What Did Old English Sound Like? Hear Reconstructions of Beowulf, The Bible, and Casual Conversations

What is the English language? Is it Anglo-Saxon? It is tempting to think so, in part because the definition simplifies a linguistic history that defies linear summary. Over the course of 1000 years, the language came together from extensive contact with Anglo-Norman, a dialect of French; then became heavily Latinized and full of Greek roots and endings; then absorbed words from Arabic, Spanish, and dozens of other languages, and with them, arguably, absorbed concepts and pictures of the world that cannot be separated from the language itself.

Shakespeare and other writers filled in the gaps (and still do), inventing words where they were lacking. Why do we then refer to the long-dead Anglo-Saxon language as “Old English,” if it is only a distant ancestor, and one, you’ll note, no English speaker today understands? There are many technical reasons for this, but to put it in plain terms: if English were a body, Anglo-Saxon might be the bones and ligaments: not only for the hardness of its consonants and its blunt, unadorned poetry, but because it contains the most common words in the language, the structural bits that hold together all those pan-linguistic borrowings.

Observe the piece of verse known as Cædmon’s Hymn, below. Amidst the tangle of unfamiliar phonemes and extinct letters like the “þ,” you cannot miss such bedrock words as “and,” “his,” “or,” “He,” and “to.” In other texts, you’ll find recognizable equivalents of “father,” "mother," “husband,” “wife,” “good,” “god," and many other common household words.

Nu sculon herian     heofonrices Weard,
Metodes mihte     and his modgeþanc,
weorc Wuldorfæder,     swa he wundra
gehwæs
ece Dryhten,     or onstealde.
He ærest scop     eorþan bearnum
heofon to hrofe     halig Scieppend.
þa middangeard     mancynnes Weard
ece Dryhten,     æfter teode
firum foldan     Frea ælmihtig.

Despite sharing many words with modern English, however, Anglo Saxon is another language, from an entirely different world long disappeared. No one living, of course, knows exactly what it sounded like, so scholars make their best educated guesses using internal evidence in the scant literature, secondary sources in other languages from the time, and similarities to other, living languages. Now that you’ve seen what Old English looks like, hear how it sounds to modern ears.

In the video at the top, student of the language Stephen Roper reenacts a casual conversation with an Anglo-Saxon speaker, one who can understand but cannot speak contemporary English. The other examples here come from literary contexts. Further up, Justin A. Jackson, Professor of English at Hillsdale College, reads the opening lines of Beowulf, and just above, hear an unnamed narrator read the epic poem’s full Prologue.

Just below—backed by a dramatic, droning score and recited over footage of misty English moors—a reading of “The Lord’s Prayer” in 11th century Old English. In this text, you’ll pick out quite a few more familiar words, though the fact that most readers know the modern English equivalent probably doesn’t hurt. But if you feel confident after listening to these speculative reconstructions of the language, enough to take a crack at reading it aloud yourself, head over this University of Glasgow collection of Old English readings.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Dictionary of Words Invented to Name Emotions We All Feel, But Don’t Yet Have a Name For: Vemödalen, Sonder, Chrysalism & Much More

Philosophers have always distrusted language for its slipperiness, its overuse, its propensity to deceive. Yet many of those same critics have devised the most inventive terms to describe things no one had ever seen. The Philosopher’s Stone, the aether, miasmas—images that made the ineffable concrete, if still invisibly gaseous.

It's important for us to see the myriad ways our common language fails to capture the complexity of reality, ordinary and otherwise. Ask any poet, writer, or language teacher to tell you about it—most of the words we use are too abstract, too worn out, decayed, or rusty. Maybe it takes either a poet or a philosopher to not only notice the many problems with language, but to set about remedying them.

Such are the qualities of the mind behind The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a project by graphic designer and filmmaker John Koenig. The blog, YouTube channel, and soon-to-be book from Simon & Schuster has a simple premise: it identifies emotional states without names, and offers both a poetic term and a philosopher’s skill at precise definition. Whether these words actually enter the language almost seems beside the point, but so many of them seem badly needed, and perfectly crafted for their purpose.

