|An Anglo-Saxon warrior in the middle of a mathelode|
People who use the phrase Old English often don't have a clue what they're talking about. They'll say, "I don't dig Shakespeare and all that Old English stuff." What they don't realize is, Shakespeare is Modern English, and Old English is a whole nother language altogether. Up to now in this series, I've had to be very careful to refer to Britain and not England, because until the arrival of the Angles, there was no England. England comes from Angle-land, the land of the Angles, and what they spoke was Old English, only they didn't call it Old English, because they didn't know any better. If they called it anything at all, they just called it Anglish or something.
To give you an idea what Old English was like, here's the opening lines from Beowulf:
Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
What the what, right? At one time, I could actually read that, but now I'm so out of practice I'm probably no better than you. You can recognize the words "we" and "in" and you might spot "how" (hu) and "the" (ða). Hwæt is where we get the modern "what" (the transposition of the letters is called metathesis) only in Old English, it didn't mean "what." As far as I can tell, it didn't mean anything. It was just an interjection, like "yo!" or "holla!"
The other thing you might notice is something that looks like the letter "p" only someone overshot the down-stroke, and a lower-case "d" with a bow tied on it. Those things are not d's or p's, they're entirely different letters we no longer possess, the thorn and the ash. The thorn and ash make perfect sense and would have been really useful; they sound like "th." (As a kid it bothered me that "th" was pronounced the way it is, instead of "tuh-huh" which is clearly what it spells.) I'm not sure why there were two letters for the same sound, but maybe one was for the inward-sucking "th" like "thin" and the other was for the outward-blowing "th" like "then."
The ash and thorn left their mark on contemporary English in a very small way. If you've ever seen one of those kitschy signs like "Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe" or "Ye Olde Jiffy Lube," the ye isn't pronounced ye at all. It doesn't mean "your" or "you," it means "the," and that's just the way it's pronounced. The "y" is meant to represent an ash or a thorn, although why they picked a "y" when those letters clearly more resemble a "p" or a "d," I couldn't tell you.
Another remarkable thing about Old English was its grammar was highly synthetic. To see what this means, think of high school Spanish. It's not enough to know the word for "cat" (gato) or whether you're dealing with one cat or a dozen ("gato" or "gatos") you have to know if the word is masculine or feminine, (masculine) and then every modifier has got to agree in number and gender with gato. So you can't say, "Las gatos son loco," because "las" is feminine and "loco" is singular, so you have to say, "Los gatos son locos," if you're going to mention them at all. It was the same way in Old English, except on steroids.
Words in Old English didn't just change for number and gender but based on what they were doing in a sentence. Like if a word was the subject of a sentence, you'd end it with -a, but if it was a direct object, you'd end it with -an, and then you had to do likewise with all the modifiers. In Modern English, if I say, "The old pirate owned a green parrot," it means just the opposite of, "The green parrot owned an old pirate," but in Old English, it would come out like, The-an green-an parrot-an owned an-a old-a pirate-a," and everyone would know the pirate was doing the owning, not the one owned. Moreover, you could put the words in almost any order, and your meaning would still be clear. You could say the equivalent of "Owned the parrot the pirate green old," and no one would so much as blink. If you'd forgot to mention the pirate had a peg leg or the parrot a speech impediment, you could just toss those words in at the end, and your meaning would still be clear as glass. This would have been very handy for people who tend to screw up punchlines.
The Angles, by the way, were very big on jokes, only they were Anglo-Saxon-type jokes, with a heavy-handed emphasis on ironic understatement. For example, if during battle, you got your arm hewn off at the shoulder, you might quip, "Mercy sakes, I believe I have a scratch." Maybe you had to be there, but the Angles found this sort of thing hi-larious. They also loved ironic overstatement especially when doing something called a mathelode. A mathelode was kind of an exaggerated brag about how tough you were and how you ate nails for breakfast and all the damage you would do once you got on the battlefield, and in spite of being a brag, it was not only acceptable, it was expected. I think it must've been like double-dog-daring your own self; if you publicly said and in a loud voice you were going out and killing a hundred men, you'd have to kill at least a dozen or you wouldn't have been able to face your buddies again. The flip-side of the mathelode was called flyting, and it was kind of an insult-contest, like playing the numbers or jonesing. You know, like, "Yo mamma so fat, she don't fit in this joke. Oh, snap." (Snap means like, "hwæt.") The Anglo-Saxons didn't talk about mammas, though, and even their insults had a way of emphasizing how tough everyone was: "You are so reckless, I bet you go swimming in the ocean just to kill sea-serpents." Again, maybe you had to be there.
Make no mistake about it, the Angles were some tough dudes. They were so tough, they were dumb. Like, if you said someone was a little "hard under the helmet," that was considered a compliment. Nevertheless, they had a certain gift for metaphor, especially something called a kenning. It's easier to give examples of kennings that to define them, so here goes. The sea might be called a "whale road," or the human body, a "bone house." Get it? You can almost imagine an Anglo-Saxon warrior who's a little hard under the helmet after maybe taking a few too many cudgel-blows to the noggin, stroking his chin and saying, "Sa-a-ay," as the meaning slowly dawns on him. A few modern-day kennings would be like "Chicken of the sea," or "Fruit of the loom."
Like Old English, Modern English is still considered a Germanic language, even though only about 25% of our words are Germanic in origin, and almost none of those are recognizable from their Old English analogues. How we got from that mess to our current mess is the subject of upcoming blogs.