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6 December 2023

Hana Videen: “It’s a pretty silly idea that there’s a pure English”

The author on the evolution of language.

By Pippa Bailey

Every day since 13 November 2013, Hana Videen has posted an Old English word on Twitter. She hasn’t missed a single day in ten years, though she has accidentally repeated a few words.

She was surprised, initially, at “how many people were interested” in the account, @OEWordhord, which has nearly 30,000 followers and has led to two books, The Wordhord (2021) and the newly published Deorhord. Wordhord, Videen told me over video call from her home in Canada, is Old English for “a collection of words and phrases that a poet might keep in their brain to draw upon when they’re composing poetry and telling stories”. It appears seven times in extant Old English (OE) literature. There is an OE word for the enjoyment Videen finds in amassing her wordhord, too: “Hord-wynn, which literally means hoard joy. It might be the pleasure someone has in gathering treasure for themselves.”

Parts of OE survive unchanged in modern English – including “word” itself. Others remain recognisable but their usage has shifted. Fugel, from which we get “fowl”, was the most frequently used term for a bird in OE; today’s “bird” comes from the less common bridd, meaning a young bird or chick. In OE, mete referred to any kind of food, rather than to meat. This is an example of “semantic narrowing”, whereby the meaning of a word grows more specific with time. Videen uses the title of her latest book as an example: “Deor, for instance is the word for animal, but over time that came to just mean ‘deer’, a very specific type of animal.”

As this suggests, The Deorhord is about the OE animal kingdom. Videen has “always loved animals” and has a pet cat (what’s the OE word for cat? “It’s just cat”), but was drawn to the topic by medieval bestiaries: “Beautiful books of illustrations of animals and stories that were [full] of moral, allegorical tales.” Her favourite is the hwæl – whale – who is “one of the baddies” in medieval literature: sailors moor their boats on what they believe to be an island, only to be capsized. Videen also loves the OE for bat, hrēaðe-mūs, “which literally means adorned mouse… It is a mouse that’s adorned with wings, which I think is adorable.” Gongel-wæfre, “spider”, which translates as weaver-walker, is similarly charming. The identities of some recorded animals –  “teeth tyrants” and “street makers” – remain unknown.

Hrēaðe-mūs and gongel-wæfre are examples of kennings, “a compound of two ideas that together mean something else”. So, the “seal’s bath” is the ocean, the “sky candle” the sun. Such metaphorical compounds give OE a level of poetry that modern English lacks. Are there OE words that Videen wishes we still had in our modern English word-hoards? “There’s un-tīma, a time when you shouldn’t do something, which I really like. And un-weder means bad weather, which implies that weather [wedder] is good weather. Now when we talk about weather – at least, living in the UK – you’re usually referring to bad weather.” Another favourite is ūht-cearu. “Ūht is the pre-dawn time, and cearu is cares, so it’s cares or anxiety that we have in the time before dawn: the idea of lying awake and thinking about all the things you need to worry about. I think it really resonates now.”

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[See also: Lexicon of loss]

Videen, 39, lives in Toronto with her husband and son: “He was in progress while the book was in progress, sort of helping me with the draft.” She was born in Missouri, in the US, and her interest in languages was influenced by her mother, who studied classical Japanese. The Wordhord Twitter account began as a public outreach project while she was studying for a master’s at King’s College London. Videen and her colleagues painted Old English words – a physical wordhord – on a wall in a gallery in Finsbury Park, north London. Initially, Videen thought, “Oh, this is just going to distract me from my real work,” but once the exhibit had been painted over, she found she wanted to continue it somehow, so she started @OEWordhord.

Old English was the most spoken language in the British Isles between 550 and 1150, prior to the more familiar – and more comprehensible to the modern reader – Middle English of Chaucer, but not the only one: “There were people from Scandinavia living in the British Isles for the latter part of the period, so Old Norse would have been spoken as well, and the Celtic languages used in parts of Wales and Scotland. And Latin was the language of learning and the Church.” OE is Germanic in origin, “so it’s most similar to Dutch and German. It doesn’t have as much influence of Latin in it [as Middle English] and it doesn’t have the influence of French, which came in with the Norman invasion.” Videen suggests 1150 as the death-date of OE, rather than 1066, because its phasing out was gradual: “It wasn’t like all of a sudden it changed to Middle English, but Old English started functioning more and more the way Middle English does.” The transition is hard to trace because few sources survive from the 100 years between the Norman conquest and the mid-12th century.

How many texts is our knowledge of this language based on? Videen quotes the British linguist David Crystal, who estimates there are 30 medium novels’ worth of written OE; “It doesn’t sound a lot when you think of it that way.” This includes poetry, lives of saints (“which are really entertaining”), historical chronicles (less so), medical “leech books”, law texts and Bible translations. Given most Britons in the period couldn’t read and write, the language recorded in these sources might be very different from the OE that was spoken by everyday people. “One of the things I struggle with is if someone asked me: ‘How would you say, “Hey, how is it going?”’” said Videen. “I don’t know how people would [have said] that. We don’t have realistic dialogue recorded in the texts that survive. We can guess how common words were, but ultimately, we don’t know.”

There is general agreement among scholars, said Videen, about the meanings of OE words, but “the ones that are tricky are the hapax legomena, a word that appears only once in a body of text… [These] can be really tricky because we only have one context to draw the meaning from.” Ranc-str¯æt, for example, translates as “proud street or brave street”, but its meaning is not clear in the Bible translation in which it is found. There is also heoloþ-helm, which means “concealment helmet” – though there is some debate around whether it is a misspelling of hæleþ-helm, a “hero’s helmet”. “There’s a lot of material for scholarly arguments.”

It is not just vocabulary that differs between Old and modern English, but syntax and lettering. While OE is written in the Roman alphabet, it has three letters no longer in use: Æ, which makes an “ah” sound, and Þ and Đ, which make “th” sounds. Over time, Þ came to be rendered more like the letter Y in handwriting, leading Þe (“the”) to be read as the pseudo-archaic “ye” – a peeve of Videen’s – often found in British pub names.

Beyond semantic curiosity, studying Old English reveals much about the culture in which it was spoken, said Videen. “Just the fact that a word exists or doesn’t exist tells us a lot about the world that it’s from.” Gafol-fisc, “tax fish”, “tells us that tax could have been paid in fish… Then there are words that are interesting in that they don’t exist: there’s not a word that refers specifically to trees and plants and animals – all the things we think of today as ‘nature’,” Videen explained. The separation modern English speakers make between the natural world and mankind – and even “supernatural entities” – didn’t exist in the minds of Old English speakers. “They were all just creation”: sceaft.

Videen’s understanding of how OE shapeshifted into Middle and modern English makes her sceptical of claims that there is a single, correct English. “It’s a pretty silly idea that there’s a monolithic, pure version of any language,” she said. “Languages form over time, they’re constantly changing. I don’t think it makes sense for language to ever stay the same.”

[See also: The post-language world]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special