Take one of the most popular of these, the invented word “Sonder,” which describes the sudden realization that everyone has a story, that “each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” This shock can seem to enlarge or diminish us, or both at the same time. Psychologists may have a term for it, but ordinary speech seemed lacking.

Sonder likely became as popular as it did on social media because the theme “we’re all living connected stories” already resonates with so much popular culture. Many of the Dictionary’s other terms trend far more unambiguously melancholy, if not neurotic—hence “obscure sorrows.” But they also range considerably in tone, from the relative lightness of Greek-ish neologism “Anecdoche”—"a conversation in which everyone is talking, but nobody is listening”—to the majorly depressive “pâro”:

the feeling that no matter what you do is always somehow wrong—as if there’s some obvious way forward that everybody else can see but you, each of them leaning back in their chair and calling out helpfully, “colder, colder, colder…”

Both the coinages and the definitions illuminate each other. Take "Énouement," defined as “the bittersweetness of having arrived in the future, seeing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self.” A psychology of aging in the form of an eloquent dictionary entry. Sometimes the relationship is less subtle, but still magical, as in the far from sorrowful “Chrysalism: The amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm.”

Sometimes, it is not a word but a phrase that speaks most poignantly of emotions that we know exist but cannot capture without deadening clichés. “Moment of Tangency” speaks poignantly of a metaphysical philosophy in verse. Like Sonder, this phrase draws on an image of interconnectedness. But rather than taking a perspective from within—from solipsism to empathy—it takes the point of view of all possible realities.

Watch the video for "Vemödalen: The Fear That Everything Has Already Been Done" up top. See several more short films from the project here, including “Silience: The Brilliant Artistry Hidden All Around You”—if, that is, we could only pay attention to it. Below, find 23 other entries describing emotions people feel, but can’t explain.

1. Sonder: The realization that each passerby has a life as vivid and complex as your own.
2. Opia: The ambiguous intensity of Looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable.
3. Monachopsis: The subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place.
4 Énouement: The bittersweetness of having arrived in the future, seeing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self.
5. Vellichor: The strange wistfulness of used bookshops.
6. Rubatosis: The unsettling awareness of your own heartbeat.
7. Kenopsia: The eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet.
8. Mauerbauertraurigkeit: The inexplicable urge to push people away, even close friends who you really like.
9. Jouska: A hypothetical conversation that you compulsively play out in your head.
10. Chrysalism: The amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm.
11. Vemödalen: The frustration of photographic something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist.
12. Anecdoche: A conversation in which everyone is talking, but nobody is listening
13. Ellipsism: A sadness that you’ll never be able to know how history will turn out.
14. Kuebiko: A state of exhaustion inspired by acts of senseless violence.
15. Lachesism: The desire to be struck by disaster – to survive a plane crash, or to lose everything in a fire.
16. Exulansis: The tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it.
17. Adronitis: Frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone.
18. Rückkehrunruhe: The feeling of returning home after an immersive trip only to find it fading rapidly from your awareness.
19. Nodus Tollens: The realization that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore.
20. Onism: The frustration of being stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time.
21. Liberosis: The desire to care less about things.
22. Altschmerz: Weariness with the same old issues that you’ve always had – the same boring flaws and anxieties that you’ve been gnawing on for years.
23. Occhiolism: The awareness of the smallness of your perspective.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How a Word Enters the Dictionary: A Quick Primer

Given that you’re reading this on the Internet, we presume you'll be able to define many of the over 800 words that were added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2018:

biohacking

bougie

bingeable

guac

hangry

Latinx

mocktail

zoodles

But what about some of the humdingers lexicographer Kory Stamper, former associate editor for Merriam-Webster and author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, unleashes in the above video?

prescriptivism

descriptivism

sprachgefühl

etymological fallicist

(Bonus: bird strike)

And here we thought we were fluent in our native tongue. Face palm, to use another newish entry and an example of descriptivism. (It’s when the dictionary follows the culture’s lead, according novelty its due by officially recognizing words that have entered the parlance, rather than prescribing the way citizens should be speaking.)

