Archives for posts with tag: language

While sharing a few homebrews with Frank, we somehow got on the subject of wyrms. He recalled The Lambton Wyrm, a song he’d often hear in Northumberland back when Newcastle Exhibition was unfiltered and tapped from wooden casks. It’s about a knight who slays a dragon – or “wyrm” – who lives in a well and terrorizes the land.

lambton wyrm

The Wonderful Legend of the Lambton Worm (image source)

It all starts when the knight John Lambton goes fishing on a Sunday morning he really should have been at church. He catches a strange little worm-thing and throws it in a well. Years later, he goes fighting in the Crusades and we all know from Robin Hood how local leadership behaves when that happens. While John Lambton is away at the Crusades, that little worm-thing grows into a horrible dragon – The Lambton Wyrm.

The Lambton Wyrm did many terrible things. It ate all of the cows, calves, and sheep. It swallowed little birds alive. After that it would wash everything down with the milk of a dozen cows and then coil itself around a mountain. With Good Sir Lambton away what were the people to do?

Well, John Lambton eventually returned home from the Crusades and he triumphantly slew the wyrm, but the satirical legend that remains reminds us that our actions affect others – especially if we are people in positions of power.

Anyway, the story is supposedly set on Easter Sunday 1420 and the most popular version of the legend is a song credited to C.M. Leumane from 1867. It reminds me of a cross between Jabberwocky and Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas – but in a pub. It’s a song all good children in Northumberland learn and are made to perform at school pagents. Here’s a good version:

 

The chorus is very catchy and goes like this:

Whisht! Lads, haad yor gobs,
An’ aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whist! lads, haad yor gobs,
An’ Aa’ll tel ye ‘boot the wyrm.

Now, since I didn’t grow up in Northumberland, my mother never said, “WHISHT, man – Haad your gob!!” to make me quiet. The only context I’d heard the word ‘gob’ used in was in ‘gobbing.’

(I wrote the link to start the clip at 45:22 with Johnny Green talking about people gobbing on The Clash, but it often plays the entire film instead – I can’t think of a better way to spend the night…)

What if gobbing had been only been revived by the British punks? After all, there was a punk group called Siouxsie and the Banshees. Horrified, I wondered if Anglo-Saxon poets had to contend with gobbing in the mead halls. Fortunately my theory was wrong and the line just means something along the lines of, “Hush lads, shut your mouths!” This makes the chorus: “Quiet lads, shut your mouths, and I’ll tell you all an awful story – I’ll tell you about the wyrm!”

This new word for me, Whisht was interesting. It reminded me of the Old English word Hwaet. It is the first word of another story about a dragon slayer from the most famous Anglo-Saxon poem ever – Beowulf.

There’s always been debate over what that word means exactly – and for good reason – after all, it is the opening word of the poem. It sets the tone for the story. It’s meant to be captivating. It’s important. Getting it wrong would be like Joe Schmo masquerading as a sorcerer fudging a word in a spell. Or in this case, Ash:

 

So, what does Hwaet actually mean? The OED describes it being used “to introduce or call attention to a statement.” Medieval scholars have historically suggested that the word more or less functions as an adverb, offering such translations as, ‘truly’, ‘Hear me!’, ‘What ho!’, ‘Indeed’, and ‘So.’[1] The most popular translation of Beowulf is the one done by the late Seamus Heaney. He used ‘So.’ Though Heaney is a highly celebrated poet, many medieval scholars disagree with his using the word ‘So’ to open Beowulf.

In a recent paper, George Walkden argues that the interpretive effect of hwæt is delivered by hwæt combined with the clause that follows it, not by hwæt alone.[2] In other words, it isn’t used by itself.  He argues that the ‘interjective’ hwæt “is not an interjection or an adverb.” Instead, he compares it to the way we use the word how in Modern English in exclamative clauses such as How you’ve changed!”[3]

Most of the translations of Beowulf agree that ‘hwaet’ is exclamative, however, Walkden takes it a step further by presenting evidence to support the use of the hwaet-clause as exclamative in Beowulf. The most convincing are examples from Jessica Rett’s analyses of the use of hwæt in other sources like the Old English Bede and the Old Saxon Heliland. Using Walkden’s interpretation, the famous opening line from Beowulf:

