The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English (Profile Books) by Hana Videen

Does the “Old English” language really deserve the name? Sure, it’s old – it was spoken in some form between the 6th and 12th centuries – and sure, it’s the ancestor of the English we speak today. It was certainly spoken in England and the etymological link between the names of the Englisc and English language is also clear enough.

Yet to presume that the English we speak today is simply an updated version of the English spoken in the early mediaeval period risks obscuring the otherness of Old English. In fact, this Germanic language was transformed by contact with the Romance language of Norman French after 1066, creating the unique hybrid that we know today.

“Wordhord” is an actual term from Old English literature. Heroes like Beowulf are said to “onleac” (“unlock”) their precious hoard of words on speaking at weighty, important occasions. Hana Videen’s book grew out of her tweeting an Old English word every day and there is an app accompanying The Wordhord that allows users to browse selected treasures from her hoard of words. Her “hord-wynn” (“hoard-joy”) in sharing her precious treasures is infectious. But the book is more than just a list of words. She turns them into the story of how Old English speakers saw the world and what mattered to them.

Sometimes our Old English ancestors seem familiar, sometimes not. We encounter numerous “false friends” that do not lead us where we think we are going: “Drēam” means “joy”, and a “bēd-hūs” is a place of worship, not a dormitory. Where old and new align, the older might be more expansive: a “lēac” could be any plant, not just a leek, while a “dēor” isn’t only a deer but can be any animal.

The surviving Old English wordhord is modest in size. There are only 200 partially or wholly Old English manuscripts, the majority dating from the 10th and 11th centuries and containing some 3.5 million words. That means scholars like Videen are faced with numerous words or compounds that are only known from a single instance in a single manuscript. These do, however, include numerous suggestive compounds that are all the more precious for their uniqueness: “symbel-gāl”, or “feast-lustful”, whereby one is so satiated from the pleasures of food and drink that they cannot focus on the state of their soul; or “ān-stapa”, “one-stepper”, a person who walks alone.

It is compounds like this that are the most exciting finds in the book, particularly when they take the form of kennings. Kennings combine two ordinary nouns to create metaphors rich in allusive power. They range from the comic to the gnomic, including “bān-loca” (“bone-locker”, or body), “fisces beþ” (“fish’s bath”, or sea) and “gongle-wǣfre” (“walking weaver”, or spider).

Old English word-making

But while Videen’s book allows us to appreciate the expressiveness and creativity of Old English word-making and literature, she largely avoids confronting the reader with a major source of Old English otherness. Languages are not simply wordhords, they require grammatical scaffolding. And it is grammatically that the impact of Norman French on English is seen most dramatically. Like other Germanic languages, Old English was an inflected language in which nouns and other words were marked by case – suffixes that indicate the syntactical function of the word (in modern English, prepositions like “with” or “by” perform this function). The collision between Germanic and Romance largely swept cases away. When today’s native English speaker tries to learn Icelandic, German, Finnish – or, for that matter, Old English – it is the case system that provides one of the first challenges.

But Videen does not claim her book is a guide to Old English. Rather, as she states, it is for her a source of the “wynn-drēam” – intense and visceral joy – that comes from both connecting with the Old English-speaking past and mining that past to find new ways of expressing things that humans have always felt.

This piece is from the New Humanist winter 2021 edition. Subscribe today.