Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Speak like an Anglo-Saxon #8: Nativity Special

Our friendly Anglo-Saxons were quite civilised, really. The Christmas story which we know so well was a popular one with our ancestors too - there are translations of it from Latin into Old English from really early on.

Thinking about staging a properly traditional Nativity Play? Some familiar bits:

Narrator: þa hine þa to Bethlem comon – Then they came to Bethlehem. [‘tha hee-nuh tha toe Beth-lem kom-on’]

Narrator: ond þa cende hio sunu – And then she gave birth to a son. [‘ond tha ken-de hee-o sun-oo’]

Narrator: ond hio mid claðum hine bewand ond on binne alegde – And she wrapped him with swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger (not a ‘bin’, although it sounds a lot like it!). [‘ond hee-o mid clath-um hee-nuh be-wand ond on bin-ne a-lay-de’]

Angels: Wuldor sie Gode on heanness ond sybbon eorðan þam mannum þe godes willan sien – Glory be to God in the highest and peace on earth to those men who are in God’s favour. [‘wool-door see God-e on hay-ah-ness ond sib-bon ay-orth-an tham man-um thay god-es will-an see-en’]

Props might be a bit of a difficult point. Fair enough, sheep are quite easy to get hold of and tea-towel substitutes wouldn't be too hard. Camels for the wise men might be tricky, though - for a start Anglo-Saxons were confused about what camels were. They weren't too sure of the difference between camels and elephants...

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Speak Like an Anglo-Saxon #7: Entertainment

No TV... but even worse, no internet. No Facebook. No Email. No BBC news website. No DVD-nights. No cinema. No Wii. No radio. No CDs. No Scrabble... The list goes on. But our Anglo-Saxon ancestors didn’t just sit round twiddling their thumbs all evening, whilst the wind (and other things) howled outside. Oh no. “In the good old days, we had to make our own amusements”... I bet you’ve heard that one before. Well, it’s true. Story-telling and music seem to have been pretty big back then. Not much has changed, then...the difference was that back then you didn’t just get to loaf around in front of Corrie listening to your iplayer. Instead you’d be listening to some geezer in your hut. Chances are you even knew him. Heck, that geezer might have to be you now and again. The stories and poems which survive are pretty impressive. They probably survive because they’re impressive. We don’t really know whether your average Anglo-Saxons sat in their hut of an evening telling each other bits of Beowulf as we know it today. There was probably quite a lot of harp-twanging and making-it-up going on. So, a few rules of thumb if you’re called on to do a party piece:

1) The world is generally a miserable place. Everybody dies eventually. Lots of people die sooner. Metal goes rusty and wood rots. How about a refrain along the lines of:

Eala! Nis þis lif lang – Alas! This life is not long.

2) The countryside is horrible. You might’ve had to camp out under a tree once. That was horrible. It was rainy and cold and miserable:

Ceald is se regnscur se fealleð on me­ – Cold is the rain-shower which falls on me

3) If you’re doing poetry, it all gets a lot more complicated. There were rules, man. Rules. You’ve got metre, alliteration and a load of other fancy things to think of. Might be better to cadge some lines from other poems, whack them together in a different order and hope no-one notices. So, some useful lines of poetry:

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?– Where is the horse? Where is the friend? Where is the treasure-giver?

þa wearð afeallen þæs folces ealdor – Then the leader of the people was cut down (pretty bad if he’s paying your wages)

ða hine heowan hæðene scealcas – Then the heathen warriors cut him down (happened quite a lot)

Wulf is on iege, ic on oþerre – Wulf is on one island, I’m on another one (long distance just doesn’t work)

bengeato burston ðonne blod ætspranc – wound-gashes burst when blood gushed out (mm, nice and gory)

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Speak like an Anglo-Saxon #6: Eco Special

I wonder what the Anglo-Saxons would have thought of our own lifestyles if they'd been able to time-travel forward... There's no doubt that a thousand years ago we English lived far more eco-friendly lives... no oil, no food miles (well, not counting the odd piece of imported Norwegian dried cod), local, sustainable produce, decentralised energy. The list goes on. To get by in the Anglo-Saxon economy you might need some of these:


Where has all the oil gone? = Hwær cwom ele?
[‘H-where cwom ey-le?’]

I use no oil = Ic bruce nan eles
[‘Itch brroo-ke nan ey-les’]

Now the watermill is turning = Nu seo myle bið wendende
[‘Noo sey-o mü-le bith wend-end-e’]

I make this cheese = Ic macie þas ciese
[‘Itch mak-i-e thas chee-eh-suh’]

Here are my chickens = Her sindon min cicen
[‘Hair sind-on min chicken’]

My home-turnips are better than these viking turnips = Mine hamnæpas beoð beteran þonne þas wicingan næpas
[‘Mee-ne haam-napas bey-oth better-an thon-ne thas wick-ing-an napas’]

Three chickens for your sheep = þrie cicen fore þine sceap
[‘Three-uh chicken for-e theen-e shee-ap’]

Can you mend my cloak? = Cannst þu minne bratt aseowan?
[‘Cannst thoo min-ne brrat a-say-o-wan?’]

