Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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On translating sense and syntax in Old English

Posted: Jan 25, 2014 13:01;
Last Modified: Jan 25, 2014 13:01

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A student in my Old English class asked a good question today in her class blog:

I’m confused. The point of this class is to be able to read Old English. Does this mean we are supposed to be building a lexicon that would eventually become so engrained in us that the words don’t require as much of a “translation” as an innate understanding of the meaning of the text? This seems rather frightening. When I hear the words “nominative accusative singular” sweep one after the other my head begins to spin. I have to look at the dictionary three times in three minutes to remember what one word means.

I think what process seems natural to me would be to translate a sentence, and after knowing what the words are in modern English, to determine what words are nominative, objects, etc. in the translated sentence. At which point I would then transfer this over to the Old English. Is this wrong? Is the point to learn to do that without first translating it into Modern English? If so, I feel like I should break a bad habit before it starts.

The question touches on the two main issues we face in translating from Old English to Modern English: Lexis (i.e. the meaning of the words) and Syntax (i.e. the grammar that ties the words together in a sentence).

The short answer is that translating (or learning to read) Old English requires both: you need to know what the words mean and you need to know what the syntax is telling you about their relationships to each other. This means that there are really three discrete things we need to do in translating:

Although, because OE is often very close to Modern English in Syntax, it might look like you can translate the meaning of a sentence accurately by just looking up the meaning of the words and writing them out (i.e. doing a lexical translation alone or first), there are enough differences that this will lead to trouble when you get more complex Old English (especially poetry).

You can see this in Modern English if you consider the following group of words: Because had Friday money no on on Saturday Store Suzy the to Tom went.

Although we understand what all of these words mean lexically, the “sentence” they form doesn’t make any sense to us because the syntax doesn’t conform to any rules of Modern English (I just arranged the words alphabetically). In order to get a real sentence out of this, we need to know more about the intended syntax as well, which in Modern English means the intended word order. If I put the words in a word order that reflects Modern English syntatic rules, the sentence suddenly makes sense: Because Tom went to the store on Friday, Suzy had no money on Saturday.

Note that in the above example, the only difference between the nonsensical and sensible versions was word order. The first version did not make sense because we didn’t understand the syntax, not because we didn’t understand the meanings of the individual words.

The primary equivalent of this in Old English is its inflections: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, etc (Old English relies on word order as well, but word order is less important than inflection: there is some evidence to show that scribes fail to understand sentences that have appropriate word order but errors in inflection; in Modern English, we almost always assume that word order is correct and the inflections are wrong if there is a contradiction between the two).

In order to understand fully a sentence in Old English, therefore, we need to know what endings are associated with each word in the sentence and what those endings indicate about the relationship of the word to the rest of the sentence. Because Modern English doesn’t rely on inflections as much as Old English, our “translation” of our analysis of this syntax will be reflected in the word order we choose.

Now, because Modern English is descended from Old English, word order in the two languages is often identical and you can “get away” with just translating the words: e.g. Sēo sunne is miċel, “The sun is big.”

The problem is that you can’t rely on this: Old English and Modern English word order can diverge even in simple sentences; they do diverge in more complex sentences and especially in more literary contexts like poetry or artistic prose. If you haven’t got into the habit of analysing the Old English grammar as well as translating the meanings of the words, you can run into real problems when you hit a sentence where the word order is different from what we can allow in Modern English.

Here’s a simple example to show what I mean:

Þone stān slōh þæt wīf

The lexical translation of this sentence (i.e. just a translation of the words), would be as follows:

The stone struck the woman

This sentence makes sense in Modern English, so if you only translate the words, you will be tempted to stop here.

But if we analyse the endings, we’ll see that a purely lexical translation gets things exactly wrong. Here is an anlysis of the endings in the sentence. ASM = accusative singular masculine, NSN = nominative singular neuter, 3SPast = 3rd person, singular, past tense:

ASM ASM 3SPast NSN NSN

(note: although stān and wīf don’t have any endings, we know their grammatical information because of the demonstrative pronouns that precede them: þone and þæt respectively)

Anglo-Saxons use the accusative to indicate direct objects (amongst other things), and the nominative to indicate subjects. In Modern English, we normally use the first position in the sentence for our subjects, and the first or second slot after a verb for our direct objects. So in order to translate the sentence correctly, we also have to “translate” this syntax by moving the words around in our final translation:

The woman struck the stone

This is a simple example that could easily be real Old English (it implies that the Anglo-Saxon author wanted to emphasise that it was a stone the woman hit). But translating only the words produced exactly the wrong translation. When sentences get more complicated, the chances for things going wrong increase greatly!

