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The Prefix Un-

From Wright's Old English Grammar, 3rd edition, 1925
Negated nouns highlighted in red.   Thirteen nouns, eighteen adjectives.

One of the several topics of discussion during September and October 2009, which came up on the "public forum", as it was described (with the curious implication that it was not a suitable place for such a debate), was the nature of the prefix un- in Anglo-Saxon, and its application in connection with adjectives and nouns. This was sparked by a few of my more casual musings, perhaps especially with reference to Unferð or Unferhð or Hunferhð, the proper noun in Beowulf. Some of my rasher comments included the thought that a related factor was that both "ferhð", presumably the second element in the proper name (H)unferhð, and "ræd" in Æðelræd unræd are nouns, not adjectives. I suggested that this presents substantially more difficulty for an English speaker, and rather less for a Swedish, or other Scandinavian speaker. Further, I added that: "Un- (Swedish o-) is not simply a negative prefix, but has a peculiarly idiosyncratic force, not at all well represented by Modern English "un-", as in "happy, unhappy; troubled, untroubled", etc. In fact, unræd is virtually untranslatable into Modern English, and so is unferð, which is why it occasions so much discussion by Modern English speakers. This is perhaps particularly the case because both words are nouns, not adjectives, and un- is considerably less frequently used as a negating prefix with nouns than with adjectives, in Modern English. There would be no such discussion if it were transliterated into Swedish, ie ofred or ofärd, or both or either. Poetry intensifies by ambiguity and multiple meaning. It compresses." Moreover, I accompanied this with the assertion that Modern Swedish has much more in common with Anglo-Saxon than Modern English. The example suggested was Ingjald illråde, still current in Modern Swedish, which would aptly equate with Ädelråd unråde. This point was made some time ago in Swedish Sprachgefühl for Anglo-Saxon.

Unferhð, or unferð, is not an attested word in Anglo-Saxon. However, all dictionaries have a stab at unræd. Bosworth, 1838: "Unrad, unræd [ræd advice] Bad counsel, or advice, imprudence, error, sedition, hostility." Clark Hall, 1894: "unrad I. sf. unlawful raid, hostile invasion. II. = unræd."   "unræd sm. 1. folly, foolish plan, bad counsel. 2. shameful act, crime, outrage, mischief, injury, plot, intrigue." Sweet, 1897: "bad policy, wickedness, folly; injury, detriment." Bosworth-Toller, 1898: "un-ræd, es; m. I. evil counsel, ill-advised course, bad plan, folly: II. disadvantage, prejudice, hurt:" The earlier dictionaries, pre-1900, are much the most interesting, since they shed far more light on the struggles of the lexicographers with the meanings of Anglo-Saxon words, than the simplistic interpretations offered by later works.

Bosworth 1838 helpfully notes that ræd means "advice", and Clark Hall adds that unræd is a masculine substantive. At its simplest and most literal, the conversion of unræd to Modern English would be "unadvice". "Ethelred Unadvice" would hardly be admissable as Modern English. Ethelred Muddle-head? It seems as though a search for the intrinsic meaning of ræd, whether noun or adjective, may be clarified by positing an interpretation for the word as "direction", rather than "advice". German Rathaus, town hall, and Swedish rådhus, town or city hall, can be conceived of as places providing direction as much as, or more than, advice. Ethelred was a king lacking in direction, rather than advice. The opposite of direction, in this context, would be disorientation, misdirection, wrong course, as proposed in Roget's Thesaurus, which would be highly appropriate in the case of Ethelred. Hellquist, Etymologisk Ordbok, 1922, has a detailed and useful entry under råd, defining it as, inter alia, utväg, ie "way out". Ethelred was in a cul-de-sac, or No Exit, as Sartre's Huis Clos has been misleadingly translated. Thoughts stray to wondering if there is some relationship between ræd and "road".

Check Wikipedia for an orthodox, traditional account of the meaning of unræd. One of Wikipedia's most interesting comments is: "Because the nickname was first recorded in the 1180s, more than 150 years after Æthelred's death, it is doubtful that it carries any implications for how the king was seen by his contemporaries or near contemporaries."

An article by Schuman & Hutchings, Modern Philology, Vol 57, No 4 (May, 1960), is titled "The un- Prefix: A Means of Germanic Irony in 'Beowulf'", This contains, p 220, a long list of words which use the un- prefix to achieve "a high level of understatement", but the list ends with an exception, quote: "unwearnum (l.741), literally 'unhindered', from wearn, 'hindrance'. All but the last of these undergo amelioration in connotation through the addition of the un- prefix." The singular exception of unwearnum might have alerted the authors to appreciate that wearn actually means "defence", rather than "hindrance"; and unwearn means either an absence of defence, or (used adjectivally) "an undefended man, or person".

