An Old English Alphabet (part 2)

In my previous post, I took a journey through the Old English language, exploring a single word beginning with the letters from A to L, using each one to explain a particular characteristic of the language.  Here, I will carry on from M until the end of the alphabet …

M is for Micel

Micel is the Old English word for ‘large’ or ‘great’.  In Old Norse, this was mikill: the two languages are closely related enough that the Anglo-Saxons would have understood at least some of what Norse speakers said.  And the Norse word can still be seen today in the name of the great long street that leads from the city walls of York to the River Ouse.


N is for Næddre

As discussed in an earlier post, the word næddre is used to refer to the serpent of Eden in Old English translations of the book of Genesis.  Over time a næddre became an adder.  It’s an example of how a word can narrow its meaning over time: the generic word for ‘snake’ ended up referring only to one particular species.

Detail of 2headedsnake TibBV1.79v
London, British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B. V/1, fol. 79v

O is for Ond

Ond is sometimes spelled and, which is what it means.  Although the ‘&’ symbol is used in Latin texts of this period, in Old English scribes abbreviated and using a ‘7’.  In Old English, ond means ‘and’ and ac means ‘but’.  In modern Welsh it is the other way around.  Language learning can be confusing sometimes.

P is for Pæð

This word, so utterly unfamiliar at first glance, is actually an example of how little the spoken language has changed over time.  It means ‘path’, and is pronounced as such (assuming a northern/midlands English accent).  Despite being basically written in the Latin alphabet, Old English was nevertheless written with a few letters that Latin lacked: æ (ash), representing the ‘a’ sound in ‘cat’; ð (eth) and þ (thorn), representing the ‘th’ sounds, and ƿ (wynn), the ‘w’ sound.  Once you know these, a few otherwise incomprehensible words start to make sense.  Incidentally, relatively few Old English words begin with ‘p’ (preost (priest) and persic (peach) are amongst them, and they are loan words from Latin).  I’ve always wondered why.

R is for Rædestre

London, British Library Harley MS 3271, fol. 21r

No need for ‘Q’ in Old English – you can spell cwen (queen) perfectly well without it.  And if a queen had some reading to do, she would be a rædestre.  In his work on Latin grammar, Ælfric of Eynsham gives the English translations of various Latin words to demonstrate the differences between masculine nouns ending with -tor and feminine ones ending with -trix.  So hic doctor or þes lareow (this teacher) becomes hęc doctrix; hic uictor rex or þes sigefæsta cyning (this conquering king) becomes hęc uictrix regina or þeos sigefæste cwen (this conquering queen), and hic lector or þes rædere becomes hęc lectrix or þeos rædestre – this female reader.  Old English, like Latin, is a language with different forms of nouns for different genders, much more so than in modern English.  I suppose Ælfric is only making a grammatical point, but it’s interesting to think that he thought about what female teachers and readers should be called.

St Æthelthryth: never seen without a good book under her arm. London, British Library Additional MS 49598, fol. 90v.

S is for Steorra

This is our modern word ‘star’: as Ælfric of Eynsham wrote in his scientific work De Temporibus Anni,

Eac swilce ða steorran ðe us lytle ðincað • sind swiðe brade • ac for ðam micclum fæce þe us betweonan is hi sind geðuhte urum gesihðum swiðe gehwæde.

Heinrich Henel, ed., Ælfric’s De Temporibus Anni, p. 12

And likewise the stars, which seem little to us, are very large; but because of the great distance which is between us, they are made to seem very small in our sight.

That is, it was known in the early Middle Ages, and written in the English language, that the stars were vast and far away.  I’m very fascinated by medieval science and what the Anglo-Saxons did and did not understand about how the natural world worked.

T is for Tungol

The wisdom poem Maxims II also talks of stars:

                                       Tungol sceal on heofenum

beorhte scinan,         swa him bebead meotud.

Maxims II, ll. 48b-49,

A star must shine brightly in the heavens, just as the Creator commanded it.

No steorran here.  From a quick search of the Old English Corpus, more than twice as many references to steorran than tunglas can be found in Old English prose texts, and notably more glosses; but in verse, the word tungol is more common.  Of course, it is the prose word that has come down to us in modern English.  Anglo-Saxon poetry has a very specific vocabulary of its own, to some extent entirely separate from the everyday prose words.  Hearing poetry read, therefore, must have sounded very different from hearing any other kind of vernacular work: it must have been something special, outside of everyday life.

