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A Handy Anglo-Saxon Dictionary

In 1938, Otto Jespersen, (1860-1943), a Danish linguist, at least the equal of anyone in his field before or since, remarked that "Very little has been done hitherto to investigate the exact shades of meaning in Old English words." To which one might add, since 1938 nothing has been done to explore the shades of meaning in Anglo-Saxon words. Any effort to remedy this will undoubtedly arouse the hilarity of the denizens of Toronto and Kalamazoo, for whom it will be far too demanding.

Nevertheless, Anglo-Saxonist academics of the 19th century are generally (though not invariably) markedly superior to their counterparts of the 20th and 21st centuries --- predominantly American, with the odd Anglo. It seemed amusing, therefore, to discover what Harrison and Baskervill, US worthies, in their translation of the German of Groschopp's revision of Grein's Poetical Lexicon of the Anglo-Saxon Language, had to say about the vocabulary of The Seafarer, in 1886. Below are some extracts from Harrison and Baskervill, together with comments selected from Swedish Sprachgefühl, revised and edited. It is not necessary to translate Anglo-Saxon into Swedish: Anglo-Saxon is Swedish, or, if you prefer, Old Scandinavian, or Anglish. Difficult for the linguistically challenged Old Englishman to comprehend. The Swedish equivalent is next to the Anglo-Saxon in the list below.

Mæg ic (1) - Må jag. Best translated in this context as "Let me (tell you)", or "I mean to tell you". In Swedish, is not normally used to imply deference or suggest doubt. It very rarely, if ever, entertains the possibility of a refusal. (notes: stanza 1) In Modern English, "May I" implies deference, whereas "May you" or "May he" is, as H&B rightly say, hortative or semi-imperative. Translating mæg ic as "I can" is rather ridiculous, although widely adopted. Unusually for him, Pound got it half-right.


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). H&B perhaps approach that sense with "be broken up", although they miss the full sense of "strive".


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 unlikely that Swedish skura, "scrub", reached Sweden by the same route, but see Hellquist. The OED provides scant authority for Pound's "hail-scur". (notes: 5). Scur-sceadu obviously means "umbrella". Although, in a naval context, sou'wester might be more suitable.


gomene (20) - gamman. 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 innocent Swedish word. (notes: 6). The modern English descendants of Harry Watson's "gamyn" are quite legion, and have usually developed a slightly debased significance. Contemporary dictionaries offer a cornucopia of instances.

medodrince (22) - mjöddricka. English "mead-drink", though clumsy, seems verbally closer to the original. Perhaps because of its odd 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. Could this have something to do with the likelihood that his native language and life's work in Lund centred close to the heart of the original homeland of the Angles? (notes: stanza 6). Meodu-gal is included at right because it recalls the wingal landlubbers meriting the seafarer's scorn (stanza 8).


hrusan (32) - grus. "Gravel", or "loose soil", is 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). There is a very significant difference between eard ("earth") and hruse.


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 forþon should be on this second component þon, which occurs in Chaucer as "tho", meaning "then". Swedish is used in other combinations besides ändå such as ty då and för då, meaning again, roughly, "for then", "therefore" or "because". (notes: 10/11)


sorge (42, 54) - (om)sorg. 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" than "concern". This sense is supplied by German Sorge für eine Sache tragen, and present in Swedish omsorgsfull or sörja för, but vanished from demotic English "sorrow". The significance for the poet of Seafarer line 42 is that the seafarer's concern should be to make thorough preparation before embarking. (notes: 12). This concept is absent in H&B. Think Thurber's "get-ready " man.


hyge (44, 58, 96) - håg, earlier hug. The Swedish word håg is virtually identical in meaning with the Anglo-Saxon. This meaning is not available to English speakers. Swedish håg often seems to connote a sense of motion, inclination, intent, longing or desire. As evidenced in The Seafarer, "hyge" carries a strong sense of mental longing, motion and (spiritual) elevation, all present in håg. (notes: 13). It is noteworthy that Martin Lehnert, 1956, includes "inclination" among his` translations of "hyge", whereas H&B do not..


wongas (49) - vång. Wongas does not mean "the plains". Vång is in daily use in Götaland, specifically in Skåne, where it means a meadow, not a prairie. Danish vang is defined as "dyrket jordstykke; mark eller eng; navnlig om et til græsning tjenende jordstykke, græsmark," etc. In the Danish Ordbog, the word is said to be cognate with Gothic waggs, connoting "Paradise"; (notes: 14). This is also recorded by Lehnert.


sceatas (61, 105) - sköte. Gordon's glossary to The Seafarer associates sceat with Modern English "sheet", hence suggesting "expanse". For preference, however, the nearest modern language equivalent of Anglo-Saxon sceat appears to be Swedish sköte, which at its simplest means "lap", that frontal part of the (seated) human body between the waist and the knees. (notes: 17). The German word is Schoss. We emerge from the lap of Nature, and will eventually, without fail, return to it. H&B's "projecting corner" is inscrutable; likewise "surface". Did they mean that the surface was projecting ?


1999: Swedish Sprachgefühl for Anglo-Saxon
2013: More Sprachgefühl for Anglo-Saxon
Toronto's Plan

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essays and papers
lehnert: dictionary 1956
journey's jargon

© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2018
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A labour of love: it was fun.