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Bibles for students of literature

Posted by (2010-10-14 12:34)

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Many contemporary students do not know the bible particularly well. This can be because they come from non-religious families, or families whose religious background is not Judeo-Christian. But even many students from quite religious, Christian or Jewish backgrounds find their knowledge of the bible to be less good than they might wish for literary study.

A student once gave me a great tip for those who feel you don’t know the bible well enough to recognise allusions to the major stories from the Old and New Testaments: buy a children’s bible.

Children’s bibles tend to focus on the most important and widely known stories, and some even come with notes explaining how (for example) Old Testament stories are understood by Christians as presaging events in the New Testament.

If you are an English major and don’t know your bible reasonably well, you should consider—in addition to reading a children’s bible—reading a good translation of the bible yourself as well. It is less long than you might think (especially the new Testament).

If you don’t know what to read, here are some options:

The above bibles are all Protestant. The Protest and Catholic Bibles vary to a certain extent—particularly with regard to the order and composition of the Old Testament (see http://www.twopaths.com/faq_bibles.htm). Here are some Catholic options:

All of these bibles are new translations from the original languages.This means they don’t reflect the version people read in the Middle Ages (which was Latin). But for general purposes they are good enough.

Medieval readers knew the bible primarily from the Vulgate, a Latin version translated by Jerome by the beginning of the fifth century; there were also translations into Old and Middle English from this. And there was some knowledge, especially in the case of the Psalms, of older, pre-Vulgate Latin translations.

If you want to get closer to this experience, the Douay-Rheims is a 16th Century Catholic translation of the Vulgate. Copies are available on line, including here (a Latin/English verse-by-verse translation) and here.

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Posted: Thursday October 14, 2010. 12:34.

Last modified: Thursday September 20, 2012. 11:42.

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The Old English Alphabet

Posted by (2008-09-18 16:15)

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Old English texts were copied in manuscripts by scribes. These scribes used an alphabet based on the Latin alphabet, but with some native additions and occasionally runes.

The most important of these additions were

Otherwise the Old English alphabet contained more or less the same letters as the Modern English alphabet, though as we’ll see, several looked somewhat different. The main exceptions are our letters k, v, z, w, the Norman-derived spellings wh, th, sh, and also dg (as in edge), and some differences in the sounds associated with the letters c, g, f, s, and y (For a more detailed discussion of these sounds with example sound files, see my tutorial on the Pronunciation of Old English).

Although Old and Modern English have a large number of letters in common, the forms of these letter were not always the same. Some of the differences can be seen if you compare the image below, a detail from the late tenth/early eleventh century manuscript Winchester Cathedral I folio 81r showing the text of Cædmon’s Hymn, with its transcription in a modern computer font:

Nuƿe sculon heria
heri heofon rices ƿ
metoddes mihte ⁊h
mod ge þanc ƿeorc ƿ

(Winchester Cathedral I folio 81r. Manuscript reproduced with the permission of the Dean and Chapter of Winchester/Winchester Cathedral Library. Please to not reproduce without permission). The background to this image has been simplified slightly for pedagogical purposes. The unmodified version is available here.

In addition to these letters, Anglo-Saxon scribes also very occasionally use runes, as letters in their own right and occasionally to stand for a complete word. Thus the rune ᛟ (eþel) sometimes appears instead of the word eþel ‘estate’, ‘homestead’ in Old English texts. Most often, however, the use of runes in Old English manuscripts is ornamental or self-consciously literary.

Computers and the Anglo-Saxon alphabet.

All Anglo-Saxon letters, including þ, ð, and ƿ are represented in Unicode, the modern standard for encoding characters on a computer.

Old English Character Unicode Code Point
Minuscule Majuscule Lowercase Uppercase
þ Þ U+00FE U+00DE
ð Ð U+00F0 U+00D0
ƿ Ƿ U+01BF U+01F7

A runic alphabet can be found in Unicode between U+16A0 and U+16F0.

On most modern computer systems, these characters can be accessed via a character map utility or, within a word processor, via the Insert Special Characters menu option. It is also possible to modify your keyboard to allow direct typing. See, for Linux, my article on creating custom keyboards. Commercial software allowing you to achieve similar effects is available for both Mac and Windows.

