Reading Old English

OE poetry is written in “half-lines.” It’s a highly stylized form. I’ve found a page that explains the “half-lines” and some of the other structural rules:

I studied medieval languages and literature in grad school. I got my degree more than 10 years ago, and didn’t go into it professionally, so I can’t call myself an expert in this area; however, one thing I remember from my studies is that Beowulf can not be considered as a general example of OE. This one poem contains hundreds of words that do not appear in any other surviving text (I’ll see if I can find a cite for this), and is more stylistically complex than the usual poetry of the era.

I had to translate quite a bit of OE for my degree–you can see some examples at the Georgetown site:

OE is closer to the Germanic languages than modern English, but once you have the basic vocabulary and grammar, most of the poems are fairly easy to read. Beowulf is much more difficult, and I never managed it without resorting to the glossary and previously translated versions.


Interesting post. I’m definitely an amature when it comes to linguistics, but I thought there were very few surviving OE texts. Are there really enough OE texts of the length of Beowulf that we can make generalizations about it being “representative” or not?

Do we have much of an idea of how much OE changed over the 500 odd years it was spoken? Or are most of the texts from the latter part?

Beowulf is certainly a one-of-a-kind text – the only extant long narrative poem in Old English about a nonreligious subject. However, there’s certainly enough OE poetry to make comparisons between Beowulf and other texts.
Here is an index of surviving Anglo-Saxon poems. (Bear in mind that there are also a lot of prose texts surviving from this period; it’s the poetry that is really scarce.)

This is a hard question to answer because we don’t know exactly when many of the texts were written, especially the poetry. However, there were definitely some identifiable linguistic changes toward the end of the period, such as the case endings on nouns changing or being dropped entirely. (I’m also a linguistic amateur, so I hope others will be able to fill in some more information.)

In general, language changes at about the same rate during any time period. Since Old English is generally considered to last from 450 A.D. to 1100 A.D., that’s a period of 650 years. It’s been 400 years since Shakespeare’s time, and the differences are quite noticeable. The changes from the beginning of the period of Old English to the end of that period are probably slightly more than the changes in Modern English since Shakespeare’s time.

I’m guessing this is about cold water (Brr! :D) from a subterranian river that turns into a tunnel to flow into a big lake under a mountain. Is this a Hobbit reference?

I’ll take a stab…

“Submit your place? In Akron? Never! In Akron the marmasets are particularly halting, and this is disconcerting? It is. Do you eat corn-flakes when you play tennis? Underneath the earth Geraldo Rivera translates a tunafish sandwich, aaahhh. Prime Boredom on a grand scale built entirely of legos.”

How close did I get?
I think it’s from “Dante’s Inferno”

Huh. I had always thought they were responsive readings, like in the Finnish Kalevala–you would have two chanters reciting (or making up) the poem, and they would trade lines.

When reading older forms of English, don’t assume that because you recognize a word that it means the same thing the word means now. A lot of Shakespeare is routinely misinterpreted because words very familiar to us today had very different meanings and associations back then.

Being able to recognize a passage from the Bible, sure. Getting the gist of even a tiny passage you haven’t encountered before, free of context, is much less easy. I remember those exams! : )


“thissum” probably means “this one”, or in this case, “this person”.

Thus spake John Mace:

By contrast, the roughly contemporaneous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is extremely hard going for the modern reader, being written in a dialect belonging to Cheshire, Lancashire or Staffordshire:

After Crystenmasse com þe crabbed lentoun,
Þat fraystez flesch wyth þe fysche and fode more symple;
Bot þenne þe weder of þe worlde wyth wynter hit þrepez,
Colde clengez adoun, cloudez vplyften,
Schyre schedez þe rayn in schowrez ful warme,
Fallez vpon fayre flat, flowrez þere schewen,
Boþe groundez and þe greuez grene ar her wedez,
Bryddez busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen
For solace of þe softe somer þat sues þerafter
bi bonk;

Derleth, [BMalion**, it’s an excerpt from chapter five of The Hobbit:

A literal translation from the Esperanto would be:

Notice that the translation misses a number of the nuances in the original.


