Anglo-Saxon Word of the….what day is it?

Portrait of the Artist’s Kitchen Table.

Part of the goal of this blog was to chronicle some of the experience of my PhD program – but it seems these days the best and simplest way to update you on my progress would be to Instagram my calendar! Most of my time belongs to teaching or to Judith, right now, but there are still a few things up-coming:


♦ I’ll be blogging (a little belatedly!) about my first eisteddfod experience, and what it’s like when the next generation isn’t taught Welsh

♦ Dublin adventures! I’ve planned a little get-away for the start of Spring hols, but I already sense work creeping in: I’ll be taking a Viking-themed tour of the city, visiting the National Leprechaun Museum to hear a live storytelling event, and going to the National Gallery in hopes of seeing Andrea Mantegna’s 15th century portrait of Judith.


♦ April is National Poetry Month in the U.S., so expect short weekly posts about both Anglo-Saxon and contemporary poetry, and some musings about poetic translation.

♦ I’m also taking my storytelling show on the road again – this time to UCL in London, for the Early Medieval Interdisciplinary Conference Series. They’ve planned a live, candlelit storytelling event to take place on Friday, 10 April, from 7:30pm at St. Ethelreda’s Cathedral – you can find more information and purchase tickets for the event here. I’ll be live-tweeting the event, and blogging about it afterward. After that..who knows? I’m plotting the triumphant return of Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week, in conjunction with more in-depth posts about my research, as it edges closer to completion.

In the meantime, if you need a daily Anglo-Saxon linguistic fix, I suggest checking out Hana’s Word of the Day on Twitter, Facebook, or WordPress. You can find out more about Hana and her work here.

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Unexpected Journies

When I set out to write about travel this month, there are certain things I didn’t think I’d have to cover. The two-week delay of my luggage, which went on an entirely separate journey to mine, was one of them; I’ll get to that next week, maybe. fredToday is a sadder journey: saying good-bye to a friend who has left this world.

Fred Grimm was never at loss for words for any sort of occasion, but I find myself lacking them now – so I’ve picked a few I think he’d especially appreciate: small, and far away.

This Fred is small!

This Fred is small!

One Anglo-Saxon word for small or little is hwón-líc. Hwón on its own also means little, but is generally used in the neuter accusative, as an adjective to indicate quantity or size: ie, ‘use a little honey’, rather than ‘this is a little town’. The -líc ending forms the last part of lots of adjectives, rather like the modern -ly.So if you were discussing the smallness of, oh, say, tiny plastic cows, they’d be hwón-líc. And if this conversation left you a little exasperated, you’d use hwón. Nothing at all about Fred was small (well, except maybe his bearish counterpart) – he had a personality and a heart that matched his physical size. There will be nothing small, either, about the hole left in so many lives by his absence.

...and this Fred is far away!

…and this Fred is far away!

Feor was the Anglo-Saxon word for far away or, literally, at a great distance. The Proto-Indo-European root for this word meant to pass over or beyond. Fred is, I suppose, far away now, gone beyond where we’re able to go with him, but he’ll never be very far away from the minds of everyone who loved him. Fred was a storyteller, and that’s how we’ve been remembering him – by sharing Fred stories of our own.

There are so many other words I could share – scortness, for the brevity of time Fred was on this earth, or æglæc, for our grief, but perhaps the most appropriate is cynn, which meant of a sort, kind, or genus, but was also used in compounds to describe types of family. When you find your people in this wide world, hang on to ’em for as long as you can.

Anglo-Saxon Word Of the Week: wíd-síþ

IMG_0346.JPG Bore da, darllenwyr annwyl; I write this a few hours before dawn, on a train, tapping away on my phone’s touchscreen. It’s too dark outside to see the landscape; so far, the only view out the window, aside from my own reflection, has been a brightly lit Tesco car park in Welshpool, and Shrewsbury station. My theme of travel carries onward.

This week’s offering is both a word and a name: wíd-síþ. The word is a compound noun (too early in the morning for verbs!): wíd meaning wide, and síþ, meaning travel or journey. A far journey. Wide travel.

is also the name of another poem from the Exeter book, and the fictional narrator of the poem. The poem itself is a 144-line catalogue of kings both ancient and contemporary, peoples alive and long since gone, and heroes who lived only in legend. The narrating poet recounts the rulers he has known, the tribes he has seen and sung for, and the heroes he has encountered in his time as a traveling scop. Many of the events and people mentioned are attested to historically, but are spread out across far too great a span of time for one person to have witnessed them all, and the places listed cover too great an area for even a lifetime of travel. Wid-síþ, then, is not intended as a collections of facts, but as an act of historical creation – the poet weaves a long and storied past for himself and his people, and in so doing, claims for himself the voice of poetic authority. The poem closes with Wid-síþ reminding the audience that earthly fame, when remembered in song by a talented scop, brings lasting fame.

