Hear Beowulf Read In the Original Old English: How Many Words Do You Recognize?

beowulf original
I was as sur­prised as most peo­ple are when I first heard the ancient lan­guage known as Old Eng­lish. It’s noth­ing like Shake­speare, nor even Chaucer, who wrote in a late Mid­dle Eng­lish that sounds strange enough to mod­ern ears. Old Eng­lish, the Eng­lish of Beowulf, is almost a for­eign tongue; close kin to Ger­man, with Latin, Norse, and Celtic influ­ence.

As you can hear in the Beowulf read­ing above from The Tele­graph, it’s a thick, con­so­nant-rich lan­guage that may put you in mind of J.R.R. Tolkien’s elvish. The lan­guage arrived in Briton—previously inhab­it­ed by Celtic speakers—sometime in the fifth cen­tu­ry, though whether the Anglo-Sax­on inva­sion was a hos­tile takeover by Ger­man­ic mer­ce­nar­ies or a slow pop­u­la­tion drift that intro­duced a new eth­nic­i­ty is a mat­ter of some dis­pute. Nev­er­the­less it’s obvi­ous from the read­ing above—and from texts in the lan­guage like this online edi­tion of Beowulf in its orig­i­nal tongue—that we would no more be able to speak to the Anglo-Sax­ons than we would to the Picts and Scots they con­quered.

So how is it that both the lan­guage we speak and its dis­tant ances­tor can both be called “Eng­lish”? Well, that is what its speak­ers called it. As the author of this excel­lent Old Eng­lish intro­duc­to­ry text­book writes, speak­ers of “Old Eng­lish,” “Mid­dle Eng­lish,” and “Mod­ern Eng­lish” are “them­selves mod­ern”; They “would have said, if asked, that the lan­guage they spoke was Eng­lish.” The changes in the lan­guage “took place grad­u­al­ly, over the cen­turies, and there nev­er was a time when peo­ple per­ceived their lan­guage as hav­ing bro­ken rad­i­cal­ly with the lan­guage spo­ken a gen­er­a­tion before.” And while “rel­a­tive­ly few Mod­ern Eng­lish words come from Old Eng­lish […] the words that do sur­vive are some of the most com­mon in the lan­guage, includ­ing almost all the ‘gram­mar words’ (arti­cles, pro­nouns, prepo­si­tions) and a great many words for every­day con­cepts.” You may notice a few of those dis­tant lin­guis­tic ances­tors in the Beowulf pas­sage accom­pa­ny­ing the read­ing above.

Beowulf is, of course, the old­est epic poem in Eng­lish, writ­ten some­time between the 8th and ear­ly 11th cen­tu­ry. It draws, how­ev­er, not from British sources but from Dan­ish myth, and is in fact set in Scan­di­navia. The title char­ac­ter, a hero of the Geats—or ancient Swedes—travels to Den­mark to offer his ser­vices to the king and defeat the mon­ster Gren­del (and his moth­er). The prod­uct of a war­rior cul­ture, the poem shares much in com­mon with the epics of Homer with its code of hon­or and praise of fight­ing prowess. And here see vocal­ist, harpist, and medieval schol­ar Ben­jamin Bag­by per­form the open­ing lines of the poem as its con­tem­po­rary audi­ence would have expe­ri­enced it—intoned by a bard with an Anglo-Sax­on harp. The mod­ern Eng­lish sub­ti­tles are a boon, but close your eyes for a moment and just lis­ten to the speech—see if you can pick out any words you rec­og­nize. Then, per­haps, you may wish to turn to Ford­ham University’s online trans­la­tion and find out what all that big talk in the pro­logue is about.

And for a very short course on the his­to­ry of Eng­lish, see this con­cise page and this ten-minute ani­mat­ed video from Open Uni­ver­si­ty.

The image above comes from the sole sur­viv­ing medieval man­u­script of Beowulf, which now resides at the British Library.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Homer’s Ili­ad Read in the Orig­i­nal Ancient Greek

What Ancient Greek Music Sound­ed Like: Hear a Recon­struc­tion That is ‘100% Accu­rate’

Sea­mus Heaney Reads His Exquis­ite Trans­la­tion of Beowulf

Read an Excerpt of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1926 Trans­la­tion of Beowulf Before It’s Final­ly Pub­lished Next Month

What Shake­speare Sound­ed Like to Shake­speare: Recon­struct­ing the Bard’s Orig­i­nal Pro­nun­ci­a­tion

Hear The Epic of Gil­gamesh Read in the Orig­i­nal Akka­di­an, the Lan­guage of Mesopotamia

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

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Comments (10)
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  • mark turner says:

    Videos are not relat­ed to post… :(

  • B Webb says:

    Sam, remem­ber we talked about old Eng­lish the oth­er day, and devel­op­ment of any liv­ing lan­guage? — hope you find time to go through this excit­ing offer­ing. I love it. Hugs Gma

  • Stefan Parol says:

    As a bavar­i­an and speak­er of both ger­man and eng­lish it is supris­ing­ly under­stand­able, maybe bet­ter as for sole eng­lish speak­ers.

  • Axel says:

    Impos­si­ble to watch two of the three videos… too bad!

  • Ilya Sverdlov says:

    Extreme­ly dis­ap­point­ing and out­right wrong read­ings by read­er 1 and read­er 3 espe­cial­ly. Read­er 2 gets most of the things right, still, pro­nun­ci­a­tion of affricates is a deplorable Eng­lish-speak­ing aca­d­e­m­ic man­ner­ism (sc in sceaþe­na is to be read as the first sound in “skip­per”, not as the first sound in “sheep”) that does not reflect the sound real­i­ty of Old Eng­lish, and his into­na­tion is still wrong. And all this “music” ideas about lyre accom­pa­ny­ing Beowulf is total Roman­tic baloney that has no his­tor­i­cal evi­dence for it.

  • Dave says:

    I noticed the read­er in the first video pro­nounced the W in the mod­ern Eng­lish way. Sure­ly it would have been pro­nounced like a mod­ern Eng­lish V, as it still is in oth­er Ger­man­ic lan­guages and indeed was in Eng­lish right up to the 17th cen­tu­ry, as I under­stand!

  • Lizette Martinez says:

    I loved this! I only rec­og­nized god and king but lan­guage sounds def­i­nite­ly more like swedish than eng­lish. Thanks for a great arti­cle

  • jljl says:

    Old Eng­lish has very lit­tle Celtic influ­ence.

  • Christie says:

    Still holds up after all these years!

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