1 to 2 weak syllables for each strong one. Here is a sample of OE poetry from the poem-fragment of the Battle of Maldon:

"Gehyrst þu, sælida,         hwæt þis folc segeð?
Hi willað eow to gafole         garas syllan, . . .

Hear thou, seaman,         what this people sayeth?
They will give you         a tribute of spears, . . .

The great exception to this rule in OE poetry is the long verse. This is a phenomenon that contains three strong syllables per half-line, something that otherwise only occurs in Norse poetry. These long verses occur always in pairs (always with another long verse on the same line), and usually in groups. Here is a passage from the Dream of the Rood that has both long and regular verses (strong syllables are bolded):

"Þæt wæs geara iu,         (ic þæt gyta geman),
þæt ic wæs aheawen         holtes on ende,
astyred of stefne minum.         Genaman me ðær strange feondas
geworhton him þær to wæfersyne,         heton me heora wergas hebban.
Bæron me ðær beornas on eaxlum,         oððæt hie me on beorg asetton,

It was years ago         (I remember it still)
That I was hewn down         at the edge of the forest,
cut from my trunk.         Strong foes took hold of me there,
there made for themselves a spectacle of me,         commanded me to carry their criminals.
There warriors bore me there on their shoulders,         until they set me on a hill.

The Silent Tribes

The languages of many ancient Germanic tribes (Burgundians, Vandals, Gepids, etc.) are not fully known, at least not as distinct from other larger and closer tribes. Gothic, Old Frisian, and Old (Low) Franconian, while known languages with their own extant texts, nevertheless are not mentioned here because no poetry from these languages has survived. Still, one is probably safe in guessing that if they had, they would follow the same pattern. This guess led Tolkien to imagine what it would have sounded like, hence his composition of Bagme Bloma. (Here's another poem composed by a modern Gothic enthusiast, which in fact conforms more closely to Germanic alliteration rules than Tolkien's poem.)

Monday, March 13, 2006

Rebuilding Babel

Forget Indo-European, learn to speak World! :-P

Proto-World Language

Call me cynical, but it seems to me that many sounds, under the right conditions, can be said to be associated with many other sounds. To wit: the letter 'g' is used in places where elsewhere are found 'w' (guard/ward), 'y' (OE gear > ModE year), 'c' (Germanic verbal prefix ge- is ultimately related to Latin prefix co-), or no letter at all (OE gear / Sw år). But this doesn't mean that any of these letters can fill in for any of the others. (E.g., you can't say that sag, say, saw, and sac have a common source just because, in other circumstances, those letters are related.)

So, if you ignore circumstance I suppose you can fabricate an etymology or linguistic connection for almost anything. Given the fact that all humans work with the same laws of physics and anatomy of mouth, throat, etc., it's probably inevitable for genuine coincidences to spring up now and then. Considering all the words of all the languages of the world not on that list, what is there might just as well be coincidence as a legitimate connection. Anyway you'd have to judge case by case, and I'm definitely unqualified for 99% of the languages listed.

Having said all that, I'll admit gaetanus and I had the great (albeit tongue-in-cheek) idea in college to reconstruct "Adamic", based on things like Greek kata and the downward aspect we saw in the word kowtow. We were like a linguistic mafia that could force a connection between any two words you liked: You need to establish a link between these two words? ... We have ways ... We'll make 'em an etymology they can't refuse....

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Cool Quote #7: The Wonders of Iceland

Exploring's endless hoard of Germanic texts led me to the King's Mirror: "A 13th century text in Old Norwegian, in which a father instructs his son on the path to wise and virtuous behavior." Here's an excerpt from the father's description of Iceland, since my buddy baronius and I will be there in a few months.

Concerning the extraordinary fires which burn there, I scarcely know what to say, for they possess a strange nature. I have heard that in Sicily there is an immense fire of un-usual power which consumes both earth and wood. I have also heard that Saint Gregory has stated in his Dialogues that there are places of torment in the fires of Sicily. But men are much more inclined to be-lieve that there must be such places of torment in those fires in Iceland. For the fires in Sicily feed on living things, as they consume both earth and wood....

The fire of Iceland, however, will burn neither earth nor wood, though these be cast upon it; but it feeds upon stone and hard rock and draws vigor from these as other fires do from dry wood. And never is rock or stone so hard but that this fire will melt it like wax and then burn it like fat oil. But when a tree is cast upon the fire, it will not burn but be scorched only. Now since this fire feeds on dead things only and rejects everything that other fires devour, it must surely be said that it is a dead fire; and it seems most likely that it is the fire of hell, for in hell all things are dead.

