Ye Very Olde English

Randall Stephens

Ammon Shea's enlightening piece on a comprehensive Old English Dictionary has been making the rounds from Humanities magazine, to Arts and Letters, to the Chronicle, and beyond. ("Violent but Charming: The Dictionary of Old English Explores the Brutality and Elegance of Our Ancestral Tongue," Humanities (Jan/Feb 2010.) Rightly so. Shea's essay is a fun romp through the twisty, turny (er, higgledy piggledy) story of Old English and its fastidious scholars. Why devote so much time and energy to a moribund tongue, some might ask. Is there an extensive dictionary of Nesili?

"The [Dictionary of Old English] corpus is comprehensive," observes Shea, "and contains about four million words, which makes it almost five times the size of the collected works of Shakespeare. It represents at least one copy of every piece of surviving Anglo-Saxon writing, although in some cases the corpus has more than a single copy of a work if it is in a different dialect or from a different date."

The essay made me further appreciate the importance of the evolution of language to history. Where's the Society for More Philological Studies in History when you need it? Trapped in the 1890s, maybe? Anyhow, historical and comparative linguistics, along with etymology, shed much light on the peoples and cultures of the past. Will it make the average history student fall asleep sitting upright? Not sure about that.

Take Shea's musings on the meaning and context of OE for example:

Browsing through a small section of the alphabet, I happened across gederednes, derian, gederian, gederod, deriendlic, deriendnes, derung, gede├żed, and gedigan, all of which are words that have to do with injuring, harming, or killing (with the exception of the last word, which means ‘to survive’). But lest you come away with the idea that
the speakers of this language were linguistically brutish, I would draw your attention to a word that appears shortly after all of these bruising terms: digollice.

Digollice is one of those words of which any language should be proud. It is elegant yet robust, clear yet multi-faceted—a description that perhaps sounds like that of an overpriced wine, but which is apt nonetheless. Among the meanings of this single word are the following: in a manner intended to avoid public attention, stealthily or furtively, in a manner that is unnoticed, with a lack of ostentation, in hiding, secluded in monastic life, spoken in a low or soft voice, spoken with circumspection or restraint, whispering slander, relating to secret thoughts of inward affliction, obscure or requiring interpretation, and a handful of others that I’ll let you find on your own.

Robert MacNeil's unsurpassed 9-part 1986 PBS series The Story of English is perfect for premodern and early modern history courses. (I've used it in my colonial America class to explore the divide between southern and northern accents, West Country vs. East Anglia. Watch selections from many of the episodes here.)