Hwæt we Gardena in geardagum þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon

Opening lines of Beowulf from Manuscript Cotton Vitellius

The Opening lines of Beowulf from Manuscript Cotton Vitellius (image: wikipedia)

becomes:

“How much we have heard of the might of the nation-kings in the ancient times of the Spear-Danes”[4]

So, (sorry, “HWÆT!”) let’s get back to Walkden’s example in Modern English. We wouldn’t say, “HOW! You’ve changed!” – unless… of… course.. it was… William Shatner’s James Tiberius Kirk reading Beowulf. Which, come to think of it, would be the most awesome performance of Beowulf ever! But since we’ve got medieval scholars to contend with and the modern venue for Beowulf is neither a mead hall or the Starship Enterprise, we know better…

Until then, whichever words we use to begin our own tellings of Beowulf, be they – ‘So’, ‘Whisht lads haad yor gobs’, ‘Once upon a time’, ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’, or ‘Back in the day when circles were squares’, the most important thing is that we tell the story of Beowulf – preferably over some homebrews.


[1] George Walkden, “The status of hwæt in Old English,” English Language and Linguistics (Volume 17, issue 3, November 2013), 466. available online: http://personalpages.manchester.ac.uk/staff/george.walkden/Walkden_2013_hwaet.pdf

[2] Walkden, 466.

[3] Walkden, 466.

[4] Walkden, 481.

Ok, I’m going to try to make it through this post about descriptions of eunuchs in medieval poetry without consulting Chaucer. He’s dying to share his freshest double-entendres with us about these gentle natured folk, but we should let some other poets have their turn at first crack for this cliché.

In the 14th century dream vision poem Pearl, the poet has the dreamer use the words “meek and mild” to describe the Pearl maiden:

Moteles may, so meke and mylde[1] Moteless maiden so meek and mild[2]

nightingale

Medieval poets often used the words “meek and mild” to describe the Virgin Mary and pious women in general in religious poems to the point of cliché. Here’s an example from The Thrush and the Nightingale, a late 13th century debate poem where two birds argue over the reputation of women. The thrush attacks women while the nightingale defends them:

O fowel, thi mouth the haueth ishend

Thour wam wel at this world iwend,

Of a maide meke and milde

Of hire sprong that holi bern

That boren wes in Bedlehem[3]

Your words have now confounded you!

Through whom was all this world made new?

A maiden meek and mild

Who bore in Bethlehem a Son.

I was amused the other day to see the words “meek and mild” used for comedic purpose to describe eunuchs in The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament. The Metrical Paraphrase is an entertaining 14th century text that has all sorts of amusing asides that we associate with good medieval storytelling. I like imagining English court audiences feasting on encores of these lively versions of classic Bible Stories. Was it the only version of the Bible available in the vernacular? If it was, they sure were lucky!

We tend to think that the dark ages were darker than they actually were and that everyone – save those at the top of the church and select nobles – knew next to nothing about the Bible besides, say, bits of the nativity, Noah’s Flood, and the crucifixion before the Wycliffe Bible went into circulation. Well, they did have The Metrical Paraphrase. Now, I wouldn’t call The Metrical Paraphrase a scholarly translation of the Old Testament, but it is certainly a translation in the sense that most medieval “translations” are more akin to what we would call a retelling. The Metrical Paraphrase is just that – a retelling. The poet’s retelling is surprisingly faithful to Scripture and embellished with amusing asides[4]  and the occasional description of things in the story that would be foreign to his medieval audience.

Esther and Ahasuerus

One example of an amusing aside in the Metrical Paraphrase occurs in the poet’s description of Queen Vashti’s chamber in The Book of Esther. The poet makes sure to point out that the eunuchs – the only men allowed to be in the room with her – are “meek and mild”:

 and thei were ordand in ther yowth
that hei myght do no manly dede,
Bot ever more meke and myld of mouth
servandes als maydyns for ther mede[5]

Poor guys. They were “ordained” in their youth that they might “do no manly deed.” Instead, they act as servants for the maidens, their voices “meek and mild” just like those of the angels in heaven or the Vienna Choir Boys.

