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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:

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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:

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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.

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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!’)

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Good luck with composing your own Old English!

Dutch Anglo-Saxonist becomes Boaring Medievalist

In light of recent discussions about the term ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ and the debate around the name of the International Society for Anglo-Saxonists, I have decided to change the name of my blog to Boaring Medievalist. Some thoughts on the matter follow below.

On the terms ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxonist’

AngloSaxon.Aethelstan

One of the few contemporary uses of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’: a twelfth-century copy of a tenth-century charter of Athelstan “ongolsaxna cyning” [king of the Anglo-Saxons]

For me, the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has always referred to those people who spoke a Germanic language (Old English) and hailed from the British Isles, roughly between 450 and 1100. This is how the term is generally used in the United Kingdom: in schools (e.g., this BBC-website aimed at 7 to 11-year-olds), museums (e.g., the recent ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms‘ exhibition in the British Library) and heritage locations (e.g., the awesome West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village). In scholarship on the period, the term is commonly used with reference to archaeology, art, sculpture, manuscripts, numismatics and so on – i.e. to refer to the non-linguistic cultural artefacts made by the speakers of Old English. To my knowledge, this is also the way the Dutch cognate ‘Angelsaksisch’ and the German ‘angelsächsisch’ are generally used. In my own scholarship and on this blog, I have also used the term in this way. For me, an Anglo-Saxonist is a scholar of the language, literature and culture of the inhabitants of pre-Conquest England.

The usage of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon/Angelsaksisch/angelsächsisch’ described above stands out compared to English usage elsewhere, as has been expertly pointed out by an article by Dave Wilton (available here) as well as various Medievalists of Colour (see the Twitter account @Isasaxonists for relevant updates and links). The term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has been appropriated and used by various white supremacist groups (including the KKK) to further their misguided ideological agenda and, given that context, the use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in medievalist scholarship is problematic for those for whom ‘white supremacy’ is one of the first and foremost connotations. These negative connotations of the term are also found in the secondary sense of the word ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ in the Oxford English Dictionary: “A person who believes in the importance or superiority of Anglo-Saxon language, people, or culture (past or present)” (the primary sense being “An expert in or student of Old English language, literature, and culture”).

As a result, various scholars have been (for years) proposing that the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists change its name to avoid these associations and become a more inclusive society by opening it up to those whose first associations with the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ are not necessarily early medieval.

For the Society, the aims and purposes of which are international and which should not want to ostracize a major part of the academic community, I support this name change, if only to avoid the association with the secondary sense of the OED entry. In order to avoid any misconception about my own moniker ‘Dutch Anglo-Saxonist’ and given the divisiveness of the term within my professional field (for an impression, see this blog by Howard Williams), I have decided to change this as well: my website will henceforth continue under the name ‘Boaring Medievalist’, reflecting my general interest in the boar in medieval culture (among other things).

Should we ban the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ altogether?

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Clearly, the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has negative connotations in some contexts. Does this mean we should do away with the term entirely? In the current debate about the name of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, good arguments have been brought forward for both shunning and holding on to the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to refer to the Germanic speaking people who lived in Britain in the early Middle Ages. I am leaning towards the latter.

One particular problem is the absence of an unproblematic alternative. Some of the alternatives offered thus far are either imprecise (‘Medieval North Atlantic’ and ‘Medieval Insular’ cover more than ‘Anglo-Saxon’) or have similarly been misappropriated by racists groups and/or seem more apt for literary and linguistic purposes (variants with ‘English/England/Englisc’). Introducing a wholly new term (e.g., ‘Anglo-Germanic’) may have some advantages, but also disadvantages – it may render the field unrecognisable to the outside world (which damages possibilites for successful outreach and means fewer chances at research funding) and, eventually, if the new term does gain traction it is likely to be misused as well.

In addition, there is a rich tradition of scholarship that uses the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’: The Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, the Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts in Microfiche Facsimile series, Gneuss and Lapidge’s Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, Gale Owen-Crocker’s Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, Elisabeth Okasha’s Hand-list of Anglo-Saxon Non-Runic Inscriptions, etc., etc., etc. The term is so ingrained in the study of this field that it is hard to do without it: if we want our students to build on prior scholarship, they will have to be taught that the meaning of the word ‘Anglo-Saxon’ depends on the context in which it is and has been used.

When I discussed the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ with my MA students on Friday (we were discussing words that change meaning depending on context), one of them said ‘we should put up a fight and claim back the term!’. A valuable opinion and I think this is also where I stand. It would indeed be a shame to ‘surrender’ the terminology because it has been appropriated by hate groups. In fact, I think this fight is indeed taking place and I am encouraged by the successes of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library, the ‘Anglo-Saxon History and Language‘ Facebook group (14k members) and TV series such as Michael Wood’s King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons and various documentaries on the Anglo-Saxons by Janina Ramirez, which all encourage a wider audience to associate the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ with the amazing art, language, literature and culture of the early medieval speakers of Old English. I can only hope that my own use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ on this blog thus far has had the same effect and will do so, moving forward.

At any rate, this blog will continue under the name ‘Boaring Medievalist’ and, to celebrate that fact, I will be posting some of my blogposts on medieval boars in the upcoming weeks (these were published elsewhere but can now find an appropriate home). Aside from medieval boars, I intend to continue blogging about the languages, cultures and histories of Anglo-Saxon England in the early Middle Ages.

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Boars in Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 45v; Morgan Library, MS M.81, Folio 36v; Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 20r (source)