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Posted: Thursday September 18, 2008. 16:15.

Last modified: Wednesday May 23, 2012. 18:55.

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Basic Old English Grammar

Posted by (2008-09-18 16:13)

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Old English as an Inflectional Language

Old English and Modern English can be deceptively similar from a syntactic point of view. In particular, word order frequently is the same in the two languages (though Old English is actually probably closer in some aspects of its word order to other Low German languages such as Dutch). This means that it is often possible to translate simple declarative sentences from Old English by simply looking up the meaning of each word in a dictionary.

This similarity is deceptive, however, because speakers of Modern English and speakers of Old English thought of their languages’ grammar in different ways. To speakers of Modern English, word order is by far the most important syntactic clue to a sentence’s grammar: we always try to make the subject of a sentence out of the first word or phrase and the verb out of the second, even if other features are telling us otherwise.

To speakers of Old English, on the other hand, word order was only one clue to a sentence’s grammatical sense—and even then not necessarily the most important: a speaker of Old English would pay as much or more attention to a word’s inflections (special endings—like “apostrophe s” in Modern English—that indicate a word’s grammatical function in a sentence) in deciphering a sentence as to a word’s position in the sentence.

This can be best illustrated by an example. Consider the following sentence:

me broke the bridge

Most speakers of Modern English, would understand the above sentence as meaning “I broke the bridge.” Although the “subject” me is actually what most standard varieties of English would consider to be an object form, its position at the beginning of the sentence trumps this consideration: the word comes first, so it must be the subject; the bridge, likewise, must be the object, because it follows the verb—even though its form would also suit a subject. In other words, no speaker of Modern English would allow the information provided by the sentence’s morphology (the form of the words and their endings) to overrule conflicting information from the sentence’s word order. Except in the most extreme cases—such as in the following sentence, which an informal survey suggests most speakers of Modern English have trouble understanding—speakers of Modern English always resolve conflicts between word order and morphology in word order’s favour:

The girl’s breaks the bridge

Speakers of Old English, on the other hand, seem to have privileged morphology over word order. When information from a word’s position in the sentence and its morphology conflict, morphology generally triumphs.

Here are two translations of the first example sentence into Old English:

me bræc þære bricg
me bræc seo bricg

Semantically (in terms of meaning), the words in each sentence are identical to the first Modern English example: me means me, bræc means broke, seo and þære are both forms of a word meaning the, and bricg means bridge.

Syntactically, however, only the second sentence makes any kind of sense in Old English—and it means “the bridge broke me.” If we keep me, the object form of the first person pronoun, as the first word of the sentence, the sentence can never mean “I broke the bridge” in Old English1; to an Anglo-Saxon, a subject is only a subject if it has the correct morphological form. In the first Old English sentence, all the words except the verb broke are in the object form (þære is an object form of “the” in Old English): to a speaker of Old English, it is as hard to decipher as “The girl’s breaks the bridge” is to us. In the second Old English example, seo bricg is in the subject form (seo is a subject form of “the”). To an Anglo-Saxon, that means it must be the subject, despite its odd place in the sentence (Anglo-Saxons prefer Subject-Verb-Object word order, just like we do, even if they can understand sentences that violate it).

What this means is that in learning to read Old English, we must train ourselves to privilege morphology over word order. If the endings don’t make sense, we have to train ourselves to find the sentence as being as non-sensical as “The girl’s breaks the bridge,” regardless of whether we think we could come up with a sensible sentence by just following the word order.

