“I hold your oaths fulfilled.” Thus spake Aragorn in the film of Tolkien’s Return of the King. Listening, I wondered if all the dialogue was derived from Old English (OE). The short answer is no, but it reminded me of the time I decided to see if it was possible to construct dialogue for my books (set in Anglo-Saxon England) using only words derived from OE and Old Norse (ON).
Here’s some dialogue from a very early draft of one of my novels (unpublished*):
“No no, all is well; you sit. It is cooler here in the yard. I was thinking, though, that the roads from the south may be hard enough to ride on now, which means that Lord Helmstan might be home soon. Can we bake a few more loaves? Would it help to knead the rest outside?”
“It would, my lady, thank you. There is enough flat bread to see us through, but if I can find how my idle daughters do with the grinding, I can bake with yeast and the finest ground meal to make bread for the lord. With your leave, I will go now and get that husband of mine to lift me down another bag of meal.”
Hmm. It doesn’t flow brilliantly well, does it? And it’s not even all OE – lift, for example, is 12th century ON, bag is 13th century ON.
So, if we want to use only OE-derived words, what can we use, and what can’t we use? It’s surprising:
Alliterative couplets are okay – hale and hearty, forgive and forget.
But whilst we can reckon, we can’t count.
We can’t want, but we can crave, or wish.
We can eat our food at the board, but not the table, and we’ll sit on a stool, not a chair. Sounds a little uncomfortable; a bit basic. It gets worse:
You can’t smile; you can only smirk or grin. (But since that means ‘to bear your teeth’ it doesn’t sound as benign as a smile, somehow.)
You can’t have a smell or an aroma; you can only have a stench.
The problem is that so many OE words now have negative connotations (we have the Normans to thank for a lot of that.)
And as for those Four-Letter-Words, well, the really nasty ones are not Anglo-Saxon and oddly, although I’ve just said that they hold such negative connotations, the Anglo-Saxon four letter words are now considered relatively inoffensive and, after all, they simply described body parts/functions – shit, arse, etc.
‘Ursine preference for forest-based defecation‘ somehow sounds more archaic than ‘Bears like to shit in the woods,’ and yet one would be more authentic than the other (even though like is 12th century ON)
And when, in the same (unpublished)* novel, I needed my main character to respond to a threat thus:
“You can try. Mercia has never yet bent to the rule of a Dane, be he Viking or Churchman,”
I found that using the 13th century try was preferable to:
“Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.” – All OE-derived words, yes, but a little too modern-sounding!
Some other words just don’t translate at all – for flower you’d have to use blossom but that’s not really a singular noun, in so far as one couldn’t pick a blossom. You can’t have ceremony, or feast, or celebration – symbel is not a word that has survived.
Perhaps the Anglo-Saxons had different concepts, because while you could use eyes, chin, nose, brows and cheeks, there is no OE word which equates to the modern face (13th century) and to describe beauty you would have to talk of winsomeness.
Some modern words carried different meanings: I tend to have my characters say naught because nothing meant something entirely different, akin to being an outcast, literally no thing. Dream is another word which conveyed a different concept, being more like a waking vision, or daydream.
Familial relationships become difficult to describe if we are too strict, because we can’t have uncle, aunt or cousin, although we can have brother, sister, mother and father. Grandmother should really be greatmother, but it’s clunky. In other family matters though, we can choose the OE forms, and have burials instead of funerals and weddings instead of marriages, which helps to build up the Anglo-Saxon ‘voice’.
Where it becomes nigh on impossible is with the little, useful words. The conjunction because , for example – it’s hard to see what could replace it in the following passage from To Be a Queen:
“So be it. But it is only because she is my sister that I bow to you.”
The sharp scything noise set his teeth on edge. Every Mercian in the room had his hand on his sword hilt, the blade hitched up to protrude from the scabbard. Alhelm stepped forward and fixed the piercing blue gaze on Edward once more. “No, my lord, it is only because she is your sister that we bow to you.”
Sometimes, therefore will do instead, but not in all cases. I asked Jim Sinclair, OE specialist, for a suggestion: “One possibility is for or that, as in ‘But it is only for that she is my sister‘, … connected to how it would have been expressed in OE (“Ac hit is ānlīce for þæm þe hēo is mīn sweostor…”)
Some more ‘little’ words which aid flow are seem, appear, doubt, and grateful (which is ‘very’ modern – 16th century).
“I should have felled him where he stood. Rotting crow-body … ” Helmstan sat down and shoved his legs straight out in front of him. “I reminded him that he is not one of us, but I only spoke the truth.”
How to replace reminded? I bade him hark back? Try it yourself – and no, you can’t have reconsider, or pointed out!
In the following passage from To Be a Queen, the words in bold are not OE, but are short, conveying urgency:
Five or six more steps through a river suddenly flowing treacle brought him to the bubbles of wet cloth. Batting aside a floating shoe, he grabbed the centre of the sodden, sinking lumps. Waist deep only, merciful Jesus, but so many weeds. Come here girl. He flipped her over and lifted her clear of the dragging wetness. Legs planted, he centred his weight and brushed the hair from her face. She coughed and he allowed himself to breathe again.
Girl is 13th century, merciful is 12th century. Could I have used OE? Jim says, “Tricky. Girl would be maid or maiden which are somewhat archaic and so narrower in meaning, though would work quite nicely in OE. Merciful is virtually impossible; there are some wonderful words for mercy/merciful in OE which haven’t [survived] and the closest I can get is mild-hearted, which I don’t think really does it.”
Later in the chapter:
“I am here to look after you while my father cannot. As one day I will look after Wessex as my father has not. You are my sister. What else is there to know about why I saved you from drowning?”
I asked Jim how I could say this without using save or rescue. “There’s no obvious candidate here that I can think of. Possibly something simpler like kept from (Why I kept you from drowning) but, again, it’s not really the same.”
Furthermore, drowning is 13th c. Drenching is the closest but doesn’t convey the same meaning.
In the following two short sentences, is there a pithy alternative to the bold words?
“Kings are only as strong as the men who surround them.” Jim: “In OE you would use the word ymb meaning about, so maybe “Kings are only as strong as the men about them,” or “...as the men they keep about them.”
“Sometimes it is but one man who makes the difference.” Jim says, “There are few OE options that have survived, but maybe an alternative idiomatic expression might be ‘to turn the tide’ – “Sometimes it is but one man who can turn the tide.”?
So, whilst we seem to have established that it’s necessary to use later words to make the dialogue flow, there are some which give a ‘flavour’ of the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking and talking.
“Hit one, and the other will bleed. Ceolwulf only wears the king-helm because Guthrum’s Vikings hold it on his head.”
King-helm is better than crown, and king-seat would be a better alternative to throne – even today, German is full of compound nouns. Weapon-man is better than warrior; fyrdsman better than soldier. To continue giving a sense of time and place, we use fowler’s hut instead of mews.
We can’t be sticklers; I’m not sure we would want novels set in Tudor England, or even Chaucer’s time, to have dialogue in impenetrable Middle English.
Ultimately, then, it has to be a tale (not a story!) of authenticity (14th via Old French) versus truth (OE).
And if you don’t agree, then have a read of this book and see if you still want to use only OE words:
(This article originally appeared on the EHFA Blog on 28th August, 2015
[* This book has since been published under the title Alvar the Kingmaker]