As a living soul of the twenty-first century, if you take a glance at the opening lines of Beowulf, the Old English poem, the chances are that you won’t be able to understand it. If anything, you may perhaps recognise its famous first word, hƿæt.
This is absolutely fine, I should add; Old English is an old language, which we need specialised help to understand. Even knowing modern English is not necessarily a significant advantage – given how much English has changed since early medieval times, I reckon knowing German or Dutch would be just as useful.
I cannot (or rather should not) teach you how to read Beowulf; there are far better people and resources out there for that endeavour. I can, however, try to show you how much of Beowulf you do in fact already know, and how familiar the language of the text can feel to people today. This is the goal of this article: to demonstrate that you know more about the language of Beowulf than you think. It’s a task that I will attempt with the help of some comparative linguistics and a more than a little bit of etymology.
To begin, here’s a picture of the first page of Beowulf.
The poem comes down to us in a single, fragile source: the Nowell Codex, named after the sixteenth-century antiquarian Laurence Nowell. When typed up into legible modern letters, and with abbreviations unabbreviated and some more punctuation added, the first eleven lines (up to about halfway down the page above) read like this:
Hƿæt ƿe Gardena in gear dagum,
þeod cyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodo setla ofteah
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest ƿearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
ƿeox under ƿolcnum, ƿeorð myndum þah
oðþæt him æghƿylc ymbsittendra
ofer hron rade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. Þæt ƿæs god cyning.
However, much remains different, not least being the letters ⟨þ⟩,⟨ð⟩, ⟨ƿ⟩ and ⟨æ⟩. The first two of these are largely interchangeable, used to represent the sounds [θ] (as in thick) and [ð] (as in then). Both are still used in Icelandic writing today, while ⟨þ⟩ later had to be adapted to fit better with the rest of the Latin script and, having morphed into simply ⟨y⟩, is the reason why English has the archaic and jokey definite article ye alongside the usual the. The third letter, ⟨ƿ⟩, stands for the sound [w] (as in water) and is called wynn. This elucidates things somewhat; we can now see that Old English þæt corresponds to modern that and ƿæs to modern was. Last is the letter ⟨æ⟩, called ash, which Old English used for the vowel sound in cat.
Yet the language is still mostly mysterious. So, without further ado, we need to dive into the text properly. This will proceed by analysing the eleven lines above in detail. For each line, I will provide a very literal, awkward translation, before highlighting what I think are notable words and useful titbits. It will then conclude with a full and fully fluent translation into modern English.
Starting with the first line:
Hƿæt ƿe Gardena in gear dagum…So, we of the Spear-Danes in days of yore…
Hƿæt – the fascinating and famous introductory word presents a puzzle for translators. Because it does not fit easily into the meaning of what follows, and because it can be found at the start of other texts, there is a long (but not uncontested) tradition of translating hƿæt as a stand-alone interjection – with an exclamation mark to suit that status. Therefore, it may be that hƿæt! here means listen! or now then! What is surer is that it is the ancestor word of modern what. The spelling of modern what still reflects the distinct sound at the beginning of Old English hƿæt. The word was not spelled with just ⟨ƿ⟩, because in Old English it had a different sound from the [w] in water. In fact, you can even still hear this distinct sound when some English speakers pronounce words like what, whether and white and with an initial [ʍ] sound instead of [w], the painter Bob Ross being one such speaker. In my view, the Old English spelling of hƿæt better shows the word’s connection to related what-words in other languages, like Latin quid.
ƿe – this is our current personal pronoun, we. The word was pronounced in Old English with a different vowel, gaining its modern pronunciation through the Great Vowel Shift.
Gardena – here we come to the first noun of the text and the first alien concept, which makes us ask ‘what is a Spear-Dane? How were they different to regular Danes?’ In this compound, its second part, Dene, evidently refers to Danes, but the first, gār, is unfamiliar. It may no longer be a viable word for ‘spear’, but it survives nonetheless in the word garlic, the ‘spear leek’!
in – this is just the same as the modern-day preposition!
gear dagum – this compound word means ‘days of yore’ and its components are indeed related to both words of that translation. The letter ⟨g⟩ in words like gear and dæg stands for the sound /j/ (as in yes), an alternative pronunciation for the letter, which scholars nowadays tend to write with a dotted ⟨ġ⟩ for the sake of ease. With this in mind, gear dagum becomes the more recognisable year dayum or yore dayum, with the necessary dative plural ending -um on its end.
