Written On Somebody's Paper Napkin

Mad paper, go, and on the firewood burn
Spew these rough lines out in a cough of smoke.
I've had enough of you. We can't return
To this. Destruction is the masterstroke.

As ink turns ash, and words turn not a thing,
Affirm what blowhard poets liked to doubt:
That like this earth all supple sonneting
Won't mean one damn when all the lights go out.

Ask in a violet flame like burning fat:
Can lines gleam in a detonated sun?
Or poets claim immortal this or that
When all the cosmos is a shining gun?
Can you believe yourself in shrieking "But
It's enough to have once been"? I am done.

Late Latin Verse Delivery

Was there a special type of pronunciation used in Roman Imperial Latin for the reading of poetry?

Adams (2013) comes nearest to addressing the possibility when it comes to grammarians on classical vowel length:
Were they always setting out to uphold the old ways in the speech, even informal, of their pupils, or sometimes simply trying to preserve a traditional articulation of the poetry that was the medium of their instruction?
Was a "verse reading" of this kind plausible?

I submit that the answer is yes. Reading traditions of this precise kind can be found in Persian and Arabic.

In most dialects of Arabic, vowel-quantity is no longer contrastive in unstressed syllables. Speakers of such dialects, when reading or speaking Literary Arabic, tend to neutralize vowel length in unstressed syllables — especially word finally. Thus katabnā "we wrote" and katabnă "they (f.) wrote" will be pronounced identically. However, when reciting poetry or other extremely elevated texts such as scripture, a special effort will usually be made to prolong the final syllable of katabnā.

This "recitative pronunciation" is cultivated by traditional education. Ability to use it is both requited and reinforced by a highly monitored prescriptive tradition of Qur'anic recitation. Moreover, knowledge of etymological vowel length can almost always be inferred from the traditional orthography.

Thus far, we may conclude that ability to maintain contrastive vowel length for the purposes of poetic composition and recitation, no matter what happens in the normal reading of literary prose or in oral delivery of literary language (let alone what is going on in vernacular speech), is quite possible. The example of Arabic and Persian suggests that, as with murder, speakers may indeed do this if given sufficient motive, means and opportunity.

When we turn to Classical Latin versification, we find that means and opportunity are rather more difficult to come by. Latin orthography, unlike Arabic, does not indicate vowel-length reliably as an obligatory feature.

Nonetheless, we do have evidence of such a "recitative reading". Sacerdos (writing some time in the 3rd century) hopes to "to demonstrate the truth in finding fault with the ignorant" (reprehendentes imperitissimos comprobare) by "slurring short syllables and dragging out the long ones" (corripientes syllabas breves, longas producentes). Sacerdos in this context can only be referring to oral performance of some kind, as it is unlikely that he has, say, metrically faulty versification in mind. Grammarians up through the fourth century chastise educated speakers for lengthening a short stressed vowel, and this is hard to explain if some kind of speech is not at issue. The evidence suggests that in careful speech (perhaps almost exclusively poetic recitation) educated speakers might make an effort to retain old vowel lengths, inasmuch as they knew what the original length might have been. Those who passed through the hands of the rhetors, and memorized large amounts of metrically correct verse from previous eras, would probably have had access to a considerable amount of information about etymological vowel length from verse. The testimony of grammarians and others from the later empire suggests that until well into the 4th century, this metrical knowledge among the well-lettered elite was not a pure abstract, but rather had a phonetic correlate in some kind of affected verse-recitation where etymologically long vowels were delivered with increased (perhaps even exaggerated) durational prominence. The question of when people stopped being sensitive to quantitative distinctions in verse is not a question of when the old vowel system died out in ordinary speech. Rather, it is a question of when the well-lettered ceased using a reading-pronunciation of this kind. The durational contrast in the vowel system seems to have become seriously unstable by the 3rd century. But etymological vowel length must have lived on in some people's verse-recitations for at least another hundred years if not longer. The relatively simple quantitative rhythm of, say, the Christian hymns of St. Ambrose would probably have still been audible when they were sung — as indeed they were.

Carmen Latinum: Ad Sicandrum

Hoc carmen melius priore evasisse dicam. Sed iam in una sententia omnia pertractavi pro eo dicenda.

I'd say this poem came out better than the one before it. But already in one sentence I have exhausted everything to be said in its favor.

Ad Sicandrum

Quid plebis in rem? Quomodo rusticos
iuvit laborantes, tonitru in sena-
 -tu, Tullius iactationes
  in Catilinam oligarcha ructans.
Rem publicam fur a populo ferens,
Arrisit ori rhetoricā ferā
 mulcato honesti fuste Gracchi,
  proditor impius. O Quirine.
Persanctā acerbus Christi Hieronymus
famē iste Blaesillam modo gratia
 mori subegit, castigator
  quam sacer ac reprehensor orbae.
Noli, Sicandre, odisse magis mala
quam ames bona. Ācri afflatum aquiloni ăcer
 quî, ni imbribus gratis foventis
  caeli alitum, solide resistat?
Etsi Tyrannon sanguine compleas
centum ducentorum ora, cruoribus
 evaseris solis peritus,
  nec sitiens saniem requirit.
Quocumque oberres gentium amiciter
subventitā, nec dic "Sum Alienus Hic".
 Humani amice humanē in omni
  sis generis. Crucem initŏ dogma.

To Sicandrus

What use for the commoners' weal, what help to the slaving rural peasant was Cicero with all his thunder in the senate, an oligarch belching agitations against Catiline. A thief taking the republic from the people, that unholy traitor smiled in savage oratory on the club-shattered face of honorable Gracchus. Oh Quirinus. The harsh Jerome, godawful chastiser and censurer of a bereaved woman, impelled Blaestilla to die of oh-so-holy starvation, just for Christ's sake.
Sicandrus, do not hate evil more than you love good. How can an air-whacked maple tree soundly resist the rough north wind if it is not fed by a favoring sky's welcome rains? Fill a hundred mouths with the blood of two hundred tyrants, and all you will be is carnage-proficient. A thirsty person is not in need of gory fluids. Wherever in the world you wander, proffer friendly help, and do not say "I am a stranger here." Humanely, in each thing, be part of the human race, my friend. Dogma can go fuck itself.

Pluri Versiculi Latini: De Bellis Stellaribus

Narrationem "Bellorum Stellarium" si recoquere numeris Latinis velim, huiuscemodi initium faciam. Utrum aliquando plura scribam necne haud scio. Interpretationem soluta oratione Anglicam adieci in extremo. Quo haud serio animo hos vaniverbosos vermifluos versiculos scripserim nihil, ut spero, attinet dicere.

(If I should want to recast the story of "Star Wars" in Latin verse, I'd begin it like this. Whether or not I'll write more at some point I have no idea. I put a paraphrase in English prose at the end. I hope it goes without saying just how seriously I took this little hexametric fuckton of silliness.) 

 Bella Stellaria Ad Camenae Modos

 Ille ego qui quondam vulgo sermone solebam
 Vertere contextos versus prisco meŏ more 
 Antiquûm virûm. At ecce mihi peregrina Camena 
 Mandavit rudibus plectrum digitis modulari 
 Ausonium. Sed quid faciam hic, inconditus auctor,
 Hac aetate ubi non Latii valet alma loquela? 
 Sis peregrina, Camena. Peregrinemur in orbe
Mortales ubi lustrabunt supra fines superorum.**
 Carmina condamus vatum illibata vetuste.

 Proelia stellarum in medio flammensibus* acta
 Concussis canimus. Quae Vis evorterit ingens
 Astripotens, aciesque galaxiae in orbibus olim
 Longinquae congnatas, quo Crucialigerorum*
 Tot bombardae canderent, cur tot Bōthānōs
 Sȳthānus* Dominus tortos effuderit aspri
 In vacuum spatii exanimans, quousque Aerobatorum*
 Saevirent animi, tu animo mihi volve volenti,
 Dum valeat nobiscum Vis, O Musa novorum. 

 Olle planeta fuit, quem olim insedēre coloni
 Humani: Tatuīnus, circumfusus arenā
 Flaminibus iactatā. Hic Titan torruit ingens
 Terram quam pridem profugi domuēre, coacti
 Iuribus hosteque adhuc infando nomine. Et Arma 
 Aethera supra nunc flagrant. Immanis in omni
 Vis collidit iniqua. Ululantibus ictibus inter
 Fulmina fulminibus concurrunt. Caelicarinam*
 Fulgivomi* concidunt. Cedunt tenuia scuta   
 Instante Astriduellona*...

*Has locutiones excogitavi omnes. 

