Learning Old English

by Suw on November 12, 2009

I know I’m not exactly completely fluent with Welsh yet, but I find myself now learning Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, whichever you want to call it. I developed a bit of an interest before the hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure was found in Staffordshire, but wow, what an amazing inspiration that is!

I’ve started a new category, so if you just want to read this stuff on Old English then you can just use this RSS feed. I’ll be using the blog to do what I used to do for Welsh (and should do more of, to be honest) which is to collate interesting links and information and maybe even practice my Old English skills.

The book/CD I’m using is Mark Atherton’s Teach Yourself Old English which is so far excellent. It gets you translating and pronouncing Old English right from the off. It’s quite surprising to me how much similarity there is between Old and Modern English, although I am sure that the grammar is going to be very different indeed!

I’ve also finally found a use for Facebook, which is that Dr Stuart Lee runs a Facebook group for people learning Old English, which I think could be really quite useful. Stuart Lee is a lecturer at Oxford University who teaches introductions to Anglo-Saxon history, culture, literature, language and life. I rather wish that I could actually experience Lee’s lectures for myself because the recordings he has put online are great!

Lee has two sets of materials in iTunes:

  • Medieval English, which include four “Old English in Context” lectures, audio tours of the Anglo-Saxon materials available to see at the British Museum and British Library, as well as two readings, from Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.
  • An Introduction to Old English, which is being recorded this term and includes audio, video and Lee’s slide deck. There are currently three lectures in the iTunes University section, but I think there are more to come.

Both are excellent. Lee is very entertaining as well as being able to communicate very clearly. He has also put together an Old English Course Pack, which is a collection of annotated and translated Old English texts, along with images of the original manuscripts. It looks incredibly useful and I can’t wait to have enough of a grasp on the language to really get the best from it.

There’s a lot more stuff online, of course, and I have a very long way to go before I have found and understood it all. But it does remind me of what I felt like when I started learning Welsh and was searching for (mainly non-existant) Welsh learning content. Perhaps it’s about time I revamped Clwb Malu Cachu too.

Meantime, I shall leave you with this reading of The Ruin, an Anglo-Saxon poem about the changes wrought by time.

ACW November 12, 2009 at 10:16 pm

I’m not an expert, but I don’t think the reader’s accent is very good. He lets aspects of his own variety of English color his pronunciation; for example, he uniformly drops syllable-final r, just as Englishmen south of the Humber do today. But all r’s had full (probably trilled) pronunciation in Old English.

I think his vowel readings are sketchy too.

Suw November 13, 2009 at 1:12 am

I have no idea what constitutes a good Old English accent and what a bad one. I have, however, been wondering about whether the R would have been trilled. Having learnt Welsh, where all Rs are trilled, I find it hard *not* to trill the R but have no idea if that would be frowned upon.

Carl Morris November 13, 2009 at 1:19 am

The web needs Old English learner content written in Welsh. kthxbai

ACW November 14, 2009 at 12:44 am

First, it occurs to me that my last n comments here all seem sort of patronizing when I reread them. I apologize. My intent was to share information, and I come off sounding like some sort of puffed-up know-it-all. I’ll try to be better.

Second, to address the actual subject matter: Everything about Old English pronunciation is more or less educated guesswork. The exact quality of OE /r/ can’t be reconstructed: it’s a trill or tap in the North, and an approximant in the South (and in America), and the OE source might have been either one. But we can be pretty sure that all the r’s were actually realized, not dropped entirely as in modern RP “far”. OE orthography was usually very close to the pronunciation; the scribe wouldn’t have written an r if he didn’t pronounce it.

I think if you pick a pronunciation for r and stick to it, you would be easily understood by a native speaker (if only there were any), whereas r-dropping might well impede understanding.

My captcha is “daily Geraldina”. Hee.

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