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More than a Fairytale: the language we’ve lost

Artwork by Chen (Cornelia) Chen

Wow, here we are, my last ‘More than a Fairytale’ column and my last ever article as a fresher. It feels kind of surreal that I have made it here…no, scratch that! It feels kind of incredible that we have all made it here. This year has been challenging beyond belief for so many reasons, there have been ups and downs, there have been impossibly high obstacles, but we got through it. Maybe not in the way we thought we would, but we did it all the same. I’m proud of that. 

Picking my topic for this final article wasn’t one of these obstacles, thankfully! One of my biggest academic (and personal, because in English particularly, your subject really does become your personality) takeaways this year has been Old English. It was a language I had just never come across before Oxford, because it cowers so quietly under the shadows of Latin and Greek. Learning Old English has been a magical experience; I really wish it was taught more in schools. It seems so ridiculous that pretty much every kid in the United Kingdom has heard of the Trojan Horse and yet very very few know the slightest about medieval mythology. But let’s not get me started on the injustice the early-medieval period faces in the education system. I hope this column has become my testimony to exactly why we should all care a bit more about our knightly, dragonly, and magic-y ancestors…

So yeah, I’m going to teach you guys a little bit of the language we’ve lost, help you begin to piece together the complicated puzzle that is our literary and linguistic history. Okay, maybe not teach, just introduce. I’m going to give you my favourite words, phrases and concepts (with the translations of course – I’m not evil; but maybe try reading some of them aloud – it is a language that is magical in its musicality). Add them to your arsenal, use them to sound shrewd at supper, or just sit back and think about the culture that came before. 

But quickly, before we get onto the language, let’s quickly do the letters we’ve lost. The Old English alphabet is basically the same as ours but (because they wanted to be extra special) they added in three extra letters: 

First we have the 6th vowel, ‘æ’. It’s called ‘ash’ but pronounced like ‘a’ as in ‘mat’. Why they didn’t call it the ‘a’ as in ‘mat’ I do not know, it would’ve made more sense. 

Then we have the terrible twins a.k.a. the thorn, ‘þ’(I affectionately call it the pregnant letter) and the ‘eth’, ‘ð’. Now they are called the terrible twins because they basically do the same thing, both are pronounced like ‘th’ and they are virtually interchangeable. Why are their two? Well if there was a difference the early-medieval monks couldn’t tell it; in every manuscript we see scribes getting confused, putting eths where there should be thorns and vice versa. See, spelling isn’t everything! 

There are also two bonus letters who have a very interesting (but very tragic) story: the runic ‘wynn’ (‘Ƿ’) and the ‘ȝ’ (which, unhelpfully, has no modern English name). The runic alphabet does not match up directly to the Roman alphabet we use today but basically, the ‘wynn’ can be substituted for a ‘w’ in Modern English, and the ‘ȝ’ for a ‘g’. Now, you won’t see these letters in the words I use today because they were erased from most Old English scholarship in the 20th century and replaced with the Roman ‘w’ and ‘g’. To me, this decision is questionable because it is basically gaslighting the language and removing a large part of its culture, especially given how runes were such a fundamentally important part of early-medieval communication. 

Also, runes are just awesome. Not happy with just representing sounds like normal letters, Runes also alluded to abstract concepts. ‘Wynn’/‘Ƿ’, for example, came to mean ‘joy’. I guess the closest we have in Modern English is emojis…but runes seem so much more elegant (I can’t think why?!?!)

Anyway, thank you for coming to my TED rant about my frustrations regarding the standardisation of Old English based on anachronistic modern normalities. Let’s move swiftly onto the fun stuff!

What’s awesome about the English language’s ancestor then?

1. Opening up about emotions 

Being honest about we are feeling is as healthy as it is necessary, and this is something which the people of the early-medieval period clearly knew. We might think an awareness of the importance of mental health is a modern development, so it continually blows me away to find writing dealing with issues of depression, loneliness, anxiety, and obsession from over a thousand years ago. 

