Inventing English
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Inventing English

A Portable History of the Language

Seth Lerer

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eBook - ePub

Inventing English

A Portable History of the Language

Seth Lerer

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A history of English from the age of Beowulf to the rap of Eminem, "written with real authority, enthusiasm and love for our unruly and exquisite language" ( The Washington Post). Many have written about the evolution of grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary, but only Seth Lerer situates these developments within the larger history of English, America, and literature. This edition of his "remarkable linguistic investigation" ( Booklist )features a new chapter on the influence of biblical translation and an epilogue on the relationship of English speech to writing. A unique blend of historical and personal narrative, both "erudite and accessible" ( The Globe and Mail ), Inventing English is the surprising tale of a language that is as dynamic as the people to whom it belongs. "Lerer is not just a scholar; he's also a fan of English—his passion is evident on every page of this examination of how our language came to sound—and look—as it does and how words came to have their current meanings…the book percolates with creative energy and will please anyone intrigued by how our richly variegated language came to be."— Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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CHAPTER 1
Caedmon Learns to Sing
Old English and the Origins of Poetry
SOME TIME IN THE SEVENTH CENTURY, probably between the years 657 and 680, a Yorkshire cowherd learned to sing. Social gatherings among the peasantry were clearly common at the time. Often, laborers and herders would gather in the evenings to eat and drink, and a harp would be passed among them. But when the harp came to Caedmon, he could not sing. Shamed by his inability, he avoided the gatherings, until one evening an angel came to him in a vision. “Caedmon,” the angel called to him by name. “Sing me something.” “I cannot,” replied the cowherd, “for I do not know how to sing, and for that reason I left the gathering.” But the angel replied, “Still, you can sing.” “Well, what shall I sing about?” replied Caedmon. “Sing to me about the Creation of the world.” And so, miraculously, Caedmon raised his voice and offered this song in the language of his time and place.
Nu scylun hergan
hefaenricaes Uard,
Metudæs maecti
end his modgidanc,
uerc Uuldurfadur,
sue he uundra gihuaes,
eci Dryctin,
or anstelidæ.
He ærist scop
aelda barnum
heben til hrofe,
haleg Scepen;
tha middungeard
moncynnæs Uard
eci Dryctin,
æfter tiadæ,
firum foldu,
Frea allmectig.
[Now we shall praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian,
the Creator’s might, and his mind-thought,
the works of the Glory-father: how he, each of his wonders,
the eternal Lord, established at the beginning.
He first shaped for earth’s children
heaven as a roof, the holy Creator.
Then a middle-yard, mankind’s Guardian,
the eternal Lord, established afterwards,
the earth for the people, the Lord almighty]
These nine lines, weird and wondrous though they may seem to us, make up the earliest surviving poem in any form of the English language. It is known today as Caedmon’s Hymn. All that we know of this poet comes from a passage in a work by Bede, an English monk and historian who wrote his History of the English Church and People in the first third of the eighth century. Bede wrote in Latin, and Caedmon’s Hymn survives, in Old English, as marginal annotations to the manuscripts of Bede’s work.
To understand what Caedmon did, and why his poem and his story were so important throughout Anglo-Saxon England and beyond, we need to understand the central features of Old English, its relationship to the older Germanic languages, and the world in which this tongue emerged as a vehicle for imaginative literature.
Old English was the vernacular spoken and written in England from the period of the Anglo-Saxon settlements in the sixth century until the Norman Conquest in 1066. It emerged as a branch of the Germanic languages, a group of tongues spoken by the tribes of Northern Europe who had developed their linguistic and cultural identity by the time of the Roman Empire. These languages included Old Norse (the ancestor of the Scandinavian languages), Old High German (the ancestor of Modern German), Old Frisian (related to modern Dutch), and Gothic (a form that had died out completely by the end of the Middle Ages). The Germanic languages were very different from the Latin of the Roman Empire. True, like Latin, they had a highly developed inflectional system. Nouns were classed according to declensions (where suffixes signaled case, number, and grammatical gender); verbs were classed according to sets of conjugations (where suffixes signaled person, number, and tense). But the Germanic languages shared distinctive ways of creating new words and a grammatical system unique among other European tongues. And each individual Germanic language had its own system of pronunciation.
