What Old English reveals about the culture

Words like Gafol-fisc (“tax fish”) have disappeared from modern English, as we no longer pay taxes with bushels of fish.


For this week’s column, I interviewed Hana Videen about her book “The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English.” It’s a wonderful, very funny look at what the vocabulary of Old English reveals about the culture of the people who spoke it more than a 1,000 years ago.

Dr. Videen told me that she became interested in this era in college, when she was choosing a language to study and was surprised to see Old English listed alongside the “foreign languages” offered. As her book vividly demonstrates, Old English is a foreign language ... until it’s not. Approximately 75% of Old English words have disappeared from the language we speak today, and of the 25% that remain, many have changed beyond recognition. 

A few, however, seem to offer a direct line to the past. God, word, hand, corn (meaning “grain”), and finger are the same. Old English even had the middle-finger and the hring-finger, though the pinkie was the eár-finger or eár-clǽnsend (“ear-cleaner”), evidently because that’s what one used it for. These “words that have endured reveal what has remained significant over time,” she explains.

Most Old English words are firmly in the foreign language category and reveal a culture that has changed drastically. Gafol-fisc (“tax fish”) and hunig-gafol (“honey-tax”) are gone because we now pay rent and taxes with money, not in bushels of fish or jugs of honey. Sele-dreám (“hall-joy”) is a word for the mirth and fellowship of the great halls where much of life – eating, sleeping, and entertaining – took place in early medieval England. While modern English has many terms for happiness, joy, and comfort, sele-dreám fell by the wayside as the great hall lost its central cultural role.

Because so few Old English texts have survived – the equivalent of about “30 medium-sized novels,” Dr. Videen says – the complete meanings of unusual words are sometimes lost to us. For example, neorxnawang appears in translations of the Book of Genesis, where it clearly refers to the Garden of Eden, but there is no consensus about what it means. It might be the “Garden of the Norns,” who were Norse goddesses of fate. It might derive from ne wyrcan (“no work” in Old English), or be a compound word neor (“near”) + na (“not”) + wang (“garden, field”), best translated as “garden-not near” or “near-not-garden.” Genesis reads quite differently if Adam and Eve are in a faraway garden, a nearby wilderness, a place of no work, or a pagan paradise overseen by other gods! 

If you want to learn why “adorned mouse” was the Old English word for “bat,” and why “every protagonist needs a wiþer-wengel,” read this book! 

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