HENRY SWEET, 1845-1912
was not a gruntled man

Clark Hall, Sense of Emptiness, Peter Orton

From Old English Literature, 2002. The Form and Structure of The Seafarer. Peter Orton.

First of all, what does Peter Orton have to say ? Wasn't it Thumper's mother who told him that if he couldn't say something nice, it was better to say nothing at all ? I'm stymied. Below is an extract from Clark Hall's Student's Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon, 1894, a sterling work. Ignoring wel, wela, weler, weligian, wielisc in this list, there are around 75 words starting wæl.

One of these means "whirlpool, eddy, pool"; ie "well". The remainder ALL connote DEATH. Clark Hall does give "dead bodies" for wæl, in the plural, but a better translation might be "the dead". I don't think Smithers said that wæl means "dead body", but I'll have to check, when I can find the time. In any case, wæl obviously merely means death: as noun or adjective. What Smithers does say is that wælweg means "way to the abode of the dead", ie "death-way", not "dead body way". Hwæl means "whale"; and wæl does not mean "ocean". "Semantic equivalence" ? Thorpe has much to answer for. But Orton's contorted and artificial argument should certainly be rejected. Besides which, onwæl weg (thus in MS) alliterates with unwearnum.

Not a lot to say about xenophobic Henry Sweet. Revealing extract left from his Preface to The Oldest English Texts, 1886. Thorpe has much to answer for, in the case of The Seafarer; and Sweet has an immeasurable amount to answer for, in the history of Anglo-Saxon scholarship since 1886. However, some glosses from his un-Germanized opus:

sceat = lap. Excellent !

hyge = mind. Almost perfect !

Tut tut. Not good. Afterwards, not again.
Gloss contaminated by Thorpe, I fear.

Sweet also has these glosses: wang = plain: WRONG; hweorf = whirl of a spindle: RIGHT; hwerfan = turn, wander: turn, YES; wander, NO; sið = journey, time: NO, QUERY. Vång (Swedish Scedeland) = wang = meadow or field, certainly not "plain"; cf wælwang. Vång är ett skånskt ord med betydelsen äng, inäga, öppet fält och liknande. Vång: Vång som mer specialiserad term var del av en bys åkermark på treskiftets tid, före enskiftet. Före enskiftet låg vanligen gårdarna i en by tillsammans i en klunga. Åkermarken var oftast indelad i tre vångar. På en av vångarna såddes vårsäd (korn), på den andra såddes höstsäd (råg) och den tredje låg i träda. På den vång som låg i träda betade djuren under sommaren. Odlingen på vångarna växlade från år till år, så att varje vång låg i träda vart tredje år. Begreppet vång i södra Sverige motsvaras av gärde längre norrut. The three-field system of crop rotation.

Finally some notice of A Sense of Emptiness, 2012, edited by Junichi Toyota, Marina Shchepetunina, and Pernilla Hallonsten; cosmopolitan names to conjure with. Together with Stephen Oppenheimer's ground-breaking book, The Origins of the British: a genetic detective story, 2006, 2007, they may just be starting to counter the baleful long-term influence of Henry Sweet, who was gearing up for World War I, 30 years ahead of the actual conflict. This is in spite of Oppenheimer sticking with the Old English misnomer.

Junichi's and Pernilla's credentials, Lund, Stockholm, Oxford, were highly attractive to me, being very appreciably more respectable than any institutions further west. However "emptiness plays a key role in identifying socio-cultural diversity", caused me considerable unease. What is "cognitive linguistics" ? What is "diachronic change" ? What is "kaleidoscopic grammar" ? What is "typology" ? Forgive my ignorance.

There is, in fact, a substantial section dealing with The Seafarer, and I at first assumed this part was written by Pernilla, who is Swedish. I had discovered these comments in Google Books. However, now that Sense of Emptiness, 2012, has come into my hands I realise that they were actually written by Tatyana Solomonik-Pankrashova, Vilnius University, Lithuania, see above. Tatyana reveals some familiarity with Old Scandinavian myth and idiom, and has a refreshingly pan-European interest in these areas, unlike the average Anglo-American Anglo-Saxonist. It is a great pity, though, that the seafarer's central crux translation is by S.A.J.Bradley. As follows:

Sadly, Bradley's crux translation is not bad, it's atrocious. It might be called a scrutiny to one's intellectual alacrity. Virtually all the key words are given a faulty interpretation: hyge and modsefa are not interchangeable; hweorfeð doesn't mean wanders; mereflode doesn't mean ocean tide; eorþan sceatas doesn't mean earth's expanses; cymeð eft doesn't mean comes back; gifre ond grædig may imply avid, but not covetous; anfloga doesn't mean lone flier; gielleð and hweteð don't mean calls and urges; onwæl weg is seriously mis-transcribed here, and doesn't mean on the whale-path; hreþer unwearnum certainly doesn't mean spirit irresistibly; ofer holma gelagu doesn't mean over waters of oceans. Bradley reads the text to suit his preconceived purpose.

Within the pages of The Sense of Emptiness, when once what Mark Griffith has called the verbal junk of cognition has been jettisoned, and the bewildering bafflegab of emptiness has been erased, we get down to some revealing information about wæl-weg. See here for the arguable links of wongas with sceatas, and come thus to appreciate the arguable links of sceatas with wæl weg. A substantial extract from The Sense of Emptiness is given below:

cuckoo or hawk ?
OK: gök/hök; gawk/hawk;
but the hawk hardly has "a mournful cry".
val means death; kyrie means choose.
anfloga means on-flier.

Engelholm ?         Oresund ?

Recent makers of Anglo-Saxon dictionaries, especially The [!] Old English Dictionary, strongly resemble people setting out to fill in crossword puzzles without reading the clues. It can be done, but makes very little sense.

The Rev. Joseph Bosworth, Dr. Phil. of Leyden, etc, on the other hand, knew what he was doing and talking about; even if misguided by Bede.


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My fellow man I do not care for
I often ask me what he's there for
The only answer I can find
Is reproduction of his kind
Ogden Nash