**Hunc versum feci consulto hypermetricum. 

(I am he who, in my old-school way, once was wont to translate the woven verses of men from auld lang syne. Yet here a strange exotic Muse has charged me to wring rhythm out of the Ausonian lyre with my awkward, untrained fingers. But what am I to do here, a half-baked author, in this age where the nourishing speech of Latium has no sway at all? Muse, be exotic indeed. Let us go alien in a world where mortals will wander in orbit beyond the bounds of the gods, and let us fashion such a song as poets of yesteryear never even got a sip of. 
We sing the battles waged amid the stars at the clash of lightsabers. Of those things that the prodigious star-ruling Force upended, of battle-lines between kinfolk on worlds long ago in a galaxy far away, of what so many X-Wing canons blazed for, of why the Sith Lord cast so many tortured Bothans into the breath-crushing vacuum of cruel hard space, of the end to which the passions and minds of the Skywalkers raged, spin the tale into the mind of willing me, O Muse of the new, so long as the Force is strong with us.
There was that planet, long settled by human colonists: Tatooine, enveloped in gust-hurled sand. Here a great sungod parched a terrain which refugees, forced by laws and an enemy whose name remains unmentionable, tamed. Now, weapons are blazing above its atmosphere. The Force, tremendous in everything, smashes unequal things together. Thunderbolts vie with thunderbolts in shrieking strikes in the midst of things. Laser canons pummel a starship. Weak shields fail as a Star Destroyer bears down.)

Carmen Latinum: De Martini Lutheri King Iunioris Constantia

(Note: I have put a loose paraphrase in English prose at the end.)

Carmen meum primum Latine scriptum tandem mihi confecisse videor. Sic in poese ut in omnibus: quae prima temptantur plerumque evadunt subincondita. Itaque mira sunt ni hoc nugas est. Strophas has alcaicas barbarismunculis locutionibusque insulsis universe scatere haud dubito. Sed quod scripsi, ut praefectus quidam dixisse fertur, scripsi. Eccum vobis. Interpretationem Anglicam soluta oratione in extremo adieci.

De Martini Lutheri King Iunioris Constantia

Ille hic Lŭthērus quo melius nihil
Sol Āmĕrīcae vidit ab aethere,
 Bombam feram ferrumque iactum
  Cum superasset, in aequitate
Audax iniquis sistere legibus
Fraudis cutem abscidit stabili Rosā.
 Exercuitque humanitate
  Turbam atque turbine mansionem
Albissimam turbavit amorifer.
Non carcer illum, non inimicior
 Dimovit armis turba saevis,
  Nec Tabularii1 atrocis index.
Prosensit autem quid sibi lurida
Morbo parasset patria noxio2.
 Nondum expiatā passione
  Ut cecidit. Facie refracta
Est mortuus. Sollemnia quid ferent?
Tam sunt decoră quam velut antea
 Si suaviaretur Catonis
  Funera putidus Imperator.
Offendor istis: CONTINVAVIMVS
NITI·ET·NIHIL·LONGO·AGMINE·FLECTIMVR
 Quam splendidae in iactatione 
  Vafritiae stomachor ministris.  
Est mortuus. Nunc desine fabulas.
Nil sol videt. Quid volvis inaniter
 Ubi sit America "nostra"?
  Hic iacet in tumulo Lutheri.

1Significatur Tabularium Inquisitionum Foederale vulgo FBI appellatum.

2 King, Praside Kennedy nuper necato, uxori suae fertur dixisse "et mihi hoc continget. Hanc tibi dictito civitatem esse morbosam."

Interpretatio:

On the Constancy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Here is that Luther, than whom the sun never saw anything better in America from its sky. When he weathered the brute bomb and the hurtled metal, in his right mind bold enough to stand against wrong laws, he cut away the skin of fraud with an unbending Rose. He trained in humanity a crowd and in a whirlwind unsettled that most white of houses, a love-bringer. Him neither jail nor the more hostile mob with its savage weapons, nor the vicious FBI's informant could drive back. Yet he sensed ahead of time what his pale ghastly country, in its virulent sickness, had been readying for him, and sustained a "passio" that has yet to be atoned for. Face-shattered he died. He is dead. What are ritual holidays in aid of? They're about as fitting as a fulsome Emperor kissing Cato's carcass long ago. I loath all the "We have continued the struggle! We can never stop the long march!" The officials so outstandingly skilled at canned histrionics piss me off. He is dead. Leave off myths now. The sun doesn't see anything. Why do you idly maunder about where "our" America is? Here lies it in Luther's grave.

Tips for learning to read a new language

1) Proper motivation is key. Ideally there should be something in the language you really want to read. Note I said want, not need. If you just need to read something to satisfy external requirements, that is one thing. If you want to read something, that is another.

2) Do not memorize vocab lists or recycle flash cards. Get used to looking up words as needed. But inasmuch as you need to memorize new words by conscious effort (especially at the very beginning), then the most effective technique is probably to write the word and its definition with some example sentences on a piece of paper, repeat those examples to yourself out loud a few times, and then throw the paper away. Repeat as often as needed. If you compile a vocab list at all, don’t just include the words’ translation. Better to use it as a place to record sentences in context. Never make a vocab list without at least one example usage for every lexical item.

3) Keep in mind that understanding grammatical structure is — in most cases — more crucial to learning than a grasp of all vocabulary. A dictionary can usually tell you what a word means, even if a full sense of its semantic range will only come from repeated encounters in context. But understanding how a sentence is structured is fundamentally a matter of habit.

4) Get comfortable with ambiguity. Learn to read with partial understanding. It’s okay not to get everything right away. As a child learning to read your first language you were probably exposed to a lot of stuff you didn’t fully understand yet. (But never let yourself mistake partial understanding for full understanding, or you will develop bad habits later on.) Reread several times, and think about what you understand and what you don’t. Not all things you don’t understand are equally important. Figure out what things are likely most crucial, and spend your effort puzzling that out. Don’t waste time, especially not as a beginner, trying to figure out why something which you do understand isn’t expressed in precisely the way you expected. If you read “After spending a day in the forest gathering flitterswoggles, they were begroobled by a strange woman”, looking up “begrooble” is a higher priority than looking up the flitterswoggles when you can already guess that it is probably a kind of useful plant or some other inanimate commodity found in nature.

5) Try as early as possible to read at least a little bit of the stuff you REALLY want to read and not just whatever easy exercises are given in the material you are using. Even if you don’t understand everything, even if you get through only a sentence or two, or find no more than an isolated phrase that you understand. The experience of understanding a little of what you want to understand, however partially, can help with motivation a lot. It's a good way to remind yourself that the distance between where you are and where you want to get is not infinite.

6) Bilingual or translated texts can help. Find a text whose content you already know in your own language and see if you can get your hands on a translation of it. This allows you not to worry about figuring out what is being said and to focus on how the saying of it works in your target language. I find Bible translations are ideal for this - for me personally.

7) Remember that learning a language is not an intellectual activity. A language is not a code to be deciphered but a collection of habits to be acquired. Treating every text as a puzzle to be solved rather than a specimen of human communication to be understood as such is not necessarily helpful.

8) Do WHATEVER YOU NEED TO DO in order to make the process fun. Myself I like to come up with silly example sentences like “the elephant asked the soldier for a bag of feet”. I also like to take anodyne sentences from learning materials and see if I can alter them to mean something risqué.

9) Use native speakers wisely. Being a native speaker of a language does not make one a competent language teacher. If your target language has native speakers, and you have access to such speakers, then certain questions may elicit more productive answers than others. "What does this word mean?" may earn you a less revealing answer than "what does this sentence mean?" 

Latin Is More Than Roman

I've rambled before about how silly and counterproductive it is that we act these days as if Latin were only or primarily the language of the Ancient Romans. As if it were not also the language of Newton, Galileo, Gauss, Milton, Du Bellay, Thomas More or Caecilia Koch. It's a bit like acting as if English were only the language of the former British Empire, and not also the language of Weina Dai Randel or Joseph Conrad, (or for that matter the language of air-traffic controllers, diplomats, medical researchers and programmers in every country on this little blue marble of ours.) A language is not necessarily any less yours simply because you happen not to be a native speaker of it.

Incidentally, Caecilia Koch — the last name on that list of Latin authors I gave above — is still alive. Writing poems about things like the discovery of a Neanderthal skull or the American invasion of Iraq. (Her Latin pet name for George W. Bush, by the way, is Arbustulus "Little Bush".) Things like this are why I prefer to tell people that Latin isn't a dead language, so much as one that just happens to lack native speakers.

Which is really quite fitting in a way.

