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See letter in History Today, December 1998
See article in Contemporary Review, December 2002

This article is a substantially rewritten and expanded version of notes originally published in the Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Conference of the British Association of Scandinavian Studies, Hull University, England, 23-26 Mar 1997.


Swedish Sprachgefühl for Anglo-Saxon

"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.

Early in the 20th century the term "Old English" was introduced as a substitute for "Anglo-Saxon", which had been normal British usage during the 19th century, and before. J.R.Clark Hall's Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary originally appeared in 1894. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, compiled by Joseph Bosworth and T.Northcote Toller, is still (marginally) the single most authoritative work on the subject, and was first published in 1898. In 1897, however, the great work now called the Oxford English Dictionary had been "dutifully dedicated by the University of Oxford" to Queen Victoria. Thirty years in the making, it was completed and presented to her grandson, George V, in 1928. The term "Old English" is uniformly employed throughout its 4000-odd pages. Under the heading General Explanations, in its introductory section, the term "Anglo-Saxon" occurs in the following context: "...the present work aims at exhibiting the history and signification of the English words now in use, or known to have been in use, since the middle of the twelfth century. This date has been adopted as being the only natural halting-place, short of going back to the beginning, so as to include the entire Old English or 'Anglo-Saxon' vocabulary." The choice of about 1150 AD as a "halting-place", or watershed, implies the OED's recognition of the profound differences between Middle/Modern English, and the language I prefer to call Anglo-Saxon, although englisc would be its truer name. Anglo-Saxon remains the current descriptive term for the people of England, their architecture and artefacts, during the period circa 350-1066 AD. Their predecessors are called Ancient Britons, but it would be difficult to refer to an Anglo-Saxon as an Old Englishman.

Use of the term "Anglo-Saxon" to denote the language now seems to arouse strong feelings. I was first made aware of this when I mentioned Anglo-Saxon poetry in a conversation with a very distinguished Professor from a most ancient university (though not as ancient as my own), at a convivial reception hosted by the Swedish Ambassador in London, in 1994. With a glint in his eye, he rounded on me with: "Old English! It's English, you know!" Puzzled by this outburst, I was prompted to reflect further on the matter. Skipping my speculations on the reasons for his apparent heat, and for the widespread adoption of "Old English" in the first place, my conclusion has been that Anglo-Saxon is not "Old English", any more than Latin is "Old Italian", or "Old Spanish", or "Old Portuguese", or "Old Roumanian". The use of "Old English" by modern lexicographers is tantamount to the anticipated collective decision of future lexicographers, five hundred years hence, to describe the language of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans as "Old American". This will be when Great Britain, with luck, will be enjoying an international status similar to that at present accorded the countries of Scandinavia; although, on second thoughts, this seems an unlikely scenario.

The term "Old English" is profoundly misleading, and has misdirected the advancement of Anglo-American medieval linguistic and literary scholarship for the last hundred years. It sets up a range of fundamentally flawed assumptions and associations, which find expression in the great number of learned books and articles devoted to the corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature which it has been my lot to read since 1994. About 200 of these essays, papers and book chapters were concentrated exclusively on The Seafarer, and, apart from the odd nugget, and the occasional article of exceptional acuity, the off-centre content of the bulk of them, in retrospect, boggles the mind.

The strictly limited aim of this brief paper, however, is only to suggest that 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, and specifically of course, in The Seafarer. It will be generally admitted that for the last millenium (since 1066 in fact) the English language, though of common origin with Modern Swedish, has absorbed many more external influences. Such influences as there have been during this period 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, and in spite of the divisions caused by wars, and the gradual emergence of differing social structures and religion, brought about first by the early British Christians and later by the centralized administration and control exerted by the Roman Church, 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 --- especially as these are spread over about 400 years. 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 at all about a people recognisable as the "English". Björn Collinder, a distinguished scholar and gifted poet, translated the poem into Swedish in 1954, and remarks in his introduction, of the historically corroborated events it relates, that: "Thanks to these admittedly scanty pieces of information the Lay of Beowulf ought to be a precious relic for us Swedes." Sam Newton's study, The Origins of Beowulf, makes instructive reading on the poem's links with pre-literary Sweden.

