Monday, October 3, 2022

Something About Old English

Rædan Ye Olde Englisc.

Bellairsia has already documented John Bellairs's experience with Middle English.

As a college senior, Bellairs appeared on the College Bowl television quiz show and, in a quest for extra points, quoted Geoffrey Chaucer's General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales in Middle English.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour--

Not all of it, mind you, but the first 18-or-so lines.  Hence the pep rally cry of "Go Bellairs, Quote Chaucer" upon his return to Notre Dame.  Bellairs included some Middle English in his writings, too. In one of his Scholastic articles and in The Face in the Frost (1969), there are references to the song known by its opening line, "sumer is icumen in". Bonus points if you recognize the song from the film, The Wicker Man (1973).  Bonus bonus points if you've had to sing it for the same reason.

People spoke Old English before Middle English, and Bellairs quoted a bit of this, too.

While snooping around the Nightwood farm in Stillwater, Wisconsin, Miss Eells encounters a bizarre grimoire entitled Aelfrics Wuldor, as seen in The Lamp from the Warlock's Tomb (1988).

It was in a foreign language, but Miss Eells knew what it said because she had taken a course in Anglo-Saxon in graduate school years ago. Slowly she moved her finger over the strange letters: Hwenne tha mona in Maerc gefyllede is, thonne / Cometh Aesctaroth, ond micel wundor gewyrcath." 

As to the accuracy of Bellairs's Old English, Bellairsia asked his college friend Charlies Bowen his thoughts on the passage. Bowen immediately noted John's memory of his Old English class at the University of Chicago must have faded considerably by the time he wrote the lines in the book.

But we digress. 

All of this pre-ramble to note the recent publication of Hana Videen's book, The Wordhord, a collection of interesting Old English words. The Wordnik blog interviewed her a few months ago, where she offered some ideas about the Old English words she wished would make a comeback:

There are a couple of animal words that I just love. Hreaðe-mus literally means “adorned mouse” and it is Old English for bat (a mouse adorned with wings). Gongel-wæfre literally means “walking-weaver” and it’s an Old English word for a spider. There are also words that describe things so well that I wish we still used. Uht-cearu is pre-dawn anxiety, the worries that keep you awake at three AM. A morgen-drenc (meaning “morning-drink”) has healing (perhaps even magical) properties, which I think is a great way to describe coffee.

And now I wonder what the Old English speakers called a sheepdog.

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