It also means that we will have to learn some inflectional morphology (i.e. the pattern of endings, like “apostrophe s” in Modern English, that indicate a word’s grammatical function in a sentence). Modern English has relatively little inflectional morphology: nouns can have ‘s or s’ for the possessive and indicate singular and plural; verbs can use the presence or absence of s to indicate person in the present (i.e. whether the subject is “I”, “you” or “he/she/it.” Only in the case of the personal pronouns (I/we, you/you, he, she, it/they) do we have a more complete set of endings that allow us to do things like distinguish among subjects and objects (a more thorough discussion of basic Modern English morphology can be found in my tutorial Grammar Essentials I: Inflections/Inflectional Morphology):

First person pronoun
Number Function Form
Singular Subject I
Object/Indirect Object me
Possessive my
Plural Subject we
Object/Indirect Object us
Possessive our
Second person pronoun
Number Function Form
Singular Subject you
Object/Indirect Object you
Possessive your
Plural Subject you
Object/Indirect Object you
Possessive your
Third person pronoun
Number Function Form
Singular Subject he she it
Object/Indirect Object him her it
Possessive his her its
Plural Subject they
Object/Indirect Object them
Possessive their

In Old English, similar patterns of inflections are found on other types of words as well: articles (more properly in this case known as demonstrative pronouns), like this, that, and the; nouns; and adjectives. In the same way we can distinguish between subject and object forms of a pronoun by form (even if we sometimes ignore this information), so too Anglo-Saxons can distinguish between subject, object, possessive, and even indirect object forms of their pronouns, nouns, and adjectives (you can brush-up on your knowledge of Modern English word classes with my tutorial Grammar Essentials 2: Parts of Speech/Word Classes).

Learning these forms is a major goal of any Old English course. As you progress with our translations you will become increasingly familiar with the different forms for the various parts of speech. To begin with, however, we can start by learning the endings on the demonstrative and personal pronouns. These both (in the case of the personal pronouns) are the most similar to what we already know as speakers of Modern English, and, fortunately, show endings that we will see over and over again with other forms.

A note about terminology

In the above discussion, I have used the terms “subject,” “object,” “indirect object” when speaking of both word order and morphology. In actual fact this is not really accurate: subject, object, indirect object, and possessive are really syntactic functions (words that describe what a word does in the sentence) rather than morphological categories (some of which can perform more than one function). From now on, we will be using the more tradition inflectional terminology to describe cases:

Syntactic Function Morphological Form
Subject Nominative
Object Accusative
Possession Genitive
Indirect/Prepositional Object Dative

Each morphological form can perform more than one function—in Old English you use the subject form to call people as well as indicate the subject of a sentence, for example. But as a rule of thumb, the above table shows the main equivalences.

———————————-

Notes

1 “Never” is a large claim. In actual fact, of course, writers of Old English, like writers of any other language occasionally commit solecisms and in the very late period the endings became more confused.

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Posted: Thursday September 18, 2008. 16:13.

Last modified: Wednesday May 23, 2012. 18:56.

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An Anglo-Saxon Timeline

Posted by (2008-07-20 10:39)

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The following link is to an experiment in constructing a timeline of the Anglo-Saxon period: http://people.uleth.ca/~daniel.odonnell/Anglo-Saxon_Kings.xml It is very much a work in progress at the moment. The ultimate goal will be to have a synoptic oversight and index that will allow students to click on major events, persons, or cultural artefacts and then see how they fit in with other milestones.

At the moment, the chart only includes Kings. And even then still in fairly rough fashion.

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Posted: Sunday July 20, 2008. 10:39.

Last modified: Wednesday May 23, 2012. 19:00.

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How to Study Old English (or Latin or any other dead language) for a Test or an Exam

Posted by (2007-10-08 18:01)

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Introduction

Students who study Old English need to call on skills and learning techniques that they probably have not had much opportunity to use in other university-level literature classes, especially if this literature was in their native language. They need to know and keep in the front of their minds the grammar of both Old English and Modern English; they need to do intensive work with dictionaries and glossaries; and they are working with texts that can seem quite alien to modern sensibilities.

So how should you study in Old English class? Here are some tips I’ve compiled from personal experience and asking other scholars of my generation who have studied ancient or medieval languages (e.g. Latin, Greek, Old English, Old Frisian, etc.).

There is one principle running through them all: the point of an Old English class is to learn Old English. In everything you do you should keep the Old English at the centre of your work.

1. Do not write in your text book

The first tip is to avoid writing in your text book. When you come to study for a final exam, you will find a clean text book is much more useful for self-testing than one that has all your glosses marked on the page.