Beowulf is much concerned with the deeds of the Danes and the Geats. If we disregard the fascinating and seemingly endless scholarly wrangling over the exact identity of the Geats, it is reasonable to assume that they were a people who occupied the territory now called Swedish Götaland, an area encompassing the southern third of modern Sweden, and including the provinces of modern Skåne, East and West Götaland, among others. What might be regarded as the core of this tribal or cultic sphere, in the first centuries AD, would have been located along the west coast of modern Sweden, facing Britain across the North Sea, and extending inland to include the vast Lake Vänern. Depending on the niceties of distinction one cares to draw between the Geats and similarly named peoples, the territory could be enlarged to take in the Baltic island of modern Gotland, and the modern Danish peninsula of Jutland, also sparsely referred to in Anglo-Saxon sources as (another) Gotland. It has to be indisputable that from these areas, and the rest of modern Denmark, came the bulk of the immigrants called Angles and Jutes, who settled what is now northern and central England, following the somewhat earlier influx of the Saxons, who settled the counties now known as Sussex, Essex, Middlesex, and the area still occasionally called Wessex. The question of why they all spoke of their language as englisc, named after the Angles, rather than after the Saxons or Jutes, can be left for discussion elsewhere.

It is for these reasons, coupled with the years spent attempting to penetrate the "signification" of The Seafarer, and the early accident of my acquisition of Swedish as a second mother tongue, that I have come to the possibly naïve conviction that Modern Swedish is the living language which most closely resembles the englisc of the Anglo-Saxons --- far more so than Modern English. At the same time I doubt whether I would have held this conviction quite so strongly had I not imbibed English, up to the age of eight, as my first mother tongue. I now also realise that it was a further curious and distinct additional benefit that the last five of my first eight years were spent in Scotland. A final advantage was to have learned both German and French before the age of 15, still within the period, as Peter Høeg and Stephen Pinker have both noted, when a language can be absorbed by "instinct" rather than by tortuous grammar-based book-study.

How precisely does Modern Swedish resemble Anglo-Saxon? A complete answer would fill a book, but a simple illustration of one of the many ways is instanced by the tag attached to the unlucky king known to the Anglo-Saxons as Æðelræd unræd, who has gone down in British history as "Ethelred the Unready". It used to be explained to English schoolchildren that unræd does not mean "unready", although no Modern English word is (readily) available to convey what unræd actually does mean. Words and phrases such as "resourceless, at a loss, irresolute, ill-advised, perplexed", and occasionally "redeless" are variously proposed. In An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, Peter Hunter Blair suggested that: Æðelræd Unræd ... could be literally rendered "Noble-Counsel No-Counsel". This is a stout try, but really only serves to emphasise how remote the Anglo-Saxon idiom is from anything current in Modern English. However, unræd easily and accurately translates into Modern Swedish as rådlös, or, perhaps, as orådig. In order to bring out the mocking word-play in the epithet, which implicitly alludes to the king's given name, Æðelræd unræd would ideally convert into Ädelråd oråde, where the tag would be exactly analogous to that of Ingjald illråde, legendary king of ill-fame in 7th century central Sweden. In his entertaining History of the Vikings, Gwyn Jones is obliged to render Ingjald illråde, a little lamely, as "Ingjald the Wicked", but this is not to say that anyone else could offer a better and equally succinct translation.

In the following examples from The Seafarer, the line numbers in brackets refer to Ida Gordon's 1960 edition. What I conceive of as the Modern Swedish cognate follows, together with whatever comment then seems appropriate.