To hear Stamper tell it, dictionary writing is a dream gig for readers as well as word lovers.

Part of every day is spent reading, flagging any unfamiliar words that may pop up for further research.

Did teenage slang give rise to it?

Was it born of business trends or tech industry advances?

Stamper is adamant that language is not fixed, but rather a living organism. Words go in and out of fashion, and take on meanings beyond the ones they sported when first included in the dictionary. (Have a look at “extra” to see some evolutionary effects of the English language and back it up with a peek inside the Urban Dictionary.)

Before a word passes dictionary muster, it must meet three criteria: it must have crossed into widespread use, it seems likely to stick around for a while, and it must have some sort of substantive meaning, as opposed to being known solely for its length (“antidisestablishmentarianism”), or some other structural wonder.

“Iouea” contains all five regular vowels and no other letters. The fact that it exists to describe a genus of sea sponges may seem somewhat beside the point to all but marine biologists.

What new words will enter the lexicon in 2019?

Perhaps we should look to the past. We set Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveler dial back 100 years to discover the words that debuted in 1919. There’s an abundance of goodies here, some of whose WWI-era context has already expanded to accommodate modern meaning (anti-stress, fanboy, superpimp, unbuffered). Readers, care to take a stab at freshening up some other candidates:

apple-knocker

buckshee

capeskin

cultigen

gametophore

interrogee

micromethod

neuroprotective

outgas

prereturn

putsch

scenarist

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City January 14 as host of Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Why Is English So Hard to Learn?: The Ingenious Poem, “The Chaos,” Documents 800 Irregularities in English Spelling and Pronunciation

In 1920, Dutch writer and traveler Gerard Nolst Trenité, also known as Charivarius, published a textbook called Drop Your Foreign Accent: engelsche uitspraakoefeningen. In the appendix, he included a poem titled “The Chaos,” a virtuoso, tongue-twisting demonstration of somewhere around 800 irregularities in English spelling and pronunciation. No one now remembers the textbook, and the poem might have disappeared too were it not for efforts of the Simplified Spelling Society, which tracked fragments of it through “France, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Turkey.”

The poem's history, as told in the Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society (JSSS) in 1994, shows how it traveled around Europe, in pieces, confounding and bedeviling aspiring English speakers. Full of homonyms, loan words, and words which—at one time—actually sounded the way they’re spelled, the poem’s fifty-eight stanzas may be the most clever and comprehensive “concordance of cacographic chaos,” as the JSSS puts it. Admired by linguists and historians of English, it has, since its 1994 republication, become something of a cult hit for enthusiasts of language everywhere.

You can read it here, hear it read above by YouTube’s Lindybeige, and see a transcription into IPA, the international phonetic alphabet. Though it's popularly represented as a kind of sorting mechanism for “the English-Speaking Elite,” that’s hardly accurate. English once sounded like this and this, then like this, and now sounds completely different according to hundreds of regional dialects and accents around the world. The society gestures toward this in their introduction, writing, “the selection of examples now appears somewhat dated, as do a few of their pronunciations. Indeed a few words may even be unknown to today’s readers.”

“How many will know what a ‘studding-sail’ is, or that its nautical pronunciation is ‘stunsail’?,” asks the JSSS. It seems reasonable to wonder how many people ever did. In any case, English, Lindybeige writes, “is a rapidly-changing language,” and one that has not made much phonetic sense for several centuries. This is exactly what has made it such a bear to learn to spell and pronounce—for both English language learners and native speakers. Try your hand at reading every word in “The Chaos,” preferably in front of an audience, and see how you do.

via Mental Floss/The Poke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Napoleon’s English Lessons: How the Military Leader Studied English to Escape the Boredom of Life in Exile

When we talk about country club prison sentences, we tend to imagine a marginal amount of time spent on the inside, though the phrase sounds like an extended vacation. Napoleon Bonaparte—exiled to the island of St. Helena for his crimes against Europe—got the full treatment, what some might even call a sweetheart deal. As the Public Domain Review notes, “the British had agreed to provide Le Petit Caporal with plentiful wine, meat, and musical instruments.” He was given his own comfortable lodgings, a spacious country house, though it’s said to have been draughty and full of rats.

