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: Elephant!

elephant-drawing-717The theme of animals continues this week with elephant – one of the request words I received via Facebook. Incidentally, this request came with a second word, which doesn’t exist properly in Anglo-Saxon, but did allow me to have a bit of fun putting this week’s entry together. More on that in a bit.

Ælfric discussed elephants in his homily on the Maccabees, but he knew none of his audience had ever seen one – nor, likely, had he himself. To make up for this, he relied on descriptions found in the Etymologiaea 7th century text written by St. Isidore, a Christian bishop who compiled a vast array of knowledge from classical source that he felt worth keeping into a single volume. The Etymologiae covered everything from grammar and rhetoric to nature, law, and religion – and included, fortunately for Ælfric, several handy descriptions of elephants. He doesn’t include all of the details he finds, however; Ælfric described of the elephant as:

“an immense animal greater than a house, all encased with bones within the hide except at the navel, and it never lies down. The mother goes twenty-four months with foal, and they live three hundred years if they are not injured, and man can raise them wonderfully for war.”

(translations of the original by E.J. Christie, The Idea of the Elephant: Ælfric of Eynsham,                                                               Epistemology, and the Absent Animals of Anglo-Saxon England)


…but he leaves out the folklore elements that St. Isidore covers, such as the elephants’ famously exceptional capacity for memory, or their fear of mice.

The word Ælfric used for elephant — elp or ylp — was borrowed from the Latin elephantus. 


Companions_adelie_penguinsThe accompanying word in this request was penguin – another animal which most speakers of Old English would never have seen, and indeed an animal for which there is no word. However, in verifying this, I became interested in the etymology of penguin, and saw an opportunity to play around a bit. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest mentions of the word attest to Welsh origins, and break the word down to pen gwyn, or white head. In Welsh, pen can refer to the head sitting on someone’s shoulders, or to a headland – a hill that extends out into a body of water. Anglo-Saxon has a similar word: héafod. As you might imagine, this one comes up an awful lot in Judith, but it can refer equally to head as a body part and head as a landform. Hwíte is the Anglo-Saxon (and, incidentally, Old Frisian, Anglo-Saxon’s closest relative) word for white. Unlike Welsh, nouns do not precede adjectives, syntactically in Anglo-Saxon. Therefore, if we wanted to construct a nominative singular translation of penguin in Anglo-Saxon, I think we could do a lot worse than hwítehéafod. It’s even pleasingly alliterative. 🙂

Last week, we discussed some kennings for ravens and eagles, as beasts of battle. Then penguin is a flightless bird; one way of describing them poetically might be na-flyge flugel, or ‘no-flight bird’. What other ways would you describe penguins?





Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Byrnwiggende

We're uncertain what a byrnie looked like, but it could have been a mail shirt, or mail-covered leather jacket.

We’re uncertain what a byrnie looked like, but it could have been a mail shirt, or mail-covered leather jacket.

Wes þu hal!

Finally getting back to some text translation today, after time away for travel, conferences, and end-of-term marking frenzies – and I discovered a neat thing I wanted to share. I came across the word byrnwiggende today. A wiggend is a warrior or soldier, and the word is commonly seen in descriptive compounds – rondwiggende, for example. Rond or rand is technically the margin or the edge of something, but it was usually used to denote the edge of a shield – so rondwiggende might get translated as sheild-warrior or shield-bearer.

All of that I knew – but what on earth was a byrn? The Clark Hall dictionary gave me corselet, and that’s a familiar enough armour term, but I didn’t really like the word. I tried the online Englisc Onstigende Wordbōc, to see if it would give me anything different – and it gave me the Modern English word byrnie – at least, they said it was Modern English. I’d certainly never heard of it, so I threw it into google, and out popped the image on the left – something I would indeed have termed a corselet. Or maybe even just a maille shirt. According to Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World (Bennet, M., et al): 

There is some dispute among historians as to what exactly constituted the Carolingian byrnie. Relying… only on artistic and some literary sources because of the lack of archaeological examples, some believe that it was a heavy leather jacket with metal scales sewn onto it. It was also quite long, reaching below the hips and covering most of the arms. Other historians claim instead that the Carolingian byrnie was nothing more than a coat of mail, but longer and perhaps heavier than traditional early medieval mail. Without more certain evidence, this dispute will continue.