2. Write out the original text (in Old English) in your note book (1 side of the page, triple or quadruple spaced)

Writing out the target language is a useful habit to get into in the early days of your language study. It gets you used to the spelling conventions and trains your eye as to standard linguistic and lexical patterns. You may even find by the end of the semester that you are beginning to recognise unusual forms (particularly morphology) as you copy them out.

Triple or quadruple space your text in order to give you plenty of space for glossing, arrows, and corrections from your seminar.

You should write out your text on one side of the page only so that you can use the back of the previous page for additional notes: writing down words you find yourself looking up constantly (I used to write out every word I looked up), explanatory notes or idiomatic translations.

3. Gloss both sense and syntax.

As we’ve mentioned in class, translating from Old to Modern English involves two distinct types of translation: lexical/semantic and syntactic. It is not enough to know what a word means, you also need to understand what its inflections and position tell you it is doing in the sentence. Get in the habit early of writing both the meaning and information about grammatical form of words in the specific context you are translating—e.g. case, gender, number, person, tense, part of speech, etc. as applicable.

When you are glossing words, be sure to reflect the Old English syntax in your gloss. If you discover that a form like scipes is genitive singular, for example, gloss it as “of a ship” or “a ship’s” not as “ship”—this will help you put the sentence together in your head by preventing you from placing the form in the wrong place in your sentence.

This approach is particularly important with personal pronouns: the dative singular third person plural personal pronoun should be glossed initially as “by/with/to/for them” and not as “they” (which would be nominative, after all).

4. Leave the words in Old English word order and use arrows or numbers to indicate the correct order for your translation.

While it is tempting, especially in the early weeks of a class, to bring a finished running translation to class, this is less useful in the end than a glossed text. If you make a mistake in a finished translation, it can be difficult to correct—you need to rewrite your translation and this can be very difficult to do quickly in class. The problem is worse if you bring only a modern English translation to class: you’ll end up having no idea what went wrong because you won’t have a glossed Old English to consult.

If you leave the text in Old English word order and use arrows or numbers to help you figure out the order you should be using in your Modern English, you’ll find in-class correction much easier. Made a mistake in word order? Just scratch out the wrong arrows and add new ones showing the correct order.

5. Study by rereading everything—Two or three times!

The best way of studying for a translation exam is by rereading everything several times.

This may seem like an impossible task—how could you possibly reread in reading week or the week before an exam texts that took the entire class an entire semester to translate the first time?

In actual fact, you’ll find the translation goes much fast the second and third and fourth times:

  1. You know a lot more than you did at the beginning of the semester
  2. Your notebook has all the dictionary work and syntactic information and arrows you need, so you don’t need to look everything up again
  3. You know what the texts are about now, and, if you’ve been attending class, should recognise the difficult passages as soon as they show up in your reading.

I recommend the following approach to rereading your material

  1. On your first pass, read the Old English from your text book (fortunately you’ve not marked it up!). Keep your notebook open beside you. Consult your notebook as often as you need, but focus on your text book: you are trying to retranslate everything, not study your previous translations.
  2. On your second pass, try to read the Old English from your text book. This time, try not to consult your notebook except when you are really stuck. If you find yourself looking up words that you know you should know, write down these words and their translations on a list that you can use to study/memorise later.
  3. On your third and fourth passes try to read the Old English from your textbook with your notebook closed. If you really need to look something up, go ahead (either in your notebook or using the gloss at the back of the book), but push yourself not to. If you are stuck, try guessing before you look things up. Guessing is also a good skill to practice before you go into the exam!

By the time you’ve completed your third or fourth pass you are as prepared as you are ever going to be: get a good night’s sleep and come to the exam with a clear head!

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Posted: Monday October 8, 2007. 18:01.

Last modified: Wednesday May 23, 2012. 19:14.

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Insular Script

Posted by (2007-03-08 12:48)

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Here is a basic listing of letters in an insular script. The letters are from a manuscript of the early eleventh century.

Insular character
Modern equivalent a b c d e f g h i l m
Insular character
Modern equivalent n o p r s t ð þ u ƿ y
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Posted: Thursday March 8, 2007. 12:48.