Þ is for Þolian (and so is Ð)

I’ve already mentioned that Old English supplemented the Latin alphabet with letters more suited to its sounds.  Þ and ð represent the ‘th’ sounds missing from Latin and a lot of other European languages, and they are still used in Icelandic to this day.  There are, in fact, two different ‘th’ sounds in both Old and Modern English: the ‘unvoiced’ sound in ‘breath’ and the ‘voiced’ sound of ‘breathe’: while Old Norse uses the two letters quite strictly to differentiate between the two, Anglo-Saxon scribes used them interchangeably.

C. L.Wrenn, glossary to Beowulf

In the Introduction to his translation of Beowulf, Seamus Heaney writes of how he learned, as a student, to see harmony and not adversariality between English and Irish, and one important meeting point was found in Beowulf.  In the glossary to C. L. Wrenn’s edition of the poem, he was astonished to find the word þolian, to suffer: or, as his aunt would have said of people suffering a bereavement, ‘[t]hey’ll just have to learn to thole’.  Sometimes, what might appear to be forgotten words are still alive, in another neighbourhood of the English language.

U is for Unræd

King Æthelred II.  Cambridge, University Library MS Ee. 3. 59, fol. 3v.

King Æthelred II, whose reigns were between 978 and 1016, is known today by the epithet ‘Æthelred the Unready’.  It’s deeply unfortunate to name your royal son Æthelred, or ‘noble advice’, when he will become a king best known for taking some very bad advice indeed.  He was later nicknamed unræd – ill-advised – and the nickname stuck, even if it’s been mangled a bit over the centuries.

Also mangled a bit was the letter ‘u’, which in some scripts was written in a rounded style, and in others in a pointed fashion.  Eventually, the two letter-shapes ended up being used to represent different sounds, giving rise to the modern ‘v’, which, as a discrete letter, was unknown to the Anglo-Saxons.  But there is another letter found in Old English which is no longer used today …

Ƿ is for Wlonc

Meaning ‘proud’, this word, beginning with the runic letter wynn, is included purely because I find it amusing.  Wlonc wlonc wlonc.  There are some consonant combinations that are now unknown, and clumsy to pronounce, in modern English: consider also hring (ring) and hleahtor (laughter).  Wlonc appears in the Old English poem The Seafarer, in which the narrator contrasts his experiences with those who sit drinking together in the city:

Forþon him gelyfeð lyt,    se þe ah lifes wyn

gebiden in burgum,    bealosiþa hwon,

wlonc ond wingal,    hu ic werig oft

in brimlade    bidan sceolde.

The Seafarer, ll. 27-30,

Therefore he little believes it, he who has experienced the joy of life in the towns, and little of terrible experiences, proud and wine-happy, how I have often had to endure, weary, on the sea-journey.

Wingal, light or even wanton with wine, is another useful word!  And it shows us the alliterative nature of Anglo-Saxon poetry: without going into all the details, words are paired together with another word beginning with the same consonant, or vowels with other vowels.  This leads to collocations: pairs of words that often go together in Old English verse, or sometimes even prose.  Word and weorc is a good example: ‘words and deeds’, which, sometimes combined with geþohtas, thoughts, are the different ways in which the Christian must honour God and avoid sin, and so the phrase resounds throughout confessional literature in both verse and prose.

Y is for Yþ

Neither X or Z begin any words in the Old English language, and so we must end with Y.  means ‘wave’, and waves abound in Anglo-Saxon literature.  It was said of King Cnut that he stood on the beach and told the waves to turn back; they declined to accommodate his wishes.  The king was not, in fact, God; the wind and the waves did not obey him; and isn’t humility the real power?

The narrator of The Seafarer is also surrounded by endless waves on his sea-journey:

                      … ic geswincdagum

earfoðhwile   oft þrowade,

bitre breostceare     gebiden hæbbe,

gecunnad in ceole   cearselda fela,

atol yþa gewealc …

The Seafarer, ll. 2b-6a,

… I have often suffered days of hardship, troubled times, and have experienced bitter misery, known many miserable homes aboard ship, the terrible tossing of the waves …

And now I will wave goodbye.


Works used:

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

Heinrich Henel, ed., Ælfric’s De Temporibus Anni, EETS 213 (London: OUP, 1942).

C. L. Wrenn, ed., Beowulf, rev. W. F. Bolton (London: Harrap, 1958).


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