Note: Unless you find language or history interesting (and/or have an appetite for mostly-useless trivia), this post will probably be incredibly boring to you.
In doing research for my senior paper, I came across a book with a chapter titled A Brief History of the English Language. It wasn’t information relevant to my research, but I found it interesting and read it nonetheless. In the section on Old English, as an example the authors had shown how the Lord’s Prayer was written in Old English:
Fæder ūre þū þe eart on heofonum,
Sī þīn nama ġehālgod.
Tōbecume þīn rīċe,
ġewurþe þīn willa, on eorðan swā swā on heofonum.
Ūre ġedæġhwāmlīcan hlāf syle ūs tō dæġ,
and forgyf ūs ūre gyltas, swā swā wē forgyfað ūrum gyltendum.
And ne ġelǣd þū ūs on costnunge, ac ālȳs ūs of yfele.
The above text is from the West Saxon literary dialect and translates to read:
Father of ours, thou who art in heavens,
Be thy name hallowed (holy).
Come thy riche (kingdom),
Worth (manifest) thy will, on earth as also in heaven.
Our daily loaf (bread) sell (give) us today,
And forgive us of our guilts as also we forgive our guilters (those who have done wrongly against us)
And do not lead thou us into temptation, but alese (release/deliver) us of (from) evil.
Bear in mind that Old English spelling wasn’t standardized and there were many different dialects of Old English spoken in England in the latter half of the first millennium. Also notice that Old and Modern English syntax differ slightly, with Old sounding a little the way Yoda speaks. Also remember that Old English (Anglo-Saxon) is a German language, spoken by the tribesman who vacated their homelands in Angeln (located on the Jutland peninsula in modern Germany) to settle in Britain. Over time, these Germanic invaders drove out the Britonnic tribes who had lived in southern Britain during the Roman occupation; languages descended from those spoken by those tribes are still spoken today (Welsh and Cornish in Britain and Breton in Brittany, France).
You’ll also probably notice two letters in the Old English text that might be unfamiliar: they are eth (ð) and thorn (þ). Old English had several letters that aren’t used anymore and lacked several that are used today, notably “J,” “K,” “Q,” W,” and “Z” (interestingly, Old English had the letter “X,” which, in Modern English at least, is completely unnecessary). Both eth and thorn make essentially the same sound and are thus rendered in Modern English as “th.” There is a subtle difference, however: eth made the “th” sound as in “then” or “there,” slightly softer than the sharper sound thorn denoted as in “thick” or “thin.”
I won’t even attempt to tell you how to read and sound it out correctly, but there are several videos on YouTube that are probably fairly accurate. This one seems to be the most reputable; this one is the most epic.
In a similar vein, I was bouncing around looking at cemetery information last night wishing I had time to do some real genealogy research when I stumbled across an epitaph that had been inscribed on a headstone in an abandoned cemetery near Daisy, Oklahoma, which is about twenty miles from where I live. It’s purportedly written in old Choctaw and says:
Yohmi jut auet sa kanchi tok,
aki ut uma tok moyuma ka.
achufa kia ik sa junio hosh,
amba nitak ont isht aiopikma
a taha hi ut, tanihchita he.
The translation is given as:
God the father, who sent me,
has given me these and I
would that not one be lost.
But that they will continue
until the last day, when all
will be in that resurrection.
What a great day that
resurrection will be.
The closest corresponding verse I could locate was John 6:39, but it’s not a perfect match. It’s also notable that the headstone reportedly didn’t have a Scripture reference so it could be an amalgamation of two or more verses or just a simple misprint. I just thought it was really cool that the headstone, belonging to a man named William Frazier, had an epitaph written in Old Choctaw.
At any rate, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m fascinated by language, mainly because it’s one of those things that people absolutely take for granted yet which took several millennia to reach the sophistication it has today. Old languages are a means of preserving and learning culture and, in the case of English, help us understand more fully the words and phrases we speak at present. Without language, modern society couldn’t function; human beings would be trapped inside their own bodies, unable to express all but the most simple of thoughts. That’s a scary proposition.