Friday, June 16, 2006

GGL Repost: Old English

Gallery of Germanic Languages: A Look at Old English

Old English is probably the most familiar (if any) of the old Germanic languages. Bede lists the tribes that sailed over to Britain in the fifth century as Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. the Angles came from the small area jutting out into the Baltic Sea called Angeln (named for the people's primary occupation of fishing—hence 'angling'—not for its shape, since this geometric meaning of 'angle' is ultimately Latin, not Germanic). The Saxon homeland, of course, was and still is in northern Germany; and the Jutes came from what is now mainland Denmark (Jutland, now called Jylland).

Besides these three tribes, it seems likely that the migration also included a fair number of Frisians, both because their home, Friesland or Frisia, lay in the Angles' and Saxons' path to the sea, and because Frisian even today is arguably the closest language to English.

The different tribes settled in different areas, creating the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, as well as different dialects. The Angles formed the kingdoms of East Anglia in the east, Northumberland in the north, and Mercia in the midlands. (JRR Tolkien, whose family was from the west midlands, made the Mercian dialect of Old English the language of his Riders of Rohan.) The Saxons settled the very logically named Essex, Sussex, and Wessex ("East Saxons", "South Saxons", and "West Saxons"). The Jutes settled in Kent and southern Hampshire.

The standard form of Old English first encountered by students today is West Saxon, due to the great efforts of King Alfred of Wessex, not just to increase learning, but also his shrewd policy of having important religious and cultural works translated into English until his subjects' knowledge of "book Latin" (boc-læden) had improved enough to make translations unneeded. See this post for more on the dialects of Old English.

In some ways, modern English has retained much of its Germanic heritage. Some sentences can be fashioned that are exactly the same in Old and modern English. E.g.: "Harold is swift; his hand is strong and his word grim." "His cornbin is full and his song is writen; grind his corn for him and sing me his song."* For the most part, though, Old English is undecipherable to the modern English speaker. Partly this is because of the influx of vocabulary from Romance languages that English experienced, even while its basic grammatical structure remained Germanic. Between the Norman Invasion in 1066 and the incredible influence of scholarly Latin in the Middle English period, English is like a Germanic tree with Romance leaves grafted over one side. (Approx. 25% of the English words in this post are ultimately of Romance origin.)

Old English has some characteristics in common with its long-lost cousin on the continent, Old Saxon, such as dropping nasals (n's and m's). Compare:

us: OEng/Sax ús/ûs, versus
OHGer. unsih, OFrank. uns, Gothic unsis.
OEng/Sax cúð/cûð, versus OHGer. kund, OFrank. kundo, Gothic kunþs.
OEng/Sax fíf/fîf, versus OHGer./Gothic fimf.

Following are several sound files demonstrating Old English. First is the Lord's Prayer, recorded by yours truly in the standard West Saxon dialect. I've recorded the same prayer in each of the old Germanic languages to make comparison easier.

The Lord's Prayer, in Old English

Fæder úre, ðú ðe eart on heofonum,
Sí ðín nama gehálgod.
Tó becume ðín rice.
Gewurde ðín willa
On eorþan swá swá on heofonum.

Urne dægwhamlícan hlaf syle ús tódæg.
And forgyf ús úre gyltas,
Swá swá wé forgyfaþ úrum gyltendum.
And ne gelæd ðu ús on costnunge,
Ac álýs ús of yfele. Sóþlice.

The second sound file is from the Lowlands-L website, dedicated to preservation of languages and dialects related to the Lowlands (Low German, Dutch, and the like).

The Wren, in Old English

The modern English version of this story is here. Samples of many other languages are here.

Finally, I read, translate, and discuss the first part of the Dream of the Rood in this episode of my Bitter Scroll podcast.

* Taken from Bruce Mitchell, An Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England.

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