On the other hand, Napoleon had to foreswear “what he most craved—family, power, Europe,” for a condition of extreme isolation. The loss weighed heavily. After spending six years 1200 miles from shore, he died, some say of poisoning, but others say of boredom. Of his few amusements, conversing with Count Emmanuel de Las Cases—“historian and loyal supporter who had been allowed to voyage with him to Saint Helena”—proved most stimulating. Prevented from receiving newspapers in French, he longed to read the few he found in English.

Las Cases endeavored to teach Napoleon the language of his jailers, and the former Emperor struggled mightily to learn it. After three months on the island, he spent the following three studying every day, eventually producing translations from his French like that below:

When will you be wise
Never as long as j should be in this isle
But j shall become wise after having passed the line
When j shall land in France j shall be very content…

My wife shall come near to me, my son shall be great and strong if he will be able to trink a bottle of wine at dinner j shall [toast] with him… / The women believe they [are] ever prety / The time has not wings / When you shall come, you shall see that j have ever loved you.

Eight pages in Napoleon’s own hand remain from his time as a student of English on St. Helena in the first few months of 1816. They are “some of the most evocative documents we have from Napoleon’s time” on the island, the Fondation Napoleon writes, bearing “poignant witness to the frustration Napoleon felt in exile…. It is tempting to read a refusal of exile in these sheets, both in the sentences themselves, and in Napoleon’s insistent use of ‘j’ (as in the French ‘je’) rather than the English ‘I.’”

In one letter that survives from March 7, 1816 (see it scanned above), written for Las Cases to correct the following day, Napoleon takes stock of his progress, or lack thereof.

Count lascases — Since sixt week j learn the Englich and j do not any progress. Six week do fourty and two day. If might have learn fivity word four day I could know it two thusands and two hundred. It is in the dictionary more of fourty thousand; even he could must twinty bout much of tems for know it our hundred and twenty week, which do more two yars. After this you shall agrée that to study one tongue is a great labour who it must do into the young aged.

Las Cases reports that his student “had an extraordinary intelligence but a very bad memory.” Grammar came much more easily than vocabulary. His frustration over being “imprisoned in the middle of this language” is recorded in Las Cases' Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, a record of his fifteen months on the island with Napoleon. The book became “a publishing sensation” and would “do much,” the Public Domain Review writes, “to turn the perception of Napoleon from a dictator into a liberator.”

via Public Domain Review

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Movie Accent Expert Analyzes 31 Actors Playing Other Famous People: Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy, Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan, and More

Well-known figures' voices are often as distinctive as their thousand-watt smiles and influential hairdos.

While there is some evidence as to the accents and idiosyncratic speech patterns of such historical heavy hitters as Thomas Edison, Florence Nightingale, and Harry Houdini, technological improvements have really upped the ante for those charged with impersonating real life people from the mid 20th-century onward.

Natalie Portman had to sustain her Jackie Kennedy impersonation for an entire feature-length biopic, a performance dialect coach Erik Singer gives high marks, above. Portman, he explains, has truly internalized Jackie’s idiolect, the individual quirks that add yet another layer to such signifiers as class and region.

As evidence, he submits a side-by-side comparison of the First Lady’s famous 1962 televised tour of the White House renovations she had spearheaded, and Portman’s recreation thereof.

Portman has done her homework with regard to breath pattern, pitch, and the refinement that strikes most 21st century ears as a bit stilted and strange. Most impressive to Singer is the way Portman transfers Kennedy’s oddly musical elongation of certain syllables to other words in the script. Tis no mere parrot job.

Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning turn as Ray Charles succeeds on copious research and his ability to inhabit Charles’ habitual smile. Obviously, the posture in which an individual holds their mouth has a lot to do with the sound of their voice, and Foxx was blessed with plenty of source material.