The second line:
… þeod cyninga þrym gefrunon…… Of the people-kings glory heard…
þeod cyninga – ‘people-kings’. Bearing in mind that the letter ⟨c⟩ here is pronounced [k], the ancestral word for ‘king’ is not so alien to us, just a little longer. This older form allows us to better appreciate the constituent parts of the word king, which is in fact related to kin in English and to a whole host of birth- and family-related words in other languages; these have in turn given English words like generation, genealogy, genitals and gonads. Its first part, þēod, is no longer used in English, but it is a cognate of the extremely German word deutsch (that is, deut–sch) and thus Deutschland, which are the Germans’ terms for themselves and their country – in other words, things to do with their own people.
… hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon…… how the princes braved performed…
hu – the same as modern how, except for the quality of its vowel. While how in most varieties of English is once again the result of the Great Vowel Shift, a pronunciation closer to that of old hū survives today in Scottish English.
ða – this little word works like the present-day definite article, the. However, in Old English, this was only one of its many forms, as the word declined to match the gender, number and case of the noun – in this form, it is plural and nominative to match æþelingas. What I find interesting is that ðā is nearly an exact counterpart to German die, one of the forms of German’s own definite article, in that it’s used for feminine or plural things.
æþelingas – such a great, evocative word! We can translate it to ‘princes’ or ‘noblemen’ – it implies at least an elite, aristocratic status. Ætheling had a more precise function in early medieval English society. If you bore the title of ætheling, you were a close relative of the king and were eligible to succeed him. This title even survived the Battle of Hastings and on into the Norman era; William, son of Henry I, who died in the White Ship disaster, was known as William Adelin.
fremedon – this verb means ‘did’ or ‘performed’. I mention it not because of its meaning or etymology (it could be related to frame, I should add), but because of its grammatical structure; the verb is in the past tense and so it shows the -ed–affix that English still uses today. What follows, -on-, is a person marker for the plural number.
… Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum…… Often Scyld Scefson from enemies’ troops…
Oft – this is the adverb often, just a bit shorter. It appears in compounds and in German as oft to this day.
sceaþan – the Old English word sċeaþa means ‘enemy’. What is an enemy? Someone who hurts you. What is another word for ‘hurt’? Scathe.
þreatum – this is indeed the ancestor of modern threat, although it means ‘troop’ or ‘crowd’ here in Beowulf. It’s unclear which meaning came first – it may be that an original meaning of ‘press’ led to both a sense of a pressing multitude of people and a sense of pressing future doom.
… monegum mægþum, meodo setla ofteah…… from many peoples, mead-benches took away…
monegum – remember the possible values of the letter ⟨g⟩ in Old English! This is our modern many, pronounced something along the lines of [monejum].
meodo setla – ‘mead benches’. The first part of this compound is part of a broad family of honey-words, including modern mead and my personal favourite amethyst, while the second belongs to an even bigger family of sitting-words, which includes seat, sedentary, chair and cathedral (I mean, obviously).
ofteah – this comes from one past-tense form of the Old English verb tēon, which means ‘to drag, to pull’. It’s a relative of German ziehen and more distantly of Latin dūcere ‘to lead’, from which English gets loads of words – like introduce, educate, reduce and even duke. The of- prefix of the verb contributes the idea of ‘away from’, which is what of used to mean; many of its current functions (like expressing possession) weren’t necessary then, as Old English had the genitive case for those.
… egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest ƿearð…… terrified earls. After first he was…
eorlas – I mean, this is just earls in current English. It’s also related to jarl, a similar title in Scandinavian languages. Eorlas here is plural, as marked by -as. This was by no means the only way of making plural nouns in Old English, so it’s interesting that it was this ending that came to dominate the field of plurality in English today, almost entirely surpassing other methods.
ærest – this word for ‘first’ may not be current today, but it survives in German as the common erste ‘first’ and also in English erstwhile.
ƿearð – I want to highlight ƿearð to make a link to modern German. In present-day English, we make passive verbs with the help of the verb be, as in ‘I am found‘ or ‘you are given‘. German by contrast makes use of the verb werden ‘to become’ instead. Together with the main verb funden in the next line, Old English here is closer to the German construction, using ƿearð ‘became’ to make the passive phrase “ƿearð … funden” (‘he was found…’).
… feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad…… destitude found, he for that comfort waited…
feasceaft – the root of the word is the adjective fēaw, from which we get few. To be destitute is therefore to be in ‘few-ness‘.
gebad – this is one past-tense form of the verb ġebīdan. Modern wait came into English from French, in doing so almost entirely ousting its Old English equivalent. However, (ġe)bīdan survives still as the fairly infrequent word bide – as in biding one’s time.
