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.