Thursday, July 19, 2012

Hwæt ræde ic? Ælfric's Colloquy

Firstly, you may find this boring. Here's your opportunity to skip it, while I geek out Anglo-Saxon stylee.

I studied a little bit of Old English at university, and since obviously the marketplace is just crying out for people with a basic reading knowledge of Old English, I decided on a whim to brush up, rather than using my time to do something useful like perfect my French or resurrect my Russian. So I went online and ordered the textbook we used at uni, Mitchell and Robinson's A Guide to Old English, which is mostly made up of a teach-yourself guide to OE, with some excerpts of OE texts at the end.

Because I'm lazy, I skipped all the tables of noun declinations and verb conjugations and went straight to my old friend Ælfric's Colloquy on the Occupations. The Colloquy was originally written by Ælfric, an English abbot, in Latin towards the end of the 10th century, as a teaching tool for young monks learning Latin. The OE version we have today is based on one of his pupils basically doing his homework, writing the OE words into the margins of the Latin text. I find it quite a sweet thought that, 1000 years ago, this text was used as a language teaching tool and it's still in use for the same purposes today. The style of the Colloquy is surprisingly modern as well - it takes the form of a dialogue between an unknown person and various workers in Anglo-Saxon society. One can imagine the young monks taking turns to roleplay the various characters. Its didactic roots also shine through in the slightly stagey feel of some of the exchanges. One can almost imagine Ælfric standing over the monks reminding them to answer in full sentences.

I always liked the Colloquy, partly because it's a fairly easy read with a little bit of work (although I'm bound to have made mistakes with things like tenses and number, since I didn't bother looking up all the forms), and partly because it gives a snapshot of ordinary people's lives. Although it was composed by an abbot, and is thus at a remove from the workers it depicts, it's probably as close as we come to a glimpse of the working man in Anglo-Saxon England. 

There are lots of nice moments, such as when the ploughman explains (my translations) (sorry I had trouble with typing macrons):

'hit is micel gedeorf, for þæm þe ic neom freo'
'it is [i.e. his work is] much hardship, because I am not free'

or the timid fisherman who refuses to go whale-hunting:

'For þæm me is leofre þæt ic fisc gefo þe ic ofslean mæg þonne ic fisc gefo þe nealles þæt an me selfne ac eac swelce mine geferan mid anum slege besencan mæg oþþe ofslean.'
'Because I'd rather catch fish that I can kill than catch fish that can kill or sink not only me but also my companions with a single blow.'

or the merchant who offers an early defense of capitalism:

'Wilt þu þin þing her on lande sellan wiþ þæm ilcan weorþe þe þu hie þær ute mid gebohtest?'
'Nic; hwæt fremede me þonne min gedeorf? Ac ic wile hie wiþ maran weorþe her sellan þonne ic hie þær mid gebohte, þæt ic mæge me sum gestreon begietan, þe ic me mid afedan mæge and min wif and min bearn.'
'Do you want to sell your things in this land for the same price at which you bought them abroad?'
'No; what benefit would I get from my hard work then? But I wish to sell them here for a greater price than I bought them for there, so that I can get me some profit, with which I can feed myself and my wife and my child.'

Things take an awkward turn when the questioner, who up to this point has been asking the various characters to explain the utility of their crafts in a pretty neutral fashion, suddenly turns on the cook:

'Hwæt secge we be þæm coce? Beþurfon we his cræftes to awihte?'
'What do we say about the cook? Do we need his skills at all?'

The cook reacts angrily:

'Gif ge me of eowrum geferscipe utadrifaþ, ge etaþ eowre wyrta grene and eowre flæscmettas hreawe... þonne beo ge ealle þeowas, and nan eower ne biþ hlaford'
'If you drive me out of your community, you will eat your vegetables green and your meat raw... then you will all be slaves, and none of you will be a lord'

So are we to take it that the Anglo-Saxons saw cooks as a bit useless? This one certainly seems to be on the defensive side!

As well as the content of the Colloquy, the language is also interesting (obviously, or I'd just read it in translation). Estimates on how much of modern English is derived from Old English or Germanic roots vary, from around 25-35%, although it's much higher if you count only the most common English words. Old English only takes about 3% of its vocabulary from Latin, whereas today up to about 70% may be ultimately derived from Latin, often via French. As much as 80% of Old English words were lost as the language developed into Middle English after the Norman Invasion. 

However, many things which at first seem impenetrable can, with practice, be decoded fairly easily, I imagine especially if you speak some German. (NB, þ and ð are 'th', as in 'earth' and 'this', respectively; æ is a short 'a' like in 'cat', 'c' is often pronounced 'ch', 'g' is often soft like a 'y', etc.) And while we're at it, the 'Ye' in 'Ye Olde English' is derived from the medieval way of writing the letter þ, thorn, so it should be pronounced 'The'. While we're being snippy, feel free to correct people who refer to the likes of Shakespeare or Chaucer as 'Old English'. They're not.

Take treowwyrhtan, for example. At first glance, it's utterly incomprehensible, but it only takes a little practice to realise it's tree-wright, i.e. carpenter. This Germanic habit of forming compound nouns throws up some pretty images, such as dægræd = day-red, or dawn. A þyrel is a hole, so a 'nose-hole' is our nostril. These sorts of compounds are used to great effect in Anglo-Saxon poetry in particular, where you'll find things such as reordberend = speech-bearer, i.e. "man", or merehengest = sea-horse, i.e. "ship", or gealgtreo = gallows-tree, i.e. cross (as in Jesus'). 

A farmer or ploughman is an ierþling, or earthling. Salmon is leax, a word which was lost to English until it came back as lox via Yiddish. Elpendban is elephant-bone, i.e. ivory. Wyrt, 'vegetable', clings on in expressions such as 'St. John's Wort'. Ceaster, originally derived from the Latin for camp, I believe, means town, and lives on in placenames such as Manchester, Rochester, Winchester, etc.

And if you know anyone who aspirates their 'h' in words like what or which, they can point to sound Anglo-Saxon precedent: these words began life as hwæt and hwelc (there's also hwa (who), hwær (where), hwæðer (whether), hwider (whither), etc.).

So, perhaps not the most practically useful subject ever (although arguably, Medieval Icelandic, which I also did for a semester at uni, is even less so), but interesting, at least to me!


  1. The bit about throwing the chef out of the village appealed to me. We have certainly moved on in our attitudes in NZ as every other TV programme lauds the modern chef. We have Master Chef NZ, Master Chef UK, Australia etc. Junior Master Chef, the cooking channel (yes, a channel devoted to Nigella, Rick,Gordon #$@&**% Ramsey et al) and sundry other cretins. Much as I love food I would dearly like to see the lot of them boiled in oil.

    1. Raw meat and veg for you then, slave!

  2. Where are your like buttons gone? Because I do like your pposts but I'm generally too lazy to post a comment x

    1. Still there, I think it's just cos you're reading it on your phone? x

  3. Yes is homepage on my phone in case you wonder why I'm reading your site 24x per day :-) you will just have to imagine me liking it.

    1. Homepage, I feel honoured! Okay, I'm imagining you liking it right now! I only knew you were on your phone because I get emailed when people comment and the link to reply to your comment took me to the mobile site. Back home? x

  4. I worked out that the title says, 'What am I reading?' - ha ha - you obviously get your brains from me.... xxx

    1. Well I hope it does! They don't teach you how to translate *into* Old English xx


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