Tuesday, November 05, 2013


New story out this morning from the Independent about George Walkden arguing for a new interpretation of the opening word of Beowulf, hwæt.

Yet for more than two centuries “hwæt” has been misrepresented as an attention-grabbing latter-day “yo!” designed to capture the interest of its intended Anglo-Saxon audience urging them to sit down and listen up to the exploits of the heroic monster-slayer Beowulf.

According to the historical linguist, rather than reading: “Listen! We have heard of the might of the kings” the Old English of “Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum, þeod-cyninga,  þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas  ellen fremedon!” should instead be understood as: “How we have heard of the might of the kings.”
I don't know whether this is right in the end, but Walkden is a serious historical linguist and this is in his core research area.

At any rate, the new interpretation certainly fits the kind of opening lines we find in other similar early Germanic texts. It's common, namely to open with a line about something being a story. In Old High German, Hildesbrandslied opens with something that means basically "I've heard it told that ..." and the Middle High German Nibelungenlied opens with "we're told in old stories …". This interpretation would fit that pattern.

Anyway, it's cool to see Old English linguistics in the news, and even cooler that it's
something that's not weird or crazy!


Marc said...

Yet for more than two centuries “hwæt” has been misrepresented as an attention-grabbing latter-day “yo!”

Doesn't the writer mean the opposite of "latter-day" here?

George said...

Thanks, Joe! I like to think it's not weird or crazy. Full disclosure: the research is really about hwæt-clauses more generally in Old English and Old Saxon; but Beowulf provides a nice opening to shoe-horn some historical linguistics into the media.

If you're interested in the actual paper behind it, you can find it on my website ("The status of Old English hwæt").

Joe said...

Cool, George, I figured we might hear from you. I was curious about the full paper ... looking forward to reading it!

George said...

Let me know what you think!

Joe said...

Oh, very nice ... people should definitely look at it.