Wednesday, June 4, 2014
Just þe þing
I am in the midst of preparations for departure for France, with a quick detour to Montreal to meet the newest Fleming, Hazel Elizabeh, born on May 23rd. For the latter weeks of June I shall be in Paris, all too briefly, where I shall mostly be chained to a library desk while my spouse is at a violin boot camp for string-quarteters in the Rhône-Alpes. Still, it’s not exactly hardship duty, even if I must gird my linguistic loins.
In this blog I occasionally refer to myself in the third person, in a light-hearted and self-deprecating way, as your bloguiste. And about one out of three times that I do so I get an email from France, seldom light-hearted in tone, telling me that bloguiste is not an actual French word. Though I am prone to blunders and hilarious mistakes in French, I actually knew all along that bloguiste is not an actual French word. But I try to take a view to language analogous to Marx’s view of the world. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways,” he writes; “the point is to change it.”
In the early years of my professorial career I used to teach a course in Old English. I don’t need to remind this audience that Old English is not the language of Chaucer—that’s Middle English, with a lexicon that is already bloated with Frenchisms—but a family of early Germanic dialects that would require nearly as much work for Chaucer to comprehend as it requires of us. Old English is the language of Beowulf. To make significant progress in Old English in one semester is an ambitious goal, and a teacher does well to sugar-coat the pill.
Hundreds of beautiful and useful Old English words have been lost to us. I wrote a post about this some years ago. In my Old English course we addressed this situation in the following way. At the beginning of each semester we would select an attractive obsolete English word. Members of the class were then asked to start using this word in their ordinary conversations. They could define it if people asked, but were not supposed to say anything about the Old English class. The idea of the experiment was to see if a small number of trend-setters could make an impact on the campus vocabulary. We had pretty good success with gnorn (sadness, sorrow), hwosta ( a cough) and sele-dream (gleeful party noises). We managed to infiltrate these words into the campus vocabulary for a time—so if you want bloguiste or any other word to become “real,” just start using it. “That isn’t in the dictionary” is a pauper’s argument. The dictionary is not the language; it is a treatise upon the language.
We really hit pay dirt with the risqué rarity wifcuþu, which is roughly the equivalent of the current campus slang “hook up” described from the male perspective, and of course much classier. In the link given above I go into the tragic-comic context of its appearance in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Here I have other things on my plate. The old meaning of wif was simply “woman”, as in the Wife of Bath, meaning a female resident of that watering hole. The most common occupation of women being marital, it came to mean “married woman”. Mann still has an analogous meaning in German and in the archaic English of the Prayer Book’s marriage service: “I now pronounce you man and wife.” The verb cuþan meant “to know” or “be familiar with”. Xenophobia explains the still current meaning of uncouth, as what is unknown or unfamiliar may seem uncomfortable to the unsophisticated. It is unfair that only the negative form is in widespread use, since couth itself would be a most useful term.
The Old English alphabet
The odd-looking letter in cuþan, something like a b superimposed upon a p, was called thorn. It was one of two lost Old English letters with the value of modern th. By Chaucer’s time scribes were often using þ and th interchangeably, but in highly conservative forms of writing, such as some legal documents and pub signs, the graphic form outlived people’s comprehension of it. It looked a little bit like a y—so folks started pronouncing it as one! That is where all the cutesy “Ye Olde Tea Shoppe” stuff that one finds in colonial towns on our eastern seaboard comes from. The next time you see one of these yee-oldies, read þe and pronounce it, unstressed, the.
old and not so old yee-oldies
Perhaps if we tried hard enough we could reclaim the thorn as well. I am sure the Icelanders, who have thorns galore, would be happy to let us have a few fonts on credit. An Icelandic legislative council is a þing and the national Parliament the Alþing or “all-Thing.” They have been doing their þing since the tenth century, more than two centuries before the British Magna Carta.
Westminster may be "the mother of Parliaments," but "parliament" itself is manifestly a French word. And "Congress" (Latin, obviously) is not much better. Surely Anglo-Saxon sensibilities demand something a little more yee-oldy and Englishy? Perhaps Milton can show the way. The All Devils’ Parliament in Paradise Lost is called Pandemonium. We might render that in early English as the helle-þing and relocate it from the Styx to the banks of the Potomac.