I try really hard not to get drawn into debates about whether words should be spelled ‘favour’ or ‘favor’ or whether the Oxford comma should be a thing. I’m not even particularly fussed when coffee-lovers start to wax lyrical about their ‘expresso’ or Americans try to drop a whole syllable to add the mysterious element, ‘aluminum’ to the periodic table.
The reality is, the English language we know today is a total mish-mash of Germanic dialect, French and Latin. All stirred up in a pot over the centuries of invasions and eventually banded together and given its own name.
Ye Olde English – that is, English as it was before 1066 when the Normans beat the Anglo-Saxons and took over England – bears little or no resemblance to the English we speak today.
That famous epic English poem about the Norman invasion, Beowulf? Here’s an image of the original manuscript, for your reading pleasure. Bit confusing, eh?Image credit: The British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, image source.
Is Ye Olde English really that different to Modern English?
Some Old English is more similar that you’d think at first glance. Some confusion comes simply from the way the letters were handwritten.
For example, Ye Olde Pub that everyone retired to after visiting Ye Olde Shoppe? It’s not actually ‘ye‘, it’s ‘the‘. It’s just that the people who were writing it were a little lazy when forming the loop on the ‘p’:
A few of my favourite Old English words that are NOTHING like Modern English
My all time favourite Old English word is ‘neorxenawang’. It means ‘Paradise’.
I studied Old English for an entire semester during my Arts degree (Look! It was time well spent! It’s helped me write this post!). We were taught to approach it the same way you’d approach any other foreign language – a mix of recognition of similarities to our own language and pure rote learning.
By the end of the semester I could decipher simple texts and even write some of my own. Just for fun, here are a list of Old English words you might want to try on your friends (or your kids).
Old English words for pregnancy & newborns
I shall ācennan (give birth to) a baby. >> A novel answer to, ‘Are you have a boy or a girl?!’
I have become a sceadugenga (walker in darkness) >> When people ask you, ‘Is the baby sleeping through the night?’
… and when the kids learn to talk
Don’t begnornian (lament, bemoan) or there’ll be no iPad time today! >> When the kids won’t stop whingeing.
… and then there’s the complete guide to school holiday Old English
- Day 1 of the school holidays >> If you don’t stop fighting, you will be fæge! (fated, doomed to die)
- Day 2 of the school holidays >> I mean it, I will forswerian (make useless by a spell) you!
- Day 3 of the school holidays >> I’m feeling utterly earcearig! (wretched, troubled)
- Some time later… >> If school doesn’t go back soon I will surely waste away wælhrēowlīce (horribly) and lāðlicost (in most wretched fashion)
And then there’s the silence that settles over the house when the children are asleep, punctuated only by the periodic clinking of tea mugs being placed on the coffee table.
This special silence, in Old English, is truly wrætlic (wondrous, strange, splendid).
Want more? Grab a copy of A Guide to Old English online from Book Depository or:
Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of review. This post contains affiliate links.