Last modified: Wednesday May 23, 2012. 19:14.

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Grimm's Law and Verner's Law Notes

Posted by (2007-03-05 14:37)

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Grimm’s Law

Grimm’s law concerns an unconditioned sound change that affects all
Indo-European stops. In this change (examples mostly from Brinton and Arnovick),

Voiceless stops became voiceless fricatives

PIE PGmc Examples
Voiceless stops Voiceless fricatives
*p *f PIE *peisk- vs. OE fisc ‘fish’
*t PIE *tenu ‘to stretch’ vs. PDE thin
*k *x or *h (word-initial) PIE *krewə ‘raw meat/blood’ vs. OE hrēaw ‘raw’
*kw *xw or *hw (word-initial) PIE *kwod ‘what’ vs. OE hwæt ‘what’

Voiced stops became voiceless stops

PIE PGmc Examples
Voiced stops Voiceless stops
*b *p PIE *kan(n)abi- ‘cannabis’ vs. PDE hemp
*d *t PIE *dekm vs. PDE ten
*g *k PIE *grənom vs. PDE corn
*gw *kw PIE *gwei- vs. OE cwicu ‘alive’

Voiced aspirated stops became voiced fricatives and then voiced stops.

PIE PGmc Examples
Voiced aspirated stops Voiced fricatives Voiceless Fricatives
*bh *b PIE *bhrāter vs. OE broþer
*dh *d PIE * əndhero- vs. OE under
*gh *g or *h (word-initial) PIE *wegh vs. OE weg ‘road, way’
*gwh w *g or *w PIE *gwher ‘to heat’ vs. OE warm

Verner’s law

The first group mentioned above (voiceless stops) underwent an additional change in certain contexts due to the change from variable accent in Indo-European to fixed initial accent in Germanic. When these sounds appeared in a voiced environment (i.e. not initially or finally or next to other voiceless consonants) and were not immediately proceeded by the Indo-European stress, they went on to become a voiced stop. Under the same conditions, Indo-European */s/ became Germanic */r/.

PIE PGmc Examples
Voiceless stops Voiced fricatives Voiced stops
*p *b PIE *septm vs. Gothic síbun ‘seven’
*t *d PIE *pətēr vs. OE fæder ‘father’ (medial sound: d rather than t)
*k *g PIE *dukā vs. OE togian ‘tow’
*s *z *r PIE *ghaiso ‘stick’ vs. OE gār ‘spear’

A mnemonic

A useful way of remembering these sound changes (taught to me by Philip Rusche of UNLV) is to diagram each row of the above tables as a triangle:

To find the result of Grimm’s law, go one step clockwise around the triangle. Thus using the first triangle, we can see that PIE *bh became Gmc *b, PIE *b became Gmc *p, and PIE *p became Gmc *f. Verner’s law only affects the consonants at the top of the triangle. To see what they became after the effect of Verner’s law, go two steps clockwise around the triangle: so PIE *p became Gmc *b when it was subject to Verner’s law.

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Posted: Monday March 5, 2007. 14:37.

Last modified: Wednesday May 23, 2012. 19:16.

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Old English Metre: A Brief Guide

Posted by (2006-11-21 21:50)

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Although the Anglo-Saxons left no accounts of their metrical organisation, statistical and linguistic analysis of the poetic corpus has allowed us to come up with a good idea as to how their verse worked.

Like all early Germanic metres, Old English verse is accentual and alliterative. With very few exceptions, end rhyme does not play a structural role. And even when it is found, it never takes the place of alliteration (initial rhyme) in the earlier verse.

Stress and line division

The basic line consists of four stressed syllables and at least four lesser-stressed syllables (conventionally described as ‘unstressed’). A very strong caesura (metrical break) is found between stresses two and three. This caesura is so strong, indeed, that we tend to describe the verse in terms of half-lines: the half-line before the caesura is known as the a-verse or on-verse, the half-line after the caesura as the b-verse or off-verse.

