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"Very little has been done hitherto to investigate the exact shades of meaning in Old English words." Otto Jespersen, Growth and Structure of the English Language, Chapter 3, § 52; 1938.

More Sprachgefhl for Anglo-Saxon

March 2013

Recapitulation of points made in the essay first posted in 1999:    Modern Swedish is the living language which most closely resembles the englisc of the Anglo-Saxons --- far more so than Modern English. The term "Old English" is therefore deeply misleading, and has misdirected the advancement of Anglo-American medieval linguistic and literary scholarship for about the last hundred and fifty years. It sets up a range of deeply flawed assumptions and associations. Modern Swedish offers a better guide than Modern English to the verbal and oral tone, cast of mind, and lexical meanings expressed in Anglo-Saxon poetry. I don't doubt that modern Friesian, Danish, Norwegian, and perhaps Icelandic, can demonstrate a kinship with Anglo-Saxon just as close, if not sometimes even closer, than modern Swedish; but that in any case all of these living languages are significantly closer to Anglo-Saxon than Modern English. Such influences as there have been during the last thousand years on Swedish, as French, either took effect at a much later date, or, as German, were more naturally integrated into existing speech. Until the arrival of the Norman conquerors, the links of oral culture and tribal fellow-feeling between the Angles, Jutes and Saxons, and their Scandinavian and Friesian cousins remained much closer than the impression created by selective quotation from contemporary records. The most obvious single witness to this sustained memory of their origins by the Anglo-Saxon settlers, is of course Beowulf. This "Old English" epic contains nothing whatsoever about the "English". It's all about a Geat, from Geatland, known today as Götaland.

"Historians appear to dismiss, or not wish to pursue, the Swedish connection."

Latin is not Old Italian; and Anglo-Saxon is not Old English ..... Geat of Geats says it all.

"If you are prepared to admit that it was written in English, Beowulf is by far the oldest poem of its length in our language. When struggling through it as a student I preferred to call its language Anglo-Saxon, regarding the official description, Old English, as a trick, a means of getting into an English literature course a work in a remote Germanic dialect." Geat of Geats, Frank Kermode. NYRB, July 20, 2000. Thanks, Frank. Not all of us fall for silly tricks.

May 2014. A new thought. There can be few better introductions to Anglo-Saxon Literature than Chapter I, Book I, of the History of English Literature by Legouis & Camazian; pp 3-54 in the 1964 edition produced by J.M.Dent.& Sons Ltd. Their words --- or are they solely those of Legouis ? --- are all you need, marred only by the multiple quotations of the irritating translations of Stopford Brooke, especially his disastrous lines 58-64 from The Seafarer.

The matters discussed on this, and subsequent linked pages, arose initially in connection with the 1949 review by Professor, or (better) Mister, Magoun, MC, 1895 - 1979, of Rynell's hefty opus on Taka and Nema in Old Scandinavian. This stupefyingly patronising, not to say arrogant, review is repeated here at right.

In his penultimate paragraph, boxed in red, Professor Magoun goes ballistic in his gratuitous effrontery. Readers are invited to form their own opinions on what the hell Magoun is talking about. Did he think he was being funny?

De mortuis nil nisi bonum, the kind-hearted may murmur. But the dead don't give a tiny dam: whereas Magoun showed no minimal regard for the living, ie Alarik Rynell, and his eminent editor, Professor Olof Arngart.

Good-bye, then, to Mrs Magoo, neé Magoun, aka the former Miss Frances P. Magoun.

I'm pinning my fragile hopes on the heroically planned Germanic Lexicon Project, whatever obstacles it has to overcome.

Four words worthy of further investigation:
aflygan --- bearm --- heals --- sund

Let's start with heals.

Here we go with good old Cleasby-Vigfusson's Icelandic-English Dictionary, 1874:

HLS, m., prop. hals, [Goth., A. S., etc. hals; North. E. hause; cp. Lat. collum] :-- the neck; dkr hlsi, Rm. 16; bjartr hls, 26, Fms. viii. 77; falla um hls e-m, to fall on one's neck, embrace one, Luke xv. 20; leggja hendr um hls e-m, or taka hndum um hls e-m, id., Nj. 10, passim: phrases, beygja hls fyrir e-m, to bend the neck to one, Fms. ix. 446; liggja e-m hlsi, to hang upon one's neck, i.e. to reprove one, xi. 336, O. H. L. 36; standa hlsi e-m, to put the foot on one's neck, Hkv. 2. 28; and more mod., tapa hlsi, to forfeit one's neck, Rtt. 61.