… ƿeox under ƿolcnum, ƿeorð myndum þah…… grew under the sky, in honours flourished…
ƿeox – speaking of words that have only barely survived until the present day, we can still say that a moon which is getting larger each night is a waxing moon. This comes from Old English ƿeaxan ‘to grow’ (compare German wachsen) and it’s a point of note that the Latin for growing or waxing is crēscēns – hence, a crescent moon.
ƿolcnum – as a plural noun, ƿolcnum can be translated as ‘clouds’ and ‘sky’, as well as, by extension, ‘heaven’. The word, with the first meaning, is related to modern German Wolke and Dutch wolk.
ƿeorð myndum – this delightful compound intended for ‘honours’ is made up of ƿeorð ‘worth, honour’ and mynd ‘mind, thought’ (the latter of which is part of a big family of thinking words, including Latin mēns – hence mental). Honours are therefore ‘worth thoughts’!
… oðþæt him æghƿylc ymbsittendra…… until to him each of those sitting around…
æghƿylc – the modern word each is in fact an old compound, as its ancestral form here can better show. It comes in part from the pronoun hƿilċ, from which comes, well, which.
ymbsittendra – ‘the around-sitting ones’. While the sit root of the word is obvious, the umb– prefix, meaning ‘around’, is no longer productive or even intelligible in English. Its relatives in other languages though are much better known; it is a sister prefix of Latin ambi– (as in ambidexterous) and Greek amphi- (as in amphibian and amphitheatre).
… ofer hron rade hyran scolde…… over the whale-riding obey must…
ofer – the preposition here reminds us that Old English did not have the letter ⟨v⟩, which developed much later to distinguish consonants, represented by ⟨v⟩, from vowels, represented by the letter ⟨u⟩. In this, Old English is like Welsh, which also does not use the letter ⟨v⟩, having the duo ⟨f⟩ and ⟨ff⟩ instead. In fact, the consonant [v] that the letter ⟨v⟩ stands for in present-day English was a less frequent sound in Old English, believed to be only an allophone – a variant, determined by context, of another sound – so the absence of a dedicated letter makes sense.
hron rade – literally the ‘whale road’, this kenning refers to the sea! Rād specifically could mean ‘road’ or ‘journey’, but also refer to the action of riding – through which we can appreciate how road and ride are related words.
hyran – although disguised by spelling, this is our verb hear, used to mean ‘obey’. In fact, the word obey itself has a hearing-history, coming as it does from Latin ob- and audīre ‘to hear’.
scolde – here we have the past tense of sċulan, akin to modern should and shall. The verb carries a sense of necessity and obligation, which shall maintains today (e.g. thou shalt not…), so ‘had to’ or ‘must’ would be good translations for sċolde.
Finally, the eleventh line:
…gomban gyldan. Þæt ƿæs god cyning.… tribute yield. That was a good king.
gyldan – this is modern yield, but spelled with an initial ⟨g⟩ and with a ⟨y⟩ for the vowel [y] (as in German über). The -an ending of ġyldan is there to mark it as the infinitive form of the verb. This is something English no longer does, but which is akin to the endings used in Dutch and German today; Dutch and German add -en to make their infinitives, as in Dutch hebben ‘to have’ and zingen ‘to sing’, or German haben and singen.
Þæt ƿæs god cyning – a short, snappy phrase to end on! It nicely illustrates the fact that English had not yet developed indefinite articles; in this regard Old English grammar was like of that of Latin or Russian – you can say good king but not a good king.
So, there we have it – the first eleven lines of Beowulf, analysed in agonising detail. I hope that, if you now look back, the original text no longer feels quite so impenetrable – you can see how you might ġyldan some gomban to someone, or how a king could oft oftēon someone’s meodosetla. With the help of some changes to spelling and an eye for words that may be rare in current use, we can shorten the perceived distance between English then and English now.
To finish, here at last are those same eleven lines translated into some modern English by John McNamara, whose choice of language sticks fairly closely to the Old English original that we now know quite well.
We have heard tales sung of the Spear-Danes,
the glory of their war-kings in days gone by,
how princely nobles performed heroes’ deeds!
Oft Scyld Scefing captured the mead halls
from many peoples, from troops of enemies,
terrifying their chieftains. Though he was first
a poor foundling, he lived to find comfort;
under heavens he flourished, with honours fulfilled—
till each neighbouring nation, those over the whale-road,
bowed under his rule, paid the price of tribute.
That was a good king!
Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2005.
A version of this essay first appeared on Danny’s blog.
Danny Bate is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in the grammar of very old languages and in comparing those languages to reconstruct even older grammar. He lives in Prague and also online, where he devotes too much time to sharing language facts on Twitter (@DannyBate4) and on his blog (dannybate.com)