Agreed. The famous “wherefor art thou Romeo” is probably misinterpreted 99% of the time. Anyone familiar with a Scandinavia language though, would know wherefor = why, not where. [ I probably mispelled wherefor, so correct me at your whim.]

No. Þissum is the dative case of þis, meaning ‘to this (one)’. Notice how it ends in -m the same as our surviving dative pronoun, him. In Old English, the third person masculine singular pronoun was him only in the dative; the accusative was hine. But now, both object forms are him. All masculine and neuter datives (and feminine plurals) in Old English ended in -m.

Ic is the first person singular, not third. Ever seen any German?

And ic secge þissum ga and he gaþ. And ic secge þissum cum þanna cymþ he. And ic secge þissum do þis and he daeþ.

So the translation of the above passage goes:

And I say to this [bloke] “Go,” and he goes. And I say to this [bloke] “Come,” then he comes. And I say to this [bloke] “Do this,” and he does.

This is about as simple and easy a sample of OE as thou canst expect to find. Note that the neuter demonstrative pronoun this is the same in the accusative as in the nominative.

Very true indeed. However, once upon a time there was, at least in Swedish, a word vi, meaning why.

Feel corrected: it’s wherefore.

I obviously can’t refer to all OE writings that ever existed and say how Beowulf represented the language as it was spoken at that time. All I meant is that you can’t use Beowulf as a general guide to determine how difficult it would be to read any other extant OE text. Pretty much everything else that survives, prose or poem, is easier to read. It’s rather like basing an assessment of your skills in modern English on how well you do reading Joyce.

It’s interesting that Tolkien’s come into this discussion. When I was studying, we read some of his scholarly works on medieval lit, as well as his translation of the Middle-English poem,
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was during that period that I really began to get into LOTR; understanding some of Tolkien’s background in OE and other languages opens up the novel on a whole, new level.

Seems missing the nuance is about all esperanto is good for, but don’t take my word for it, Listen to what a wickedly funny, unemployed linguist has to say in this, the mother of all espeRANTos . quite a fun read.


Good point about Tolkien and his linguistics background. He uses lots of archaic English words in LOTR that, for me, gave the reading experience a somewhat dream-like quality. For quite a few words, it was like you sort of knew what they meant, esp in context, but you probably couldn’t define them if someone asked you to. It’s like he led you to an understanding thru emotional or subconscious pathways. His mastery of language was truely on the genius level.

Anyway, I wasn’t implying that you might have an encyclopedic understanding of OE texts, I just didn’t think there were that many around. And of course most great liturature does not reflect the language of everyday use.

One more question. Having at least a working knowledge of OE, can you get anywhere picking up Icelandic sagas? (Or modern Icelandic, for that matter.) Are they similar enough to at least get a reasonabele understanding of what is being said?

Hey, isn’t that also the word for ‘we’?

[dons dork hat]

Anyways, the word ‘why’ is pretty interesting, in that it is the last remaining remnant of the instrumental case in English that I’m aware of, from the Old English hwy. I don’t know why; I just find this incredibly cool.

[doffs dork hat]

Although I have not studied Esperanto extensively, I am familiar with the grammar in its basic form, and I can say that it is quite Indo-European, as will be obvious to any speaker of an Indo-European language who also has a passing familiarity with Arabic, Turkish, Japanese, Georgian, or any other non-Indo-European language. Things like marking case and number in nouns by changing the ending, adjective / adverb distinction, conjugated verb endings, etc. are all very Indo-European features.

So, yBeayf: Are you trying to tell me that Japanese is an Indo-European language?

Oh, Japanese does mark plurals (when used). There’s a morpheme used to change the ending of, you guessed it, nouns. Japanese also changes the verb ending for conjugation.

Not even a nice try.

Back to the main thread now.

Old English is what’s known as a parent or predecessor language to Modern English.