ArtSunday: If you can read this – thank a historical linguist…

Cover, Readings in Early English Language History (courtesy, Library Thing)

One of the most interesting things about my 2013 reading list is the variety of material I chose. This next book review will cause you to ask, perhaps, as I asked myself, why? Why, Jim, why?

Well, because, as our parents used to say.

Professor Leonard Frey’s classic “reader/work book” for college courses in the history of the English language is called, appropriately enough, Readings in Early English Language History. The text is divided into three parts: so difficult it makes English PhDs who are not historical linguists sweat; rather less difficult than that first part for English PhDs but still damned difficult for everyone else; and finally, still difficult but seems pretty damned easy after parts 1 and 2 for anyone who took the fall term Brit Lit survey and actually read the material and went to class.

The actual section titles, of course, are not so wittily expressed: “Examples from Old English Sources”; “Examples from Middle English Sources”; and finally, (to no one’s surprise who’s still reading this review at this point) “Examples from Early Modern English Sources.” These sections contain examples such as “The Lord’s Prayer” in Old English, Old High German, and Gothic; several of Christ’s parables; and, of course, brief excerpts from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Beowulf. Just so one won’t be bored, besides “standard” Old English examples, Professor Frey is kind enough to offer us Mercian, Northumbrian, and West Saxon dialect samples, too.

Here are a few opening lines from Beowulf so you can brush up your Old English reading skills:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,

þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena/ þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð/
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.
ðæm eafera wæs æfter cenned,
geong in geardum, þone god sende
folce to frofre; fyrenðearfe ongeat
þe hie ær drugon aldorlease/
lange hwile. Him þæs liffrea,
wuldres wealdend, woroldare forgeaf;
Beowulf wæs breme blæd wide sprang/,
Scyldes eafera Scedelandum in.

Wasn’t that fun? For those of you who might wonder how Beowulf sounds, click the link. To professor Frey’s credit (I’m sure many a student has blessed his name over the years for this), he offers Modern English translations of many if not most of the Old English selections. And, yes, I used them – my motivation was to brush up on my Old English, not torture myself. The pleasure in reading this work more than 30 years after my last “History of the English Language” course in grad school is discovering that after some  flummoxed moments I could still dig in (with the help of modern translations and my text book from many moons ago) and fumble my way through this most challenging area of English language study. No, this is not a typical reading – if you’ve been following these reviews, you understand that “typical reading” is not what my reading list and these pieces are about. Stretching oneself is the surest way to deter atrophy or entropy or any of the myriad mental dystrophies our culture seeks to inflict upon us relentlessly.

The sections on Middle and Early Modern English are considerably easier for any educated reader to decipher, and it’s quite a bit of fun to read some of the same material that was so difficult in Old English (like those previously mentioned parables) and realize one can do so without supplemental texts. And there’s a pleasure in experiencing Chaucer or Shakespeare on his own ground that never disappoints, as here from “The General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

Or the marvelous “Sonnet 130″ in Shakespeare’s own written language:

My Mistress eyes are nothing like the Sunne,
Currall is farre more red, than her lips red,
If snow be white, why then her brests are dunne:
If haires be wiers, black wiers grow on her head:

I haue seene Roses damaskt, red and white,
But no such Roses see I in her cheekes,
And in some perfumes is there more delight,
Then in the breath that from  my Mistres reekes.

I loue to hear her speake, yet well I know,
That Musicke hath a farre more pleasing sound:
I graunt I never saw a goddesse goe,
My Mistres when she walkes treads on the ground.

And yet by heauen I thinke my loue as rare,
As any she beli’d with false compare.

English, as we all know (or should), is a rich and diverse tongue with a long history and is, as we also know, ever evolving and highly mutable. It’s a vitally alive language full of youth and vigor. Still, it’s nice occasionally to spend some time with the grandparents. A book like Readings in Early English Language History gives one that opportunity.

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9 replies »

  1. I was a historical linguist in a past life (PhD student in the subject before falling into my career of book publishing). I didn’t study English at all — “my languages” didn’t have a written tradition — but it warms my heart to see any appreciation of historical linguistics. So thank YOU.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Don. I am a professor of writing (I’m both a novelist and a “composition pedagogy” specialist, so I have more historical linguistic experience than I let on here, but in consulting for comp programs one doesn’t use one’s skills in Old English much. So digging into such a book was a pleasure of sorts.

      I’m reminded of how Neil Postman refers to our love of crossword puzzles – allows us to use some of that knowledge we have that doesn’t seem to be of value to anyone but us it would seem. It is a sad commentary on the values driving our culture that appreciation of historical linguistics – hell, history of any kind – is reduced to trivial pursuit.

      But I’m a strong believer that if it has value for us then we ought to appreciate that value. Hard lesson to get the contemporary student raised on the dictum “if it doesn’t pay, it has no value” to – understand, frankly.

