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Letter of Recommendation: Old English (nytimes.com)
49 points by antigizmo 4 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 21 comments

I'm an amateur student of language, particularly English. This article taught me about kennings, or compound words in Old English poetry.

At first I thought that the writer, Josephine Livingston, was saying that these were the main words --- like, the Old English word for sea is hronrad, "whale road." But no, if you look up "sea," that is Old English too. People normally said "sea," but sometimes if you were writing a poem you would make up these colorful alternatives. I think that's what she meant. It just took me a second reading.

At the end, she says this isn't possible in modern English. "We who speak contemporary English are so reliant on word order that we are no longer as able[...]. We just can’t do the same things with our vocabulary." She gives as an example that she wants to make a new kenning out of "poignant" and "solitude," but it won't work because today's readers would interpret "poignant solitude" as just an adjective modifying a noun, with no special poetical air. That's because she did it wrong.

At the beginning she defines a kenning as two nouns, but "poignant" isn't a noun, it's an adjective. She would need two nouns. And solitude, while a noun, is abstract. She would be better off with two concrete nouns, like the old kennings. The best I can come up with right now is "teardrop cloister." A more modern style, though, would be "cloister of tears."

I see no reason why you couldn't write a poem today with custom-made compound words like "whale-road" and "bone-house." The reader would have to rely on the context to figure out that you're using metaphors for the sea and the body, just like then. Maybe it would be a little more jarring these days. It sounds like back then that poets did it all the time. It was a meme. But modern poetry has this kind of wordplay here and there. And like I said, instead of doing it with compound words, they do it more by joining them with the word "of", like: "cloister of tears," "the road of the whales," "this house of bones." I could totally see any of those in modern poems.

I see no reason why you couldn't write a poem today with custom-made compound words like "whale-road" and "bone-house."

I agree with you - I suspect that modern english has far more in common with its predecessors than we might think at first. I'm pretty sure I have seen poetry and prose that riffs like that - bolting together nouns in a way that would invite inspection for meaning, some of which might become expected (formulaic) in a way that might be an in-joke or a shared experience or perhaps a description that can be considered a shared pseudo experience ("I know what you mean")

Maybe it would be a little more jarring these days."

We might consider ourselves more sophisticated in some way and yet the term "bone house" does still resonate in some way for me but not in the context of "general term for a body/person". It does work rather well in the context of war/battle/conflict.

Kennings - seems to me to be cognate with "ken" (know). They seem to be designed for inventing nouns for context - a bit like the reverse of the effect of some adjectives. You include the adjective(s) within the agglomerate noun in some way, either explicitly or via convention (think of the imagery around: "bone house")

I love language.

> Kennings - seems to me to be cognate with "ken" (know).

Yes, I think you're right, https://www.etymonline.com/word/kenning

While in German, jamming an adjective and a noun together to form a new compound word is still totally common. Apparently it was common in English, too? (I don't know enough about the common roots of the two languages.)

I just randomly mashed the words for "green" and "plate" together, and if I type the resulting "Grünplatte" into Google's image search, I see that LEGO had the same idea as me, apparently.

I'm quite sure that this way of deriving compound words is generally common among Germanic languages. On the other hand, Romance languages are more productive using standard prefixes and affixes.

In English the putting two nouns together still exists, but the orthography is different: you write it as two words or with a hyphen in between, but the more common ones are written together. Loveseat, whorehouse, wheelbarrow, crankshaft, screwdriver, etc.

Off topic, but when you look into Anglo-Saxon English, you come across some Anglo-Saxon/Celtic/Hibernian art/motifs[1] which are quite clean and elegant, some very meticulous and intricate (specially some metalwork).


Reminds a bit of https://xkcd.com/1322/

The grammar of modern English is its strength. Its spelling is its curse.

When I first started learning Russian I couldn't believe how easy it was. Once I could hear and pronounce the differences between ы / и and ш / щ / ж I could guess how to spell or pronounce a word and I'd be right like 90% of the time. I don't even hit that with English words I know, but rarely use.

But the ridiculous spelling situation in English is caused by the same thing that lead to it becoming an analytical language with all these helper words in the first place: It's a disastrous mismash of at least 4 different languages.

Our grammar couldn't grow to handle the complexity. In a Bayesian free energy sense, the complexity got pushed into the language instead. But this actually makes English much easier to use for commerce because partial speakers can stumble word to word without having to think it all out first. It's a smoother learning curve.