Friday, 10 October 2008

Speak like an Anglo-Saxon #5: Outside

For our pre-Conquest ancestors there was no rosy, post-victorian romanticism of the natural world. Let's face it: it was nasty out there. Who knows what lurked in the darkness... But, should you find yourself traipsing about in the olde Englishe countryside, some of the following might come in handy:


Where has the path gone? = Hwær cwom pæð? ['H-where cwom path?']

This water is iron-hard. = þis wæter is swa heard swa isern. ['This wat-ter is swa hey-ard swa is-ern']

Do you see the tree? = Siehst þu þæt treow? ['See-ist thu that trey-ow?']

Yes, it moved. = Giese, þæt eode. ['Yee-esse, that ey-od-e']

Oh! Oh! A wolf! = Eala! Eala! An wulf! ['Ey-ala! Ey-ala! An wolf!']

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Speak like an Anglo-Saxon #4: At the dinner table

Presuming you're still alive by tea-time and you've suitably ingratiated yourself with the locals, you may well find yourself comfortably reclining with your ancestors. The cauldron is boiling; delicious smells waft through the hut and out of the chimney hole. You eagerly wait on your bench for the culinary delights... It's time for your best Anglo-Saxon table manners:

Please pass ... = Gif me ... ['Yif me'] (literally 'give me' - bluntness probably wasn't a bad thing...)

... the knife = ...þone seax ['thoh-ne say-axe']
... the cheese = ...þone ciese ['thoh-ne chee-eh-suh']
... the bread = ...þone hlaf ['thoh-ne h-laff']
... the delicacy = ...þone swetmete ['thoh-ne sweht-may-te']

If things aren't going too well and the food is less palatable than you'd hoped, the following phrase might come in handy:

I need the bucket immediately = Ic hæbbe nyd for þam fæt. Sona. ['Itch habb-e nid* for tham fat. Soh-na']


* The sound of Old English 'y' is hard to explain. Some say it's like the French 'u'. Try saying an English short 'i' with pursed lips... That might work. Or you might just look silly.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Speak like an Anglo-Saxon #3: Small talk

So, you’ve managed to survive the first five minutes of life in ye olde England. What next? Try out some pukka small talk, straight from the pen of an Anglo-Saxon monk:

What do you do? = Hwelcne cræft canst þu? [‘H-welch-ne craft canst thu?’]
(literally ‘what craft do you know?’)

I am a monk = Ic eom munuc [‘Itch e-om mun-uc’]
I am a hunter = Ic eom hunta [‘Itch e-om hunt-a’]
I am a shepherd = Ic eom sceaphierde [‘Itch e-om she-ap-hee-urd-uh’]

I make cheese = Ic macie ciese [‘Itch mak-ee-uh chee-eh-suh’]

Oh dear, that is hard work = Eala, þæt is micel gedeorf [‘Ey-al-a, that iss mitch-el ye-day-orf’]

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Speak like an Anglo-Saxon #2

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you were suddenly transported into an Anglo-Saxon hut? Could you make yourself understood? Or would Brit-Abroad syndrome strike, as you gesticulate wildly and speak as s-l-o-w-l-y as possible? Use these simple basics to stay alive in the murky tenth century.

My name is [Bob] = [Bob] is min nama. [‘Bob iss min nam-a’]

Hello, I am an Englishman/woman. = Hwæt,* Ic eom engliscman. [‘H-wat, itch e-om englishman']

I am not a Viking = Ic eom no wicing [‘Itch e-om no wi-king’]

I have no money/gold = Ic hæbbe nan goldes [‘Itch hab-be nan gold-es’]

Where is the toilet? = Hwær is gang? [‘H-wahr iss gang?’]


Next week: getting past the basics.


* Hwæt is your general attention-grabbing word in Old English and can mean pretty much anything between 'Oi, you over there' and 'what ho', 'indeed' and 'listen up'.

Speak like an Anglo-Saxon #1

Have you ever wondered whether you could get by in tenth-century England, faced with those fearsome, fur-wearing Anglo-Saxons? Could you understand them? Could they understand you?

The first important lesson is that you actually know a lot already. Okay, so some things in English have changed – the Norman Conquest and the past millennium have a lot to answer for – but you’d be surprised how many Anglo-Saxonicisms have survived through the years despite generations of attempts to teach ‘proper’ grammar. How many times have you heard someone say ‘That was well bad/good/hard/another adjective’ and despaired at the failing standards of today’s English? ‘Surely you mean “that was very bad”?’ you think. Think again. A thousand years ago 'well', in the place of our 'very', was perfectly acceptable. A text of the late tenth century proudly states ‘The weather was well cold’ [sic].

The same is true of double negatives. In our mathematical, thinking, two negatives make a positive. Yet not so for the Anglo-Saxons - more you say ‘no’, the more you mean it. Like ‘there’s not nothing’ (Nis nænig) would mean ‘there’s not anything’ to your average pre-Conquest Englishman. Remind you of anything? What about the line from the Ghostbusters – ‘I ain’t afraid of no ghosts’? I distinctly remember having to sing alternative words in a primary school play – the far less catchy ‘I’m not afraid of any ghosts’ to satisfy grammatical mores. Little did the teachers realise that the original was completely legitimate use of Anglo-Saxon grammar.