Letter of Recommendation: Old English

Editors’ Note: This article, by Josephine Livingstone, appeared in the January 4, 2019, New York Times. We repost it as a vacation, of sorts, for the mind–a vacation from literality, politics, present-day culture, and angst.

Image result for old english "I"went to college a little bit later than most. Excited but nervous to plunge into a degree — in English literature — that demands all students learn Old English, I asked a friend what studying the language was like. “It sounds bizarre,” Roberta said, “but it’s what people spoke in Britain in the early medieval period. And there are these beautiful things called kennings in the poetry.” We were just in the pub, I think, but I got this feeling. Something like stars in my eyes, but more like starlight dancing on a deep, dark sea.

The phrase “Old English” is often styled with an extra e and used as a name for malt liquor or furniture polish. But it’s the name of a real tongue, the one that most people in Britain spoke before the Norman Conquest in 1066 A.D. (Middle English came next, before the dialect of Shakespeare.) It’s written in a slightly different alphabet to the one we have now, with the extra characters æ (said like the a in “cat”), þ (like the th in “thorn”), ð (interchangeable with þ) and ƿ (which sounds like w). It sounds musical, guttural, dark and rich, the aural equivalent of a peaty Scotch or a towering cumulonimbus cloud.

Old English became my favorite thing about college. The grammar is easy, so it’s not difficult to learn. And enough early medieval words survived into modern English that the vocabulary seems to unlock as you learn it — the Old English word is unlucan — like a long-stuck door to a hidden room in your own house. It feels like receiving a message that has looped around the entire intervening mess of modernity to find you.

The key, for me, was the kenning. Kennings are essentially portmanteaus, Old English words made of two nouns that have been mashed together to create a new one. At the bar that night with Roberta, I got it immediately: These kennings were metaphors of circumlocution, a way to talk around the thing you want to represent. For example, hron means “whale.” Rad means “a road,” or “a path.” Put them together, she said, and you get hronrad, or “whale-road,” which means “the sea.” The ocean is not an empty space, hronrad says — it belongs to the whale. Human beings crisscross it on our adventures, but when we do it, we are trespassing on a very large mystery.

Most Old English poetry, which is where kennings are found, is nothing like the Medieval Times version of the Middle Ages, with knights and ladies and jousting. Instead, Old English poems like “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer” or “Beowulf” are terribly sad. It always seems cold. Snow (snaw) falls on a story about a lonely person (perhaps an anstapa, a lone-stepper), while social discord ripples beneath the poem’s surface. “Beowulf” is probably the most famous surviving Old English poem we have (there’s no knowing how much has been lost). The sole manuscript sits in the British Library, where anybody can go and look at it housed in bulletproof glass. In it, the anonymous poet describes war and death with kennings like “battle-sweat” for blood (heaþuswate), “mind-worth” for honor (weorðmyndum), “bonehouse” for body (banhus). In the scene describing Beowulf’s funeral, the poet refers to his body as a bonehouse that has broken open (ða banhus gebrocen hæfde). The smoke rises from his funeral pyre, interweaving with the sound of weeping (wudurec astah . . . wope bewunden). I love the winding together of smoke and sound: bewunden.

By describing Beowulf’s body as a bonehouse, cracked open by flames and surrounded by weeping, the poet communicates the body’s brittleness (how easily it breaks!) and the way that Beowulf had come to represent a whole institution in his society in a single word. When his body goes on the pyre, it’s like a house burning to the ground. None of that is explained, exactly — it’s just there in the kenning. Banhus is made of two disparate nouns, left to reconcile with each another in your head. A kenning is like a Rothko painting. It doesn’t make sense at first, but then it unfurls a beauty born of texture and contrast.

I’ve got no interest in establishing any personal connection between their culture and mine. That’s for the historians and the fantasists. I’m just interested in the words. There are ways of expressing feeling in the Old English kennings that do not exist in the formal English of today. Even if I were to dream up some delicious new portmanteau here — some melding of “history,” “poignant” and “solitude,” say — I still would not be creating a true kenning. That’s because, in our tongue, words get their meaning from the order we put them in: “Poignant” would end up modifying “solitude,” instead of the words just hovering next to each other in figurative space. We who speak contemporary English are so reliant on word order that we are no longer as able as our forebears to create lyrical, associative, figurative meaning in poetry. We just can’t do the same things with our vocabulary. Old English speakers can treat metaphor as an occasion to innovate; Modern English simply tries to describe. Their poetry can turn skeletons into exploding nation-states; we have to focus on keeping our adjectives in the right places. But to our immense good fortune, Old English poetry has survived, and we know how to read it. The kennings are out there waiting for you — so beautiful, so different and so very, very old.

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