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry - could those soldiers have been wearing byrnies?

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry – could those soldiers have been wearing byrnies?

There you are, then; a new word for me in both languages. Call them shield-bearers, mail-wearers, or men-at-arms – a good leader was lost without good soldiers.

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week! : twēogan

August Reidel's Judith
I had intended for this to be a Monday thing, but I’m honestly never prepared to  do anything but  brace for impact when Monday rolls around, so from here on out,  ASWotW will be a Wednesday  feature!

This week’s word is a verb:  twēogan.

Twēogan is a slightly irregular (meaning it doesn’t conjugate quite the same as  other verbs of its type) verb that means ‘to doubt’.

It’s pronounced tway-o-gahn, with the accent on the first syllable. The line over  the e indicates syllable length – the e in this word is a long vowel.

It conjugates like this*:

ic twēoge – I doubt
þū twēost – thou doubt
hē/hēo twēoþ – he doubts
wē twēogaþ – we doubt
gē twēogaþ – ye doubt (you plural. Y’all, if you’re from my neck of the woods.)
hīe twēogaþ – they doubt

ic twēode
þū twēodes; twēodest
hē/hēo twēode
wē twēodon
gē twēodon
hīe twēodon

*For the moment, I’ve decided to stick to just present and past tense conjugation in indicative mood only.

I chose twēogan as the ASWotW because it appears in the opening lines of Judith:

gifena in ðys ginnan grunde.         Heo ðar ða gearwe funde
mundbyrd æt ðam mæran þeodne,         þa heo ahte mæste þearfe,
hyldo þæs hehstan deman,         þæt he hie wið þæs hehstan brogan…

It is, in fact, the first recorded word we have in the poem, because the beginning is missing. From the context of the rest opening lines, it’s easy to surmise that the poet is saying Judith doubted not the gifts she had received from God, but the poem’s very first sentence begins, literally, in doubt.

somewhere i have never traveled

“It was one of the more romantic legends in the family, the tale of how she had come to Wales for a holiday, fallen shatteringly in love with a young Welsh farmer, and never gone home again.”

                                     – Susan Cooper, The Grey King, a book in The Dark is Rising sequence 


If only life could be a little more like your favourite book, yes? I read those lines at thirteen and resolved that that was the sort of life I wanted to have – though I’ve put poetry and teaching in place of that young farmer. I can trace a lot of things back to those books and that moment: a strange fascination with sheep farming, a deep, abiding love of Arthurian tales, and above all, an utter yielding to the siren song of Wales.

Last year, I had the chance to undertake a PhD dissertation in poetry at Aberystwyth University on the west coast of Wales — and then I lost it. My dissertation supervisor accepted a prestigious position at another university and I was unable to pull resources together in time to follow her to this new location. Recently, I was given a second chance at this wonderful opportunity – another professor at Aberystwyth, a poet, saw my dissertation proposal and contacted me about working with her instead. I’ve spent the last several months trying to make that happen: I will be working with a brilliant poet on a three-year dissertation of my own design, culminating in both an academic thesis and a full manuscript of my own creative work.

I’m nearing the final stretch here – my leave date is less than three months away! And though I’ve been scrimping and saving since Aber contacted me again last October, I could still really use your help. Sepcifically? Travel costs! A four-hour drive, ten hour flight, and my very first ride on a train stand between me and taking up my studies at Aberystwyth.

My goal is to raise $1,000 to go toward travel to the UK; if I somehow exceed that goal, I’ll stash the extra money away to start a savings fund for my first trip home. If you’re able to donate and feel moved to do so, there’s a donate button at the bottom of this page that links directly to my paypal account.  Good wishes and hugs are always welcome too!

I never really expected, when I spied the Aberystwyth University creative writing program table at a writers’ conference two years ago, that I could make my dream of studying in Wales a reality,  but Iwanted it far too much not to try. The support of my family and friends, in whatever form it comes, means the world to me.