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Etymology geekery

by J. C. Greenway
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I am reading The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth and it is so fantastic in so many ways that I can’t wait until I reach the end to write about it.

the _wake_paul_kingsnorth

Set in the aftermath of the Norman invasion, told in an ‘edited version’ of 11th Century English, these first few pages have been a daunting read. Reading a book like this on a tablet really lets the technology come in to its own, allowing for frequent looking up of the bits that have had me truly stumped.

To give you an idea:

of angland he saes i can tell thu naht. i colde tell thu of hams in wessex in the land of the golden wyrm and of the hwit clifs in the south where they locs ofer the sea in fear and i colde tell thu of the holtmen of the andredesweald who belyfs they is safe beneath the great ac treows… but i colde not tell thu of angland for this word is too lytel for all the folc of this land to lif within.

When I first began reading the book, I found that speaking the lines aloud helped, whereupon words like ac, treows, lytel, lif and the ever-present thu soon give up their meaning*. I could pat myself on the back for remembering from school that ham meant home, as it lives on today in many place names, Buckingham for instance.

Wyrm is obviously worm, or so you would think, but that is a false friend because really it means dragon or snake. The golden dragon of Wessex came from legend and appeared on their flag. Yet if some words are easy to guess, what is a reader to make of things like fugol – this was a bird – with the word having links to Proto-German (which could have been a rejected Kraftwerk song title), Old Frisian and Saxon. The word bird was used in Old English, but Kingsnorth’s storyteller is a Lincolnshire man, a well-bred and wealthy farmer and freeman, or socman, descended from a previous generation of invaders and so likely to use more Germanic words.

What we call ‘Old English’ was a blend of other languages, influenced by Latin, Norse and Celtic, with an array of local dialects depending on which tribe was doing the colonising. Cornish, Welsh, Cumbric and Norse would all have been spoken around the edges of the nominal boundaries of Cornwall, Wales, Cumbria and the Viking-ruled lands of the North.

Some of these old place names are still in use or, as with the white cliffs in the south, can be guessed at. Only an internet search enlightened me that andredesweald is Kent and the holtmen the people who lived near the woods that covered that area before the Normans arrived. Following the 1066 invasion, England’s geography as well as her language would be irrevocably altered.

There are many ideas of England that are peddled around by those with agendas and ambitions of their own. And while I wouldn’t like to second guess where this remarkably crafted tale is going to end, this history, to me anyway, has a lot to tell me about my country today. Rather than multiculturalism being some recently introduced change that could or should be reversed, we have always been a mixed up group of people, ruled by ‘cyngs’ of other nations, with our language adaptable and fluid in the face of outside influences.

Perhaps a longer post for another day. For now, it’s back to my reading.

* Did you spot all of them? The words were oak, trees, little, life and you.

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markwoff 8 September 2014 - 8:19 pm

Ye boke lokeþ aweþome.
Makes me all nostalgic for Old English lessons at uni. Se hlaford bindeþ þone cnapan, y’know.

markwoff 8 September 2014 - 9:50 pm

The Heaney is well worth reading.
That is the only Old English phrase I can remember, from a semester’s course on English Language, just to be clear! Apart from ‘thone cnapan bindeth se hlaford’, obvs. A lot of binding and inflecting…

J. C. Greenway 11 September 2014 - 12:10 am

You’re gonna like this, what with all the drenccan, fuccan and beallucs.

J. C. Greenway 8 September 2014 - 8:54 pm

I didn’t know! Not without a quick Google anyway. You’ll breeze through it like it was written in the modern usage.
There is an author’s note to the effect that this isn’t ‘real’ Old English, he has adapted it to make it readable by people other than scholars. I imagine the purists might be outraged, but I think it’s a cracking achievement. Like reading Irvine Welsh or James Kelman for the first time, when it clicks, it’s beautiful. And having struggled through Beowulf at school now I’m thinking I might look out the Seamus Heaney version…

Maria Lavis 10 September 2014 - 4:30 am

I’ve just finally found the time to start reading it myself. It’s been on my to read list for a while. Found myself flipping to the glossary a lot, which makes the reader work to start, but it’s worth it and I’m getting into it. I got some meanings, like you, from inference — such as ‘ham’ from hamlet. It’d be nice to have the glossary on another platform than my reader though as would be easier to go back and forth as it’s more of a study until you get into the flow of it. I’ve also been highlighting words I don’t get and will go back to later as I don’t want to get too hung up on language and just get on with the story!

J. C. Greenway 11 September 2014 - 12:15 am

That’s a great idea. I was reading along as much as far as possible but when I really couldn’t guess having to stop and look it up. Still didn’t find that it broke up the story at all, I was pretty quickly gripped. Now trying not to race through it but really savour the words, I’ll feel really lost when it’s the end!


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