Friday, 21 December 2012

Speak like a Saxon: Not the end of the world

Today is neither more nor less likely to be the end of the world than yesterday or tomorrow. Sorry, Mayan believers. In the year 1000, the Anglo Saxons thought it'd be the end of the world and it wasn't. But, just in case of fire, famine, flood or other global misfortune today, try these phrases:

Where has my boat gone? - Hwær cwom scip min?
["H-wair kwom ship min?"]*

This fire is very hot - þis ligbyrne ful hat is!
["This liy-boor-nuh full haat iss!"]

Why is this hedge of terrors here? - For hwon is þis færhaga her?
["For h-won iss thiss fair-ha-ga hair?"]

Watch out for the deep pit! - Beo ymbhydig færseaðes!
["Bay-oh oomb-hoo-diy fair-say-ath-us!"

*You can read about the man building floating escape pods, just in case, here: 

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Speak like a Saxon: Guess the carol

Nealece! Nealece! Immanuel!

Can you guess?

["Nay-ah-letch-uh, nay-ah-letch-uh, im-an-yu-el!"]

While you're singing around the fire, roasting pigeon and keeping the monsters at bay, try substituting the first line of this carol with the above phrase. It should scan, just about....

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Speak like a Saxon: Advent Sunday 1 and a gender inclusive translation

It's just twenty-three days until Christmas day. Time's ticking. Day by day we're all preparing, in our own ways for Christmas. Admittedly they had less tinsel and fewer baubles, but the Anglo-Saxons marked Christmas too. If you get lost in all the razzle and dazzle of the next few weeks of mad shopping, parties and Slade, then here are a few phrases to remind you what Christmas is all about (and yes, the first one is a bit of a mouthful but it's worth it):

ælmihtig Dryhten sylfa þas world gesohte and þurh unwemme fæmnan on þas world acenned wæs 

(Almighty God himself sought out the world and was given birth to by a virgin)

["Al-mich (like in Scottish 'loch')-tiy Dri-ch-ten Sulf-a thas world yuh-soch-tuh and thurH un-wem-muh fem-nan on thas world a-ken-ned wass"]

If someone asks you why, the response the Anglo-Saxons gave looked like this:

to þan þæt he eall mann cyn fram hellwara wite alysde 

(So that he might free all humankind** from the punishments of hell)

["Toe than that hay ay-all man kun fram hell-waar-a weet-uh a-loos-duh"]

We've got the wonderful tenth-century Vercelli Homilies to thank for today's selection. One day I'll translate all of them. If you're a publisher and you'd like to pay me to do that, let me know!!

**I hope you appreciate the gender inclusive translation here...

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Speak like a Saxon: Thanksgiving

Sometime in the fifth century. You have just arrived on a cold, unfamiliar island. The clouds are oppressive and ominous. Some of the natives are friendly; some are definitely not.

A thousand years later, some plucky Anglo-Saxons made a similar journey across a much vaster expanse of water to make a new life in a vaster, yet similarly unfamiliar land.

Those who survived had much to be thankful for. This Thursday coming our friends across the pond are celebrating Thanksgiving (I know, this is a bit late for our Canadian friends who've already given thanks).

So, try this phrase, and insert what you're thankful for:

God sie þonc for ðæm þe he... ...

["God see thonk for tham thay hay..."]

Which translates as - Thanks be to God because he...

Your list of thankfulness might include: life, health, food, cheese, rain, sun, boats, no vikings, a couple of hundred years' grace before having to worry about credit crunches/peak oil/triple-dip recessions. Add your own! Vocab to follow.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

11th November

Today is a solemn post. In the face of turmoil and tragedy; lingering wars and chaos, we take a moment to remember those who fought for freedom and gave their lives.

We sculon him on gemynd niman

We will remember them

["Way -shool-on him on ye-mund nim-an"]

(And a quick thanks to the editors of this OE Dictionary website: - OE/ME dictionaries are so useful.)

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Speak like a saxon: Good night (and words beginning with N)

As I procrastinate before bedtime, I thought finding out how to say 'Good Night' in Old English might be quite useful. But then I found some other words beginning with N, so the phrase will have to wait.

Quoting from J.R. Clark Hall's wonderful Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, here they are:

neodspearuwa  - (?restless) sparrow ["nay-odd-spay-are-oo-wa"]
neorxnawang - Paradise ["nay-orks-na-wang"]
nestpohha - wallet ["nest-poch(like in Scottish 'loch')-ah"]
nihtglom - gloom of night ["nicht -glom"]
nicorhus - sea monster's dwelling ["nick-or-hoos"]

The editors of the dictionary explain in the previous entry that the nicor, could be a sea-monster, a water sprite, a hippo or a walrus. Take your pick.

And one final one:

nigontynlic - containing the number nineteen ["ni-yon-toon-litch"]

This just goes to show that our modern vocabulary is pitifully diminished. Why haven't we got a word for 'containing the number nineteen'?


