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Ah, December. The air is crisp. The Starbucks cups are red. We’re all packing our bags for our annual trip to the year 842 to celebrate the holidays with our families in the English countryside.
If you’re anything like me, these trips home can be a major source of stress. My parents keep asking, “Why don’t you have seven children yet?” and, “Can you teach us not to die of dysentery?”
Sooner or later, we all find ourselves in the local tavern making eyes across the room at that comely glooberoo. But what to say? Your bag was, like, two stones overweight, so you had to leave your copy of the Exeter Book at home, and you’re at a loss for words.
This holiday season, I want you to be prepared. That’s why I’m going to teach you my favorite sentence in English.
Hwæt seġst þū scēaphierde?
Written down, this sentence looks nothing like English, but said aloud, it’s recognizable. I find Old English riveting (I am fun at parties), but even if you’re not a word-lover, there’s something super compelling about examining the way language changes over time. “Hwæt seġst þū scēaphierde” looks totally foreign? Well, that’s because language isn’t static. Languages mix with other languages. Spelling adapts. Pronunciation shifts.
So what does Old English teach us? Well, for starters, it shows that people who will fight to the death safeguarding English rules are wasting their time. Whom is on it’s way out. Everyone knows what you mean if you say “gonna” instead of “going to.” And even though people have fought to preserve the “sanctity” of English (among plenty of others), it doesn’t work. That’s why, a thousand years removed from Old English, we have no idea what “seġst” means.
But let’s say we want to learn.
The first thing that bears mention is the alphabet. Old English had a different one. Let’s start with the ash: æ.
The most fun letter to draw! Can we have it back? Well, if you’re a speaker of some Scandinavian languages, you still get to use it! Time to move to the Faroe Islands.
Why’s it called an “Ash”? Well, some scholars believe the character is named after famed Pokemon trainer Ash Ketchum. 1
Actually, it’s because the letter used to have a different shape—more F-like—and it looked like an ash tree. It was pronounced a, as in, “Æ! A ræt!” 2 3
The next two letters blew my Modern English mind. They’re called the eth and the thorn, and they both make a th sound. Why’d they blow my mind?
Say teeth, as in, “A golden retriever has 42 teeth.” 4
Now say teethe, as in, “I got my puppy a chew toy because she’s starting to teethe.” 5
The th sounds in teeth and teethe are different. If they were the same, the words would sound identical.
Look at the two words written in the IPA, which is both a gross kind of beer and a not-gross phonetic writing system:
In technical terms, the th in teeth is a voiceless dental fricative while the th in teethe is a voiced dental fricative. A native English speaker probably never thinks about these th sounds because it’s not a big deal in Modern English. But! This voiced vs. voiceless thing comes up in all sorts of letters. It’s somewhat arbitrary that we’ve decided to use one symbol (th) for both types of sounds when we do specify the difference between voiced and unvoiced versions of other sounds.
D is the voiced version of t. They are extremely close to being the same sound. Modern English speakers are super attuned to the difference between the two, but to an English-learner whose native language does not make a distinction between d and t, this can be tricky to master. If you’re used to hearing it, though, tie and dye sound like two different words. 6
So, back to Old English! In Old English, scribes still used two different characters to represent each th sound.
Lost letter number four: ƿ, the wynn, as in, all I do is wynn, wynn, wynn, no matter what.
It’s the equivalent of a modern W. As you might remember from our fun sentence before, though, we saw an actual modern W (in hwæt). So ƿhat gives?
Well, the Old English powers that be decided they didn’t love the wynn. Early scholars of Old English changed wynns to double-ues. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, they thought ashes, eths, and thorns were fine, but nixed the wynns. 7
And letter number five: ȝ. Like the wynn, ȝ, called yogh, is often replaced in modern translations of Old English. It was something like a Y or G sound. And it kinda just looks like a three. Boring. Draw it yourself.
There were also some other characters English just didn’t have yet. J, K, Q, and Z had yet to make it on the scene.
So now that we know what sounds we’re working with, let’s revisit our sentence.
Hwæt seġst þū scēaphierde?
Okay, that first word. If you say hw out loud, it sounds like a breathy w. Hwæt. Whæt.
Pretty much the same thing. You can see where the letters might’ve gotten switched over the years. We know that æ sound now. And the t is just a t. So: hwæt = what.
Seġst. The only thing that’s weird here is the g with the little dot. It’s kind of like the yogh from above. In Old English, g did that funny Y or G sound thing. Here, it’s a Y. Seġst. Seyst. Sayst. Say-est. It’s what you’d say for “say” if you were pulling Old English out of your ass, and it turns out, you and your ass are correct.
Þū. Thoo. Thou? You. It tracks.
Scēaphierde. This one is long but deceptively simple. Sc, in Old English, was the Modern English sh. So now, we’re looking at sheaphierde. If you haven’t guessed it yet, it’s a compound word. Sheap-hierde. Shep-herd. Shepherd.
So the full sentence: What say you, shepherd?
You’re ready. Happy holidays.
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