Mæg ic (1) - Må jag. Perhaps best translated in this context as "Let me (tell you)", or, even more strongly, "I mean to tell you", rather than "May I". The significance of the slippery auxiliary mæg in the Anglo-Saxon poem Deor was aggressively raised by an American translator, Burton Raffel. He refers to the poem's refrain: þæs oferode; þisses swa mæg; and cites several modern renderings: "That passed away; so will ('shall' or 'can') this" [M.W.Bloomfield]; "That (the misfortune just alluded to) has passed over; so may this (whatever is troubling any of us now)" [J.C.Pope]; "That (affliction) passed over, so can this (of mine)" [A.J.Wyatt]; "Time has passed on from that: so it will from this/That was overcome (or got over); so may be this" [C.L.Wrenn]. Raffel bluntly castigates Bloomfield for asserting that "The 'may' translation of mæg ... (has) no linguistic support", and then goes on to give his own interpretation: "That passed, and so may this". In my view, however, this knotty refrain converts only slightly awkwardly into Modern Swedish, as dessa gick över, må detta likaså. The words and mæg, to my mind, convey a virtually identical sense of the imperative "let (this happen)". This sense can, of course, also be expressed by Modern English "may", eg in phrases such as "may he rot in hell", "may you bloom and grow", but, in general, the word "may" implies a rather strong element of doubt. Perhaps Anglo-Saxon mæg retains a slight connotation of meaht, sustaining an implication of physical might and power, which has lost impetus in Modern English, where "may I" (and, ambiguously, "might I") often prefaces a polite request, which could possibly receive the answer "no". In Swedish, is not used to imply deference or suggest doubt in this manner. It very rarely, if ever, entertains the possibility of a refusal. (back to notes: stanza 1)

slat (11) - slet. The Modern Swedish verb slita means both "tear" and "wear", and also carries implications of "struggle" or "toil". All of these senses seem to me present in the Anglo-Saxon, and cannot be rendered half so economically into Modern English. (notes: 3)

scurum (17) - skur. The full Anglo-Saxon line reads hægl scurum fleag, which could go straight into Swedish as hagelskur flög, visibly closer to the original than the same words in Modern English. Swedish skur(a) might translate as "shower" or "scour" or even "scrub"; but there is some dissent about the origins of these words. Some hold that since scur arrived with the Anglo-Saxons, who pronounced sc- as "sh-", it can only mean "shower"; and "scour" would therefore have arrived with the Vikings. Others derive "scour" ("to clean") from Latin excurare, and say it reached English via Old French escurer. It would seem a little unlikely, however, that Swedish skura, "scrub", reached Sweden by the same route. (A similar theory is expressed for the Scottish word "stravaig" - to "wander or roam aimlessly", which some derive "via the obsolete Scots 'extravage' from the Latin vagari - to wander". What, then, are we to make of Swedish ströva, or German streifen?). The suffix -um puts scur into the dative, and a meticulous translator, like Shigetake Suzuki, will render the sentence "the hail flew in showers". Ezra Pound chose the singular compound "hail-scur", for which the OED provides scant authority. (notes: 5)

gomene (20) - gamman. During my talk at Hull one of my tolerant listeners, Harry Watson, supplied me with the quotation "off gamyn and glé", dated to 1420, from Andrew of Wyntoun's Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland; the last recorded instance of "gamyn" in British literature. Gamman is a current if not common Swedish word. The line: "Var man som lyfter sina lår/Till gamman i hans sal", occurs in a poem by Erik Axel Karlfeldt, 1864-1931, entitled I Lissabon. The poem evokes the romantic delights to be experienced at the king's red palace in Lisbon. Set to a tuneful melody, it was a popular hit in the Sweden of the late 1940s, and made an impression on my ten-year-old sensibilities. Perhaps Modern English "gaming" still suggests a touch of the general wassail conveyed by gomene. (notes: 6)

medodrince (22) - mjöddricka. English "mead-drink", though impossibly clumsy in direct translation, seems verbally closer to the original than the Swedish. Perhaps because of its oddly alien sound to an English ear, the compound has tended to be thought of as the action rather than the actual potion. Ida Gordon notes: "usually translated 'drinking of mead', (it) probably means, as O.S.Anderson suggests, the drink itself". Professor Anderson (later Arngart) of Lund University has been pre-eminent among Seafarer scholars during the last 150 years for having produced by far the most rational and straightforward interpretation of the poem. Could this have something to do with the likelihood that his native language and life's work centred close to the heart of the original homeland of the Angles? It was an uncanny source of pleasure for me to realise that he had published his study of The Seafarer in Lund in 1937, the year of my own birth in the same town. (My knowledge of Swedish was limited at that stage, as I departed for other shores at the age of one.) It was also a privilege for me, although I never met him, to correspond with him and exchange a few words with him on the telephone before his recent death at a great age; as he was clearly, and unlike many, a genuine old-fashioned scholar of industry, simplicity and intellectual integrity. (notes: stanza 6)