So a Modern English translation actually has two translations built into it: a translation of the Old English words into Modern English words, and a translation of Old English inflections into Modern English word order. It is only when you have done both that you can be sure you understand what the sentence means.

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English 3450a: Old English (Spring 2014)

Posted: Dec 25, 2013 15:12;
Last Modified: Aug 23, 2014 19:08

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Note: This is a draft syllabus and is subject to revision before the last day of the add/drop period.

English 3450 introduces students to Old English, the principal ancestor of our present day English, and the language of daily life in early medieval (Anglo-Saxon) England (from approximately the mid 400s to the mid 1100s).

Contents

Times and location

Office and Office Hours

My office is room B810B. My telephone numbers, a map, office hours, and other contact information is available on my Contact page.

My office hours are TBA. In the meantime, feel free to set an appointment

About this course

English 3450 introduces students to Old English, the principal ancestor of our present day English, and the language of daily life in early medieval (Anglo-Saxon) England (from approximately the mid 400s to the mid 1100s).

The Calendar describes the course in this way:

The study of Old English language and literature. Instruction in basic Old English grammar and syntax, translation practice, and an introduction to the language’s literary and historical context.

As this suggests, our main goal will be to learn the Language. The English we speak today is derived largely from that spoken in the Anglo-Saxon period. Indeed, although the English language has borrowed a huge number of words from other languages, our core vocabulary, as much as 80% of the words we use in daily conversation, have their origins in Old English. The Anglo-Saxons often had different words for things we have since borrowed words to discuss—and of course we have developed many words for things the Anglo-Saxons had no knowledge of or reason to discuss! But they might well recognise many of the words we use to tie our sentences together and discuss every day activities.

The real difference will be in the grammar. Old English grammar is quite different from Modern English grammar, and, as a result, must be learned by most students as if it were a foreign language (students who know modern germanic languages such as High or Low German,Dutch, or the Nordic languages may find useful congruences to Old English).

In the course of the year, we will study and practice Old English grammar, phonology (the study of the sounds of a language), and script (how it is written). To provide us with a basis for comparison, we will also devote some attention to practicing and improving our knowledge of Modern English grammar and phonology. Our principal method of study, however, will be practical: most class and study time will be devoted to translation work from Old to Modern English.

Although it will not be the main focus of the course, students will complement their study of the Old English language with some study of its speakers and the culture in which it was used. We will discuss the range of Anglo-Saxon literature, learn about Anglo-Saxon culture and history, investigate the place of the Anglo-Saxons among their European contemporaries, and read some Anglo-Saxon literature in translation along side our readings in the original language.

Learning goals

By the end of the course students should have a basic reading knowledge of Old English and a sense of the period in which it was used. This involves being able to

Texts

Required

Assessment

This course uses two types of evaluation, formative (intended primarily to assist the student measure their progress and identify areas of improvement) and summative (intended primarily to assess a student’s success in accomplishing the course’s main learning goals.

Formative Assessment

Formative assignments are divided into two categories: exercises and reviews. Although grades will be assigned to most of these assignments, your final formative grade will consist of an equally weighted average of your best performance in each categories.

I will mark formative assignments handed in on the specific due date and will not mark work handed in late without a prior request for an extension or evidence of an emergency. While it is strongly recommended that students complete these projects on time, there is no specific penalty for failing to do so in any one instance. Students who do not receive a grade for at least one assignment in a formative category, however, will receive a grade of 0 for the entire category.

I reserve the right to add additional formative assignments to these categories throughout the semester in response to class interests and needs.

Category Assignment
Exercises What I did/did not know about Anglo-Saxon England
Poster and Presentation
Reviews Basic Paradigms and Translation
(Moodle: early February)
Advanced Paradigms and Translation
(Moodle: mid March)

Summative Assessment

Summative Assignments are used to determine how well students have accomplished the course’s learning goals. In addition to an average of students’ best score in each formative category, these will include a final exam, a research project, a translation project, and an attendance mark.

Assignment Value
Attendance [*] 5%
Blog 10%
Average of best score from each formative category 15%
Translation leadership 15%
Research Prospectus 5 %
Independent Research Project. Due: End of Semester 25%
Final Exam (Moodle) Exam Period 25%

* Note: Students will be graded on their presence and preparedness each class. All students will be allowed up to 4 unexcused absences or days in which they cannot translate in class. After these 4 are used up ever absence or lack of preparedness will result in a 2% penalty. Unexcused absences beyond this will result in the docking of a letter grade for each additional absence/lack of preparedness. Excused absences (i.e. absences due to illness, medical appointments, emergencies or accidents, etc.) will not count against these totals.