In modern printed editions, on- and off-verses are separated graphically by a gap of three or four spaces, as in the following except from Cædmon’s Hymn (ed. O’Donnell 2005, adapted from the transcription of Tanner 10 [T1]):

Nu sculon herigean    heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte,    ond his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder—    swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece drihten,    or onstealde!

Now we must honour the guardian of heaven,
The might of the measurer, and his thoughts,
The work of the father of glory—as he, the eternal lord,
Created the beginning of each of wonders!

In Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, poetry is written from margin to margin, as in the following facsimile (reproduction) and diplomatic transcription from the same manuscript (adapted from O’Donnell 2005)1. While Anglo-Saxon scribes did not place each line of poetry on a separate line in their manuscripts, they often did mark line boundaries and caesuras with a raised point or other punctuation. There is also considerable evidence to suggest that they were aware of metre as they copied (see O’Brien O’Keeffe 1990 and O’Donnell 1996).

Detail from Oxford, Bodleian Library, Tanner 10 showing the beginning and end of Cædmon's Hymn. Contrast and colour balance has been artificially enhanced to show detail.

[ Approx. 28 characters omitted ] Nusculon herıgean heofon|
rıces ƿeard meotodes meahte ⁊hıs 〈mod〉geþanc ƿeorc|
ƿuldor fæder sƿahe ƿundra gehƿæs ee{c}e 〈a{d}〉rih〈t〉en or on|
stealde· he ærest sceop eorðan bearnū heofonto hrofe|
halıg scyppend· þamıddangeard moncynnes ƿeard ece|
drıhten æfter teode fın{r}um foldan frea ælmıhtıg· [ Approx. 3 characters omitted ]

Alliteration

The half-lines are tied together by alliteration. The rule is that one or both of stressed syllables in the on-verse must alliterate with the first stressed syllable in the off-verse. The second stressed syllable in the off-verse must not share in the alliteration. The following lines show the standard pattern of alliteration (alliterating syllables in bold):

meotodes meahte,    ond hıs modgeþanc,

weorc wuldorfæder—    swa he wundra gehwæs,

ece drıhten    æfter teode

Consonantal Alliteration

When the alliterating syllables begin with a consonant, the sounds must be identical. Hence s alliterates only with s, b only with b, and so on. This is also true of certain consonant clusters beginning with s: stressed syllables beginning with sp only alliterate with other stressed syllables beginning with sp, stressed syllables beginning with st only alliterate with other stressed syllables beginning with st, and stressed syllables beginning with sc alliterate only with other stressed syllables beginning with sc.

Two exceptions (though they may not look like exceptions to the beginning student) are stressed syllables beginning with the characters 〈c〉 and 〈g〉. For most of the historical period, these characters were used to represent two distinct sounds each: 〈c〉 was used for /ʧ/, the sound at the beginning of Modern English church (Old English cyric), and /k/, the sound at the beginning of Modern English king (Old English cyning); 〈g〉 was used for /y/, the sound at the beginning of Modern English yard (Old English geard), and /g/, the sound at the beginning of Modern English good (Old English gōd) (see Campbell 1959/1991, Chapter 1).2 Except in the latest Old English poetry, however, poets do not distinguish between these sounds in their alliteration: stressed syllables beginning with the letter 〈c〉 alliterate with other stressed syllables beginning in 〈c〉 regardless of whether the sound being represented is /ʧ/ or /k/; likewise, stressed syllables beginning with the letter 〈g〉 alliterate with other stressed syllables beginning with 〈g〉 regardless of whether the letter stands for /y/ or /g/. Thus Old English cēap ‘bargain, purchase’ (Modern English cheap) alliterates with cyn ‘race, tribe’ (Modern English kin) in Beowulf 2482:

heardan cēape;    Hæðcynne wearð

…a hard bargain; to Hæðcyn was…

More common is alliteration between /g/ and /k/ (e.g. as between begoten ‘covered’, golde (Modern English gold), and gimmas ‘jewels’ (Modern English gems) in The Dream of the Rood, 7:

begoten mid golde;    gimmas stōdon

In the tenth-century or later, poets do distinguish between these sounds in their alliteration (see Amos 1980). Thus in the late poem The Battle of Maldon, 32, the 〈g〉 in gārrǣs ‘Spear-rush’ and gafole ‘tribute’ (both of which would be pronounced /g/) alliterate with each other, but not with the 〈g〉 in forgieldan, which would be pronounced /j/ (compare Modern English yield which shares the same etymology)3:

