I Love Old English

In the past couple days, bored over a random school break that we have because Princeton’s academic calendar was designed for rich kids who live near campus, I decided to start studying Old English (OE; the language in which “Beowulf” was written), a language I’d kind of wanted to learn to read for years. It’s a little easier than Greek, a class which I wasn’t able to take this semester, so I thought it might fill my dead-language void. And it has! I’m learning all sorts of really cool things about the origin of the modern English language, and it’s incredible to be able to trace the evolution of some of our most common words. (And even in 9th century texts it’s easy to see how irregular OE is when compared to a language like Latin.)

What I particularly wanted to draw your attention to is a great list, courtesy of Wikipedia, of OE words that died out, to be replaced by Latin and French versions after the Norman Conquest (which is when the shift to Middle English, Chaucer’s English, is generally believed to have occurred). Wiki (which I generally trust in obscure academic matters) declares that the majority of OE words for body parts, especially the sexually-related ones, died out basically as soon as there were Latinate words available—or were relegated to vulgarity. They give some really cool examples: for example, the OE word for “anus” was earsgang. When you realize that the “ea” diphthong is pronounced like a flat “a” with a schwa on the end, the first syllable of that word sounds an awful lot like “arse.” Cool, right? I’m not sure what the “gang” is, though. The crappy little dictionary in the back of my grammar says that the verb gangen means “to go, proceed, move,” so it could be related to that. There’s also another arse word, útgang, which sounds like “outgoing”—and very frequently (but not always!) cognates in OE can be believed. Wiki also notes that “arse” took a long time to be considered vulgar, as it was used totally innocuously by Jonathan Swift—and certainly we see arses being bandied about in everything from Chaucer to Restoration comedy, though that’s definitely the bawdier side of English lit history.

Also, a couple words for “penis” (which, Wiki says, didn’t enter English until 1578): teors and wæpen, though the latter is not to be confused, I presume, with wæpon, which actually does mean weapon. I’m going to presume the two are related but of course I don’t know for sure. Some words for sexual intercourse are hæmed and liger, and I can’t even think of any remotely similar words in any form of English I’m familiar with, and Wiki gives no details about these words, which is quite interesting. (Incidentally, is “sex” Latin? I can’t remember.)

I hope you enjoyed that brief interlude of vulgar English etymology. I can totally keep going, too.

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3 thoughts on “I Love Old English

  1. shardsoftheline

    i hear that a committee of proper ladies came to congratulate johnson on having omitted dirty words from his dictionary, and that he in turn congratulated the ladies on being able to look them up.

  2. Timothy (TRiG)

    Here’s a set of words I love.

    sheep/mutton
    deer/venison
    cow/beef
    calf/veal

    It’s quite clear that one class of people was raising the animals and another class was eating them. The Germans are happy to eat swineflesh.

    TRiG.

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