The earliest epics and plays in the Latin language to be preserved and transmitted were written by men who were very likely not native Latin speakers. A Greek from Tarentum named Ἀνδρόνικος became a Roman citizen by the name of Lucius Livius Andronicus, and sometime in the second half of the third century BC produced a wildly influential Latin translation of the Odyssey, as well as a considerable number of Latin adaptations of Greek plays. Toward the end of the century a Capanian Oscan-speaker named Gaeus Naevius created his own share of Latin adaptations of Greek plays alongside the Bellum Punicum, an epic about the first war between Rome and Carthage. Thirty years later, some time around 180 B.C. a native Messapian-speaker from the south named Ennius adapted Greek Homeric hexameters to Latin in his Annales, a huge poem which described the history of Rome all the way from the fall of Troy down to his own day. In addition to Latin and Messapian, Ennius also apparently knew Oscan and Greek (both of which he likely learned earlier than he did Latin.)

In a profound way, Latin — even that proportionally miniscule part of Latin literature that can be called Roman — is foreign to itself.

Lots of literatures' earliest recorded specimens consist primarily of translations or adaptations, of course. And the Romans were not alone in creating translations of Greek drama (the Carthagninians apparently translated some of the same plays into Punic), but I know of no real parallel to the Roman situation, where the beginning of a language's recorded literary repertoire is populated so thoroughly by non-native speakers using the language electively. Is there one?

Not unless it's a language like Early Modern Hebrew (where for a while native speakers were rare and non-natives were the ones setting the prestige norms) or Esperanto (where that is still the case).

Readings of Latin Verse

Just a few readings of Latin poetry to illustrate my most recent thinking on the sound of Latin verse in the Late Republic and Early Empire. I follow the standard "Allenian" analysis of most features, though I follow Sihler and Adams on a few things like the distribution of the allophones of /l/.

Virgil: Aeneid 1.1-34

Horace: Ode 1.11

Horace: Ode 4.7

Seneca: Troades 371-408

Martial: Epigram 3.6

The Sacrament of Abraham

The Sacrament of Abraham
By A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite this poem aloud

Bartender! Whiskey straight and whiskey sour!
Sour for the dead fag. Straight to drown the hour.
And tell me: isn't it the truth that love
Before the murder had gone far enough?

I've said it was the Lord's work, as I am
A man. Sure as my name is Abraham,
That was inferno he lit in other men.
It wasn't murder, but a true Amen.

Truth is: Jane saved me when she testified
How I bought an axe to chop those trees outside.
And the truth is what I am setting free:
What I chopped with that axe, it wasn't a tree.

Here's truth: I bought that axe to keep life whole,
To save my name, my marriage and my soul
The Monday after I baptized your Christine...
What I did to him...for what we'd done and been.

True story: God and Gold help judges make
Choices, and wash their hands for Caesar's sake.
Our Christ upon the lynch-cross died for all.
Both for Leviticus, and for St. Paul.

We gouged Dame Justice blind on the witness stand.
Our lawyer poofed up proofs by sleight of hand.
To prove I loved my Jane, it fell to me
To axe the faggot's body like a tree....

Bartender! Whiskey sour and whiskey straight!
Straight for the dead fag. Sour to mark the date.
God damn! Can any hour be drowned enough
When I have kissed and killed the man I love?

An Old English Poem: The River-Barrow of Alaric

A little Old English poem that I found myself writing about the burial of King Alaric of the Goths in the Busento river. The central section is based on — and loosely paraphrases — Von Platen's famous poem, which I read as a kid, long before I read Von Platen's source in Jordanes' Getica, (where, among other things, the Goths are actually described as forcing their enslaved war-captives to dig the grave, and then murdering them all in order to preserve the secret of its location.) I have included a prose paraphrase in Modern English.

Eallerīces Ēahlǣw


  Wōdendrēames  wōþ inblāwende
tungan ond tunglu  tīdum gewylwaþ.
Hwæt eart þū, Swēg,  þe mē selfne spricst?
Eart þū sē dēora  þe Dēor wordode
þe ēaran eft  oferēodest wrǣtlīce
swā reord rōdes?  Sēo rūnung eart þū
þe mid Wīdsīðe  gewerede gēare
þā hē stōd ond stāg  stīðe mōde
wiþ Hreþcyning  heortan wylfedne?
Glēowe fyrndaga  fēr on gemynde
Swā wuldorgim  westrodores,
werod on sāwol.  Wē gehīerdon
hornas hringende  hēah on beorgum
ofer eard ælfa  and ēsa gemynd.
Sweord āscīnaþ  Scedelandum in.
Ēos geærnaþ  Ætlan rīce
þā sumora hring  hwearfiaþ sundor.
Hwæt! Ic þis giedd  of gēardaga
hwīle wille  on hrēðerlocan.
  Cēsentes nēah  under nihthelme
Ymb ȳðdruncne  ōfer Bȳsentes,
bēoþ dēaglu lēoþ  lyfte behlēoðrod.
Æfter ēastrēam  earfoðlīce
scrīðaþ sceadwa  scyldwigena,
Gotena gūðhwætra.  Is him gēomor sefa.
Mǣnaþ Eallerīc.  Hiere eorl sēlest
under ūprodre  ende gefērde,
dogra dægrīme.  Þone dryhtguman
eall tō ārlīce  ond ēðle feor
sceoldon hȳdan hēr  on heolstorcofan.
Ymbe ōfer  ēoredcistum
wæs Gotmæcgum  geador ætsomne
tō gewendenne  wætres þurhrād.
Þā eorðǣdran,  ēaracu nīwe,
grōfon on grunde.  Gōde nyttes,
Innan holge  hærna īdlum,
hrūsan mid īserne  ūp ādulfon.
Dēorne dryhtnēo  dēope sencton
ǣhtwelan on ēo.  Æðelinga gestrēon,
frætwe ond fǣtgold,  ymb feorhscylle,
wrǣtlīc gewǣdu,  wǣrfæst setton.
Þā mid eorðan eft  ealdor beþeahton
ond māþm-ǣhte,  þætte of moldærne
wæterwyrte  wēaxaþ ūtan
hēah on hæleþe.  Hēr gecyrred
ǣrstrēam æthwearf  ōðre sīðe
ond ōsmihtig  on ealdbedde,
flōdes fāmcwic, forþ stunode.
Sungon þā secgas  "Swef þū þengel
hæleþes mǣrþum on holmscielde.
Næfre wihte  Wealhes earges
godwræc gītsung  þīn græf rēafie!"
Swā āsungon.  Sōðgiedd lofsanges
Swēog of herge  Sweord-Gotena.
Wǣgas Bȳsentes!  Wīelte hīe rūme
Wīelte hīe sīde  of sǣ tō sǣ.
  Ac æt ende  ealdspræc āwende.
Sēo sunne rinþ, gesencan onginþ.
Sceadwa ealle ofer ōsstealle
lange licgaþ.  Lēodas arīsaþ.
Hæleþ of heallum  hām onettaþ.
Mǣl is ēac mē tō fēran.  Feorr biþ giedland
and þæt lǣnan gesceaft.  Forloren nū
Is þæt spell sȳllic  swā spearcatell.

Translation:

The River-Barrow of Alaric

 The eloquence of insanity (literally: "the voice of Woden-Joy"), as it blows through, rolls the tongues and stars together with time. What are you, sound, that speak my self? Are you that Dear One that worded Deor, having come again over my ears to boggle me like the dreamt rood's voice? Are you that secret talk that was Widsith's ally when he stood his ground with resolute soul against the Rethking with a wolfed heart? Cross my mind with the ancient tune, like the westering sun falling sweet on the soul. We have heard horns ringing high on the barrows, ringing onward over the home of elves and over memory of gods. The swords shine in the Shedenlands and steeds race in Attila's realm, as the cycle of summers is flung back. Listen. Let me for a time have in my heart's latch this story from days past.

 Near Consentia under the helm of night by the wavedrunk bank of the Busentus there are faint songs sounding through the air. Along the river in anguish wander the shades of the shield-fighters, the war-deft Goths. There is grief in their souls. They mourn for Alaric. Their best of men journeyed to his end under the skies, the day-count of his days. All too early and far from home, here they were forced to bury that leader of men. The Gothmen gathered on the shore in a brave-band, and dug an earth-artery, a new riverbed to divert the water's course. In that wave-cleared hollow, the honorable men delved up the turf with their iron, and sank the cherished king-corpse deep inside with riches on his steed. Loyally they lay prince-treasures, great trappings and gold ornaments all around his life-shell, a dazzling raiment. Then again they decked their leader and his proud holdings with earth, so that the river plants sprouting from his grave would grow high over a hero. Here diverted again, the ancient river turned back, so that it crashed forth with a foam-live flood, Aesir-mighty in its former bed. And the men sang: "Sleep O lord in hero honors beneath your water-shield. Never may a vile Roman's unholy greed defile your grave." Thus they sang. Praise-song's truespeech sounded forth from the Sword-Goths' ranks. Waves of Busentus, roll that song round. Roll it all over from sea to sea.
 But in the end the old speech (or: old story) departs (or: translates). The sun starts sinking and is off. Over the spaces of the elder gods, the shadows all lie long now. The kings get up. The heroes hurry home from the halls. For me, too, it is time to go. Far now is story land, that borrowed creation. Lost is that tale, weird as a computer.