Old English doesn’t only have words articulating such feelings or mental health conditions, but it makes use of compounds to try and make sense of these feelings. We see writers putting together words of sensations, of emotions, of specific memories or objects in an attempt to try and explain exactly why their character feels the way they do. Sounds confusing? I’m probably explaining it badly, but this is also partly because the modern English language just doesn’t work in this way anymore. Emotional explanations are more imprecise. 

Here are just a couple of examples of the most beautiful emotional-explanation compounds from one of my favourite Old English poems ever, The Wanderer. It is also one of the most emotionally aware poems in the whole English language, it’s incredible that something written so long ago can give us such a realistic insight into the human psyche: 

‘seledreorig’ – ‘sele’ (hall/home) + ‘dreorig’ (sad – an ancestor of our ‘dreary’). 

I think the sensation of hurting for your home is one we have all felt at some point in this strange strange year. But ‘seledreorig’ is a perfect word because its meaning extends beyond an ache for your physical home. The ‘sele’ is metaphorical, it’s about a yearning for belonging, a place where you truly feel you fit in – again, a familiar feeling for many I am sure.

‘wintercearig’ – ‘winter’ (winter) + ‘cearing’ (anxious, unsettled) 

A wonderful word because it works on two levels. Yes, it is literal and refers to the general unease we often feel at wintertime, when the nights close in, the days grow colder and everything feels a little less easy. But it also alludes to the anxiety we feel as we grow up (in early-medieval society age was measured by how many ‘winters’ you survived), that feeling that we should know what we are doing but we don’t. 

 ‘hygerof’ – ‘hyge’ (mind) + ‘rof’ (strong) 

Basically a cooler way of saying all strength comes from within. The word for your main character moment.

2. Kennings

Basically the most fun things in Old English hands down. Think of a kenning as a riddle contained within a word. It is a unique sort of compound where the two parts fit together to form a bigger word or illustrate an abstract concept. Why do I love them? They are insanely satisfying. See for yourselves, 

‘hwælwæg’ – ‘hwæl’ (whale) + ‘wæg’ (road/way) = the sea – because it is the road travelled by whales. 

‘heaðuswat’ – ‘heaðu’ (battle) + ‘swat’ (sweat) = blood – kinda gross, but also kinda brilliant. 

‘woruldcandel’ – ‘woruld’ (the world) + ‘candel’ (candle) = the sun – okay candle would not be the first thing to come to mind when I think ‘sun’, but hats off: it actually works.

Got the hang of it? Like games? Come on, it’s the end of term and my last column…indulge me and match the kenning to the concept: 


  1. ‘banhus’ – ‘ban’ (bone) + ‘hus’ (house)
  2. ‘reordberend’ – ‘reord’ (speech) + ‘berend’ (bearer) 
  3. ‘breosthord’ – ‘breost’ (breast/chest) + ‘hord’ (treasure) 
  4. ‘saewudu’ – ‘sae’ (sea) + ‘wudu’ (wood)
  5. ‘guðwine’ – ‘guð’ (war) + ‘wine’ (friend/companion) 

Concepts: a sword, a human being, a boat, the body, the heart 

There are hundreds of different kennings, all as just as incredible in their inventiveness as these. Seriously, just google ‘kenning example‘ and relish in this beautiful language, and then question why English decided to do away with such a cool form of expression. We should just casually bring them back one day: 

‘gosh that gym session was so hard, my shoulder branches are going to feel the burn tomorrow’ 

‘I’ve shed too much eye rain over this exam’ 

‘I’m cooking pot snakes and mash for dinner; do you fancy some?’

… it would be brilliant. Chaotic yes, but brilliant all the same. 

3. The sheer variety. 

Unpopular opinion, but modern English is actually pretty boring as languages go. Compared with other languages, our vocabulary is very stripped back, most ideas or object or feelings only have one word that describes them with perfect accuracy. Anyone who has tried a tute essay will know that when you try and properly vary the English language it just ends up sounding overly effuse and pretentious. I’m sorry, but it does. Modern English is at its most effective when it is at its simplest: why else would tutors tell us endlessly to tighten up our essays? Variety in Modern English is very often a recipe for disaster. 