After all, it’s their spiritual example-setting and deep scriptural knowledge that puts these eunuchs in the unique position of being the only men besides King Ahasuerus[6] who are allowed inside the king’s harem, right? The cliché of the eunuch being the only male permitted in the chamber with a lord’s object of desire is one that is often used to describe villains in medieval poetry. In Marie de France’s lai Guigemar, for example, the only person permitted to see the maiden who is kept as a prisoner by her jealous husband besides the husband is a eunuch.

Marie de France initially introduces the eunuch without pointing out what distinguishes him physically from other men:

Uns vielz prestre blans e floritz

Guardout la clef de cel postiz[7]

An old priest with hoary-white hair

guarded the key to the gate…[8]

guigemar l255

Lines 255-56 transcribed above as they appear in MS Abbeville Anc. 7989. fol.53 Image: gallica

But before moving on with the story, she can’t help but add:

Les plus bas members out perduz:

Altrement ne fust pas creüz

…he had lost his lowest members,

otherwise he would not have been trusted.

guigemar l257

Lines 257-58 transcribed above as they appear in MS Abbeville Anc. 7989. fol.53 Image: gallica

This is typical Marie de France embellishment. We can hear her delivering the line out of the side of her mouth. The line about how the old priest had lost his “lowest members” is presented so matter-of-factly that if she were called out for obscenity, I can just hear her indignant reply, “Well that’s how he WAS.”

In both The Middle English Metrical Esther and Guigemar, the eunuch is described in places where women live a life in confinement and in both stories these women become liberated. In the book of Esther, Vashti is powerless. She is confined to a room with her maids and the eunuchs and the moment she refuses one of the king’s biddings, she loses her title as queen. This role is replaced by Esther, a woman who empowers herself. Not only do we see Esther enjoying the freedom of being able to talk in private with Mordecai, but she deposes a political enemy in the king’s court and also manages to convince the king to change one of his decrees which, in turn, saves the lives of her people. In Guigemar, the maiden is released from her prison by Guigemar and the magic boat. In both stories the eunuch appears in scenes that describe a woman being ruled by her husband and in both of these situations there is the image of a castrated man – the very absence of sexuality! Are both of these poets trying to say that wherever we find an oppressed woman we will also find a castrated man?


[1] Pearl in Middle English from Pearl, ed. Sarah Stanbury (Kalamazoo, 2001) v.961. available online: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/stanbury-pearl

[2] References to Pearl and The Thrush and the Nightingale in Modern English translation are taken from Medieval English Verse, trans. Brian Stone (Harmondsworth, 1964).

[3] The Thrush and the Nightingale in Middle English from Bodleian MS Digby 86 (Wessex Parallel Web Texts) l.169-73. available online: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~wpwt/digby86/thrushtxt.htm

[4] So I couldn’t resist. Here’s something from Chaucer: Compare this to the Host Harry Bailey’s winning criteria for the tale-telling competition in The Canterbury Tales – “Tales of best sentence and moost solaas / Shal have a soper at oure aller cost.” Is Chaucer suggesting that secular tales could provide moral substance as well as entertainment value by presenting them in a way that was already popular in his day for religious works such as the Metrical Paraphrase, Patience (Story of Jonah told by the Pearl Poet in contemporary 14th century setting) and the Mystery Plays even if the moral substance piece isn’t always from the Christian tradition?

[5] The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament, ed. Michael Livingston (Kalamazoo, 2011), l.16529-32. Available online: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/livingston-middle-english-metrical-paraphrase-of-the-old-testament

[6] It’s interesting to note that the religion of King Ahasuerus (“Assuere” in Middle English) is ambiguous in The Metrical Paraphrase‘s Esther (“Hester” in Middle English). He’s a Persian king who – we assume – does not worship the Hebrew God, however, since the story takes place in what appears to be a contemporary English court setting complete with nobles and knights, the king is described more like a misguided Christian king than an infidel. Also, though the heroine Esther is Jewish, she is presented sympathetically as a character in the Christian tradition despite the prevalence of anti-Jewish sentiment in medieval England.