For the Old English versions of the toponyms used here, I assumed that the Latin words Busentus and Consentia made their way into Early West Germanic via an Early East Germanic intermediary, where short /i/ and /e/ had merged to a single phoneme realized as a high [i] in most environments. Thus Busentus -> *Būzint, Consentia ->  *Kōsint. These are then subjected to Old English i-umlaut, followed by lowering of the conditioning vowel. Thus *Būzint-> *Bȳzint -> Bȳsent, *Kōsint -> *Cœ̄sint -> Cēsent. This seemed right to do given that proper names for non-British people and places in the Old English heroic tradition have all gone through very early sound-changes suggesting that they entered the language not long after the Migration period ended.

The final word, meaning "computer" (literally something like "spark-reckon-thing") is my modification of the incredibly stupid coinage on Old English wikipedia. I posit an otherwise unattested *tell as a deverbal strong a-stem noun from tellan.

This is not an exercise in alternate world-building or anything. It is just me fucking around, taking myself completely seriously and completely not. Like trying to hawk stolen iPhones at a Renaissance Festival by speaking Elizabethan English: nobody has any idea why you're doing it, and you'll probably fail, but at least your eccentricity isn't half-ass.

Voices of Earlier English: Opening of Henry V, by William Shakespeare


Hear me read this in a reconstruction of acrolectal London English ca. 1600. If you've heard David Crystal's reading of this passage, you'll notice that mine sounds quite different. If you want to know why that is, click here to read about all the problems with Crystal's reconstruction.

 O For A Muse Of Fire

O For a Muse of Fire, that would ascend
The brightest Heaven of Inuention:
A Kingdome for a Stage, Princes to Act,
And Monarchs to behold the swelling Scene.
Then should the Warlike Harry, like himselfe,
Assume the Port of Mars, and at his heeles
(Leasht in, like Hounds) should Famine, Sword, and Fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, Gentles all:
The flat unraysed Spirits, that hath dar'd,
On this unworthy Scaffold, to bring forth
So great an Obiect. Can this Cock-Pit hold
The vastie fields of France? Or may we cramme
Within this Woodden O the very Caskes
That did affright the Ayre at Agincourt?
O pardon: since a crooked Figure may
Attest in little place a Million,
And let us, Cyphers to this great Accompt,
On your imaginarie Forces worke.
Suppose within the Girdle of these Walls
Are now confin'd two mightie Monarchies,
Whose high, up-reared, and abutting Fronts,
The perillous narrow Ocean parts asunder.
Peece out our imperfections with your thoughts:
Into a thousand parts divide one Man,
And make imaginarie Puissance.
Thinke when we talke of Horses, that you see them
Printing their prowd Hoofes i'th' receiuing Earth:
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our Kings,
Carry them here and there: jumping o're Times;
Turning th'accomplishment of many yeeres
Into an Howre-glasse: for the which supplie,
Admit me Chorus to this Historie;
Who Prologue-like, your humble patience pray,
Gently to heare, kindly to judge our Play.

Voices of Earlier English: Ben Jonson Buries his Son

Ben Jonson's son died in the London plague epidemic of 1603.




On My First Sonne
Ben Jonson

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sinne was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy,
Seven yeeres thou’wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I loose all father, now. For why
Will man lament the fate he should envie?
To have so soone scap’d worlds, and fleshes rage,
And, if no other miserie, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say: here doth lye
BEN JONSON his best piece of poetrie.
For whose sake, hence-forth, all his vowes be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

Child of my right hand] the Hebrew name "Benjamin" traditionally translates as "Right Hand's Son" i.e. the fortunate side. (The original sense in the Bible was probably "Son of the South").

5 Lose all father] lose all fatherliness.

9-10 doth lie...Ben Jonson his...poetry] Both father and son were named Ben Jonson. The syntax of this sentence is ambiguous to good effect. The beauty is that it is unclear just who is doing the lying, or laying, of what.

12] i.e. "His vows be that he will never again like too much anything that he loves." The verb like is probably to be understood in the sense of French plaire, Spanish gustar or Russian нравитьсяWith the arguments being the reverse of the modern verb. The subject is that which pleases and the object is the one who is pleased. Cf. "It likes me much better when I find virtue in a fair lodging" (Sidney) or "His countenance likes me not" (King Lear). It could be read in the modern sense, too, with the subject of "like" left unexpressed. Both the newer ("I like pizza") and the older ("Pizza liketh me") types co-existed in the English of Ben Jonson's time.

Voices of Earlier English: Wulfstan's Sermon of 1014

The pronunciation of Old English used in teaching it is essentially a spelling pronunciation, with the regularized graphemes of Late West Saxon mapped onto sounds that English-speaking academics are able to pronounce. This I think contributes to the sense — already fathered by the pervasive Winchesterization of most surviving texts from the period— of linguistic homogeneity and stasis. It is also full of things that were probably absent from anybody's genuine pronunciation in the period.
Apart from a relatively small pool of historical phonologists, people who study Old English tend not to bother themselves too much about details of reconstructed pronunciation beyond what is necessary, even when they are interested in historically informed recreations. Pouring through all the readings of Old English available on Youtube and elsewhere on the internet, I could not find a single one who realized ēa as /æǝ~æɑ/ consistently, and few who even tried. This is not surprising, since the sound /eǝ~eɐ/ both comes much more naturally to Modern English speakers and conforms more to spelling. There is often either a general failure to distinguish long and short vowels, or else a tendency to exaggerate vowel length in a way that doesn't actually happen in normal speech of people who actually speak languages with contrastive vowel length. Also a strong tendency to turn ū ō ē into falling diphthongs. And more besides.

Moreover, when recordings of Old English being read aloud are made, the result sometimes does not even sound anything like a genuine language spoken by someone who both understands the sounds coming out of their mouths and is accustomed to producing them.

Dissatisfied with the OE recordings that were out there, I wanted to see if I could produce something that would hold up as a plausible specimen of late prose being read aloud. So, here's a reading of the beginning of Wulfstan's famous homily, in West Saxon. (This is probably not the pronunciation that Wulfstan himself would have used.) So here you go.

Opening of the "Sermo Lupi"


Leofan men, gecnawað þæt soð is: ðeos worold is on ofste, and hit nealæcð þam ende, and þy hit is on worolde aa swa leng swa wyrse; and swa hit sceal nyde for folces synnan ær Antecristes tocyme yfelian swyþe, and huru hit wyrð þænne egeslic and grimlic wide on worolde. Understandað eac georne þæt deofol þas þeode nu fela geara dwelode to swyþe, and þæt lytle getreowþa wæran mid mannum, þeah hy wel spæcan, and unrihta to fela ricsode on lande. And næs a fela manna þe smeade ymbe þa bote swa georne swa man scolde, ac dæghwamlice man ihte yfel æfter oðrum and unriht rærde and unlaga manege ealles to wide gynd ealle þas þeode.

Translation

Dear people, know the truth. This world is swift and nearing its end. So the longer things go on in this world, the worse they get. So it must needs be, thanks to people's sinning, that things worsen fast before the Antichrist comes and it really gets nasty and horrible throughout the world. Realize this too: that the Devil has been leading this nation off-course for years now, and people have little loyalty left — smooth talkers though they were. Crime and wrong took charge of the land, and there were never many with the zeal needed to plan out a remedy. They just heaped evil on evil day in and day out, breaking laws and wronging their way through this country.

Comments:

By this point, the distinctiveness of inflectional vowels was probably quite unstable if not completely done with. Unstressed /a o/ had already merged (into something like [ɒ]) long before. At this point unstressed /e/ was on its way toward joining them as [ǝ], if it hadn't done so already. The sounds represented by <eo> had probably already shifted to /ø: ø/ (which is why the <eo> digraph was used to represent the /ø/ of early loans from Norman Romance.)

A thought on the Beowulfian Shedlands.

Scedenig is the archaic Old English word for Scandinavia attested in Beowulf, cognate with Norse Skáney. Deriving both from Common Germanic *skadinawjō presents no great difficulty.

Now, Common Germanic *d was intervocalically realized as a fricative [ð] which was then generally "re-enforced" back to [d] in West Germanic. But what if the ancestral form was actually *skaþinawjō?