You can read the poem in Anglo-Saxon alongside an English translation here.

Deor, a shorter poem also found in the Exeter book, draws on similar material; I suggest seeking out Seamus Heaney’s wonderful translation.

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Wadan

sea-ice-off-arctic-refuge-coastal-plain_w725_h477Happy December, all! The season of many holidays is upon us, and I’m preparing to do something that I haven’t done for nearly two years now: I’m going home. I haven’t seen my family since April of 2013, and while I do love it here, it will be nice to not have an ocean between me and all the people I left behind, just for a little while.

So! In honour of the trains-planes-and-automobiles trek I’m about to take, this month’s entries will be centred around travel, and each will feature a different poem.

To start us of this week, something else I haven’t done in a while – a strong verb! Words of the Week entries have been pretty noun-heavy for a while, as I’ve been sitting around writing away for most hours of most days,and I thought the sudden flurry of activity was a good enough reason to shake things up a bit.

This week’s word is wadan, a strong verb – which means it undergoes a stem change when conjugated. This is still easily observable in English verbs today. For example, ‘sing’ is a strong verb (I sing, I sang, I have sung, etc.), but ‘walk’ is a weak one (I walk, I walked, I have walked, etc) because it has an added ending instead of a stem change. Wadan conjugates thusly:

Present indicative:                                                                              Past indicative:

ic i wædee                                                                                         ic i wód

þu you wædeest                                                                               þu you wóde

he/hit/heo he/it/she wædeeþ                                                            he/hit/heo he/it/she wód

we/ge/hie we/ye/they wædeaþ                                                         we/ge/hie we/ye/they wódon

Present participle: (….ing) – wædeende                                        Past participle: (…ed) – gewaden

Wadan means to go, to advance, to travel, and is the verb from whence the contemporary English words invade, pervade, evade, and wade come from. Tolkien also borrowed the word to name Entwade, the guarded ford in the river Entwash joining east and west Rohan. (Entincidentally, is a word for giant in Old English, and is related to the Old Norse jǫtunn.)

There are many verbs that mean some version of go, wander, travel, or journey in Anglo-Saxon, but I chose this one specifically because it is used in one of my favourite Old English poems, The Wanderer. The poem, found in the 10th century Exeter book (though the poem itself may have been composed earlier), is the lament of a solitary exile who wander the cold seas far from the comrades in arms, loyal lord, and warm mead hall he has left behind. The narrator speaks vividly of his loneliness and yearning for days past, though he knows that his prior happiness is a place to which he can no longer return.

The poem also contains the lines that inspired Tolkien’s Lament for the Rohirrim, sung by Aragorn in The Two Towers, but adapted for the film version as a speech delivered by Théoden on the eve of battle:

You can read a side-by-side translation of the poem here, but I also encourage you to see out Greg Delanty’s and Jane Holland’s updated translations as well.

And if you’d like a little more light holiday reading, try Coleridge next – this poem never fails to put me in mind of his Ancient Mariner.

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Láf

Wes þu hál!

Between dissertation deadlines and the illness that just won’t end, this month has rather gotten away from me. But still we must carry on, and next month’s theme won’t wait, so here’s one final female word for November: láf. 

To introduce this word, I’d also like to introduce Elaine, a fellow research student here at Aberystwyth. She’s been working with Old English again recently, and her latest blog uses the word láf to muse on the nature of translation, and how one can use language as a means to flesh out one’s understanding of a society.

widowFor example, Elaine explains that láf is one of the Anglo-Saxon words for widow, but that the word can also mean remnant or remainder. Láf is cognate with the Gothic laiba, the Old Frisian lávathe Old Saxon léƀa, and the Old High German leiba, and does mean that which is left behind, but was regularly applied to widows – that which is left behind after the death of a husband. The woman was referred to as X’s láf, and therefore defined by her relation to her husband. There was no separate word for male widow, such as ‘widower’ in modern English. Head over to Elaine’s blog entry to discuss what the multiple meanings of the word might indicate about the cultural context of widows in the Anglo-Saxon world. For context, you might wish to check out Rolf Bremmer’s Between Poverty and the Pyre: Widows in Anglo-Saxon England, or this site explaining early English laws.