  2. In my MA program there were multiple ways of fulfilling the foreign language requirement. One involved taking more French. No thanks. Another involved learning a new language. Wasn’t up for that, either. A third allowed someone with my level of previous fluency in a language to take Historical Linguistics. I was terrified of the course, and while I liked the prof personally, I had heard nightmare stories about the class. Worse, I had put it off until my final semester.

    Turned out I not only loved it – perhaps the biggest surprise of my academic life – but I was really good at it. Top grade in the class. I’m not at all convinced I couldn’t have pursued it as a career.

    That said, OE hurts my head. I do still remember the Chaucer you inflicted on me in high school, though.

    • My experience was similar. High level of fluency in my language area (french also), but going into writing pedagogy as a specialty area for my doctorate I needed another linguistics course (had two, including a history of English course from undergrad days). Took History of the Language and loved it and did very well also. But it’s work – as you note. Still, I like occasionally to embrace that challenge and make myself do the hard thing – and let’s face it: BEOWULF really does “sound” heroic in OE….

  3. One of the things that struck me when learning the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English was the use of the word ‘holpen’ rather than our current ‘helped’. My father and grandmother (his mom) always ;holp’ instead of ‘help’. I remember thinking, “Oh, they weren’t mispronouncing ‘help’, they were just speaking Middle English!” 🙂
    I love that you share these insightful reviews and love the discussions we have while going through our 2013 reading lists. Your innate ability to condense even the most complex books to their essence will forever amaze me.

  4. Regarding the Shakespeare bit, that’s more like picking on a first-grader who’s trying to spell a bunch of unfamiliar words and just doing his best with his limited knowledge of the spelling rules. Shakespeare (as I’m sure we all know) wrote in Modern English (I’m sorry, but I dispute any of this “Early Modern English” nonsense as there’s been almost NO real linguistic changes to the English language since shortly after Chaucer’s time–interesting that just happens to coincide with the printing press). The problem is that, during Shakespeare’s time, there was no CONSENSUS in spelling. People wrote as they spoke and heard (at least those who were able to write). Shakespeare himself signed his name in a variety of ways but one wouldn’t say that he was writing a different language because he signed as “Shakspe” or “Shakspere” (and those are TWO of the six existing variations that survive to this day). Even the first English-language dictionaries (compiled in the late 18th and early 19th centuries) have what we would now consider spelling errors, again because there wasn’t any real consensus until the mid-19th century (and, one could make a strong argument there’s still some argument in contemporary English spelling and usage as the Brits are so fond of -re and -our where the Yanks prefer -er and -or and “gaol” versus “jail” or even the British preference for petrol compared to the American preference for gas; don’t forget the naming of the letter “z”–called “zee” in the US, but “zed” in most of the rest of the English-speaking world).

    Now, was Shakespeare more florid in his language than we hear today? Of course. But even many of the “classic” translations of ancient Greek and Latin works of literature (most of the translations were done in the latter half of the 19th century or the early part of the 20th) have a very florid tone–just try to get a “modern” interpretation of “The Odyssey,” without all the flowery sounding language, past a literary critic and see what happens.

    Also, one other point. During Shakespeare’s time, the letter “u” (used, in the example, in words like “loue” and “heauen”) could represent both “u” and “v.” The distinction between the two uses started in the 14th century but didn’t become fully standard in English until the late 16th and early 17th centuries. (Just remember that, during his time, Caesar’s first name would be written as IVLIVS, and even into the Middle Ages, it was common to see his first name written as Iulius, especially when written in script form, using a mixed-case alphabet.)

    • Joseph W, – All this is true. It’s also irrelevant to my review except as gloss to what I wrote – and it seemed pedantic of me to go on about this sort of stuff. And, frankly, it seems pedantic of you to do so, also. That wasn’t the point of reading the book.

      I’m glad you know this stuff – but I know all this stuff, too. That’s why my discussion of Middle and Early Modern English is so short. I know all about variant spelling and inconsistency in printing and using “u” for “v” and “f” for “s,” etc. That linguistic behavior accounts, as you note, for much of what might seem reading difficulty. I’m pretty sure Professor Frey was aware of all this stuff, too.

      Or maybe you missed that doctorate in English thing I mentioned above and in my reply to Don Rosso, an actual historical linguist (ahem) above? And that prompted this.

      Aren’t we a bunch of smart, well educated guys? 😉

      Perhaps in your reply you can enlighten us about the Great Vowel Shift. Please. Feel free.

  5. I am sufficiently, um, “mature,” to have read Beowulf and Chaucer in their original linguistic nightmare while in prep school. My head ached then, and this wonderful post reminds me of that pain. So thanks a lot, Jim … send the ibuprofen, please.