This too seems possible when one considers that intervocalic *þ and the [ð] from intervocalic *d merge at a very early period in North Germanic, and that Old English the root scede- is attested in Beowulf and nowhere else. The tendency of the Beowulf scribes to confuse ð and d is firmly in evidence; there are twelve clear instances of this confusion in the transmitted text (ðeod for deoð, hador for haðor etc.) In the earliest Old English manuscripts, the letter d was used to represent both /θ/ and /d/. Neidorf notes that most of these transcription errors in Beowulf involve the mistaken transposition of d to ð/þ, and it suggests that the scribes (or, at least, one of their predecessors in the chain of transmission) were working with an older document where these two sounds were not orthographically distinguished, and were in the regular habit of turning d into þ/d. In working with such a document, the ability to distinguish the two phonemes would depend on the copyist's own knowledge of the word itself. Working a century or so after the first recorded instance of Sconeg/Scani, the scribes may not have had access to any a pronunciation for this word in the English they knew. The forms <scedenig> and <scedeland> in their exemplar could well have stood for sceðenig and sceðeland.

To put it a different way, if and when the words sceðenig and sceðeland were written down in texts before 750, they would have taken the form <scedenig> and <scedeland>. Everything we do know about the scribes' habits, and the kind of mistake one of them almost made with this very word, suggests that this word was unfamiliar to the scribes. If it was, and if — as is very likely — there was at some point in the chain of transmission a version of the text where d/ð were not distinguished, then it would be impossible for the scribes to look at <scedenig> and know that <d> here stood for ð. The

Beowulf text's Scedenig and Scedeland might well stand for Sceðenig and Sceðeland. And we will just never know. 

Dating Deor, Beowulf and other Theedish poems: a naming problem

To my mind, the question of how to date not only Bēowulf, but also Dēor and other short poems (most notably Widsiþ) depends as much as anything on how strongly one credits the argument (most magisterially articulated by Roberta Frank) that Germanic legend essentially originated — or only became popular in England — during the Carolingian period. If one accepts Frank's premise in toto, then it might follow that there is "no good reason" to regard Deor or Widsiþ as early compositions. It is part of what emerged since 1980 as the case for a Late Beowulf, which is in turn intertwined with how one dates the shorter "lore" poems like Widsith, Deor and possibly also Wulf and Eadwacer.

Now, I've already stated where I stand on the date of Beowulf. My position is a controversial one only among literary historians and theorists. It is pretty standard among linguists who have worked on the text. I've also already given vent to my general sense that  literary historians' arguments against an Early Beowulf strike me as unsound. The same objections raised against an Early Beowulf could just as easily — and just as misguidedly — be raised against an early date for a lot of Old Irish poetry that only survives in late manuscripts. It's worth noting that even among Anglo-Saxonists of a more literary persuasion, there are those such as Andy Orchard who have started to accept the linguistic evidence for an early date.

But Frank's argument, in a very modified and modest form, is worth considering.

But before I get to that, I should clear the air by saying that if taken without qualification, I find the hypothesis implausible. Leonard Neidorf and Tom Shippey in a series of articles give very good reason to think that figures like Theodric, Eormanric and others were known in 7th and 8th century England. Names like Ætla, Offa, Hama, Ingeld, Theodric and Wyrmhere deviate from statistically demonstrable name-formation trends in Anglo-Saxon England. (As does the name Beowulf.) These names, which could not have been generated by chance from native Anglo-Saxon name-formation practices, are commonly found as names born by historical Anglo-Saxons in the 7th-8th centuries, after which point they wane in popularity. Neidorf's most recent case on this point seems fairly secure. The straightforward interpretation is that 7th-8th century Anglo-Saxons were naming their children after these legendary figures.

If "Germanic legend" was new to the Anglo-Saxons in the 9th century it would imply a considerable ability on their part to take an unfamiliar name (or unfamiliar common noun) in a different Germanic language and confect an English pseudo-cognate. Some, such as Niles, have argued against an Early Beowulf by trying to dismiss this evidence:
"[it is a] time-honored dictum that the poem must be early because the names of the Scandinavians who figure in it are recorded in English-language forms (e.g., “Scyld” rather than “Skjöld”). There is no significance in that fact, however, since a poet working in the traditional Old English verse medium would have used native or nativized forms of those names as a matter of course, much as a Danish jarl is an Old English eorl"
To be sure, the ability to recognize and even create diasystemic cognates existed at some level at a late period. That much is suggested by a famous passage in the Old English Orosius which seems to imply that an English speaker in the Alfredian period, hearing Norse hreinn "reindeer" (or rather Viking-age *hræinʀ), would have recognized the diphthong corresponding to English ā and thus produced a pseudo-cognate hrān. (Scholarly discussion of Anglo-Norse language contact during the Viking Age has been extensive. Townend plausibly suggests that some sound-correspondences would have been so transparent that speakers may have been able to negotiate them diasystemically without even thinking about it.) It stands to reason that late OE speakers would have been able to Anglicize some continental Germanic names. All in all, an OE speaker of any period faced with the Frankish name *Dagahramn could probably have turned it into the attested Dæghræfn of Beowulf faster than you can say Dayraven. For somebody working off of Latin sources mentioning Ermanaricus to have produced the attested Old English form Eormanric in the 9th century would be possible if he recognized both cognates of this dithematic name. (If he did not, then the <eo> form would be unexpected in a late loan. Breaking of non-high short vowels before /rC/ was no longer productive, and is absent from words like berstan where the cluster is a late development due to r-metathesis.) But it is worth noting that when proper names were encountered in later periods, they could often be taken over into the recipient language as ordinary loanwords, nor diasystematic cognates. Ermanric is turned into Erminrekr in the Þidriks saga af Bern, a text with clear Low German connections, which suggests that the form Jǫrmunrekkr (attested e.g. in the Eddic Hamðismál) was either unavailable or unsuitable to the compiler. 

But the name Ætla, the Old English version of Attila, shows Anglo-Frisian brightening of *ă to æ, as well as medial syncope of a high vowel following an originally heavy syllable. Attila would be quite etymologically opaque to an Old English speaker, and the form Ætla can hardly have been a newcomer to English even in the 8th century. Like its High German congener Etzel, it can only be explained as an early acquisition that underwent pre-historic sound changes. Over a hundred years ago, Alois Brandl observed that if the transmission of Migration-Era heroic material to England was much later than the Migration Era itself, one would not expect the Old English forms of all relevant proper names to affected by early pre-historic sound shifts. It would be possible to turn an OE eorl into a Danish jarl, as Niles' review notes. It might even be possible to turn Ermanaricus into Eormanric. But it strains credulity to think that an OE speaker of the historical era would have been able to turn Attila into Ætla by accident. It would require someone to read Attila in a Latin text and then somehow be willing and able to create the pseudo-cognate Ætla. It would, in other words, require not only a diasystemic awareness of processes like Anglo-Frisian brightening and high vowel deletion but also a willingness to impose those processes on the the word Attila. (In fact Attila may not even be Germanic at all. If it is, is based on a Gothic root att- with no cognate in attested Old English.)

This point seems to have been quite lost on many who argued for a late Beowulf. Eric Stanley, for example, sought quite eye-popping levels of special pleading in his rejection of all onomastic evidence for an early date by proposing that — in essence — someone "who was unusually good at comparative Germanic philology" transposed all of these names. It boggles me a bit that one would reject the possibility that these names are found in their attested forms because they have existed in Old English long enough to go through OE-specific sound changes, only to embrace an implausible level of philological sophistication on the part of a medieval poet. Evidence that English speakers in the Viking age were nowhere near that good at transposing Norse proper names is so common as to approach staggering banality. The transcriptions of Norse names in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, for example, show that attempts to nativize them were seldom fully successful and often spangled with misconstrued morphemes. The demonstrable bizarrity of this kind of argument is one reason, I think, why some Early-Beowulfers like Michael Drout have sensed that something was "not quite on the level" about how the Late Beowulf position was argued for from 1980 onward. When thoughtful, intelligent scholars publicly commit themselves to propositions that collapse into absurdity upon the slightest examination, it is not unreasonable to ask what's really going on....Alright I'm leaving all that alone now.

Anyway, another proper name that pretty certainly a Migration-era survival is the inherited Old English word for Scandinavia, Scedenig, which (along with the variation Scedeland) occurs only in Beowulf and is derivable from Common Germanic *Skadinawjō whence also Old Norse Skáney.