hrusan (32) - grus. "Gravel", or "loose soil", is probably the most accurate rendering of hrusan. The Anglo-Saxon line reads hrim hrusan bond, ie "frost bound the loose soil", or fixed it in place. (notes: 9)

forþon (27, 33, 39, 58, 64, 72, 103, 108) - ändå (first 6 instances); (last 2 instances). Intense and bewildered debate has raged for many years around the significance of this fairly obvious connective. Swedish ändå means "yet" or "and yet". means "then", in both its temporal and causative senses. In the causative sense its English rendering will shift towards "therefore" or "because". The sense-emphasis in Anglo-Saxon forþon, to my mind, should be on this second component þon, which occurs in Chaucer as "tho", meaning "then". I recall the enraged disappointment of my English tutor, in 1960, when, seeking to confound me, he slily asked me the meaning of "tho" in a line of Chaucer, fully expecting my answer "though". Recognizing Swedish , I was able promptly to come up with "then". "How did you know that?" he blurted out; "I suppose it was written in!" It hardly seemed worth explaining. I showed him my unmarked page, and hope he has remained puzzled to this day. Swedish is used in other particular combinations besides ändå such as ty då and för då, meaning again, roughly, "for then", "therefore" or "because". These little words are very tricky. Even the masterful Humpty Dumpty, who subdued the adjective, might have had difficulty in nailing the particle. Although the sense of forþon in The Seafarer very strongly correlates with "and yet", it is not really practicable in a modern poetic interpretation to use "and yet" without variation, since its significance shifts slightly in each of the several places it occurs, and I settled for various paraphrases, with, as I see it, local aptness and implication. (notes: 10/11)

sorge (42, 54) - (om)sorg. Anglo-Saxon sorg would seem to be identical with Modern Swedish sorg, and both words seem to be only very slightly different from Modern English "sorrow". But it is clear that sorge in line 42 is not the same as sorge in line 54: Gordon glosses the latter as "sorrow", but the former as "anxiety". The dominant sense in line 42 is less "anxiety", however, than "concern", or "thoughtfulness". This sense is supplied by German Sorge für eine Sache tragen, and present in Swedish omsorgsfull or sörja för, but quite vanished from demotic English "sorrow". The underlying significance for the poet, and his audience, of Seafarer line 42: þæt he a his sæfore sorge næbbe, is that the seafarer's concern should be to make thorough preparation before embarking on his voyage. This may imply "anxiety", but in an entailed, or secondary and ambiguous sense. The closest sense of sorge in line 54 is probably "care(s)/worries". (notes: 12)

hyge (44, 58, 96) - håg, earlier hug. The Swedish word occurs in many contexts: komma ihåg, glad i hågen, hågad, farhåga, räddhåga, håga, hugstor, hugnad, älskog (älsk hug/håg); and also in the name of Odin's feathered friend, Hugin. Anglo-Saxon hyge is usually translated "thought", perhaps influenced by the presence of "-houg-". But the sense of inactive contemplation and rumination implied by Modern English "thought", as well as the contrary senses implied by the alternative, and even more misleading "spirit" (pace Swedish hugstor "great-minded", "magnanimous", "sublime"), proposed in Ida Gordon's glossary, both appear to be insufficient translations of hyge. Swedish håg often seems to connote a sense of motion, inclination, intent, longing or desire, eg as in hågad, to be "minded" (to do something); and hug introduces further complexity. The word could be related to English "hug", which John Ayto links with "Old Norse hugga 'comfort, console', ... descended from a prehistoric Germanic hugjan, which also produced Anglo-Saxon hogian 'think, consider, be solicitous'". Perhaps hugjan likewise generated Modern Swedish hugga, "grab/hack/hew", again connoting action. In any case, as evidenced by its context in The Seafarer, the Anglo-Saxon word carries a strong connotation of mental longing, motion and (spiritual) elevation, still present in håg, whereas Modern English "thought" has lost this essential implication. The unexpected fact is that "desire" is a pretty useful translation of hyge. (notes: 13)