He goes on to describe geysers (one of the few English loanwords from Icelandic):

I am also disposed to believe that certain bodies of water in Iceland must be of the same dead nature as the fire that we have described. For there are springs which boil furiously all the time both winter and summer. At times the boiling is so violent that the heated water is thrown high into the air. But whatever is laid near the spring at the time of spouting, whether it be cloth or wood or anything else that the water may touch when it falls down again, will turn to stone. This seems to lead to the conclusion that this water must be dead, seeing that it gives a dead character to whatever it sprinkles and moistens; for the nature of stone is dead.

But for all the seeming wonders the father recounts, he cautions his son:

Now it must not be regarded as settled that the facts are as we have just said; we have merely tried to bring together and compare various opinions in order to determine what seems most reasonable.

Modern scholars before their time. :-)

This Month's Translation Carnival

This is a little late: Oh well.

This month's Carnival of Blog Translations is being hosted by Beverly of Em duas línguas. To recap: A blog carnival is a basically a whole bunch of blogposts about a certain theme, that are all linked to from one place (the host). In this case, the common theme translation: your post doesn't have to be about translation, but it does have to be a translation. Any blogpost posted this month that you find interesting enough to translate is eligible: Swedish to English, English to Latin, French to Korean, whatever. Maybe this month I'll even get on the ball enough to contribute. Glückliche Übersetzungen!

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Old Germanic Poetry

I thought I'd post here a very basic overview I previously posted elsewhere of the poetical form common to all the Old Germanic languages.

The Basics

Old Germanic poetry is very different from the poetry we are used to today, yet it is not at all difficult. The old Germanic poets had a very few basic principles, and stuck to them valiantly, preserving poetic traditions long after their languages had changed. We'll start with a few lines, drawn from throughout the old Germanic world, and see what commonalities they share. The following lines come, respectively, from the Old High German poem about the end of the world, the Muspilli; from an Old Saxon (Low German) amalgamation of the gospel stories into verse known as the Heliand; from the Old English poem Beowulf; and from the Old Norse Völuspá, the Song of the Sibyll. We'll call them all roughly 9th century, except for the Völuspá, which is from the late 10th. The bold indicates stressed syllables (see #3, below).

Old High German:
uuili den reht-kernon daz rihhi kistarkan.
he will the righteous' kingdom strengthen.

Old Saxon:
uuerod bi themu uuatare, thar uualdand Crist . . .
the crowd [stood] by the water, where the mighty Christ . . .

Old English:
Fyrst forð gewat; flota wæs on um . . .
Time passed further; the boat was on the waves . . .

Old Norse:
Hljoðs bið ek allar helgar kindir . . .
I ask attention from all the sacred holy peoples . . .

Notice in these lines the following commonalities:

1. Each line is divided by a space, which indicates the presence of a pause or caesura. The two halves of the line are fittingly called half-lines, or verses. These spaces of course were not written in either the manuscripts or the runic inscriptions, but suffice it to say that the half-line was the basic metrical unit of old Germanic poetry.

2. Each half-line has two main, stressed syllables, and any number of weak ones (at least two). This has some interesting consequences, the most interesting of which to me is that the meter is made to seem subordinate to the text (the text is primary), rather than vice-versa. It draws out the natural rhythm of the language itself. In other words, if you wouldn’t stress a syllable in normal speech, it doesn’t get stress in verse either. Contrast this with classical Latin or Greek poetry, where meter is based on the length of the syllable (long or short) rather than the weight or emphasis. Also contrast it with many poems and songs in English, where every syllable is counted, and words are often stressed that would not be in normal speech. The only other metrical system I know of that places text above meter in this way is Gregorian Chant, with its system of grouping notes into twos and threes so every important syllable gets an important place in the meter.

3. The syllables in a given half-line (almost) always match one of five metrical patterns. This does not contradict the last paragraph, as you will see shortly. While the number of weak-stress syllables is variable within a half-line, their placement between and around the strong-stress syllables has to match one of five configurations (with few exceptions). In this list, the ‘/’ indicates strong or primary stress, ‘\’ indicates secondary stress (not considered a strong-stress syllable), and the ‘x’ indicates weak or no stress. The modern English examples are those of J.R.R. Tolkien.

A-line:/ x / x (falling) ‘knights in armour’
B-line: x / x / (rising) ‘the roaring sea’
C-line: x / / x (clashing) ‘on high mountains’
D1-line: / / \ x (broken, falling) ‘bright archangels’
D2-line: / / x \ (broken, rising) ‘bold brazenfaced’
E-line: / \ x / (fall-and-rise) ‘highcrested elms’

[Grr. I can't seem to get rid of that space before my table.]

Anyway, these half-line types were compiled by Edvard Sievers, who put them thus in descending order of occurrence (Type A is the most common). Note that weak-stressed syllables in many cases (e.g., at the beginning of the half-line) don’t count, and therefore may be as numerous as the language requires. (E.g., the first OHG half-line shows the pattern x x x / / x which is a version of type C) Most commonly it is nouns and adjective that receive stress, then verbs, then (almost not at all) smaller helper words. In the examples above, we see: types C-A in the Muspilli, A-B in the Heliand, D2-A in the line from Beowulf, and E-A in the Völuspá.

