The Bone-Locker’s Speech
The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English, by Hana Videen, (Princeton University Press: May 2022), 296 pages.
In October 2021, Merriam Webster added 455 new words to its dictionary, including “amirite” (short for “am I right?”), “finna” (a contraction for “going to”), and “deplatform.” Modern English has its fair share of strange phrases. We “book it” to late appointments, and people “drive us up the wall.” Southerners use “bubba” to refer to a young brother, Canadians “chirp” (tease) one another, and the British are “chuffed” at hearing some great news. Vocabulary is the product of our environment, and because of our increasingly digitized and virtual reality, Modern English terms are becoming increasingly abstract.
In her remarkable new book, Hana Videen, a Toronto-based writer and blogger who has a doctorate in Medieval English literature from King’s College London, shows that Old English speakers were not so different from us. The abundance of words they used to describe their surroundings reveal the people of A.D. 800 as nuanced and intelligent. Wordhord is not only an almanac of Old English vocabulary but an exploration of the culture of the Old English people through their language.
Videen argues that the English language before the Norman conquest of 1066 was at its most original, when it was only minorly influenced by Latin and a closer relative to both Old German and Norwegian. Most moderns, Videen notes, misplace Old English chronologically. We view Chaucer as an example of Old English, when in reality he uses Middle English, after the Norman conquest, when the language was fully influenced by French terms. Chaucer is understandable to a Modern English speaker. Old English, on the other hand, is unrecognizable.
One major difference between Old English and Modern English is how concrete Old English words could be. We see this in their terms for time, specifically their names for months. According to Videen, months were counted according to the phases of the moon and were named after festivities or seasonal changes. February was sol-mōnaƥ or “dirt-month,” most likely due to the excess amount of mud after the snow melted. May has a much more uplifting but stranger name: “three-milkings month.” Videen suggests that there was an abundance of vegetation, therefore an abundance of food for the cattle, forcing farmers to milk their cows three times a day. November was blōt-mōnaƥ or “sacrifice-month.” Bede claimed that Old English speakers were so pagan they devoted an entire month to sacrificing to their gods, but Videen speculates that Old English speakers killed two birds with one stone, appeasing their gods and stocking up on meat before the winter.
Their terms for months may seem archaic (though I think there should be a petition to rename February as “mud-month”), but they understood the experience of time better than we do now. They distinguished between a time for refreshment (rōt-hwīl), a time for leisure (æmet-hwīl), and a time for longing (langung-hwīl). Old English speakers focused on the harsh futility of time. Dust-scēawung (dust-viewing) described the contemplation, when staring at dust or ashes, of the futility of time and nearness of death, acknowledging that we are fæge (doomed or fated to die). By contrast, in Beowulf’s battle call, he asserts that those who are un-fæge (unfated to die) will be saved in battle. Time and death was beyond their control, and Old English vocabulary reflected it.
Old English speakers also had nuanced terms for emotions, specifically love. We draw from Greek to distinguish between brotherly and romantic love. Likewise, Old English speakers distinguished between love between friends (frēond-lufu), between a mother and child (bearn-lufe), and between family members (sib-lufu). They also differentiated between heart-love (heort-lufe), used in romantic contexts, and soul-love (gāst-lufu), which referred to the love one might feel for God. They also experienced morgen-colla, what we call “getting up on the wrong side of the bed” and they called “morning rage.”
Throughout Wordhord, Videen beautifully captures the everyday life of Old English speakers through their practical, everyday terms. It is clear how agrarian Old English culture was. For example, the rune “ᚠ” (feoh) means both cattle and wealth. The two were seen as synonymous. The word and idea for cū-wearm is particularly intriguing. We use numerical measures for temperature; “cow-warm” was the Old English measure for hot beverages. Their predominantly agrarian culture shaped their names for men and women. A man was a hlāf-weard, “bread guardian,” woman was hlæfdige, “bread maker,” and children were hlāf-æta, “bread eaters.” Hlāf-weard is where we get our modern phrase “bread-winner.”
In Old English society, friends represented the upstanding character of their companions. Being friendless indicated a character flaw. If placed on trial, Old English speakers would undergo a form of judgment—eating an ounce of bread and cheese without choking, for example—unless a friend attested to their character. Guests, particularly ān-gengas (lone-walkers), were welcomed in mead-halls only warily, since they arrived friendless.
A particularly unique part of Old English is kennings, metaphorical compound nouns. Wordhord, for example, is a combination of the terms word and hord (locker, trove), creating the term “word-locker” or “word-trove”—a more evocative word than “vocabulary.” While most kennings were used in poetry, some everyday kennings included bān-loca (bone locker) for body, “whale-road” for ocean, “day-candle” for the sun, “shoulder-companion” for friend, and my personal favorite, “walking-weaver” for spider.
Unfortunately, kennings are not as common now as they were then, but we still see what Videen calls “ghosts of Old English” in our vocabulary. “Word” has not changed since A.D. 800, and cild (child) and hælƥ (health) have barely altered. The word thrāl (slave) remains prevalent through our term “enthralled.” While “judgment” is a Norman term, the Old English dōm lives on in our word “doom.” Old English may seem like a foreign language, but our internet-influenced vocabulary is not untouched by it. “Unfriend,” a Middle English term that originated from Old English un-wine, was obsolete until Facebook gave it new life.
Margot Enns has a B.A. in English from Regent University. She has previously contributed to the University Bookman.