The word was used in several other descriptive ways besides simply indicating that something was left over or left behind. The weapons’ or battle’s leavings were survivors of a conflict. In poetry, weaponry was sometimes described as láf fýres and feóle – the leaving of fire and of file.

Láf is an interesting word etymologically. The stem leibh or leip (from which láf comes), traced backwards through Indo-European and Proto-Indo-European, was a verb meaning to smear fat, or stick. We’ve already seen a few of the Germanic cognates of láf, which carried similar meanings, but the Greek lipos retained the meaning of fat, and the Homeric Greek verb from the same root meant to smear or anoint. Somewhere during the development away from Indo-European, the Germanic words underwent a change of meaning that the Greek word did not. Unpacking what happened in that shift of meaning could also be an investigation of the different cultural contexts acting upon each language.

Another common word for widow in Anglo-Saxon was widuwe, which comes from the Indo-European root ueidh, meaning to divide or separate. Also, recall our discussion of wif, meaning woman who is not a virgin? Sometimes wif was also used to indicate a widow.

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Ides & Wíf

Apologies for missing last week’s entry,and for the brevity of this week’s – last week I was moving house, and this week I have been taken down by flu! But I bravely blog on in the face of endless cups of Lemsip, and hope to also bring you a recap of my storytelling adventures with Jo in Cambridge. Spoiler alert – they were delightful!


Anglo-Saxon woman from the Dover Museum.

But onward to this week’s word! And, indeed, this month’s theme – which is women. I’ll be touching on various words used to denote the female gender in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and a few specific adjectives, as an eventual precursor to a more in-depth discussion of the complexities of the portrayal of gender in general.

I’m starting with ides and wíf because they are the most commonly used, and the simplest to discuss. Wíf is the Anglo-Saxon word for woman or female person. Contextually, it could also mean wife or widow, and is related to the Old Saxon and Old Frisian wif, the Old Hugh German wip, and possibly to the Icelandic poetic vif. You might see the word wíf-mann, which is related – its counterpart wǽpen-mann was an Anglo-Saxon word for male personMann could indicate a human being of either gender.

Ides is another word for woman, found primarily in poetry. It is related to the Old Saxon idis and the Old High German itis, and possibly to the Icelandic dis. The idis, (pl. idisi) was, in Germanic mythology, was a figure something like the Scandinavian valkyrie. They are seen being invoked in the Old High German Merseberg Charms, the only examples of a pre-Christian paganism to exist in that language. Jacob Grimm, who was a linguistic scholar in addition to a collector of folk tales, proposed a connection between idisi and the Norse goddess Iðunn. In Anglo-Saxon, the word does not denote any sort of supernatural or goddess-like qualities; instead, in is generally used for well-respected or especially dignified women. One can see the potential for correlation, though, between the use of the term as a word for goddesses, and the use of the term as a poetic device to denote a woman who is especially worthy of note or praise. Both Judith and Grendel’s mother were called ides.

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Draca

Please don't slay me!

Please don’t slay me!

This week’s word is draca – or, dragon. Draca comes from the West Germanic *drako, which ultimately originated from the Latin. The first recorded use of this word we have is from Beowulf:

draca rícsian sé þe on heaum hofe…

In the fiftieth year of Beowulf’s reign, long after Grendel and his mother had been defeated, someone managed to wake a sleeping dragon by stealing a goblet from its hoard. The story of the hoard itself is a sad one. It was buried in the earth by the last survivor of a long-forgotten race whose kin had all died in war, leaving him alone with a useless treasure.

Beowulf narrowly defeats the dragon – if you want to find out how, go read it! – and secures the treasure for his people, but he pays for it with his life. One of Beowulf’s last requests is to see some item from the gold-hoard he was dying for; his young thane Wiglaf obliges him. Beowulf is glad that his people will be provided for, but it is up to Wiglaf – the only man who stood with him against the dragon – to look after them. Beowulf’s final words, spoken to Wiglaf, are eerily familiar; they are reproduced here in Anglo-Saxon, and in English from Seamus Heaney’s transltion:

þú eart ende-láf         ússes cynes
Wægmundinga         ealla wyrd forspéon
míne mágas       tó meodscafte
eorlas  on elne        ic to him æfter sceal.

You are the last of us, the only one left
of the Waegmundings. Fate swept us away,
sent my whole brave high-born clan 

to their final doom. Now I must follow them.

Now Beowulf is the lonely, kin-less wanderer, and the gold, as we learned before, won’t save his people from destruction. In truth, the gold-hoard Beowulf died for is a cavernful of story-less objects, things divorced from their history. One hopes, as the poem’s final lines close on a lament for a lost king, the the goblets and feast gear, hauberks and helms will be imbued with new tales to tell.