The 1982 epic Gandhi provided the versatile Ben Kingsley with the opportunity to showcase not one, but two, idiolects. The adult Gandhi underwent a dramatic and well documented evolution from the British accent he adopted as a young law student in London to a proudly Indian voice better suited to inspiring a nation to unify against its British colonizers.

It’s likely that many of us have never considered the speech-related building blocks Singer scrutinizes while analyzing 29 other performances for the WIRED video, above—epenthesis, tongue positions, relative degrees of emphatic muscularity, and retroflex consonants—but it’s easy to see how they play a part.

Singer invites you to expand his research and teaching library by recording yourself speaking extemporaneously and reading from two sample texts here. Pray that whoever plays you in the biopic gets it right.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City through December 20th in the 10th anniversary production of Greg Kotis’ apocalyptic holiday tale, The Truth About Santa, and the book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

These Four Manuscripts Contain All of the Literature Written in Old English–and Beyond That, There’s Nothing More

Book historians and rare manuscript librarians do not have the most glamorous jobs by the usual standards. They deal with weathered, tattered, fragmentary scraps of text in archaic languages and lettering. It’s work unlikely to receive the Hollywood (or Netflix) treatment unless wizards, witches, or occult detectives are involved. But the relative obscurity of these professions does not make the work any less valuable. Without dedicated archivists and preservationists, a slow collective amnesia, or worse, can set in.

One might call this attitude precious. Specialists are useful, art is great, but with sophisticated machine learning, we can make, store, and print copies of every historical artifact in the world, along with all of the accumulated knowledge about them. What need to dote on crumbling manuscripts? Why the special status of the original? The question, taken up by Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” comes down in part to something he called “aura.”

Take the case of four manuscripts, all of which recently appeared together at the British Library’s extensive exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War: The Vercelli Book, the Junius Manuscript, the Exeter Book, and the Beowulf Manuscript contain riddles, religious texts, elegies, and the oldest manuscript of the oldest known poem in English. These represent the sum total of extant original literary manuscripts in Old English, a tongue several centuries distant from our own but still embedded deep within the structure of every modern version of the language.

Each manuscript has what, as Benjamin wrote, “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking… its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Josephine Livingstone puts the matter more plainly at The New Republic.

Why are these four books so special? It has to do, I think, with the concept of the original—a concept we have almost entirely lost touch with. The Beowulf Manuscript… is not merely a representation of a story; it is the story…. The manuscripts confront us with a former version of our literary selves; identities that we barely recognize, and which estrange us from ourselves.

We can reproduce history infinitely, but the only way to experience the humbling otherworldliness that dwarfs our cramped ideas about it is through its physical remainders. Livingstone doesn’t clarify whom she includes in the phrase “our literary selves,” but we might as well say, at minimum, this means every speaker of English and everyone who has read English literature in translation or felt the influence of English words and phrases in other languages.

We acquire the language we hear and read from literary sources, however remote; they are constitutive, the threads that weave together cultural narratives into a larger pattern. The original work of art, Benjamin argued, like the relic, has religious significance. And where the relic grounds the cult, art grounds material culture in such a way, he thought, that it repels fascism's aesthetic obsession with destruction.

Original artifacts “must restore the instinctual power of the human bodily senses,” literary scholar Susan Buck-Morss elaborates, “for the sake of humanity’s self-preservation.” The statement may sound less grandiose in the context of Europe in 1936, or we might consider it just as relevant today (and expand it to include not only art but nature).

We can rely on the fact that, should the Beowulf Manuscript be destroyed, Livingstone grants, “the poem would still survive,” as would the image of the manuscript in very fine detail. That is “the hope contained in Benjamin’s dirge.” But what is lost can never appear in the world again. You can view most of these rare texts—The Vercelli Book, the Junius Manuscript, and the Beowulf Manuscript—in high resolution scans at the British and Bodleian Libraries.

The texts are a minuscule sampling of the number of cultural artifacts around the world worthy of preservation, and publicity. And they are a tiny sampling of the literary production of Old English. But on them rests a great deal of our understanding about the linguistic ancestors of the language, with more to learn, perhaps, as scanning technology becomes even more advanced, illuminating rather than replacing the original.

via The New Republic

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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