Hear Beowulf and Gawain and the Green Knight Read in Their Original Old and Middle English by an MIT Medievalist

Many a mock­ing cri­tique floats around point­ing out that some peo­ple who tell their mul­ti­lin­gual neigh­bors to “speak Eng­lish” seem to have a lot of trou­ble with the lan­guage them­selves. I must con­fess, I find the obser­va­tion more sad than fun­ny. I’ve met many Eng­lish speak­ers who strug­gle with under­stand­ing the pecu­liar­i­ties of the lan­guage and do not know its his­to­ry. Increas­ing­ly, such things are not taught to those who don’t devote them­selves to lan­guage study.

When peo­ple do learn how the lan­guage evolved, they can be shocked that for much of its his­to­ry, Eng­lish was unrec­og­niz­able to mod­ern ears. Indeed, the study of Old Eng­lish—or Anglo-Sax­on, the lan­guage of Beowulf—sat­is­fies for­eign lan­guage require­ments in many Eng­lish depart­ments. Orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in runic before it incor­po­rat­ed the Latin alpha­bet (and retain­ing some of those ear­ly sym­bols after­ward), this Ger­man­ic lan­guage slow­ly became more Lati­nate, and gave way among the read­ing class­es in Britain to Anglo-Nor­man, a Ger­man­ic-French cousin, for a few cen­turies after 1066.

That’s the very short ver­sion. These strains and more even­tu­al­ly com­min­gled to form Mid­dle Eng­lish, the lan­guage of Chaucer, which also sounds to mod­ern ears like anoth­er tongue, though we rec­og­nize more of it. In the video above, Medieval­ist and MIT pro­fes­sor Arthur Bahr gives us demon­stra­tions of both Old and Mid­dle Eng­lish in read­ings of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as part of his 2014 course, “Major Authors: Old Eng­lish and Beowulf.” (You can still vis­it the course site, read the syl­labus and down­load course mate­ri­als.)

Bahr reads the first 20 lines of the ancient epic poem, which begins:

Hwæt. We Gar­de­na in geardagum, 
þeod­cyninga, þrym gefrunon, 
hu ða æþelin­gas ellen freme­don. 

“Besides being the lan­guage of Rohan in the nov­els of Tolkien,” he writes, “Old Eng­lish is a lan­guage of long, cold, and lone­ly win­ters; of haunt­ing beau­ty found in unex­pect­ed places; and of unshak­able resolve in the face of insur­mount­able odds.” For all its dis­tance from us, we can still rec­og­nize quite a lot in Old Eng­lish if we lis­ten close­ly. Much of its vocab­u­lary and inflec­tions sur­vive, unchanged but for pro­nun­ci­a­tion and spelling, in mod­ern Eng­lish, includ­ing many of the language’s most basic words, like “the,” “in” and “are,” and most com­mon, like “god,” “name,” “me,” “hand,” and even “old.”

After the Viking and Nor­man inva­sions, Old Eng­lish became “the third lan­guage in its own coun­try,” notes Luke Mastin at his His­to­ry of Eng­lish site. More spo­ken than writ­ten, it “effec­tive­ly sank to the lev­el of a patois or cre­ole,” with sev­er­al dis­tinct region­al vari­ants. Eng­lish seemed at one time “in dire per­il” of dying out but “showed its resilience once again, and, two hun­dred years after the Nor­man Con­quest, it was Eng­lish not French that emerged as the lan­guage of Eng­land,” though it remained a dif­fuse col­lec­tion of dialects. As you’ll hear in Bahr’s Mid­dle Eng­lish read­ing, it was also an Eng­lish entire­ly trans­formed by the lan­guages around it, as it would be once again a few hun­dred years lat­er, when we get to the Eng­lish of Shake­speare.

via Laugh­ing Squid

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

1,000-Year-Old Man­u­script of Beowulf Dig­i­tized and Now Online

Sea­mus Heaney Reads His Exquis­ite Trans­la­tion of Beowulf and His Mem­o­rable 1995 Nobel Lec­ture

Hear What Shake­speare Sound­ed Like in the Orig­i­nal Pro­nun­ci­a­tion

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

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  • Gina Bisaillon says:

    Very well, but how do we know how those ancient lan­guages were pro­nounced? There are no record­ings, as far as I know…

  • Brendanthebard says:


    You just ripped over phe­nomes, dude. You did­n’t even TRY to TELL a sto­ry. Have you even heard of Ben­jamin Bag­by?

    I’ll go you one bet­ter than that.…

    Late one night, a decade and more ago at least, I sat round a fire with a woman twice your age.

    She told a tale — a tale of of deep mean­ing to us gath­ered there — in Chaucer’s tongue, off the cuff, as the sparks flew.

    Because she KNEW THE LANGUAGE.

    And we all — 20th/21st speak­ers all — under­stood it.

    Pon­der THAT, padaawn.

    –Bren­dan, cal­l’d a bard by some.
    — I work with Ph.D.s dai­ly. They don’t often impress me.

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