Although C-V fully understand that, in the first instance, hals (A-S heals) does not mean "prow" [of a ship], it is a tragic pity that they make no distinction between "neck" and "throat". Turn now to Elof Hellquist's Etymologisk Ordbok, 1922 edition. This must be the first edition, but I don't suppose it differs very greatly from the second, and only subsequent text.

At left is Hellquist's introduction to the etymology of the Swedish word hals. The same word, everywhere, except in Anglo-Saxon, where it becomes heals. When translated from Anglo-Saxon into English the word is replaced by "neck" or "throat". "Throat" is, of course, the correct translation, whereas "neck" is conspicuously incorrect. This is why it is so sad that C-V chooses "neck", and ignores "throat".

Now let us move on, to what Cleasby & Vigfusson have more to say:

B. Metaph., YES !! Metaphorical !!! Of course the bow of a ship can be metaphorically referred to as its throat.

I. naut. part of the forecastle or bow of a ship or boat, (hfu, barki, hls, the head, weasand, neck, are all naut. terms); etc, etc, etc. [Weasand is a good one. Had to look it up: it means "windpipe". Is that a nautical term ?]

Below is an excerpt from Vorda vealhstod
Engla and Seaxna.
Lexicon Anglosaxonicum
ex poetarum scriptorumque prosaicorum operibus
nec non
lexicis anglosaxonicis
cum synopsi grammatica.

by Ludwig Ettmüller,
Quedlinburg & Leipzig, 1851. First edition,



It is reasonable to call the forepart of a Viking, or even Anglo-Saxon, ship its "neck", or better, its "throat".
It is utterly unreasonable to translate "neck" or "throat" as PROW.

From the previous page: The line numbers in brackets indicate Gordon's 1960 edition. The Modern Swedish cognate follows the Anglo-Saxon word. The links to the site notes are also given.

Mg ic - M jag. (notes: 1)
slat - slet. (notes: 3)
scurum - skur. (notes: 5)
gomene - gamman. (notes: 6)
medodrince (22) - mjddricka. (notes: 6)
hrusan - grus. (notes: 9)
foron (27, 33, 39, 58, 64, 72, 103, 108) - änd, ty d, fr d. (notes: 10/11)
sorge (ll. 42, 54) - omsorg or srja fr. (notes: 12)
hyge (ll. 44, 58, 96) - hg. (notes: 13)
wongas - vng. (notes: 14)
sceatas (ll. 61, 105) - skte (skatt). (notes: 17). See also "Empress of Hel".

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Compare comments in a review, New York Review of Books, July 20, 2000, by Frank Kermode, of recent translations of Beowulf by Heaney and Liuzza, [here].

Note: January, 2003. An article entitled The Continental Homelands of the Anglo-Saxons, appeared in the Contemporary Review of December 2002, Vol 281, No 1643. Its author, David Burns, refers to "a poem in a West Saxon dialect, known to us as Beowulf. Yet the central figure in this most famous piece of Anglo-Saxon epic poetry belongs not to Jutland, Schleswig or Holstein, as might be expected, but to Sweden: Beowulf was of the Geats, generally considered to be the Götar from Götaland in southern Sweden, and the poem is largely to do with the relationships between the Geats, the Scylfings (Svear, Swedes or Ynglingas) to the north-east, and the Scyldings of Denmark. This, then, is the background to one of the most important sources of Anglo-Saxon culture we have. Add the archaeological evidence of links between Sweden and Britain from Uppland and Sutton Hoo, and the Swedish connection is reinforced. Yet historians appear to dismiss, or not wish to pursue, the Swedish connection."

Mr Burns concludes his essay with an "Epilogue", remarking of Beowulf that "the language of the poem itself, even at the late stage of writing, contains words still more recognizable in modern Swedish, than in modern English".

Anglo-Saxon, that is Angle, Engle or English Saxon, is the language of the Platt, Low, or North part of Germany, --- brought into this country by the Jutes, Angles and Saxons, --- and modified and written in England.

The Rev. Joseph Bosworth, D.D. F.R.S. F.S.A.
Dr. Phil. of Leyden, etc.

Bosworth calls the language Platt, Low or North German; Rynell prefers Old Scandinavian. So do I.

click for more on holm, sund, etc and so on.


© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2013, 2014
All Rights Reserved


1999: Swedish Sprachgefhl for Anglo-Saxon

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