[7] References to Marie de France in Old French are taken from Lais de Marie de France, Ed. Karl Warnke (Paris, 1990).

[8] References to Marie de France in Modern English translation are taken from The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (London, 1999).

My wife read me a passage from Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? the other day that reminded me of language bridges:

“In the 1960s many men – and they were men not women – attended evening classes at the Working Men’s Institutes or the Mechanics’ Institute – another progressive initiative coming out of Manchester. The idea of ‘bettering’ yourself was not seen as elitist then, neither was it assumed that all values are relative, nor that all culture is more or less identical – whether Hammer Horror or Shakespeare.

 Those evening classes were big on Shakespeare – and none of the men ever complained that the language was difficult. Why not? It wasn’t difficult – it was the language of the 1611 Bible; the King James Version appeared in the same year as the first advertised performance of The Tempest. Shakespeare wrote The Winter’s Tale that year.

 It was a useful continuity, destroyed by the well-meaning, well-educated types who didn’t think of the consequences for the wider culture to have modern Bibles with the language stripped out. The consequence was that uneducated men and women, men like my father, and kids like me in ordinary schools, had no more easy everyday connection to four hundred years of the English language.

 A lot of older people I knew, my parents’ generation, quoted Shakespeare and the Bible and sometimes the metaphysical poets like John Donne, without knowing the source, or misquoting and mixing.”[1]

The King James Version of The Bible is still read in America today, but it’s not as popular among Protestant Christians as it was fifty years ago. 

Liberal and moderate Protestant Christians often distance themselves from the King James Version, associating the text with fundamentalist and conservative Christians. 

And many of those conservative Christians even agree that the language of the KJV is archaic and have replaced their copies with NRSV’s, NIV’s, NKJV’s, Living Bibles, and a myriad of others. 

Since the KJV was assembled and translated according to the theology of the Church of England, it omits certain scriptures found in the Catholic Bible. [edit: The original 1611 Edition King James Version contained the Apocrypha intertestamentally (between Old Testament and New Testament) but was later removed by the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) brought to a head by the British Puritan Revolution and the British Civil wars…]

Modern Catholics prefer other English translations like the New American Bible, New Jerusalem Bible, and the Catholic edition of the NRSV.  

For whatever reasons we choose to read and study an English language translation of the Bible other than the King James Version, as long as the KJV is left to collect dust on the bookshelf, the gulf between our English language of the past and the one we speak today widens, becoming more foreign with each generation.

Or does it? I look at the decrease in popularity of the KJV not so much in the interest of the future of Christianity and its various denominations, but from the perspective of how to bridge our modern language with older versions of it – and, more specifically, (I’m finally here!) how it affects popular appreciation of Middle English texts.

sunday school

“Any of you guys ever go to Sunday school?” Dr. Jones assumes CIA agents know their Bibles in Raiders of the Lost Ark (image copyright 1981 Paramount Pictures/Lucasfilm Ltd./Walt Disney Company)

So if you don’t read the King James Version to help bridge the gap between Modern English and Middle English…

 Will texting improve your ability to read Middle English?

There was some chatting on Chaucernet a couple of months ago about whether or not experience texting and Instant Messaging can surprisingly put someone at sort of an advantage when trying to learn to read Middle English. 

In text messaging and Instant Messaging, words can often be abbreviated in unconventional ways. And when words are abbreviated, the vowels are often the first to go. 

So, someone who is accustomed to quickly cycling through possible vowels combinations to identify the right word in a particular context for a text message may apply that skill to crack a puzzle in a Middle English text and have no problem trying out an eo even though puple is printed to get people – or see that schewyng is showing

Also, the speed of IM communication lends itself to spelling errors, so – like it or not – those who IM regularly practice reading varied spellings of even the most common words. Varied spellings often occur in Middle English texts. Take, for example, the spelling of the word way (when meaning road, way, or route) in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Sometimes it appears as weye, but other times it’s spelled way – even wey as well. 

Though weye and wey are totally incorrect spellings in Modern English, they might just be understood in an Instant Message.

Meanwhile, a spelling bee champion struggles to accept that the written works of the father of English literature are chock-full of spelling errors

How about joining the Peace Corps?