Old English shared with its Germanic compeers a system of word formation that built up compounds out of preexisting elements. Nouns could be joined with other nouns, adjectives, or prefixes to form new words. Verbs could be compounded with prefixes or nouns to denote shades of meaning. Thus a word like timber could receive the prefix be- to become betimber (“to build”). Or an ordinary creature such as a spider could be called by the compound gangelwæfre, “the walking weaver.” Old English poetry is rife with such noun compounds, known as “kennings.” Poets called the sea the hron-rad (the road of the whale), or the swan-rad (the road of the swan). The body was the ban-loca (the bone locker). When Anglo-Saxon writers needed to translate a word from classical or church Latin, say, they would build up new compounds based on the elements of that Latin word. Thus a word such as grammatica, the discipline of literacy or the study of grammar itself, would be expressed as stæf-cræft: the craft of the staff, that is of the book-staff or the individual marks that make up letters (the Old English word for letter, boc-stæf, is very similar to modern German Buchstab). A word like the Latin superbia, meaning pride, came out in Old English as ofer-mod: over-mood, or more precisely, too much of an inner sense of self. A word like baptiserium (from a Greek word meaning to plunge into a cold bath) was expressed in Old English by the noun ful-wiht: the first element, ful, means full or brimming over; the second element, wiht, means at all or completely (and is the ancestor of our word “whit”—not a whit, not at all).
Old English also shared with the other Germanic languages a system of grammar. All of the other ancient European languages—Greek, Latin, Celtic—could form verb tenses by adding suffixes to verb roots. In Latin, for example, you could say “I love” in the present tense (amo), and “I will love” in the future (amabo). In the Germanic languages, as in modern English, you would need a separate or helping verb to form the future tense. This pattern is unique to the Germanic languages. Unique, too, was a classification of verbs called “strong” and “weak.” So-called strong verbs formed their past tense by a change in the verb’s root vowel. Thus, in modern English, we have “I run” but “I ran”; “I drink” but “I drank”; “I give” but “I gave.” But there were also so-called weak verbs that formed their past tense simply by adding a suffix: “I walk” but “I walked”; “I love” but “I loved.”
These are among the defining features of the Germanic languages, and Old English had them all. But what Old English had in particular was its own, distinctive sound. Modern scholars have been able to reconstruct the sound of Old English by looking at spelling in manuscripts (scribes spelled as they spoke, not according to a fixed pattern across Anglo-Saxon England). But they have also been able to recover the sound of Old English by looking at early textbooks in Latin. The pronunciation of Church Latin has remained very stable over the past thousand years. By comparing the pronunciation of Latin words with Old English words in early textbooks, scholars can learn how certain Old English sounds came out.
What was the sound of Old English? The first thing that strikes the modern English speaker are the consonants. Old English had a set of consonant clusters, many of which have been lost or simplified in later forms of the language. Thus the initial cluster fn-, as in the word fnastian (“sneeze”), has become sn-. Initial hw- (as in hwæt) has become wh- (“what”). Initial hl- (as in hlud) has become simply l- (“loud”). Initial hr- (hring) has become r- (“ring”). Unlike the other Germanic languages (except Old Norse), Old English had voiced and unvoiced interdental consonants (the sounds represented by the Modern English spelling th). These were represented by the letters þ (called “thorn”) and ð (called “edth”) taken from the older Germanic runic system of writing. Such sounds did not exist in Latin or the Romance languages, and thus Anglo-Saxon scribes had to borrow letter forms from the runic alphabet in order to represent such sounds not available in the Roman alphabet (other sounds that distinguished Old English from Latin were the æ, or “æsch,” a sound akin to the vowel in the modern American pronunciation of “cat,” and the sound of the w, often written with a runic letter known as a “wynn”).
So what did Caedmon do? He took the traditional Germanic habits of word formation, the grammar, and the sound of his own Old English and used them as the basis for translating Christian concepts into the Anglo-Saxon vernacular. England had only recently been converted to Christianity by the time Caedmon composed his Hymn (missionaries had arrived in the sixth century; monasteries were well established by the middle of the seventh). The older Germanic poetic forms of expression—shaped to pagan myth and earthly experience—had to be adapted for the new faith.