Do you have a particular ‘storied’ item? A favourite bear from childhood, a blanket your grandmother made? Or even a new item, something for which the story will start with you? What tales might people tell about your object in another 2,000 years, if it could hang around that long?

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Greetings!

10553562_10100176996954118_4207795420290634935_nShwmae! Ic gréte eów ealle.

It’s Diwrnod Shwmae/Su’mae here in Cymru – a day when everyone is encouraged to begin every conversation yn Cymraeg. As an English speaker from the United States, I rarely used any other language than English in my daily life; since moving to Wales, my use of multiple languages I use to move through a day has steadily increased. Most of my work day is spent with Anlgo-Saxon (which, as I’m sure you know, or are discovering if you follow the blog, can be a very different animal to contemporary English), and English is still the primary language I communicate in, but lately I increasingly use Welsh to speak to my friends, to greet my colleagues  and hallway-mates in the Welsh department, and even to order food in pubs. The fact that ASWotW and Diwrnod Shwae/Su’mae have fallen on the same day gives us a chance to embrace a little linguistic diversity.

For example – were you to say “Shwmae!” to an Anglo-Saxon, she might answer you back, “Wes þu hál!” (lit., ‘be thou hail’ ). If you wished an Anglo-Saxon a good morning – “Bore da!”, she might wish you “Gódne morgen!” as well.

In further celebration of the Welsh language, and to continue our month-long storytelling theme, here’s a little bit of information about the blog mistress:

Shwmae! Ashley ydw i.  Dwi’n byw yn Aberystwyth, ond dwi’n dod o Dennessee yn wreiddiol. Dwi’n fyfyrwraig ôl-raddedig ym Mhrifysgol Aberystwyth, a dwi’n astudio barddoniaeth Eingl-Sacsonaidd a chyfieithu. Nid Cymraeg mo fy iaith gyntaf, ond dwi’n mwynhau ei dysgu yn fawr iawn! Dros y penwythnos nesaf, ar 25 Hydref, byddaf i’n mynd i Gaergrawnt ar gyfer gŵyl adrodd straeon – gobeithio y gwelaf i chi yno!

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Scop

beowulf_doc1Hello again! It’s week two in our month o’ story, and since we looked at stories and storytelling in Anglo-Saxon culture last week, I’m moving on now to poems and poeming. (I think I’m supposed to call it ‘composing poetry’ or something, but really, it is a process deserving of its own present participle.) So our question for today is: What should we call poets? Incidentally, this is also the name of my favouite tumblr.

The most common Anglo-Saxon word for poet is scop. A quick pronunciation guide: sc is a sh sound in Old English, and the o here is like the in option or pot, so the words sounds very much like the Contemporary English word shop. A cognate (meaning a word having the same linguistic derivation as another) exists in Old High German: scoph or scof. Remember when we talked about Proto-Germanic and Indo-European in this entry? Well, scop and scof may both be related to the Proto-Germanic verb *skapiz, meaning form or order. Both these words are also related to the modern English word scoff. Another similar word you might be more familiar with, especially if you’re a fan of German fanasty metal bands, is skald, which is the Old Norse word for the concept of poet. This word, etymologically, is linked to the modern English scold. Never get on the bad side of a poet, friends.

But what was a poet in Anglo-Saxon culture? How did you become one? It was quite easy, really – you had to die.

…no, no, wait, come back! Don’t hang up your iambic pentameter just yet. Let me explain: there is no written record of any real, historical person identifying himself, or herself, as a scop. Emily Thornbury, in her book Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England, likens it to calling oneself a ‘statesman’:

The term [statesman] is not really a professional category, but rather a word for those who have excelled in politics and diplomacy. ‘Statesman’ is so commonly reserved for those retiring from public life – or, preferably, safely dead –  because of the force it carries, and while one can aspire to be a statesman, declaring oneself actually to be one would smack of hubris…it was something one could hope to be called after death.

Scop, therefore, could be seen as a sort of title; if your work is strong enough, if it’s heard and repeated enough, if you excel a enough in the craft of composing verse, then you might be honoured with the title of poet after death. It’s a pretty idea – and a pretty motivating one. But it still doesn’t explain where this wide-spread idea of scop as record keeper, as entertainer, as prolific verse composer comes from. For that, we have to turn to the poems themselves.