Imagine you’re posted in a West African country where the borrowed English words are pronounced in a pidgin accent somewhere between French and their local languages. Together becomes tugeyda, for example. You notice that these English words in these local languages are written on signs and documents, the spelling is not all that standardized – especially in rural towns and villages – it’s phonetic.

It’s the same thing for the words in their own local languages. Take, for example, the Hausa word wanzame (traditional barber). It is sometimes written as wanzamé, wanzamey, wanzami – and probably ten other ways too. 

Plus it’s written phonetically in both Arabic and Twareg Tifinagh scripts with just as much variety…

a022niger

A traditional Hausa barber (wanzame) creates suction for bloodletting using a cow horn (kaho) in rural Niger (image: Jon Weaver)

Say you’re trying to learn these local languages so you can actually get stuff at market for a fair price and not accidentally say vulgar things when commenting on the flavor of fermented millet porridge. 

[True story! I was once visiting a nearby village with a local volunteer and, noticing ginger was added to the porridge we were kindly served upon our arrival, I wanted to acknowledge the kind gesture because in poorer villages the millet porridge was usually prepared plain. But I didn’t say the word ginger – I said another word that sounded a lot like ginger – a woman’s… oh never mind!] 

Though it isn’t exactly the phonetic system one would find in a dictionary (when in Rome), you make quick notes of new words you hear using the roman alphabet and applying some loose mixture of French and English pronunciation rules.

These scribbles that you will study, especially the ones written very hastily, might remind you of Middle English words like togider (together), seide (said), pees (peace), and knoulechide (confessed/acknowledged).

Anyway, there was a time that I lived (and sort of worked) in rural Niger and while I was there – for better or worse – Middle English became a little easier for me to read.

Just read Middle English out loud in a French accent

My Chaucer professor suggested once that I try this. It initially helped me “fake” it but it also helped me find many English words that didn’t resemble English words until they were read using French pronunciation rules. [I’m finding now a little German helps too.]

Reading Middle English out loud – or at least phonetically out loud in my head – helps me recognize certain words that I may have otherwise missed. 

I remember there was this guy in my Chaucer class who always ended up dropping into this sort of Irish accent when he read Chaucer aloud. He was American, but I guess he was tapping into the way he talked several hundred years ago or so… in any case, it worked – or as Chaucer would say, “But algates therby was [he] understonde.” (MLT l. 520)[2]

What has helped you bridge the gap between Modern English and Middle English?

bush


[1] Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (New York: Grove Press, Grove/Atlantic, 2011), 28.

[2] Chaucer in Middle English from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963).

A Tunanina...

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Wyrdwend

The Filidhic Literary Blog of Jack Günter

actantedourada.wordpress.com/

Io Morales Sánchez - arte en fío

Dave's Corner of the Universe

Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide

Record Shop Shots

What I think about when I'm in one

Eric Weiskott

Assistant Professor of English at Boston College

opusanglicanum

one Englishwoman's work

mediaevalmusings

1,000 years of history in blog-sized bites.

The Baker

Scraps and Glimpses...

Momentum - A Travel Blog

Stories and thoughts from a life in motion

A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

Early medievalist's thoughts and ponderings, by Jonathan Jarrett

Things Medieval

Shedding light on the Dark Ages one post at a time.

In Thirteenth Century England

Thinking, writing, and teaching high medieval history, by Kathleen Neal

Medieval History Geek

An amateur's blog about Medieval history, books, etc.

leaf and twig

where observation and imagination meet nature in poetry

A Pilgrim in Narnia

a journey through the imaginative worlds of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings

These Vagabond Shoes.

Adventure Travel on a Shoestring

Blueagain: Film and Lit.

Movies, Books, Flix, and Pulps

My Aleph

Thoughts from an Arabic & IR student about literature and history

FortLeft

observations on politics, sports and life in general

E. C. Ambrose

dark historical fiction, because "pseudo" isn't medieval enough

The Templar Knight

Mysteries of the Knights Templar revealed at this fact filled historical blog. And join the army of Facebook followers here: https://business.facebook.com/QuestForTheTrueCross/

%d bloggers like this: