Sunday, August 26, 2007


Woke at 5:30 this morning, but slept again until about 8am, then walked to the river via the Café Eberhard for breakfast underneath the plane trees. I've been fighting drowsiness all day, nodding off at my desk, and now it's time for bed.

On Dale's recommendation I bought a copy of Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf while in New York, and am greatly enjoying it. It's a great tale, of course, a marvellous story of battle and bravery (and social life 1300 years ago). There's even a connection to the Ring Cycle in the character of a Waelsing named Sigemund, which amused and pleased me.

The edition at the end of that Amazon link is bilingual: Anglo-Saxon on the left, modern English verse on the right. Anglo-Saxon is unreadable today, one would need to learn it as a foreign language; and yet it contains clearly identifiable modern English and German words, side by side in a single phrase.

It's interesting to me as a word nerd and amateur linguist to compare the extreme difference between Anglo-Saxon and English, to the relative closeness of Mittelhochdeutsch and modern German. I read the Nibelungenlied a few years back in such a bilingual edition, and found by the time I was halfway through that I no longer needed the modern German text: I could understand Mittelhochdeutsch by speaking it aloud and listening to what I said as though it were spoken by another. MHD survives to this day as the deepest farm-and-forest Bavarian dialect, the voice of the German Alps.

That breakthrough into easy understanding isn't going to happen on this occasion, my chance of picking up Anglo-Saxon is exactly zero. The languages are just too far apart. A philologist could explain the different distances between both sets of languages; I don't think it's as simple as that the Nibelungenlied is four hundred years younger than Beowulf.

The title is from Heaney, line 975: "He is hasped and hooped and hirpling with pain, limping and looping in it."

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Blogger Dale said...

Oh, I'm so glad you picked it up and enjoyed it!

English underwent a couple linguistic traumas that German escaped, that's why it changed so drastically. Old English poetry was written by and for an aristocracy that was essentially annihilated by the Normans -- the English that survived that disaster was of a different sort even before it adjusted to its new French-speaking overlords by shedding most of its case-endings and absorbing a huge new alien vocabulary.

I was struck too by how easy a hop it was from German to Middle High German -- no worse than the hop from our English to Chaucer's.

I actually think Anglo Saxon is easier to learn for German speakers than for English ones -- a lot of the grammar is closer to German than it is to English. But even so, no, I don't think you'll just pick it up. That damn Bastard William destroyed a whole civilization, and its language.

August 27, 2007 at 4:08:00 a.m. GMT+2  
Blogger Udge said...

Thanks for the explanation, that explains many oddities about English.

August 27, 2007 at 11:29:00 a.m. GMT+2  
Blogger Rob said...

Hirple (=hobble) is still in Scots usage. Not exactly common everyday Glaswegian-speak, but most Scots would know what it meant, I think.

September 3, 2007 at 3:45:00 a.m. GMT+2  

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