wongas (49) - vång. Wongas, in The Seafarer, is often rendered by Anglo-American translators as "the plains", which is quite wrong. Vång is not current in Swedish Svealand, the area of middle Sweden, north of Götaland, but it was a word in daily use on my grandfather's farm in the south, on the west coast of Skåne, facing Copenhagen. Vangur occurs in Icelandic: "sphere, ring, field"; vang in Norwegian: "(enclosed) field, meadow"; and Danish vang is defined as "dyrket jordstykke; mark eller eng; navnlig om et til græsning tjenende jordstykke, græsmark," etc. Anglo-Saxon wang or wong is in fact very specifically a meadow, a place as circumscribed, soft and downy as a maiden's cheek; cf Ger Wange "cheek". With odd and fortuitous aptness, since this paper was presented in the village of Cottingham, close to the ancient city of Hull, there is a place called "Wetwang", an archaeological site, twenty miles north of the village. "Wetwang" further suggests that wong can be, even more precisely, a water-meadow ("a meadow fertilized by being flooded at certain seasons from an adjoining stream"). Swedish Professor Eilert Ekwall's authoritative Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names notes that the "Wang-" in one or two other English place-names, eg Wangford, earlier Wainford, will derive from Anglo-Saxon wægnford, "wagon-ford". In Wetwang, however, the linked descent from Swedish vång and Anglo-Saxon wong is undoubted. Interestingly, moreover, in the Danish Ordbog, the word is said to be cognate with Gothic waggs, connoting "Paradise"; an ancestry which invites thoughts of the paradisial "soft meadow" of ancient Mesopotamian poetry, as well as the marshes and bogs of Denmark with their gruesome relicts of human punishment or sacrifice. (notes: 14)

Note; December 25th, 2014. Wetwang is recorded in the Domesday Book as Wetuuangha. There are two interpretations of the name, one from the Old Norse vaett-vangr, 'field for the trial of a legal action'. Another theory is that it was the "Wet Field" compared to the nearby "Dry Field" at Driffield.. From Wikipedia.

sceatas (61, 105) - sköte (skatt). The concepts latent in sceatas are multiple and dauntingly convoluted. An introduction to the full complexity of this word and its associated ideas is provided by the two columns under "shoot" in Eric Partridge's Origins. The basic prehistoric sense appears to be "to shoot forth". (In the context of The Seafarer I am reminded of Vaughan's: "But felt through all this fleshly dress/Bright shoots of everlastingness"). Gordon's glossary to The Seafarer associates sceat with Modern English "sheet", hence, she seems to be suggesting, "expanse". "Sheet" would hardly have occurred to a Swedish reader, however, and it seems more promising to try, in Professor Arngart's words: "to penetrate to what lies beneath the verbal surface", by approaching the contextual meaning of sceatas via Swedish sköte, which at its simplest means "lap", that frontal part of the (seated) human body between the waist and the knees.

Våra Ord rather coyly gives knä, "knee", for sköte; and continues: fsv. skote; bildn. till fsv. skot, flik (av en rock), hörn, etc. (Flik could be translated "turnback" or "lapel" --- aptly cognate with "lap"). For Old Swedish skot(e), Våra Ord gives tåg eller kätting, fäst i hörn av segel; ie a "sheet", in its rarer, specialised meaning of a rope attached to the corner of a sail on a yacht or other sailing-ship. Skot never implies "expanse", but always connects in some manner with "corner", "fold", "turnback", "dogear", "flap" and the like. Modern Swedish sköte means "lap" or "womb"; figuratively "bosom"; less immediately "pudendum" or similar. The key to the submerged significance of Anglo-Saxon sceatas lies in this meaning of "fold" or "corner". For sceat, Bessinger's Short Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon Poetry has: "corner, fold, place of concealment; lap, bosom (of the body); region, surface (of the earth)", but the last two meanings, I would contend, are quite simply incorrect, and derive from a misconstrued association of sceat with a flat sheet.