I mentioned that there are no historical figures in Anglo-Saxon written record who refer to themselves as poets; this does not hold true for the fictional world. There are two poets who refer to themselves by that title in poems: Deor, and the speaker in Riddle 22 from the Exeter book, who uses the metaphor of himself as a scop to describe a nightingale. Widsith, from the poem of the same title, almost falls into this category; the poem opens with another speaker introducing Widsith as a poet, and then relating Widisth’s words about himself to the audience. The first two poems are poets speaking as a persona; the last one is a poet speaking as a persona about another persona. Oh, dear. Why all the obfuscation?

I’ll tell you a secret: the romantic idea we sometimes have of Anglo-Saxon scops functioning like the Germanic bards of old, relating stories of great deeds and important tribal histories around by the fire of a mead hall and being honoured by the ruling war lord, was also a romantic idea they had about themselves. Most of our written Old English record comes from a time when the old Germanic tribes had been long settled on their new island, and conversion to Christianity was happening rapidly, or had already happened. The idea of the travelling bard singing for his supper and containing within his songs the identity and culture of his people was a vital part of the Anglo-Saxon ideal of their own ancestral past – as can be so easily seen in poems like Widsith and DeorBeowulf also epitomises this concept, and can be looked at as the story of a people struggling to preserve an identity, but unsure of what identity they are preserving: Germanic, or English? Pagan, or Christian? Tribal, or feudal? The desire to grasp onto something solid is palpable – and so is the tragedy of Bewoulf’s end. He dies childless, alone but for a single squire, leaving his leaderless people with a useless treasure – ancient gold will not help them against the Franks or the Frisians. It’s a grim view – what good are old stories against the onslaught of change? I suppose the answer to that question lies in the fact that we are still telling them.

And if you’re anywhere near Cambridge on the 25th of October, you’re cordially invited to come along to their Festival of Ideas and hear some of these stories told by participants in the Medieval Storytelling Project. You can find information about our event, and links to the programme for the whole festival, here.

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Story

storytelling1October’s Word of the Week theme is stories and storytelling! I chose this theme because, at the end of the month, I’ll be telling stories myself at Cambridge University’s Festival of Ideas, along with a few other friends from the Medieval Storytelling Project.

Storytelling was a key form of entertainment in Anglo-Saxon England. This might have happened at feasts or celebrations in the mead hall with professional storytellers, but plenty of evidence exists for quiet evenings spent round the fireplace where everyone was expected to contribute a tale. Venerable Bede, a 7th century monk, records such a story about the poet Cædmon in his work  Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede says that Cædmon, the earliest English poet known by name, was a lay brother at a monastery who cared for the abbey’s animals. Every evening, when the monks gathered to tell stories, Cædmon would leave the fireplace and creep out to the stables, ashamed because he knew no songs and had no skill at composing them. One night, while sleeping in the stable, Cædmon dreamed that he was approached by someone who asked him to sing principium creaturarum, “the beginning of created things.” At first he refused, but then Cædmon composed a short poem praising the creator of heaven and earth. When he awoke the next morning, he remembered everything, and sang his poem for the abbess. She gave him a test – he was to return to her the next morning with a new poem composed around some bit of sacred history or doctrine. When he produced a second poem the next morning, his new ability was declared a gift from God, and Cædmon was ordered to take monastic orders. Bede tells us that Cædmon wrote beautiful alliterative verse in the vernacular speech of the day, but unfortunately, the only example of his poetry remaining to us is Cædmon’s Hymn, his poem to the creator of the universe. A video of the reading of the poem in Old English, with Old English and Modern English text on screen, is embedded below.

American poet Denise Levertov has written a beautiful poem based on Bede’s account of Cædmon, which you can read here.

A few common words for ‘story’ in Anglo-Saxon were talu (pl. tala), meaning tale, or account, and spell, meaning story or speech. There were many compound words that describe types of spellesA few examples:

bíspell –  Literally big-spell, it meant parable or allegory. A modern equivalent might be tall tale.

ealdspell – old-story. an old, familiar tale or saying

frumspellung –  first-storying; an original story, or the first telling of a story

sárspell – sad-story; a sad or lamentful tale

sóþspell – true-story, or history. ‘This one really happened, I swear!’

láðspell – a painful, hateful, or grievous story

leásspell an untrue story, or a lie

leásungspell also a false story, but with a frivolous element; a foolish story or fable

As you can see, with so many words for so many different types of story, the relating of tales was important to the Anglo-Saxons, and served a variety of different purposes from entertainment to praise to the preservation of culture and history. Over the next few weeks, we’ll looks at more words related to stories and storytelling, and to the storytellers themselves. There may even be a few Halloween treats thrown in too.

Ok. It’s late, the night is dark and cold, and we’re gathered around our metaphorical fire. It’s your turn. What story do you tell?