þæt gē þisne gārrǣs    mid gafole forgielden

…that you repay this spear-rush with tribute…

Vocalic Alliteration

All vowels and diphthongs alliterate with each other (i.e. stressed syllables beginning in a can alliterate with stressed syllables beginning in æ, a, e, i, o, u, y, ea, eo, or ie). No distinction is made between short and long vowels or between vowels and dipthongs, and in practice better poets tended to avoid alliterating like vowels with like. It is for this reason perhaps better to understand ‘vocalic’ alliteration as reflecting the absence of consonantal alliteration than alliteration in its own right. Cædmon’s Hymn has three examples of vocalic alliteration:

ece drihten    or onstealde4

he ærest sceop    eorðan bearnum

ece drıhten    æfter teode

Accentual Patterns

Most half-lines in the Old English corpus belong to one or another of a limited number of accentual patterns. These patterns, which are traditionally called metrical types, are distinguished by the way in which the stressed, unstressed, and semi-stressed syllables are arranged.

Sievers types

Traditionally, there are said to be five major metrical types, organised according to a system first developed by Eduard Sievers, the late nineteenth-century German linguist who first identified them. The patterns (known as Sievers types) are named by letter, in descending order of frequency:

Type A: /×/×
Type B: ×/×/
Type C: ×//×
Type D: //\×
Type E: /\×/

(In this system of scansion, / is used to mark metrically stressed syllables, × is used to mark metrically ‘unstressed’ syllables, and \ to mark metrically ‘half-stressed’ syllables.)

Each of these types has a number of subtypes. These generally involve variation in the number of unstressed syllables or the replacement of an unstressed with a half-stressed syllable. Additional variants involve the placement of unstressed syllables before the first stress of Type A, D, and perhaps E lines (a technique known as anacrusis). A separate type of very long line—known as hypermetric and found particularly in the Dream of the Rood—is built along comparable principles. A useful beginning-level discussion of the various subtypes can be found in Pope and Fulk 2001, 129-158).

The following Modern English ‘poem’, adapted from Mitchell and Robinson 2001, p. 165, can be used to help you remember the different types:

Type A (/×/×) Anna angry
Type B (×/×/) And Bryhtnoth bold
Type C (×//×) In keen conflict
Type D (//\×) Drive Don backwards
Type E (/\×/) Each one with edge

Whether or not a syllable is metrically stressed depends on its length, word-stress and clause-stress.

Syllable Length

Syllables can be long in three different ways:

Long by nature

Syllables are long by nature when they contain a long vowel (marked with a macron in many textbooks and dictionaries). Stressed syllables that are long by nature (marked in bold) include:

Long by position

Syllables are long by position when they are followed by two or more consonants in the middle of a word or one or more consonants at the word boundary. Examples, marked in bold, include:

Resolution

Resolution is a purely metrical phenomenon where by short stressed syllables are counted as long if they are followed by an unaccented syllable that is not necessary for the metre; resolution is marked using a tie symbol: to connect the stressed and unstressed syllables. The following examples (bold) are all long because they can be “resolved” using the following (unstressed) syllable (italics):

Resolution depends on the metrical context: some sub-types allow the present of short stressed or unstressed syllables. The following example, for example, does not show resolution:

Word-stress
Primary stress

In Germanic (the ancestor of Old English and other languages like German and Dutch), primary stress fell on the first syllable of all words. In Old English, this rule is largely preserved, meaning that primary stress falls on the first syllable of all simple words and most compounds5:

unnytt, ‘useless’; giefu, ‘gift’; standan, ‘to stand’