In the Seafarer context sceat also seems to be linked with another Anglo-Saxon word which appears in Sweet and Clark Hall as sceat(t), equating with Swedish skatt, meaning "treasure", or riches. Eorþan sceatas in The Seafarer, since its author made his words work doubly hard, would therefore imply the "treasures/riches", "cornucopia", and collective "lap" of Nature, rather than the "surfaces of the earth" so often favoured in the poem's many interpretations. The particular "corner" indicated finds an echo in Othello's green-eyed: "I had rather be a toad ... Than keep a corner in the thing I love/For others' uses". For preference, the nearest modern language equivalent of Anglo-Saxon sceat appears to be Swedish sköte. ("Haga, i ditt sköte röjes/Gräsets brodd och gula plan", sings the almost untranslatable Bellman). Hence my choice, in line 61, of "creation", which encompasses the imagined corners of the round earth, as well as its fecundity. In line 105, the choice of "vaults" attempts to unite the treasures of the earth, its stored and hidden riches, the womb and mysterious origin of life itself, with what Andrew Marvell, in Bermudas, extols as "Heaven's Vault", the starry constellations of the universe. (notes: 17). See also "Empress of Hel".

The title of this paper was suggested by a remark, admittedly taken a little out of context, which occurs in The Interpretation of Old English Poems, by Stanley Greenfield. On pages 111-112 he quotes M.A.K.Halliday to the effect that "any study of the language of a poem cannot properly be undertaken except against the backdrop of our knowledge of the language as a whole; and this idea, mutatis mutandis, emerges in Old English studies in reference to our inescapable lack of Sprachgefühl for the nuances of Old English meaning, especially poetic meaning." I would like to think that this elusive Sprachgefühl for Anglo-Saxon poetry might be developed, with no great difficulty, by any literate native speaker of Swedish, or any other Scandinavian language. In view of the historically misplaced deference of some Scandinavian scholars and translators to the interpretations of "Old English" produced by their Anglo-American counterparts, this native speaker would also have to have a confident, instinctive and sure command of Modern English. My overall conclusion is that while there are current cognates, in both Modern Swedish and Modern English, for a very large number (almost all) Anglo-Saxon words, the Modern Swedish cognate is, I am prepared to hazard, invariably closer to the Anglo-Saxon nuance than its Modern English counterpart. This relationship extends well beyond the mere sense of individual words, and includes whole phrases, idioms, basic social and cultural values, intellectual, philosophical and eschatological outlook and orientation. It may be, of course, that this is particularly true of The Seafarer, and less so for other Anglo-Saxon works: life is too short for me to verify the matter for the rest of the corpus.

As the substance of the above text was originally presented at the Hull conference in an embryonic and untidy state, I would like to express my apologies and thanks, for their tolerance and patience, to those who listened to it then. I am very cognisant of Tom Lundskaer-Nielsen's caution against placing reliance on modern cognates when trying to tease out the historical meanings of dead words. I am grateful to Phil Holmes for drawing my attention to the place-name Wetwang, and to Harry Watson for alerting me to the 15th century occurrence of gamyn. I am also grateful to the last-named for looking over the original draft text. Its errors and prejudices are entirely mine.


*** *** ***


The "naïvety" of my above expressed "conviction that Modern Swedish is the living language which most closely resembles the englisc of the Anglo-Saxons" needs some additional note. 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. Moreover, in the interpretation of Anglo-Saxon texts and the analysis of Anglo-Saxon grammar, Anglo-American scholars have tended to be strongly influenced by Latin models, which are, at the deepest levels, inappropriate to the Geist of the Scandinavian languages, and the spirit of their poetry.

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, in the Contemporary Review of December 2002, Vol 281, No 1643, has some bearing on the content of my brief paper. 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.