Caedmon took the many older Germanic words for lord, ruler, or divinity and applied them to the Christian God. Uard (pronounced “ward”) means guardian or warden, and it was the word used to describe the temporal lord of a people. Metud comes from the Old English metan, to mete out. Lordship is an act of gift giving in old Germanic cultures, and the image of God as a kind of gift giver seeks to translate a familiar social figure into a new Christian idiom. Uuldurfadur is a compound made up of words meaning glory and father, and thus illustrates the technique of noun compounding in the Old English poetic vocabulary. Dryctin is the word used for a political ruler in Old English society. It is cognate with other Germanic words for king or lord (for example, the Scandinavian word Drott, or king). Scepen literally means shaper; creation here is an act of shaping (compare the Old English word for a poet, scop, also a shaper). Frea was an old Germanic god (compare the Old Norse figure Freyr), whose name means “lord,” or “ruler.” Here, we have an old pagan name appropriated into a new devotional world.
Caedmon’s Hymn is full of special compounds illustrating how the techniques of Old English verse were adapted to Christian contexts. We are asked to praise not only God’s work but his modgidanc, what was going on in his mind. Old English mod becomes our word “mood,” and really means “temper,” or “quality of mind.” Moncynnæs are the kin of men, a transparent compound; but middungeard is deceptive. True, it means simply “the middle yard,” but it is the term used in Germanic mythology to denote the place between the realm of the gods and the world of the dead. Compare the Old Norse Midgard (or, for that matter, J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagined “Middle Earth”) and one sees Caedmon reaching back to shared Germanic mythology to articulate a Christian world for newly converted believers. So, too, the idiom “heben til hrofe,” to put a roof on heaven, looks back to the Germanic creation myths, where the gods built halls and roofed their dwellings. The most famous of such stories shows up in Snorri Sturlusson’s Old Norse Edda, written in the mid-twelfth century, where the gods begin by establishing Midgard and building Valhalla, the hall of those killed in battle.
But the text of Caedmon’s Hymn I have quoted here reveals something more than mythic roots. Old English was a language full of regional dialects, and like all places full of dialect variation, Anglo-Saxon England had a politics of language choice. Depending on where and when it was written and spoken, the language differed in pronunciation, spelling, and the particulars of noun and verb endings. Caedmon and Bede lived in the north of England, north of the Humber River, and their dialect was thus called Northumbrian. This was the original dialect of the Hymn, and the form in which I have quoted it here. This form is preserved in the earliest surviving text of the poem—a copy written into the margins of a manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, datable to 737. But the seats of Anglo-Saxon learning were to move soon afterward. Viking raids in the north stripped many monasteries of books and monks. Regional courts and new churches were being established elsewhere, especially in East Anglia. The Anglian dialect of Old English developed in the eighth and ninth centuries, and many of its distinctive forms survive in the great poems of the Anglo-Saxon age (in particular Beowulf), leading modern scholars to surmise that these poems were originally composed in that area. By the last decades of the ninth century, power was moving to the south. King Alfred (who would come to be known as “the Great”) consolidated his rule at Winchester, in southwestern England, and the dialect of that region was known as West-Saxon.
The West-Saxon dialect emerged as something of a standard Old English by the early tenth century. It was the dialect of King Alfred, and thus had the imprimatur of one of England’s leading rulers. King Alfred brought scholars and linguists to his court at Winchester in order to produce manuscripts of classical literature and philosophy and also translate them into Old English. Thus, many of our major Old English manuscripts appear in the West-Saxon dialect. In fact, when Bede’s Ecclesiastical History was translated into Old English, Alfred’s scholars put it into West-Saxon—and in the process, they transformed Caedmon’s Hymn from its original Northumbrian into West-Saxon (many manuscripts of the Hymn therefore have it in the West-Saxon dialect). This is what the poem looks like in West-Saxon:
Nu sculon herigean
heofonrices Weard,
Meotodes meahte
ond his modgeþanc,
weorc Wuldorfæder,
swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece Drihten,
or onstealde.
He ærest sceop
eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe,
halig Scyppend;
þa middangeard
moncynnes Weard,
ece Drihten,
æfter teode,
firum foldan,
Frea ælmihtig.
In this form, the poem’s words will clearly be more recognizable to a modern English-speaking reader. Instead of the u’s and uu’s, there are recognizable w’s. The noun form of heaven in line 6 (heofon) looks and would sound more familiar than the Northumbrian heben. The -...

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