The main exceptions (stressed syllables in bold) to this rule include

  1. The prefix ge-, which is never stressed, on any part of speech, e.g. gehwǣs, ‘of each’; gesittan, ‘to sit’; gesceaft, ‘creation’.
  2. Most ‘prefixes’ on verbs and adverbs, e.g. wiþsacan, ‘to refuse’; ætdere, ‘together’.
  3. for- and be- can be either stressed or unstressed on nouns: _forbod, ‘prohibition’ vs. forwyrd, ‘ruin’ (see Cambell 1959/1991, § 74).
Secondary stress

Secondary stress (italics) falls

Clause-Stress

Although every word in Old English has at least one stressed syllable, not all stressed syllables are equally prominent within the clause or sentence. As in Modern English, stressed syllables in nouns and adjectives tend to be more prominent than stressed syllables in pronouns or conjunctions:

Would an apple be as sweet?

On the other hand, words that usually take low sentence stress receive much heavier stress when they are out of position (compare the stress on I in the following):

I went up the mountain
Up the mountain went I

Stress and Word classes

In general terms, it is possible to classify Old English words in to three main metrical classes:

This metrical distinction reflects an underlying linguistic difference: words that are always stressed in Old English all belong to the open word-classes. Words that are rarely stressed all belong to the closed word-classes. The middle category, sometimes stressed involve categories that include words belonging to open and closed word classes.

Scansion of Cædmon’s Hymn

The following is a scansion of Cædmon’s Hymn using a modified form of the Sievers system. Letter names followed by a number (e.g. A-3 refer to common subtypes of the main five verse patterns. See Pope and Fulk 2001 for a detailed listing.

(A-3: ×××/×)Nū scylun hergan      hefaenricaes uard(E: /‿×\×/)
(A-1: /‿××/×)metudaes maecti      end his mōdgidanc(B: ××/×/)
(D-2: //(×)\×)uerc uuldụrfadur      suē hē uundra gihuaes(B-2: ××/××/)
(A-1: /×/×)ēci dryctin      ōr āstelidæ(A-1: /×/‿××)
(B-1: ×/×/)Hē āerist scōp      eordu barnum(A-1: /×/×)
(A-1: /‿××/×)heben til hrōfe      hāleg sceppend(A-1: /×/×)
(B-1: ×/×\)thā middungeard      moncynnæs uard(E: /\×/)
(A-1: /×/×)ēci dryctin      æfter tīadæ(A-1: /×/×)
(A-1: /×/×)fīrum foldu      frēa allmectig(D-1: //\×)

Other scansion systems

The Sievers system is generally considered to be descriptively adequate but theoretically deficient by contemporary metricists. As a result, considerable effort has been devoted over the last half-century or so to developing alternative accounts of the metre. The most widely accepted alternative system currently is the stress foot system, developed and described most thoroughly by Russom. Its details are beyond the scope of this short introduction.

Further reading

Excellent introductions to Old English scansion can be found in Mitchell and Robinson 2001, Appendix C, and Pope and Fulk 2001, 129-158. The original work by Sievers can be found in Sievers 1885-1887 and 1893. Most Anglo-Saxonists use a version of Sievers system developed by Bliss (1962/1993). The Stress-Foot system is developed in Russom 1987 and 1998; see also Bredehoft 2005 for some useful revisions.

Works Cited

Notes

1 For the conventions used in this transcription, see O’Donnell 2005, § ii.6.

2 Many introductory textbooks distinguish between these letters, using 〈ċ〉 to spell /ʧ/, 〈ġ〉 to spell /y/, and 〈c〉 and 〈g〉 to represent the sounds /k/ and /g/ respectively. These letters are not found in the original manuscripts, however; they are a modern development.

3 If forgielden shared in the alliteration, the line would be unmetrical, since, as we’ve seen above, the second stressed syllable in the off-verse must not share in the alliteration. While the metre of the Battle of Maldon is unusual in many respects, the poet does seem to observe this constraint.

4 onstealde does not share in the alliteration because the accent falls on steal not on.

5 A thorough and accessible discussion of Old English word stress (from which this account largely is derived) can be found in Campbell 1959/1991, Chapter II.

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Posted: Tuesday November 21, 2006. 21:50.

Last modified: Wednesday May 23, 2012. 19:25.

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