In Old English, variety is at the heart of the language, particularly the poetic language (which forms a solid 70% of all the Old English we know…thanks decomposition!). This is partly because Old English poetry has a very strict alliterative form. Basically if it doesn’t alliterate, it’s not going on the page. If you don’t have a variant on your word for every single letter, well, your poem isn’t going to be very long! 

Examples (yay) 

These are taken exclusively from an Old English poem, The Dream of the Rood which is a weirdly proto-psychedelic retelling of the traditional crucifixion story. Give it a read, would 100% recommend. 

GOD,– ‘dryhtnes’ (lord), ‘waldend’ (ruler), ‘crist’ (Christ), cyninges (king), ‘God aelmihtig’ (God Almighty), ‘frean mancynnes’ (lord of mankind), ‘haelendes’ (saviour), ‘maeran þeodne’ (famous prince), ‘anwealda’ (the one ruler)

THE CRUCIFIX – ‘fracodes gealga’ (wicked gallows), ‘gealg-treowe’ (gallows- tree) rod (rood), eaxlgespanne (doesn’t really have a translation because this is the only time we see this word in Old English but essentially it means ‘shoulder-span shaped’), ‘syllicre treow’ (wonderful tree), beacen (beacon and military standard – the double meaning gives you a two-four-one when it comes to variation…wow!), ‘sige-beam’ (victory-beam), ‘banan’ (the slayer), holt-wudu (forsest-wood)

So yeah, variation is really fun – stuck for words? Just make some new ones. 

4. Double Trouble

In the opening of The Dream of the Rood, the cross (yes it talks, I told you it was trippy) to ‘reveal through words’ (‘onwreoh wordum’) the inner truth of Christianity. Now, why not just say ‘tell’? It would have certainly been shorter. 

No, the answer is not that the poet wanted to be pretentious! Sorry to burst your bubble. 

Perhaps my favourite thing about Old English is that the puzzles contained within the words and the language don’t just stop after one definition or translation. I like to think of working with Old English as playing a game of pass the parcel. Unwrapping (or deciphering) one layer of the word just leaves you facing another. It’s a truly unique experience, I am yet to find another language which works in such a wow sort of way: 

Earlier we saw ‘treowe’. Yes this literally means ‘tree’ – the words even look a teensy bit similar. But below the word’s identity as a ‘tree’ are two secondary definitions, ‘faith and then ‘truth. How are these connected? Well, a belief in the ‘tree’ a.k.a the cross is at the centre of the Christian ‘faith’ and all Christians believe that if we have ‘faith’ in the cross, we will find ‘truth’. Neat right?!

Another one of my personal favourites is ‘anhaga’. Literally it is a combining of ‘an’ (one) + ‘haga’ (dwelling) so an ‘anhaga’ is someone ‘living alone’. Simple right? Hmmm, you should know by now that Old English is very rarely simple. 

Uncovering the ‘anhaga’ layers is an emotional journey, it allows you to learn more and more about this solitary recluse; although, inevitably, the process throws up as many questions as it does answers. A ‘haga’ is technically not only a ‘dwelling’ but an ‘enclosure’. So, our ‘anhaga’ is the ‘one enclosed alone’. Now, it is up to the reader to decipher whether he has chosen to be an exile, to live as a recluse or if he has been forced. Basically, the translator has absolute power – they decide this ‘anhaga’s identity, personality, legacy – all from the information gained from a single word. Wow, that’s something special. 

I really could talk forever about how much I adore Old English and why we should give it a lot more attention than we do. I hope I have started to show you just why Modern English’s linguistic ancestor deserves so much of our love. Even if you just remember one word, that will be one more word than what you knew half an hour ago…and that really is something. 

And yes, please please use it as a cool party trick – I’m sick of people boasting of how they can speak Latin or Greek. Unpopular opinion (sorry classicists) but those languages aren’t nearly as exciting as our little lost language!