It is quite impossible to convincingly explain the inherited OE form as anything other than an old lexical item dating to the Migration Period. English-speaker hearing even the most conservative pronunciation of Viking-age Norse would not have been able to turn Scáney into Scedenig. And in fact they did not. Norse Skáney was loaned into English as Sconeg/Scani which replaced the native OE word in the 9th-10th centuries. Those partial to a late date for Beowulf, particularly those who wish to substantiate one or another theory that demands a late Beowulf as a corollary, have had to find ways to dismiss Scedenig as something other than a Migration-era survival. Dismissals have not been wanting. Roberta Frank suggested that Sconeg is the native English term whereas Scedenig is the Scandinavian loan, but this has generally — and rightly — been seen as implausible. A common dismissal tactic is to suggest that Scedenig is in Rix' words "borrowed from the classical geographic name for 'Scandinavia'". Historical linguistic developments, again, make this implausible. Right off the bat, Scandia is out of the picture due to the absence of <n> in the OE form. Scadinavia superficially seems more promising, but even if one accepts it for the sake of argument, one is still stuck with the vowel in the initial syllable which would require that the loan be effected before i-umlaut had taken effect. In which case the form is still quite early. A connection to Scadanan mentioned in the Lombardic Origo Gentis is thinkable, and it is completely possible that connection of Scede- to that Scada- was on the poet's mind. But it seems a weird thing to propose, and again the vocalic changes found in scede- would require the loan to be very early indeed in any case.

It is a common complaint in the Late Beowulf camp that we simply do not know when the word Scedenig or Scedeland fell out of general use or knowledge. This is in a strict sense correct. (Though its antiquity does suggest that — one way or another — the word for Scandinavia remained relevant to enough OE speakers to warrant its survival. If the word for Scandinavia is very old, so too is the habit of talking about it. This must give some modest support to the idea that stories set in Scandinavia were not new in the 9th century.) Since we have next to nothing in the same genre as Beowulf to compare the text with, we don't know the extent to which lexical choices were determined by genre. The word scedenig may never have been needed, or thought appropriate, in anything other than a poem dealing with the Heroic Age. And a toponym of course may remain in memory long after it has stopped being commonly used (compare English Cathay.) But we do have some evidence that the specific word scedenig presented a problem for the copyist responsible for our only surviving instance of the word. One of the scribes copying Beowulf originally wrote <scedeninge> at 1686a before correcting himself by imposing a second g upon the second n. The self-corrected instinct to write -ing suggests that the scribe took this for an ethnonym rather than a toponym, and ethnonyms themselves clearly gave the scribes a lot of trouble. The scribe, in other words, looked at the word in his exemplar and thought it might belong to a class of words which had already proven confusing to him on multiple occasions. This does not by itself prove that the word <scedenig> was unfamiliar. It may just be that a word <scedening> also existed, and the scribe simply lapsed into a malapropism which he later corrected. But the balance of probability does not seem to lie there.

Now onto another name.

Alcuin's famous interrogative tantrum "Quid enim Hinieldus cum Christo?" is interesting in this regard too. This reference to Hinieldus is not found in all witnesses to Alcuin's letter, but as far as I have been able to determine the spelling <Ingeldus> does not occur at all. I suggest that, if the reference is original to Alcuin, then the spelling <Hinieldus> is likely original to him. If it is an interpolation, then it is original to the interpolator. It seems unlikely that a spelling <Ingeldus> would have been transformed into <Hinieldus>. Either way, it is significant that we have here a spelling of Ingeld's name with <i> rather than <g>. Palatalization of velars had ceased to be a productive process in Old English before the onset of i-umlaut. The onomastic theme -g(i)eld is not productively used in Anglo-Saxon naming. The spelling <Hinieldus> thus tells us two things. The first is that the name Inġeld existed in English early enough to be subject to a sound-change that pre-dates even the earliest texts. This is not a huge deal, as it merely confirms what we know from the onomastic evidence found in the early 7th-8th century core of the Northumbrian Liber Vitae, where no less than sixteen people named Ingildus or Ingeldus are listedand the PASE database which also lists three people by the name of Ingeldus from the early-to-mid 8th century. The second point is that Alcuin did not take the name of the legendary Ingeld from a continental or Latin source. He is remembering a name he had clearly heard, but may well have never seen at all in written form. This name was spelled in Latin — as in English — with <g>, and Alcuin's letter is the only attested exception.

Now, about dynastic names.

Frank's position:
In England, the devising of elaborate royal genealogies was a fairly late, antiquarian exercise. The several backward expansions of the Anglo- Saxon king-lists testify to a growing, and constantly changing, need to establish legitimacy through illustrious continental ancestors. In the age of Bede, Woden was the stopping point. But the Anglian collection of royal pedigrees, compiled around 796, gives Woden a progenitor; and then – for the kingdoms of Lindsey and (in a narrative part of the Historia Brittonum, c. 830) Kent – additional ancestors going back several generations to Geat (Primitive Germanic *Gautaz, probably the Gothic eponym). A pedigree going back to Geat apparently had propaganda value for English kings around 800, when the Carolingians were rediscovering their Gothic roots. The genealogy of King Alfred’s father Æthelwulf, added around 892 to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, gives Geat a number of northern ancestors, among whom five – Scyld, Scef, Beaw, Heremod and Hwala – appear as legendary figures in Old English poetry. The expansion backwards to Scyld, eponymous ancestor of the Danish Scyldings, marks what looks like a new social reality, the integration of Dane and Englishman in one kingdom. Royal houses acquired not a little mythological depth and perhaps even some political legitimacy by claiming descent from the gods and rulers of the heartland of northern Europe. And what was of interest to kings was of practical and immediate interest to their subjects.
This argument doesn't convince me. Sam Newton has made a good case that elaborate versified genealogies were by no means late, and did not become antiquarian until fairly late. There is strong evidence for composition of early Anglian dynastic verse. It is true that the Anglian genealogies are preserved in a Mercian collection compiled ca. 780–796. But these appear in turn derived from an earlier Northumbrian collection compiled several decades earlier. Several factors suggest that — whether or not they existed in their attested form during the actual reigns of the respective kings — these genealogies draw on much older dynastic lists one way or another. And as Neidorf points out, Æthelwulf's genealogy in particular contains forms like <sceldwa> and <beowi> with morphology that cannot have been the product of either dictation or free composition. Some form of somebody's genealogy containing these names must have already existed in a written document which was already quite old. Moreover, as Sisam originally noted, the late iterations of the Æþelwulf genealogy contain so many variant forms and scribal corruptions that I have a hard time believing that these were part of a coherent, robustly-supported political program. If they were, one might have expected scribes to take a good deal more care than they did. Corrupting Scef into Seth, or conflating him with Scyld, would be quite a whoopsie moment for a scribe padding out a genealogy at the behest of a royal house in need of a beefier dynastic legitimacy. These names issue from the scribes' quills in a way that suggests that they were hardly on the tip of their tongues.

I did not bring in Frank's argument merely in order to have something to disagree with. She is onto something, even if I disagree with her about what, precisely, she is onto. There is, to be sure, something interesting about the fact that anybody would even bother to go rummaging for a document where these archaic mythical figures lay mummified in scraps of archaic Anglian morphology. My takeaway is that some people certainly were interested in reeling out an old and Scylding-bejeweled lineage, and that interest may have expressed itself in a flashpan resurrection of arcane material. But those charged with transmitting this undead filiation were quite literally not on the same page.

Antiquarianism is a common motivating explanation put forth in arguments for a Late Beowulf (and by extension a late Widsiþ, Waldere etc.) and while I am unconvinced by the argument itself, I do think antiquarianism is at play in a different way. It seems to be a recurrent theme in the vestigial survival of archaic Migration-era figures and legends in Anglo-Saxon material. With the Æþelwulfian genealogy as with Beowulf, the evidence suggests that a document with extremely archaic material had to be disinterred. Anglo-Saxons' gradual re-discovery for the very first time that they were indeed "Germanic" may have eventually given a few antiquarians the notion that such archaic heroic material as was still around to be re-copied might indeed be worth preserving. The existence of the Waldere fragment suggests, if nothing else, that the copying of Beowulf was not a one-off fluke.