God þe sie milde oð þone fyrst þe morgen come

God be merciful to you until the time when morning comes (I made this one up - apologies to purists out there)

["God they see-uh mild-uh oth tho-nuh furst they mor-gen com-uh"]

Monday, 8 October 2012

Speak like a saxon: Monday mornings

Now, I don't know how much you like or dislike Monday mornings. If you think the whole world languishes in misery over the loss the the weekend; if they reduce you to groaning and moaning then you might find this phrase from the poem Andreas (l. 1554) useful:

þær was wop wera    wide gehyred
(weeping of men was heard far and wide)

["there was wop where-a weed-uh ye-hoor-ed"]

That's it for today.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Speak saxon: Charters and parting words

I visited the wonderful  Sir John Ritblat Gallery  at the British Library yesterday (free - it's fantastic - you should all visit). In the middle of the maps, Beatles paraphernalia and really, really old Gospel fragments, is an unimposing-looking post-conquest charter from the king to Christ Church, Canterbury. The details of the charter don't interest me here (that's for the chancery-fanatics to do). What I do want to tell you is a lovely way to say goodbye. The  charter is in Latin and Old English, and both versions end with simple but beautiful parting words:

God eow gehealde

(God keep you (plural))

["God yay-ow yu-hay-ald-uh"]

Next time you say goodbye to some dear, old friends: try it.

(here's the link to the Sir John Ritblat Gallery:

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Speak like a Saxon: Internet dating

So, in this world where we're incapable of talking to new people to see whether we would, in fact, like to have a 45 minute cup of coffee with said new face. We resort to weeks of sending banal, faceless emails before that final 'would-you-like-to-grab-coffee-or-something-only-if-you're-not-too-busy?'.

If The Husband's Message (Exeter Book, folio 123) is anything to go by, the Anglo-Saxons were infinitely better at sending these kind of messages than we are. The story goes that a man, pledged in love to a woman, is exiled. He sorts out his issues, possibly dispatches enemies, and sends a messenger to fetch the lady. As a final encouragement (before a convoluted passage with lots of runes in), he says to her:

                              Nu se mon hafað
wean oferwunnen; nis him wilna gad,
ne meara ne maðma, ne meododreama,
ænges ofer eorþan eorlgestreona,
þeodnes dohtor, gif he þin beneah

(Now that the man has overcome his woes/difficulties/troubles, he has no lack of joy, or horses or treasures or mead-joy, or of any noble treasures upon the earth, if he possesses you, prince's daughter)

 ["Nu say mon haf-ath way-an ofer-wun-en; niss him wil-na gad, nay may-ar-a nay math-ma, nay meod-oo-dray-ma, eng-es of-er ay-orth-an ay-orl-ye-stray-on-a, thay-od-nes doch(like in Scottish 'loch')-tor; yiff hay thin (use a voiced 'th' like in 'this') be-nay-ach"]

That's got to be better than "let's get coffee"...

Some points to learn:
  • Overcome your difficulties (no wimps here)
  • Keep it optimistic (talk about unbounding joy, mead, treasures etc)
  • Flattery doesn't do any harm
  • Maybe cut back on the possession bit a little - it doesn't go down so well these days...

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Speak like a Saxon: cynicism / realism

There are a lot of things to be cynical about in the world today. The way states are governed; the financial system; the size of portions of chocolate bars... Where are the people who used to govern us fairly and justly? We're not alone in this sentiment.

Way back, the voice in the poem we know as the Seafarer felt the same thing and I'm not sure he was just being cynical:

Gedroren is þeos duguð eal;   dreamas sind gewitene.
Wuniað þa wracan   ond þas woruld healdaþ
brucað þurh bisgo. Blæd is gehnæged.
Eorþan indryhto   ealdað ond searað

 (All this noble band has fallen, and joys have departed.
Weak ones now live and hold this world -
They enjoy (or use) it through toil. Glory is brought low.
The earth's nobility grows old and fades)

Seems we have a timeless issue here...

Friday, 6 April 2012

Speak like a Saxon: Good Friday

Today is Good Friday, and Christians across the world are contemplating the crucified Christ. This is a tradition that goes back centuries, and one that's really powerfully expressed in the Old English poem 'The Dream of the Rood'. Here's the crux of it:

"Wēop eal gesceaft, cwīðdon cyninges fyll. Crīst wæs on rōde."

All creation wept, wailed because of the fall of the King. Christ was on the cross.

["way-opp ay-all ye-shay-aft, kwith-don coon-ing-es full. Krist wass on road-uh"]

You can read the full text here on this fantastic website:

Monday, 27 February 2012

Speak like a Saxon: the end is nigh

There's a report on the BBC today: melting ice caps mean colder winters for us in the Northern Hemisphere, and it sounds all a bit like the film The Day After Tomorrow ( The end is nigh, some people might say. If you were an Anglo-Saxon, here's how you could say it:

"ðeos woruld is on ofste, and hit nealæcð þam ende" [thay-oss war-uld is on off-stuh, and hit nay-a-lack-th tham end-uh]. Literally, it's along the lines of "This world is in haste, and it draws near to its end".

This comes from Archbishop Wulfstan's sermon to the English when the vikings were doing their thing, sometime at the start of the eleventh century. It seemed like the end of the world was fairly imminent. Practice this phrase for those moments when you need to respond in a suitable manner.