If you can read this – thank a historical linguist…

Cover, Readings in Early English Language History (courtesy Library Thing)

One of the most interesting things about my 2013 reading list is the variety of material I chose. This next book review will cause you to ask, perhaps, as I asked myself, why? Why, Jim, why?

Well, because, as our parents used to say.

Professor Leonard Frey’s classic “reader/work book” for college courses in the history of the English language is called, appropriately enough, Readings in Early English Language History. The text is divided into three parts: so difficult it makes English PhD’s who are not historical linguists sweat; rather less difficult than that first part for English PhD’s but still damned difficult for everyone else,  and finally, still difficult but seems pretty damned easy after parts 1 and 2 for anyone who took the fall term Brit Lit survey and actually read the material and went to class.

The actual section titles, of course, are not so wittily expressed: “Examples from Old English Sources”; “Examples from Middle English Sources”; and finally, (to no one’s surprise who’s still reading this review at this point) “Examples from Early Modern English Sources.” These sections contain examples such as “The Lord’s Prayer” in Old English, Old High German, and Gothic; several of Christ’s parables; and, of course, brief excerpts from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Beowulf. Just so one won’t be bored, besides “standard” Old English examples, Professor Frey is kind enough to offer us Mercian, Northumbrian, and West Saxon dialect samples, too.

Here are a few opening lines from Beowulf so you can brush up your Old English reading skills:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,

þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena/ þreatum,

monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,

egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð/

feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,

weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,

oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra

ofer hronrade hyran scolde,

gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.

ðæm eafera wæs æfter cenned,

geong in geardum, þone god sende

folce to frofre; fyrenðearfe ongeat

þe hie ær drugon aldorlease/

lange hwile. Him þæs liffrea,

wuldres wealdend, woroldare forgeaf;

Beowulf wæs breme blæd wide sprang/,

Scyldes eafera Scedelandum in.

Wasn’t that fun? For those of you who might wonder how Beowulf sounds, click the link. To professor Frey’s credit (I’m sure many a student has blessed his name over the years for this), he offers Modern English translations of many if not most of the Old English selections. And, yes, I used them – my motivation was to brush up on my Old English, not torture myself. The pleasure in reading this work more than 30 years after my last “History of the English Language” course in grad school is discovering that after some  flummoxed moments I could still dig in (with the help of modern translations and my text book from many moons ago) and fumble my way through this most challenging area of English language study. No, this is not a typical reading – if you’ve been following these reviews, you understand that “typical reading” is not what my reading list and these pieces are about. Stretching oneself is the surest way to deter atrophy or entropy or any of the myriad mental dystrophies our culture seeks to inflict upon us relentlessly.

The sections on Middle and Early Modern English are considerably easier for any educated reader to decipher, and it’s quite a bit of fun to read some of the same material that was so difficult in Old English (like those previously mentioned parables) and realize one can do so without supplemental texts. And there’s a pleasure in experiencing Chaucer or Shakespeare on his own ground that never disappoints, as here from “The General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

Or the marvelous “Sonnet 130” in Shakespeare’s own written language:

My Mistress eyes are nothing like the Sunne,

Currall is farre more red, than her lips red,

If snow be white, why then her brests are dunne:

If haires be wiers, black wiers grow on her head:

I haue seene Roses damaskt, red and white,

But no such Roses see I in her cheekes,

And in some perfumes is there more delight,

Then in the breath that from  my Mistres reekes.

I loue to hear her speake, yet well I know,

That Musicke hath a farre more pleasing sound:

I graunt I never saw a goddesse goe,

My Mistres when she walkes treads on the ground.

And yet by heauen I thinke my loue as rare,

As any she beli’d with false compare.

English, as we all know (or should), is a rich and diverse tongue with a long history and is, as we also know, ever evolving and highly mutable.  It’s a vitally alive language full of youth and vigor. Still, it’s nice occasionally to spend some time with the grandparents. A book like Readings in Early English Language History gives one that opportunity.

XPOST: Scholars and Rogues

About Jim Booth

writer, professor, rock star - pretty inaccurate summary, I think...
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