4. Alliteration occurs between at least one strong syllable in each half-line. This has the effect of binding the two verses of a line together, so that while the basic metrical unit of old Germanic poetry is the half-line, the basic alliterative unit is the (full) line. In the first verse of a line, both stressed syllables in the first half-lines may often alliterate; it is common but not required. Thus the first half-lines in the OS and OE examples have two alliterating syllables, while the OHG and ON examples only show one. In the second half-line, only one stressed syllable alliterates, and it is always this first strong syllable of the second half-line that determines the alliterating letter or sound for the entire line. This is useful if one is unsure of the metrical pattern of a line, since alliteration is easier to spot than meter, and one can always count on alliterated syllables being stressed.

There are two more points to know about alliteration: A) All vowels alliterate with all other vowels. (I suppose technically what is alliterating here is the glottal stop that initiates vowels.) B) In OE, the letter ‘g’ is considered to alliterate, according to the rules, even when representing different sounds. Thus, gear (year), pronounced with the OE soft ‘g’ (like modern consonantal ‘y’) is deemed to alliterate with Grendel, clearly a hard ‘g’ sound. The is one of the ways we know that the Anglo-Saxons inherited their verse system from a time when all their g’s did sound the same.

Just how old is this form of poetry inherited by all the Germanic tribes? One of the oldest runic inscriptions, and probably the most famous, is from one of the the now lost Golden Horns of Gallehus. It has been called proto-Norse, but the forms it exhibits could just as easily be the ancestor of German, Saxon, or English, as of the Scandinavian languages (and it's not really all that far off from Gothic either). Here is the inscription, and its transliteration into Latin figures (those of you studying runes can read along):

The Gallehus Horn Inscription
ek hlewagastiR holtijaR horna tawidô
I, Hlegest of Holt [the] horn made [did].

This inscription dates from as far back as the 4th century, yet we can still see four major stressed syllables, connected by alliteration. The half-lines appear to be both of type A, the most common. Clearly, by the time the first lines of verse in English, German, and Norse arrive on the scene, the Germanic poetic tradition was already ancient.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Some Thoughts on Dragons, Beowulf, and St. George

There's something very appropriate about the fact that the birthplace of fantasy literature, the homeland of JRR Tolkien and the author of Beowulf, has as its patron saint a dragon-slayer, according to legend.

This icon is one of my favorite Christmas gifts from this past season (together with the digital camera I took it with, and the Introduction to Sanskrit from gaetanus). It got me to thinking about what the St. George of the legend had in common with England's other non-native, adopted dragon-slayer, Beowulf.

There seems to be a certain veneration of the heroic ideal that the St. George legend has in common with pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon culture (or more specifically, with how the newly converted Anglo-Saxons viewed their recent pagan ancestors).

Obviously the dragon in the icon is Satan. I love the blood dripping almost into a vapor from the dragon's mouth: rather realistic for an icon. Also, his tail is wrapped around the heel of St. George's horse like the prophecy of about the devil in Genesis: "He will strike at your head, you will strike at his heel" (Gen. 3:15), "He" being taken to refer to Christ, the offspring of the Woman in the prophecy. In perhaps a mockery of the Woman and her Offspring, Grendel and his mother must be defeated by Beowulf before his own dragonfight. And while Beowulf defeats his dragon, he dies in the process. It's almost like Beowulf had the power to go to the very limits of what a pre-Christian warrior could do (Grendel's kin is traced to Cain, making Beowulf a kind of Old Testament warrior) but no more, while St. George had the power to fight the Dragon himself and live.

Killing dragons / defeating evil seems to be the kind of thing one does in public, if we are to judge by the tower crammed with royalty and soldiers like a phonebooth full of college students. And this public doesn't at first glance seem anymore helpful than Beowulf's cowardly comrades.

Yet Beowulf did at least have Wiglaf, and St. George has someone with him, too. The women (I think both are women) accompanying both St. George and the dragon brought to my mind the personified Wisdom and Folly from the Book of Proverbs, and obviously in the Christian tradition, St. George is victorious over evil only because Christ is with him. Beowulf represents a somewhat more lonely Germanic heroism, all the more impressive since it is so solitary.

So anyway, I haven't figured out all the symbolism of the icon yet (that's part of the fun of icons). To wit: What's with the urns carried by the women accompanying George and the dragon? And why is the one holding the dragon's leash walking back the other way? St. George and horse are facing uphill ... working their way to heaven? Is that what the tower of people represents? I wonder if the markings on the tower mean anything.

Finally (well, not finally really, but I have to end this post some time) I wonder if there's a reason the dragon is twisted in its wrath like an evil wreath. Another happy coincidence between the traditions of St. George and the English language.