What Old English Reveals About Culture
For this week’s column, I interviewed Hana Videen about her book “The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English”. It’s a wonderful and very entertaining look at what the vocabulary of Old English reveals about the culture of the people who spoke it over 1,000 years ago.
Dr Videen told me that she became interested in this time at university when choosing a language to study and was surprised to see Old English listed next to ‘foreign languages’ proposed. As his book makes clear, Old English is a foreign language…until it isn’t. About 75% of Old English words have disappeared from the language we speak today, and of the remaining 25%, many have changed beyond recognition.
A few, however, seem to offer a direct line to the past. God, word, hand, corn (meaning “grains”), and finger are the same. Old English even had the major and the middle fingereven if the little finger was the ear finger Where ear-keyǽnsend (“ear cleaner”), obviously because that’s what it was used for. These “words that have endured reveal what has remained meaningful over time,” she explains.
Most Old English words belong firmly to the category of foreign languages and reveal a culture that has changed dramatically. Gafol-fisc (“taxing fish”) and hunig-gafol (“honey tax”) disappeared because we now pay rent and taxes with money, not in bushels of fish or jugs of honey. Sele-dream (‘hall-joy’) is a word for the cheerfulness and camaraderie of the great halls where much of life – eating, sleeping and entertaining – took place in early medieval England. While modern English has many terms for happiness, joy and comfort, sele dream fell through as the Great Hall lost its central cultural role.
Because so few Old English texts have survived – the equivalent of about “30 mid-sized novels”, says Dr. Videen – we sometimes lose the full meaning of unusual words. For instance, neorxnawang appears in translations of the Book of Genesis, where it clearly refers to the Garden of Eden, but there is no consensus on what this means. It could be the “Garden of the Norns”, who were Norse goddesses of fate. It could come from do wyrcan (“no work” in Old English), or be a compound word neor (“near”) + n / A (“not”) + wang (“garden, field”), better translated as “garden-not near” or “almost-not-garden”. Genesis reads quite differently if Adam and Eve are in a distant garden, a nearby desert, a place of no work, or a pagan paradise overseen by other gods!
If you want to know why “ornate mouse” was the Old English word for “bat” and why “every protagonist needs a wiþer-wengelread this book!
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