Sunday, 21 September 2008

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.

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