 Frank puts it thus in the Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature:
Goths were not seen as chic or German during the long period stretching from the death of Theodoric to the coronation of Charlemagne. Isidore, writing in seventh-century Spain, could see no family relationship between Goths and Franks; he believed that the former were descended from the Scythians. Fredegar, a Frank writing around 660, portrayed Theodoric the Ostrogoth as a Macedonian, reared in Constantinople; he, like the author of the Liber historiae Francorum (c. 727), honoured the Franks with Trojan, not Germanic, ancestry....
...Between 805 and 860, we can trace, decade by decade, a growing interest in the Goths and their language: shortly before 800, in one early Carolingian text, the term theodisca lingua had expanded to include Old English and Langobardic as well as Frankish; by 805 Gothic had joined; by 830 all nationes theotiscae (‘Germanic peoples’), Franks included, were, like Jordanes’s Goths, given Scandinavian ancestry; and finally, around 860, a theologian could speak of a gens teudisca, a community of German-speaking people. Stories about Ermanaric were recorded by scholars, and, on at least one occasion, used by a cleric to restrain a king. Towards the end of the century, Archbishop Fulk of Rheims (883–900) asked Arnolf of Carinthia, the East Frankish king and emperor (887–99), to show mercy to his kinsman Charles, exhorting him ‘not to follow evil counsels, but to have pity on his people and strengthen a declining royal race, keeping in mind the example found in German books (ex libris teutonicis) of King Hermenricus [Ermanaric].."
I would add that all of the examples Frank has adduced for this surging interest in Germanic legend come from Continental Europe. With the exception of scattered references to Wayland the Smith, who survived in folklore, Germanic legendary figures are conspicuous by their near-total absence from texts actually produced (rather than merely copied) by Anglo-Saxons after ca. 850.

So if Anglo-Saxons knew about Theodric, Attila, Eormanric, Hroðulf and others long before the 9th century, how is it that a generalized "Germanic" sensibility in Europe only emerges in the mid 800s, just as interest in the old "Germanic" lore seems to have turned moribund Anglo-Saxon England?

An answer, or at least the silhouette of one, presents itself if we abandon some traditional assumptions about what "Germanic legend" and "Germanic identity" are, or rather what they were. Migration-era Germanic languages were more than mutually intelligible enough to facilitate easy borrowing and the spread of sound-changes in geographic waves. Stories about increasingly legendary heroes could easily spread among Germanic groups, especially as long as Anglo-Saxon migration from northern Europe to Britain was still ongoing. But this by itself tells us nothing about how members of different Germanic groups — at war as much with each other as with "foreign" peoples — conceived of themselves or each other, let alone how this changed over time. That Anglo-Saxons in the 700s already knew of legendary Migration-era figures does not necessarily mean that the legends were always felt to be "Germanic" in an ethno-linguistic sense of the term. Goths may have been very much a part of cultural imagination in Germanic-speaking Britain well before the year 800. But there is, of course, no reason why an 8th century Anglo-Saxon named Þēodrīc should necessarily have regarded his Gothic namesake as ethnic kin of the same kind as continental Saxons, even assuming that his 6th century ancestor might have.

Anglo-Saxons never forgot their connection to the lands across the North Sea. But it is well to remember that whatever attitudes may have continued to prevail toward the inhabitants of ancient Scedenige in the 7th-8th centuries, they would not necessarily translate to Goths or Franks.

"Germanic-ness" itself as we understand it may indeed be a partly Carolingian invention. It may be a flawed concept when dealing with the way Anglo-Saxons saw themselves in the 7th or early 8th centuries. But how did they see themselves? Certainly not as "Anglo-Saxons" yet either.  Words that could translate as "Anglo-Saxon" are not attested before the 9th century. Bede and others can already be found referring to a "Germania" with a sense of connection, and Aldhelm even uses the adjective "Germanicus" in direct reference to the English "gens" (neminem nostrae stirpis prosapia genitum et Germanicae gentis cunabulis confotum). Before 800 the adjective Englisc may well have meant something like "Insular Germanic" (though for a value of "Germanic" that did not necessarily include every group we would mean by that term.)

In fact, if the earliest references to "theudisc" identity come from the Carolingian continent, the same is true for "Anglo-Saxon" identity. Paul the Deacon, whom Frank characterizes as "the first 'German' historian with a sense of ethnic solidarity" is also one of the first attestations of the term Anglisaxones. 

"Pan-Germanic" identity — of a different character than whatever complex of tribal, supra-tribal and linguistic affiliations may have obtained during the Migration Era — seems to me to go hand-in-hand with a more forcefully articulated concept of "Englishness."

If 7th-8th century Anglo-Saxon identity was not "Germanic" in the simple sense we associate with that word, then neither was it yet anything we could call English.

In any case it will not do to insist and infer from this that Anglo-Saxons had no idea who Ingeld, Theodoric or the Scyldings were until the Carolingians started tooting their þeodisc trumpet.

I suspect that at nearly the same time that tales of "Theudisc" heroes were growing popular (at least among monkish sorts) in Carolingian Europe, Viking invaders inspired anxiety about the heathenness of certain English customs and traditions in Anglo-Saxon England. Alcuin makes clear that his problem with Ingeld is not that he is from the Northlands, but that he is heathen. Germanic legendary matter would not pose the same kind of problem for continental Carolingians. Alcuin elsewhere puts the gears to King Ethelred and his court for wearing the same hairstyles as heathen Northmen. A letter-fragment plausibly attributed to Ælfric puts the matter quite bluntly: "Ic secge eac ðe, broðor Eadweard, nu ðu me þyses bæde, þæt ge doð unrihtlice þæt ge ða Engliscan þeawas forlætað þe eowre fæderas heoldon and hæðenra manna þeawas lufiað, þe eow ðæs lifes ne unnon." That author has in mind Danish fashions in clothing. But, in a context like this, one should not be surprised that the sort of Migration-era lore prized by the Danes might fall out of favor with the types of people and institutions that produced most of our surviving texts.  

A Beowulfian Ramble



Eric Weiskott writes in his fulminating review of The Dating of Beowulf: A Reassessment that

"Like Fulk's arguments, Hartman's and Bredehoft's are open to the objection that metrically encoded language may not evolve in lockstep with spoken language. If so, subsuming metrical history in language history is a category mistake."

But none of these guys is saying that metrically encoded language necessarily evolves in lockstep with synchronic phonology. Fulk has in fact written a great deal about the fact that other features of OE versification, such as non-parasiting vowels, cannot have been genuine features of spoken language when any of the surviving texts were composed. But adherence to Kaluza's Law — the centerpiece of Fulk's argument in particular — is of a different character.

The metrical argument for an Early Beowulf does not depend on identity between synchronic phonology and metrical habit. The point, rather, is that Beowulf's metrical behavior requires the poet to have had access — one way or another — to information about etymological vowel length in unstressed syllables on a level that sets it apart from other OE poetic texts. It is statistically unlikely that Beowulf could have been composed as it was by someone who did not know that e.g. masc. pl. nom gōde ended in a long vowel, whereas fem. sing. acc. gōde did not.

Of course, prosody isn't just a matter of what's in your mouth. One need only consider something like the unstressed <-e> in Chaucer, or Tajik vowel length, or the traditional scansion of the French "e muet". All of these remained accessible to poets by various means (including literacy in a traditional orthography, and also the pronunciation used in singing) for some time after vanishing from ordinary speech.

But it's important to realize that with Kaluza's Law in Early Old English, unlike those situations, we're talking about a distinction whose loss would not cause any problems scanning older verse. Blocked resolution of historical circumflex vowels would not be noticed at all, let alone sound unmetrical, to later listeners or readers. It is difficult to see what the motivation would be for preserving it as a conventionalized rule.

The most straightforward explanation is that the Beowulf poet's own variety of English — or some other variety he had access to — had not shortened the vowels in the old circumflex inflections, whereas most other extant texts were composed by poets with a more innovative phonology.

Even if one allows for the possibility that the circumflex vowels were preserved longer in the language of song than of speech, this too would have implications for dating. The Beowulf poet is consistently using a distinction which other extant poetic texts appear either unsure or completely ignorant of. Why so much reluctance to entertain the possibility that this is because Beowulf is an early text?

One might even suppose that long vowels in circumflex inflection were not actually part of the English known to the Beowulf poet(s) or the intended audience at all. Such information would then have to be consciously and deliberately taught. This can happen, of course. Cases in point include the transmission of rules for quantitative versification in Latin and Greek during the medieval period. But again, here we are dealing with features that are essential to metrical scansion. Ignorance of etymological vowel length would render scansion of Virgil meaningless or impossible for a 10th century reader, whereas ignorance of etymological vowel length in unstressed syllables would not have prevented a 10th century reader from scanning Beowulf as (almost) easily as Brunanburh.

Now, it is certainly possible for guilds, priesthoods and similar groups to preserve archaic prosodic information — even when it is completely irrelevant to versification — in abstract form. Knowledge of the pitch-accent of Vedic Sanskrit, for example, was preserved by reciters using an elaborate system of hand-gestures that went alongside recitation. Even if one imagines — based on no evidence at all — that something like this was the case for the Beowulf poet, it does nothing to strengthen the case that Beowulf is an especially late text, composed as it was by someone who had access to a tradition matched by no other attested poetic text. In fact it would in its own way strengthen the case for Beowulf being an early text.

