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Composing Old English: A Do-It-Yourself Guide

Composing your own Old English is a lot of fun. Recently, it has been used to great effect, resulting in songs, dialogues for films and TV series and A Medieval English Translatathon [Old and Middle English greeting cards for charity!]. Personally, I have made some Old English memes and translated one of William Shakespeare’s sonnets into Old English, just to demonstrate that he, in fact, did not write Old English (see: What if Shakespeare HAD written Old English?).  The last few years, I have also tasked my students to compose some Old English of their own. This blog post is an adaptation of the instructions they receive in order to do so and you might use it as a DIY-guide to composing basic Old English. You will need some basic knowledge of Old English grammar (here are some apps that may help you achieve this and you may also profit from my Old English Grammar Videos; although I do recommend you follow a course).

The four steps below will guide you through how to convert a basic Modern English sentence into Old English, using the example “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard” [a reference to this Kellis song].

1) Finding the right words

In order to find theOld English words you want to use, you can turn to the Thesaurus of Old English: http://oldenglishthesaurus.arts.gla.ac.uk/ . Clicking on ‘Search’ in the menu above and then on the ‘Advanced Search’ tab will get you to the advanced search screen:

DIYGuide1

Searching for ‘Present-day English words in Category Heading’ will allow you to find category headings that feature Old English words for the concept you are after. For example, the result for ‘milk’ looks like this:

DIYGuide2

You can now select the word that you think is most suitable. Since there is no Old English word for milkshake (hardly surprising), you can go for ‘foamy cowmilk’ instead: fāmig cū meolc.

Other words we’ll need for our sample sentence include brengan ‘to bring’, cnapa ‘boy’ and ġeard ‘yard’.

2) Find out more about these Old English words

Before you can start using these words in a sentence, you are going to need more information, such as the gender of the nouns (masculine, feminine, neuter) and the type of the verb (strong or weak; which class?). Most of this information can be found in J. R. Clark Hall’s  A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary or the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. If you are a university student, you may have access to the Dictionary of Old English Online: A to I, which is useful if your word does not start with the letters J to Z.

DIYGuide3

I can now find out this about my words:

  • meolc = feminine (and a strong noun, since it does not end in -e)
  • cnapa = masculine (and a weak noun, since it ends in –a)
  • ġeard = masculine (and a strong noun, since it does not end in –a)
  • brengan = weak verb (class 1) (note that verbs can be tricky: Clark Hall indicates that verbs are strong by adding a little number in superscript, e.g. stelan4; he does not indicate the class of weak verbs (there are 3 classes of weak verbs and 7 classes of strong verbs – you will find information about this in various Old English primers, e.g., in chapter 7 of Peter Baker’s Introduction to Old English). The Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary does not tell you the class or type of verb at all, but for the strong verbs they give the principal forms, e.g. “stelan: p. stæl, pl. stǽlon; pp. stolen;” on occasion, they give you the entire paradigm of the verb, as for “brengan: ic brenge, ðú brengest, brengst, he brengeþ, brengþ, brencþ, pl. brengaþ; p. ic, he brohte, ðú brohtest, pl. brohton; pp. broht; v. a.“. Note that the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary also helpfully provides links to relevant sections of Joseph Wright’s Old English Grammar.)

3) Apply grammatical rules to sentence elements!

For this step, you need to be familiar with how Old English grammar works (nominative for the subject, accusative for the object, etc.; see this video on Old English cases).

It is easiest to tackle this per sentence element (e.g., subject, verb, direct object, prepositional phrase, etc.). Here we go:

The subject: My milkshake (or: my foamy cowmilk)

The words: mīn fāmig cū-meolc

The grammar: This phrase is the subject, so we must use the nominative case. The word mīn  is a first-person possessive adjective that takes strong adjective endings, fāmig will take a weak adjective ending in this context (since it is modified by a possessive adjective) and cū meolc is feminine (since meolc is feminine). If the terms ‘weak adjective’ and ‘strong adjective’ make no sense to you, watch this video on Old English adjectives.

Establish correct forms (e.g., using Peter Baker’s Old English Magic Sheet):

  • Strong feminine nominative adjective form of mīn = mīn
  • Weak feminine nominative adjective form of  fāmiġ = fāmiġe
  • (Strong) feminine nominative noun form of cū meolc = cū meolc

The correct form of the subject is: mīn fāmiġe cū meolc

The verb: brings

The word: brengan

The grammar: We need the 3rd person present tense indicative form of brengan, which is a weak verb class 1. No idea what strong verbs or weak verbs are? See this video.

Establish correct forms (e.g., using Peter Baker’s Old English Magic Sheet):

  • 3rd person present tense indicative form of brengan = brengeþ (the form also occurs as brengþ and brencþ according to the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary)

Direct object: all the boys

The words: eall cnapa

The grammar: A direct object must be accusative. Eall is a strong adjective here, cnapa is a weak masculine noun (since its dictionary/nominative form ends in –a!). In our sample sentence, the direct object is plural ‘boys’.

Establish correct forms (e.g., using Peter Baker’s Old English Magic Sheet):

  • Strong masculine accusative plural adjective form of eall = ealle
  • Weak masculine accusative plural noun form of cnapa = cnapan

The correct form of the direct object is: ealle cnapan

Prepositional phrase: to the yard

The words: tō se geard

The grammar: Within a prepositional phrase, certain prepositions trigger their ‘objects’ to have a particular case (for a helpful overview, see here). The preposition with the sense ‘towards’ triggers the dative case. So, while we do not need to change the form of , we do need to make se ġeard dative (ġeard is a masculine strong noun).

Establish correct forms (e.g., using Peter Baker’s Old English Magic Sheet):

  • masculine dative singular form of demonstrative pronoun se =  þām
  • Strong masculine dative singular form of noun ġeard = ġearde

The correct form of the prepositional phrase is: tō þām ġearde

4) Put all the sentence elements together!

Mīn fāmige cū meolc brengeþ ealle cnapan tō þām ġearde (and hīe sindon swylce ‘hit is sēlra þonne þīne!’)

DIYGuide4

Good luck with composing your own Old English!


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