Letter of Recommendation: Old English

On the same topic as Pidgin BBC news, here's a letter recommending that you try Old English.
It’s written in a slightly different alphabet to the one we have now, with the extra characters æ (said like the a in “cat”), þ (like the th in “thorn”), ð (interchangeable with þ) and ƿ (which sounds like w). It sounds musical, guttural, dark and rich, the aural equivalent of a peaty Scotch or a towering cumulonimbus cloud.

Old English became my favorite thing about college. The grammar is easy, so it’s not difficult to learn. And enough early medieval words survived into modern English that the vocabulary seems to unlock as you learn it — the Old English word is unlucan — like a long-stuck door to a hidden room in your own house. It feels like receiving a message that has looped around the entire intervening mess of modernity to find you.
If it still seems daunting, Middle English is even easier: if you can read Shakespeare, Middle English will only require a modicum of work. I recommend the Norton Critical Edition of Le Morte Darthur, which provides plenty of footnotes to help you work through the relatively few words that don't have cognates in Modern English. One of the delights, though, is being able to read it just as Malory wrote it with increasing smoothness and ease.

And once you have Middle English, you're almost a thousand years closer to Old English. It's a major change -- the biggest one ever in the English language -- but you'll be as well-placed as possible to leap backwards over the Norman Conquest with its introduction of the French and Latin roots.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Coming from the other direction, if you know Dutch OE is even easier. German helps less.

Tom said...

Linguist John McWhorter argues that most Americans can understand Shakespeare's English a lot less than we think.

Here's a link to an article he wrote about it, from which I'll copy one example:

In October 1898, Mark H. Liddell’s essay “Botching Shakespeare” made a similar point similar to mine—that English has changed so deeply since Shakespeare’s time that today we are incapable of catching much more than the basic gist of a great deal of his writing, although the similarity of the forms of the words to ours tricks us into thinking otherwise. Liddell took as an example Polonius’s farewell to Laertes in Hamlet, which begins:

And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character.

We might take this as, “And as for these few precepts in thy memory, look, you rascal you!”, conveying a gruff paternal affection for Laertes. Actually, however, look used to be an interjection roughly equivalent to “see that you do it well.” And character—if he isn’t telling Laertes that he’s full of the dickens, then what other definition of character might he mean? We might guess that this means something like “to assess the worth of” or “to evaluate.” But this isn’t even close—to Shakespeare, character here meant “to write”! This meaning has long fallen by the wayside, just as thousands of other English words’ earlier meanings have. Thus “And these few precepts in thy memory / Look thou character” means “See that you write these things in your memory.”

Tom said...

If you are interested in learning different Englishes, though, I recommend Baugh & Cable's A History of the English Language and it's companion workbook. It starts with Old English, giving the basic grammar and so forth, and the workbook gives exercises in grammar and then in reading short samples of OE. It goes on with Middle English and Shakespeare, etc.

While the exercises are designed more to show the reader how English changed over the centuries, I think they make a useful introduction. Plus, it's an interesting history.

douglas said...

I wonder how true McWhorter's idea is, Tom. It's hard for me to say now for sure, after reading the idea and explanation that I think I'd read it in more or less the proper context and understanding, but my sense is I would. As Polonius goes on to list a few maxims of wise behavior, I think I would understand the lines prior as meaning he should instill them in his character- which isn't far at all from what we're told is the true meaning. I may not be the typical reader, though- I've always been very, um, holistic(?) in my reading of things- able to easily infer the meaning of words I didn't know through the context, and reading the whole as something more than a collection of the words... so maybe that's not typical? I really don't know.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I'm with McWhorter, and his permission to not understand Shakespeare. https://assistantvillageidiot.blogspot.com/2007/01/post-600-permission-to-not-understand.html

On McWhorter's account, I had a go about two years ago at that very section of Hamlet myself. https://assistantvillageidiot.blogspot.com/2017/03/understanding-shakespeare.html

Amusing, I hope.