The summative evaluation scheme presented here should be considered tentative and open to change until the beginning of the last class before the Add/Drop deadline. After this date, the version found on-line will be definitive.

Policies

The following policies will be followed in all my classes unless otherwise announced. You are expected to be familiar with the policies reproduced here and in the more general section on my website. These additional web pages are to be considered part of this syllabus for the purposes of this course. Failure to conform to any of these policies may result in your grade being lowered.

Grade scale

The University of Lethbridge keeps track of student performance using a letter and grade point system (See section 4 of the University Calendar). Instructors assign students a letter grade at the end of each course (the University does not issue or record mid-term grades). These letter grades are converted to a numerical value (a Grade Point) for assessing overall academic performance (a Grade Point Average or GPA). The University does not record percentage-type grades and does not have a fixed scale for conversion from percentage scores to letter grades and grade points. Each instructor is responsible for determining their own methodology for determining students’ final letter grade.

In my classes, I use the following letter-grade to percentage correspondences:

  Excellent Good Satisfactory Poor Minimal pass Failing
Letter A+ A A- B+ B B- C+ C C- D+ D F
Percent range 100-94 93-90 89-86 85-82 81-78 77-74 73-70 69-66 65-62 61-58 57-50 49-0
Conventional value 100 92 88 84 80 76 72 68 64 60 56 49-0
Grade point 4.0 3.7 3.3 3.0 2.7 2.3 2.0 1.7 1.3 1.0 0

How your grade is determined depends on the type of work being assessed. Tests of specific skills or knowledge (such as identification questions in literature classes, or fact-oriented tests in my grammar and language classes) are usually assigned a numeric score which is easily converted to a percentage. Essays, presentations, and other performance-oriented tests are usually graded by letter. I convert letter grades to percentages by taking the median value in each grade-range, and rounding up to the nearest whole percent. The only exceptions are A+ (which is converted to 100%), and F (which is converted to an arbitrary percentage between 0% and 49% based on my estimation of the work’s quality). These scores can be found in the conventional value row of the above table.

In marking work I try to keep the University’s official description of these grades in mind (a description can be found in the University Calendar, Part IV.3.a). If you get an A it means your work is excellent; a B means your work is good; a C means it is satisfactory; a D that it is barely acceptable (minimal pass); and an F that it is failing to meet University-level standards.

I have prepared rubrics for most types of qualitative assignments (assignments that do not expect the student simply to provide a correct factual answer). These can be found in my Academic Policies section: http://people.uleth.ca/~daniel.odonnell/Academic-Policies/

Submitting Work

Tests, Exams, and Quizzes

Tests and Exams will be written in the University’s testing labs on Moodle. Quizzes may be presented on Moodle.

Essays and Reports

Essays and reports will normally be collected using Turnitin. Information on our account (URL, ID number, and Password) will be made available in our class space on Moodle: http://learning.uleth.ca/

Plagiarism

This course uses plagiarism detection software. Any plagiarism will be treated very seriously: you can expect to receive a grade of 0 on the assignment as well as other penalties depending on the seriousness of the offence.

Class schedule

OE Schedule
The following schedule is intended to help you plan your work for this course. The schedule is tentative and subject to change.

Week Date Topic Classwork Background Reading
1 Mon. 6/1 No class
Wed. 8/1 Welcome Syllabus and assessment  
Fri. 10/1 Spelling and Pronunciation
  • 1.a Practice Sentences
2 Sun 12/1 Please complete your profile on Moodle (with picture and statement of interests) by midnight tonight.
Mon. 13/1  
  • 1.b Practice Sentences
  • § 6-9: Stress, Vowels, Diphthongs, Consonants
Wed. 15/1 Lecture: Inflected vs word order languages.
Fri. 17/1 Grammar Whole Class Tutorial: Old and Modern English Grammar
3 Mon. 20/1  
  • 1.c Practice Sentences
 