With Russian it's the opposite. The grammar is how the words all apply to each other, so the word order is very flexible. Instead it's used to indicate emphasis, which is why Russians can sound kinda displeased when they talk. Well, one of the reasons why, anyway. It's why their literature is so great. We have to do all these gymnastics to avoid using italics to indicate emphasis, whereas it just falls out naturally.[0]

Longterm life goal is to get to at least a strong B1 / weak B2 with Russian and to read the classics slowly. Right now I'm stuck with side-by-side English-Russian short stories.

[0] Though our language does have the advantage of a huge vocabulary, so though our literature might not be quite as good as Russian it's still pretty great.

> ð (interchangeable with þ)

I suspect this was still a dialectic distinction by the time of the Norman conquest; I suspect the distinction survived much longer in more linguistically conservative regions like what is now Yorkshire (which was also more heavily influenced by the danish.

I believe they can still have distinct pronunciations in Icelandic.

Yeah, I thought ð was voiced in old english, but it's been a very long time since I tried to learn it.

I do recall that ð was voiced in the old norse that I was taught in college. It probably doesn't matter too much since you don't have an old englishman to speak to.

Both used to refer to the same sound (the first sound of thing), which mutated into what we have today (as in the), in part due to surrounding sounds (note, for example, that words ending in th are soft/unvoiced).

The presence of two different characters has something to do with the integration of Latin and runic alphabets, but the choice of which was used isn't clear to me.

"th" can still have several different sounds depending on accent and word. The more obvious are t' ie the northern english eg t' mill (its quite hard to write down for those unacquainted with it). Then, of course we have t'ing for thing in some areas. Often the th in that becomes closer in sound to f when compared to the th in this. I personally have a slightly varied accent that generally homes in on RP and I can make "th" sound quite distinct in different words and contexts from a hard ending to "the" to something sounding similar to "fee" (also "the").

The above variations are in a tiny subset of en_ and across a probably tiny piece of time. Nowadays we have phones and TV etc which I think probably works towards homogenising our vocalisations.

I suspect that Old English was a bit more complex than is generally thought, if care is not taken.

Well, it's a language that existed for quite a while (probably at least as long as Shakespeare->us) with a small amount of surviving written literature so we really only have glimpses of it.

I remember realizing at one point that I had read everything in Old French in the university library, and thinking that that probably meant I had probably read everything surviving in Old French.

The term "Old French" is probably as daft as "Old English" 8)

I recall my sister in law studied Occitan. Oh: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_French - another rabbit hole to bookmark for spelunking.

I dug up my old norse text* and thought I'd share the relevant details in case someone finds it interesting (this is Old Norse, not Old English):

p.266 > Of these additional letters þ and ð were borrowed from Old English. The rune þ was known already, but its use in manuscript came from England.

p.268 > þ in the oldest Icelandic manuscripts was used both for the voiceless sound of th in English thin and the voiced sound in then. About 1225 ð was introduced, and gradually þ came to be used only initially, and ð in other positions. þ then represented only the voiceless sound, while ð, except when following a voiceless consonant (rare, as ð then usually became t) was voiced, as in faðir, við.

This is where I got the impression that ð is voiced.

*: An Introduction to Old Norse, E.V. Gordon, Oxford Univ. Press.

The wikipedia page on the Icelandic alphabet [0] sheds some light, þorn is runic, eð is from 'd'.

Icelandic employs a 19th century reconstruction of the old norse alphabet noting that "Various old features, like ð, had actually not seen much use in the later centuries" - which corresponds to their merger into one digraph 'th' in English. The article also notes that the letter ð undergoes a devoicing depending on its surroundings.

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_orthography#Histor...

I taught myself OE grammar and some vocab a few years back; it was easy and one of the best things I ever did for myself. Did it as my parents both learned it in high school to the point they could read Beowulf (they also learned Latin). I figured it was a defect in my education not knowing it.

Noticed last year that Icelandic is kind of similar, so it may eventually prove useful beyond aesthetics.

There's a list of kennings here, part of the "Skaldic Project" (an international project to edit the corpus of medieval Norse-Icelandic skaldic poetry): https://skaldic.abdn.ac.uk/db.php?if=default&table=kenning

There are ways of expressing feeling in the Old English kennings that do not exist in the formal English of today.

An accusation that might be levied against any language vs another. Funnily enough I found Ms Livingstone's final para a rather good example of the sheer power of modern english to concisely link several concepts when wielded with precision.

That said, I rather like the sound of the freedom that is implied in her description of these kennings constructs. At the moment things like "banhaus" sound more like a slang term to me. Did OE (at some stage) have a separate word word for "body" or was bone-house it?

I think that many Old English works such as Beowulf had specific meters and patterns in how they used alliteration. I would guess that at least some of the more metaphorical kennings were created to fulfill those constraints in a poetic way.

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