During further discussion, one contributor ponted out that a columnist, Bob Zimmer, had written a piece in the New York Times, September 15, 2009, entitled The Age of Undoing, from which the following is an extract: "Ever since Old English, the un- prefix has come in two basic flavors. It can be used like the word "not" to negate adjectives (unkind, uncertain, unfair) and the occasional [my emphasis] noun (unreason, unrest, unemployment). Or it can attach to a verb to indicate the reversal of an action (unbend, unfasten, unmask). Both kinds of un- are ripe for creating new words. The negative variety of the prefix has been particularly fertile for spinning off nouns, at least since 7-Up first branded itself as the 'Un-Cola' in the late 1960s. In the business world we now find unconferences and unmarketing, predicated on the notion that we need to rethink traditional models of conferences and marketing. And beware of unnovation, the opposite of innovation." That sentence is worth repeating: "beware of unnovation."

"Beowulf and Christian Allegory: An Interpretation of Unferth" is an interesting article by Morton W.Bloomfield, published in "An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism", 1963. Bloomfield asserts that -ferth "is obviously a metathesized form of frith (peace) which occurs in many Germanic names both as a first and second name element." That -ferth need not necessarily be metathesized is not considered by Bloomfield, but it should have been. Beowulf is forthright. Unferð is unforthright. See Ofärd. It is not at all obvious that -ferth is "a metathesized form of frith".

From The Year's Work in English Studies, Volume 61, 1980. And a good point, below, from the same.

Below is the single most sensible comment on grammar I have yet read. Otto Jespersen:
The Philosophy of Grammar

A forum request for examples of constructions of nouns, as opposed to adjectives, using the prefix un-, with the query: "What is an unhouse ? What is an unscholar ? What is unadvice ?" produced the following response, highlighted, left:

Unusual (not the adj.)
Unknown etc. etc. etc
MANY adjectives in un-have corresponding noun forms.
The unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible
(Oscar Wilde on foxhunting).
The rain it falleth on the just,
And on the unjust fella:
But mostly on the just, because
the unjust hath the just's umbrella

These examples seemed to me to be evading the issue. "Uninterest, unexcitement, unperson" are (surely?) neologisms, coinages not in common or normal linguistic use. Search any dictionary in vain for unwords such as these. Perhaps an "unperson" is a zombie. "Unholiness", "unwisdom" and "unrest" barely hover on the edge of acceptability. "Unusual" and "unknown", as well as "unspeakable" and "unjust", are, quite simply, adjectives, and preceding them with the definite article merely presumes a noun, understood but not expressed.

These descriptive adjectives do not become nouns, or "noun forms", merely because the nouns they modify are omitted. "Just" and "unjust" are adjectives; they just aren't nouns. "Justice" is a noun. The examples were unjust.

A more justified response was the following: "Unhouse, unscholar, and unadvice are nonwords. Perhaps "un" is no longer productive in English with nouns; those already produced and which have entered our lexicon are of course still around. It may be still productive with some adjectives, especially participles: the numbers remain uncrunched; her courage was unflinching. "Non" has replaced "un" to negate nouns productively. Thus I can coin "a non-computer" or "the non-committee Senator Baucas led in the U.S." However, the point I was trying to make specifically in connection un- as a prefix was diverted by the introduction of non-, which does not seem to me to have precisely the same effect.

Unconcern features effectively in the MV.

"Scholars belong to guilds held together by common opinions, attitudes, and methods. As a rule, innovation is welcome only when it is confined to surface details and does not modify the structure as a whole." Forgotten Scripts, p 35, by Cyrus H.Gordon, 1982. Also his Foreword, p x.

"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident." Arthur Schopenhauer.

"The truth ... is that to the dilettante the thing is the end, while to the professional as such it is the means; and only he who is directly interested in a thing, and occupies himself with it from love of it, will pursue it with entire seriousness. It is from such as these, and not from wage-earners, that the greatest things have always come." Arthur Schopenhauer, 1851

"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.

"The conclusions I have arrived at in these researches differ so widely with commonly held views, that I do not delude myself with the hope that they will be easily accepted. No doubt they will encounter, apart from fair criticism, that opposition which seems to be the fate of every new idea." B.N. September 30, 1965. From the foreword to The Marranos of Spain, from the Late 14th to the Early 16th Century, by B.Netanyahu, New York, American Academy for Jewish Research, 1966.

see here for similar comments.

Could Anglo-Saxon verse patterns have been at all influenced by Hebrew traditions? See here.
The thought has been greeted with unrestrained ribaldry and ridicule.
Biblical Echoes

See here for earlier notes

See here for additional notes on wearn and unwearnum


The Cambridge Old English Reader
The Meaning of The Seafarer and The Wanderer. G.V.Smithers
An, Ân, & Eft: Old English Grammar. A. Campbell
the central crux of the seafarer
re: unwearnum
the meaning of fer(h)ð
swedish sprachgefühl
essays and papers

© Charles Harrison Wallace 2010
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