by Hana Videen
English. That’s what I’m writing in right now. These words you’re reading, they all make sense as English. You could probably read these words to Shakespeare and even though the spelling is a bit different and some of the definitions have shifted slightly he’d still understand most of it just fine. When it comes to older writing, it might take some concentration but we can generally work out what written English is trying to say even if it was written five, six, and maybe as far as seven hundred years ago. We call that Middle English. But go back further, all the way to before the Norman Conquest of England, and we get Old English, a language that at first glance seems almost completely unrelated to what we speak now. I can’t even type half of the words on a standard keyboard: things like the letter “thorn” (it makes the “th” sounds”) or the a+e combined letter. None of the vowels are pronounced the same as we do now.
The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English, by Hana Videen, is a sampling of what English was like back then, before the influence of French and other languages after 1066. It’s an illustration of where our modern language came from, and in part why it’s now so hard to learn. It used to be its own thing, but became a sort of buffet of languages, a little bit of this and a little bit of that all on one plate.
As you progress through The Wordhord, you realize how much of Old English is hiding in our modern language: despite all the spelling and grammatical changes, you start to see the connections everywhere. “Hlaf” is a loaf of bread. “Meolc” is milk. Things get odd as they combine, but the meanings can still be teased out: “Hlaford,” or “bread-guardian,” is the head of the house. That word became “Lord.” The British House of Lords is a bunch of people who keep bread safe.
The Wordhord is a fascinating look at English as it was and a great lesson in how language changes. Each chapter covers an aspect of life, from food and drink (hlaf/meolc) to human relationships like friends and enemies (freond/feond), with a whole horde of words at the end of each chapter with pronunciation guides. Over the course of a millennium English has become almost unrecognizable from its older form. This process is still happening now, even with all the writing and records we have. The Wordhord shows us that we can have change and still keep links to the past.