A Curiosity

left: King's College Chapel, from Country Life, Nov 26 1948
right: The Warship Wasa, Wasa Museum booklet, 1989

See also: Wikipedia, East Anglia, Heraldry


References consulted:

Anderson (later Arngart), O.S.; The Seafarer, An Interpretation; KHVL Årsbok 1937-38.

Andrew of Wyntoune: The Auchtand Buke of the Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland; c 1420.

Ayto, John: Dictionary of Word Origins; Bloomsbury 1989

Baeda, The Venerable: A History of the English Church and People; tr. Leo Sherley-Price; Penguin 1955.

Bessinger, J.B.: A Short Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon Poetry; University of Toronto Press 1960.

Carroll, Lewis; Through the Looking-Glass; 1871, Chapter 6.

Cassell Concise English Dictionary, The: ed. by Betty Kirkpatrick; Cassell 1989.

Clark Hall, J.R.: A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary; 4th Ed, University of Toronto Press 1960.

Collinder, Björn: Swedish translation of Beowulf, Natur och Kultur 1954.

Collins Gem Scots Dictionary: Harper Collins 1995.

Craigie, Sir William A.: A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue; University of Chicago Press 1931.

Ekwall, Eilert: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names; OUP 1936.

German and English Dictionary: by Karl Breul, rev. by J.Heron Lepper and Rudolf Kottenhahn; Cassell 1940.

Gordon, Ida: The Seafarer (ed. 1960); with a bibliography compiled by Mary Clayton; University of Exeter Press 1996.

Greenfield, S.B.: The Interpretation of Old English Poems; RKP 1972.

Halliday, M.A.K.: Descriptive Linguistics in Literary Studies; English Studies Today; Edinburgh 1964.

Hunter Blair, Peter: An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, CUP 1956.

Høeg, Peter: Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, trans F.David, Flamingo/Harper Collins 1994, p.132.

Jones, Gwyn: A History of the Vikings; OUP 1968.

Kirkeby, W.A.; Norsk-Engelsk blå ordbok; Kunnskapsforlaget, Oslo 1992.

Mason, Oliver: Gazetteer of Britain; John Bartholomew 1977.

Newton, Sam: The Origins of Beowulf; D.S.Brewer 1993.

Ordbok över Svenska Språket; utgiven av Svenska Akademien.

Ordbog over Det Danske Sprog; København; udgivet af Det Danske Sprog-og Litteraturselskab.

Partridge, Eric: Origins; RKP 1958.

Pinker, Steven: The Language Instinct, Penguin Books 1994.

Pound, Ezra: The Seafarer; Orage's "New Age", 30 Nov 1911, 107.

Raffel, Burton: Scholars, Scholarship, and the Old English Deor; Notre Dame English Journal VIII, 1; 1972. pp.1-10.

Shakespeare, William: Othello, 3, 3, 268, 1604.

Sigurðsson, Arngrímur: Islensk-Ensk Órðabók, Reykjavik 1994.

Stora Engelska Ordboken, svensk-engelsk; Esselte 1989.

Suzuki, Shigetake: Old English Poetry - Elegy; Metropolitan University of Tokyo, 1967.

Sweet, Henry: The Student's Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon; OUP 1896.

Sweet, Henry: Anglo-Saxon Primer; rev. by Norman Davis, OUP 1955.

Vaughan, Henry: "The Retreat"; from Silex Scintillans; 1650.

Wessén, Elias; Våra Ord: deras uttal och ursprung; Norstedts Förlag; andra upplagan 1993.

Since presenting this paper, in March 1997, I have gained a much greater understanding of the true origins of the present Swedish nation, via membership of Historieforum, a lively and informative website discussion group, whose concern has been to establish academic recognition of the present province of Västergötland as the cradle of the modern Swedish realm. Southern Sweden was first recognised as the "womb of nations" by Jordanes, in his Getica, in about 552 AD. Swedish speakers interested in these topics are recommended to join Historieforum at (here).

Some interesting correspondence in History Today


© Charles Harrison-Wallace 1999
All Rights Reserved


updated 10/10/1999
slightly revised 17/9/2001
with some minor later additions

2013: More Sprachgefühl for Anglo-Saxon

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