Niles' review contains a variant of same:

"muted is the possibility that differences of language, in a society where choices are available to poets, can result from stylistic preferences or generic norms rather than chronological determinism. Curiously, not just Fulk but also Neidorf, Hartman, and Clark posit that scholars who entertain the possibility of a relatively “late” Beowulf  must necessarily envision the poet as a self-conscious antiquary capable of producing “early” linguistic effects (or, as Clark says, “salting” a new poem with archaisms); and yet almost no one has seriously envisioned such a scenario. Indeed, wherever in the world well-established traditions of heroic poetry are known, metrical conservatism, linguistic archaisms, and references to events or objects of the deep past go along with the turf."
But all types of "metrical conservatism" are not of a piece with one another. In point of fact, characterizations of the Beowulf poet as precisely such an antiquary are common in the "Late Beowulf" camp.

Attempts to insist that a poet's adherence to various phonological-seeming constraints must have some inherently non-phonological motivation, to dismiss linguistic evidence of archaism as categorically useless for dating, are a specialty of Anglo-Saxon studies. Cynewulf composed rhymes that are imperfect in West Saxon, but are flawless in Anglian dialects. Yet the suggestion that his rhymes imply Anglian origin has met with strange levels of rejection on the literary side of Anglo-Saxon studies. Strange, because nobody seems to have this problem when when we use the rhyming habits of the Cantar del Mio Cid as diagnostic of date and location, or when we use the rhymes of the Qur'ān to suggest that the Arabic underlying the text still had a phonemic distinction between ā and ē.  Much of the earliest Irish poetry is also preserved in manuscripts produced centuries after the date of composition of the poems themselves, yet linguistic dating is a fairly uncontroversial tool there. Even the dating debate surrounding Y Gododdin among scholars of Welsh has never taken on the character that I see in among Anglo-Saxonists. The linguistic evidence, when it comes to the Gododdin (where there is evidence for multiple strata of accretions in transmission), is in many ways far more difficult to deal with than anything pertaining to Beowulf.

Yet within Anglo-Saxon studies, the dating of poetry has turned into this big disciplinary gamepiece. It's honestly a little weird. 

Firing the Western Canon

The animus against what both sides naïvely and tellingly agree to call the "western canon" is misplaced. The ideological work done by cannonicity is a matter of its institutional use, as much as it is of the ideological content in canonical works. They may be reactionary or progressive less in themselves than in their reception and dissemination in context. The question of whether, say, the Aeneid is an imperialist text (which is not the same as the question of whether it was written as one) is a question that not only has no simple answer but would be nonsensical to ask outside the context of a particular moment in which academics and the intelligentsia find themselves.

There is often a naïve representational realism at work as well. One way of putting it is that the condemnation of a work as racist, heteropatriarchal, sexist, imperialist, elitist, or whatever does little more than substitute Immanent Ideology for the older Immanent Authorial Intention as the skeleton key to meaning.

This has two results. The first is that this kind of textual head-hunting serves as a substitute for, and therefore an obstacle to, the task of genuine analysis of ideological language (and that leads to some amount of gullibility.) The other is that much of what passes for political analysis of historically canonical works amounts to scarce a soldier's damn more than the passing of moral judgments.

Now moral judgements of literature are a bit like bowel movements: we all pass them regularly, and that's perfectly healthy. And if you haven't passed one in a while, you've got a problem and may be full of shit.

But laxatives need to be used in moderation. It is corrosive and philistinizing to preach to students that their own moral indignation, based on moral values that cost them nothing, is a sure guide to what is valuable in literature or in any other art. It is next of kin to the moralism of Victorian prudes who turned Theocritus' homoeroticism into heterosexual wholesomeness.

Ironically, the critique of the "canon" has probably done a great deal to help sustain and crystalize a belief that there is such a thing as a unitary Western culture, thereby inadvertently but quite predictably converging with cultural conservatism. This point where the left and right converge can exist because of a willingness to indulge in fables of cultural organicism, however differently formulated. On the Left, a shared "western culture" is usually admitted in historical terms to be mythical, but mostly only when it is convenient to do so. Of course the term is useful as a shorthand for many things. But shorthand abstractions, however useful, should not be hypostatized into independent life. It is a bit more than terminological practicality which tempts the otherwise level-headed to impute all sorts of decontextualized essences (like "Phonocentrism" or "Orientalism") to this mythical transhistorical entity.

Meter and Stuff

The language of literature is not the same thing as that of ordinary speech. The two have been confounded by modern scholars for far too long.

Students of Latin and Greek know about the rule that a long syllable is equal to two short ones. Here are some parallels from round the world:

When Luganda poems and songs are accompanied on the drums, a single drumbeat is assigned to a light syllable and two drum beats are assigned to a heavy syllable.
Light syllables are valued as one mora and heavy syllables as two morae similarly in Tongan verse and Kinyarwanda pastoral poetry.
Among the various Arabic meters, the kamil and the wafir alone allow two shorts to respond with a single long.
In Hausa Islamic verse, this equivalence occurs in metrical locations in which it is not found in the corresponding Arabic meters.
In traditional Hindi meters, the equivalence of a heavy syllable to two light syllables is a basic feature.
In Literary Persian verse, the two light syllables may technically be replaced by a heavy syllable more or less anywhere except at the beginning of a line, though this responsion in Persian is in practice subject to additional constraints. There are places in the metrical line where it is allowed but extremely unlikely to occur, and others (such as in the constituents of the phrasal rhyme at the end of a verse) where it is particularly common.
In Urdu verse, two shorts are substituted for a long, but likewise subject to severe positional restriction. Substitution does not occur under the metrical ictus, or in precaesural position.
Two light syllables respond with one heavy syllable also in the praise poems of the Bahima.
In Latin scenic verse, as in Tamil verse, and in Lithuanian quantitative hexameter verse patterned on that of Latin, the equivalence of two shorts to one long interacts with stress over the domain of the prosodic word, and probably also with morpheme structure.

Even allowing for the widespread borrowing of quantitative verse systems the cumulative evidence for this prosodic equivalence substantiates it as a natural phenomenon of rhythm in language.

But it does not follow that the specific properties of verse are in every respect a transparent outgrowth of speech rhythm. Hindi and Urdu are, at a certain register of speech, essentially the same language and the prosody of speech rhythm is basically the same in the two (apart from the different frequency of wordshape distributions, due to borrowing from different sources in the literary register.) Yet Hindi and Urdu verse have very different ways of dividing a metrical line, and obey very different habits in the equivalence of two shorts to a single long, resulting in a different rhythmic "feel" in the poetry of the two languages. (You can substitute a long for two shorts under metrical ictus in Hindi, but not in Urdu.) Hindi meters are basically moraic (like the meters of Classical Sanskrit and other Indic languages), and Urdu meters are positional (roughly like in Persian). To the "Urdu ear" unaccustomed to literary Hindi verse-lines, the verses are bizarrely long with an alarmingly erratic syllable pattern. The Urdu listener must get the "feel" of it, learn to hear all over again. Of course there really is nothing about Urdu that prevents one from writing poetry in it using Hindi meters, or the reverse, and a few Urdu poets have experimented with them to great success. The difference between Hindi and Urdu versifications demonstrates the degree to which extralinguistic factors may determine what seems and does not seem like metrical language in a given speech community. The difference between the two is not due to any essential difference of language. It is, to put it crudely, a cultural difference.

Versification can tell you a great deal about the rhythm of a language. If English were a dead language, one could deduce a lot — and mostly accurately — about real speech rhythm by studying its verse. But one must not make mechanistic assumptions about the "character of a language" from versification habits. There are other factors involved. The preference for iambic pentameter in English is not, as has often been claimed, anything to do with its congeniality to the language. It has to do with the longstanding interaction between English and French verse, resulting in various approximations/adaptations in the former of the latter's decasyllabic line. There is also an element of sheer historical accident. Had a few events gone differently, the default English meter might have ended up being a six-beat (rather than five-beat) iambic line in imitation of the Alexandrine. True enough, six-beat lines do tend to sound uncomfortably long to Modern English speakers. Pope thought little of such a line "that, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along." But that is only because Pope, like many in his day and ever since, was so used to the shorter five-beat line that its aptness of length seemed only natural to him.

Versification is like clothing. It's obvious why humans wear it, and that certain environments or types of weather lead us to opt for one type over the other. If you knew how much, or how little, clothing someone was wearing and what fabric it was made of you could make a very good guess about what kind of place they were living in, and what the weather was like. You might be able to tell a lot about the economic situation of a person and even of the society they live in based on clothing. But you'd be an idiot to think there wasn't more to it than that. That isn't why women might cover their chests, or legs, more than men in a given society. And it isn't why Haredi Jews in Florida continue to dress like people in 19th century Eastern Poland.