Wed. 22/1 Whole Class Tutorial: Grammar Practice I
Fri. 24/1 Whole Class Tutorial: Grammar Practice II
4 Sun. 26/1 What I did not know about Anglo-Saxon England Due by 23:59)
Mon. 27/1 Nouns: The Major Declensions
1) Strong Nouns
  • 3. Ælfric’s Colloquy.
    • Performance (1-21): Group A
    • Translation (1-11): Group F
    • Translation (11-21): Group E
  • Cheatsheet: Nouns Row;
  • § 33: Masculine Strong Nouns; § 34 Strong Neuter Nouns; § 37 Strong Feminine Nouns
Wed. 29/1 Learning in Anglo-Saxon England   Read “Introduction,” from “The Life of King Alfred,” “Preface to Gregory,” and “Colloquy” in the section Example and Exhortation in The Anglo-Saxon World
Fri. 31/1 2) Weak Nouns
  • 3. Ælfric’s Colloquy.
    • Performance (22-45): Group C
    • Translation (22-40): Group D
 
5 Mon. 3/2  
  • 3. Ælfric’s Colloquy.
    • Performance (45-91): Group E
    • Translation (41-70): Group C
  • Cheatsheet: Nouns Row;
  • § 25: Weak Nouns
Wed. 5/2 Sermons   Read “Sermon of the Wolf to the English” in The Anglo-Saxon World
Fri. 7/2  
  • 3. Ælfric’s Colloquy.
    • Performance (92-130): Group F
    • Translation (71-107): Group B
 
6 Basic Paradigms and Translation Review (Moodle) 10/2-17/2
Mon. 10/2 Whole Class Tutorial: Translation Techniques. Tips and Tricks.
Wed. 12/2      
Fri. 14/2  
  • Translation (150-178): Individual Students
 
Mon. 17/2-Friday 21/2: Reading Week (No classes)
7 Mon. 24/2 Verbs: The Major Declensions
1) Weak Verbs
  • 3. Ælfric’s Colloquy.
    • 3. Ælfric’s Colloquy.
      • Performance (131-167): Group D
      • Translation (108-149): Group A
  • Cheatsheet: Verbs Row;
  • §§ 87-88, 114: Introduction to OE Verbs; §§ 124-125: Weak verb lufian
Wed. 26/2      
Fri. 28/2 2) Strong Verbs
  • 3. Ælfric’s Colloquy.
    • Performance (168-205): Group B
    • Translation (179-215): Individual Students
  • Cheatsheet: Verbs Row;
  • §§ 110-113: Strong Verb singan
8 Mon. 3/3 3) Irregular verbs
  • 4. Ælfric’s Life of Edward, 126 (beginning)-149 (translation)
  • Cheatsheet: Verbs Row;
  • §§ 126, 127, A.3b: habban, bēon, wēorðian
Wed. 5/3 History   Read “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” in The Anglo-Saxon World
Fri. 7/3  
  • 4. Ælfric’s Life of Edward, 150-180
 
9 Mon. 10/3 Adjectives: Declension and Syntax
  • 4. Ælfric’s Life of Edward, 180-212
  • Cheatsheet: Adjectives column;
  • §§ 66-67 Strong adjectives (learn gōd not til)
Wed. 12/3  
  • 4. Ælfric’s Life of Edward, 212-250
 
Fri. 14/3  
  • 4. Ælfric’s Life of Edward, 250-292
 
10 Advanced Paradigms and Translation Review 17/3-24/3
Mon. 17/3 Statuatory Holiday
Wed. 19/3      
Fri. 21/3  
  • 4. Ælfric’s Life of Edward, 292-331 (end)
 
11 Mon. 24/3  
  • 9. Bede’s Account of the Poet Cædmon, 1-35
 
Wed. 26/3 Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Metre
  • 9. Bede’s Account of the Poet Cædmon, 35-44 (Cædmon’s Hymn)
Fri. 28/3  
  • 9. Bede’s Account of the Poet Cædmon, 45-86
 
12 Mon. 31/3  
  • 9. Bede’s Account of the Poet Cædmon, 87-126 (end)
 
Wed. 2/4 Paleography Tutorial: Whole Class
Fri. 4/4  
  • 14. The Dream of the Rood, 1-20a
 
13 Mon. 7/4  
  • 14. The Dream of the Rood, 40-60a
 
Wed. 9/4  
  • 14. The Dream of the Rood, 60b-80a
 
Fri. 11/4  
  • 14. The Dream of the Rood, 80b-101a
 
14 Mon. 14/4  
  • 14. The Dream of the Rood, 101b-121
 
Wed. 16/4 No class
Fri. 18/4 No class
Independent Research Project Due.
  22/4-30/4 Final Exam Period
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