Sunday, December 22, 2013

Anglo-Saxon Saturdays: Hwæt!

I'm starting a new series! There's a medieval culture and society that was extremely influential on modern speakers of the English language, and on Western Civilization in general: the Anglo-Saxons. These were the rulers and dwellers of Angle-Land (England) throughout the first half of the middle ages, and they spoke a language called Anglo-Saxon, also known as Old English.* So in this series, I'll share little tidbits of interesting slices of Anglo-Saxon culture, often illustrated and centered around a particular word from the Anglo-Saxon language.

And the first word is....


Hwhat, ("a" like in "pat")

This word is probably best known as the first word of the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf. It is often translated as "Lo!" or "Hear!" or something of that nature, but a direct translation into Modern English is really rather impossible. The term carries more meaning than a single MnE** word could convey, though Lo! Is probably the closest, albeit most archaic, possibility.

Hwæt! was a typical opening for a long story-poem such as Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon culture. It was the poet-performer's way of signaling to his audience, "Hey! Listen up! I'm about to tell a story in an authoritative voice that's not my own!" Meaning that the performer had the authority, or experience and knowledge, to tell the following story and he was not speaking in his own, everyday voice, but the voice of poetic and historical authority.

This is a good example of the Composition-in-Performance nature of Anglo-Saxon poetry that is almost completely foreign to the modern reader. This means that the extant versions of poems such as Beowulf that we have in written form were merely one version of a story that would have changed a little bit (or possibly a lot) each time it was retold. They were not memorized word-for-word, but instead the poet-performer (called a scop in Old English) would use the known story as a sort of roadmap or guide for his story, and add in details, stock filler phrases, and references to other stories or characters from his extensive repertoire to complete the alliterative scheme or meter, and show off his skill and knowledge.

The Anglo-Saxon culture had many facets and many fascinating stories to tell, so check back again next Saturday for the next peek into their rich literary and societal legacy!

*"Old English" is not the language of Shakespeare. Believe it or not, that version of English is actually called Early Modern English, and the language of Chaucer was the intermediate between Modern and Old English, aptly named, Middle English (which was an unparalled hybridization of Norman-French and Old English).

**MnE is an abbreviation for "Modern English."

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