An Old English Alphabet (part 1)

London, British Library Harley MS 208, fol. 87v

Sometimes, in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, we come across grammatical treatises and lists of Latin words, to act as learning aids for those new to the vocabulary and grammar of the main language of the church.  Unfortunately for us, nobody at the time created word lists in Old English: there was no real need, and dictionaries as we know them are a much later invention.  So I’ve decided to create my own Old English word list, made up of words that show us something about the language of the Anglo-Saxons: their mindset, the things they needed words for, how the language worked, and how it can still be seen in our own English today.

A is for Atomos

It might seem odd to begin an alphabet of Anglo-Saxon words with something so un-Anglo-Saxon.  But, of course, like any language, Old English borrowed from other languages sometimes, and, just as a lot of the scientific vocabulary in modern English comes from Latin or Greek, borrowings from the classical languages can be found in Old English too.  Byrhtferth’s Enchiridion is a compendium of scientific knowledge in the vernacular tongue, written for priests.  In the chapter about time, he informs his audience that there are 541,440 ‘atoms’ in a day, loftily addressing them thus:

Ic wene, la uplendisca preost, þæt þu nyte hwæt beo a‹tom›os, ac ic wylle þe þises wordes gescead gecyðan.

O rustic priest, I suppose you do not know what an atom is, but I will inform you about this word.

Baker and Lapidge, eds. and trans., Byrhtferth’s Enchiridion, pp. 110-1

An atomos is the smallest possible unit into which time can be divided, the blink of an eye, as Byrhtferth puts it.  Incidentally, some modern scientists have argued that time does, in fact, have indivisible units.

Æ is for Ælf

In Anglo-Saxon medical literature, we occasionally come across cures for ailments apparently caused by ælfe, elves. For example:

London, British Library Royal MS 12 D. xvii, fol. 123r

Make a salve against elfkind and night-walkers and the people with whom the devil has sex …

What exactly these ælfe were supposed to be is not always clear at first glance, but Alaric Hall has written a fascinating book on the subject.  And speaking of words whose meanings are unclear …

B is for Blac

Look up blac in the Bosworth-Toller Dictionary of Old English, and you will find some surprising uses of the word: it describes fire, lightning, even light!  And to prove that this is correct, we can look at glosses of Latin texts, such as this hymn, ‘Ecce surgit aurea lux’ (‘Here rises the golden light’):

London, British Library Cotton MS Vespasian D. xii, fol. 22v

Here, the word ‘pallens’ (fading, becoming pale) is translated as ‘blaciende’.  But now let’s take a look at Beowulf for a second and see how the monstrous Grendel is introduced as he slinks towards the warriors’ hall:

                     Com on wanre niht

scriðan sceadugenga …

Beowulf, ll. 703b-704a,

There came creeping, in the dark night, a walker in shadows …

It’s night-time, and Grendel is explicitly described as one who travels in the shadows, but the word the poet uses to describe the night is wan, which in modern English suggests paleness rather than darkness.  So black is white and white is black.  But if that wasn’t confusing enough, the word blac is sometimes used to mean black in its modern sense.  Back in Byrhtferth’s Enchiridion, in a description of the bodily humours, ‘colera nigra’ or melancholy is glossed as ‘blac gealla’, indisputably meaning ‘black gall’.  Maybe the words didn’t differentiate so much between white and black as we’d understand them as between dullness and shininess.  Either way, it’s clearly not a black and white issue.

C is for Cellod

In the poem The Battle of Maldon, commemorating the 991 battle in which the Anglo-Saxon leader Byrhtnoth lost badly against a Danish army in Essex, we read:

Swa dyde Æþeric,    æþele gefera,

fus and forðgeorn,    feaht eornoste.

Sibyrhtes broðor    and swiðe mænig oþer

clufon cellod bord,    cene hi weredon.

The Battle of Maldon, ll. 280-3,

Thus did Æþeric, the noble companion,

eager and impetuous, he fought resolutely.

Sibyrht’s brother and very many others

cleaved ____ shields: they were fierce.

And cellod means … actually, nobody knows.  It is a hapax legomenon – a word which occurs nowhere but in this one poem (though it may have been used in the poem known as the Finnsburh Fragment, which is now – well, fragmentary).  Even though every surviving word of Old English has been edited and catalogued, it still holds some mysteries.

D is for Dom

In The Battle of Maldon, Byrhtnoth commands a band of men who wish to fight against the Dane for dom (ll. 127-9).  In the epic poem Beowulf, the hero advises that it is best to avenge the dead thus:

                                       Wyrce se þe mote

domes ær deaþe –   þæt bið drihtguman

unlifgendum   æfter selest.

Beowulf, ll. 1387-9,

Let he who wishes achieve glory after death – afterwards, that is best for the noble man amongst the dead

Dom is the good judgement of others, fame that outlasts death.  In other contexts, dom is used to refer to legal judgements, and the Day of Judgement, on which Christ judges good from bad, was domes dæg – Doomsday.  Perhaps due to people’s lack of confidence that they will come off well on that day, the word doom has since become synonymous with a bad fate, damnation, everlasting destruction – in short, it has gone from being a positive word, through neutrality, to a negative one.

E is for Efenece

I mentioned above that Old English does borrow from Latin (and occasionally Greek, via Latin) when discussing abstract and technical concepts.  But take a look at this prayer, which is found in both Latin in the Galba Prayerbook, followed immediately by an Old English translation:

Coeternus.  London, British Library Cotton MS Galba A. xiv, fol. 112r.
Efenece.  London, British Library Cotton MS Galba A. xiv, fol. 112v.

O Lord saviour Christ, the most glorious creator of the world, even though you are the brightness of glory, coeternal with your Father and the Holy Spirit …

The Latin coeternus is translated by the native compound adjective efenece, ‘equally eternal’.  As well as being the language of heroic poetry, Anglo-Saxon was a language which was used to express specifically Christian theological concepts.

F is for Ferhðloca

But there’s another kind of compound word that has nothing to do with Latin learning.  Ferhðloca is a kenning: a combination of two words creating a sort of metaphor for an everyday object, and Old English poetry is absolutely full of them.  Hwælweg (whale-road, the sea).  Reordberend (speech-bearer, a person).  Ferhðloca, a kenning used in the Exodus poem and a poetic version of the Lord’s Prayer, literally means ‘soul enclosure’, a box in which the spirit is locked up – in other words, the body, the chest.  I wonder if the modern double meaning of the word ‘chest’ derives from the same basic thought process.  Kennings are a sort of puzzle that, by not saying exactly what it means, help you to see an everyday object in a whole new way.

G is for Gold

But some Old English words do say just what they mean.  What do you lock up securely, other than your soul?  Gold!  It is spelled the exact same way in Old as in Modern English, and they mean exactly the same thing.  However alien the language appears to us after a thousand years, we can still see it shining through in our own words.

H is for Hwæt!

The first lines of BeowulfLondon, British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A. xv, fol. 132r.

Hwæt! We Gardena    in geardagum,

þeodcyninga,    þrym gefrunon …

Beowulf, ll. 1-2,

Most famous as the opening word of Beowulf, the exclamation hwæt isn’t always easy to interpret.  Some translators take it as a command for all to listen to the poet, and translate it as ‘Listen!’ or ‘Lo!’.  But in his Irish-English-influenced translation, Seamus Heaney instead took inspiration from some relatives of his father’s, the ‘scullions’, whose every utterance seemed to be of great weight:

[I]n Hiberno-English Scullion-speak, the particle ‘so’ came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom ‘so’ operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.  So, ‘so’ it was:

So.  The Spear-Danes in days gone by

and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness …

Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf, p. xxvii

I is for Icenhilde Weg

I came upon this street name whilst searching idly in the Bosworth-Toller Dictionary of Old English.  Although it is listed there as the Roman road between Norfolk and Bedfordshire, the street represents the border of some land granted by King Eadred in Berkshire in one tenth-century charter, and it appears again in a charter of King Edward the Elder.  I wondered if it might still exist today.  And it does!  Nowadays, it is mostly known by such glamorous names as ‘the A505’, but according to Wikipedia, it may have followed the route of an Iron Age path, and is supposed to derive from the name of the Iceni tribe (of Boudicca fame).  Less ancient, however, is the letter J, which developed from I sometime after the Anglo-Saxon period.  So let’s move on to …

K is for Kyning

… because it stands for precious little else.  The letter K barely exists in Old English, with C almost always being used instead.  ‘Kyning’ is one of the rare exceptions, and even that is more usually spelled as ‘cyning’, and sometimes ‘cyng’ – that is, ‘king’.

A kyningLondon, British Library Stowe MS 944, fol. 6r

L is for Læne

A number of Old English poems have, in modern times, been put into the category of ‘elegy’: those that lament the loss of a previous happy state, and express the sorrows of the speaker, now alone in the world.

                                        Forþon me hatran sind

dryhtnes dreamas    þonne þis deade lif,

læne on londe.

The Seafarer, ll. 64b-66a,

Therefore the joys of the Lord are more attractive to me than this dead life, fleeting on land.

Literally, it means ‘this loaned life’, although it is generally translated as ‘transitory’ or ‘fleeting’.  Anglo-Saxon poets were preoccupied with the brevity of life, and the realisation that all good things can come to an abrupt, premature end.

Including blogposts.

To be continued …

Edited 01/02/17: many thanks to all the people on Twitter who helped me to disentangle my ancient roads.

Works used:

Peter S. Baker and Michael Lapidge, eds. and trans., Byrhtferth’s Enchiridion, Early English Text Society ss 15 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)

Seamus Heaney, Beowulf: a new translation (London: Faber & Faber, 1999)

Bernard James Muir, ed., A Pre-Conquest English Prayer-Book (BL MSS Cotton Galba A.xiv and Nero A.ii (ff. 3-13)), HBS 103 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1988).

Antonette diPaolo Healey, John Price Wilkin and Xin Xiang, eds., The Dictionary of Old English Corpus in Electronic Form (University of Toronto, 2009).

Bosworth-Toller Dictionary of Old English


2 Comments Add yours

  1. thijsporck says:

    Great idea! Looking forward to part 2


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