Old English in Middle-Earth.

August 27, 2010 by Stuart Lee

Part One

To help create this brief introduction to Old English – the language of the Anglo-Saxons – I have consulted Mitchell and Robinson’s Guide to Old English, Dorothy Whitelock’s revised version of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader, and J.R. Clark Hall’s Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Out of respect for Tolkien’s feelings I have avoided the great Bosworth and Toller dictionary, although it remains a necessary tool for anyone who is serious about working on Old English. There are books, tapes, and teaching materials which will help you further.

If you have not yet read The Lord of the Rings, chapter references will help you to find the relevant passage.

As we know, Tolkien loved the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the people of Germanic origin who first came to Britain as a mercenary force after the Romans had left. They settled here and developed their own society, culture and language. That language is generally known, especially in its written form, as Old English, usually abbreviated to OE. Tolkien worked on it professionally as a philologist and translator, and used it creatively in The Lord of the Rings.

There were many dialect forms of Old English. Tolkien preferred the dialect of the west midlands known as Old Mercian and once said he thought he would speak nothing but Old Mercian.

All the Old English we are about to look at is primarily in the West Saxon dialect because that came to be the main literary language in Anglo-Saxon England and many of the most important texts that have survived are written in it, although they may have been composed in other dialects.

If you want to speak like the Anglo-Saxons it will take a much more detailed course than this short introduction to learn all the grammar, but you can learn some sounds and some words and phrases that are of particular interest as you read The Lord of the Rings.


The first steps in OE begin with learning some of the special Old English letter forms that are used in it, and how they sound. Old English used a few runic forms, especially þ (it is called thorn) which looks like a /p/ with a long ascender (the bit sticking up); and ð (which is called eth) which looks like a /d/ with a curved ascender with a little line through it. They describe the particular /th/ sound each is used for – the hard form of /thorn/ and the soft form of /eth/. TRY SAYING the words ‘thorn’ and ‘eth’ TO HEAR THE DIFFERENCE IN THE SOUND OF THE RUNES- it is quite subtle.

Next you need to recognise the very commonly used vowel combination æ (called ash, but more correctly spelt in OE, asc). It always has the sound of the /a/ in mat/hat/cat.

Then we have the frequent eo which is sounded – e+o but the sounds are run together, not said separately. You will be familiar with this if you have seen the films or listened to the BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

As Tolkien uses it in names, the /e/ in this combination should sound like the /a/ in ‘hate’, not like the /e/ in ‘bet’. It is a much harder vowel sound. The reason for this particular pronunciation is because names like ‘Éomer’ and ‘Éowyn’ borrow their ‘Eo’ syllable from the word for ‘horse’ – eoh, and this is a stressed syllable.

As a useful rule for pronunciation we can say that OE vowels are pronounced more like vowels in German or French.

There are some tricky consonants in OE. As with the name of the æ vowels sound, it is called /ash/ but the word is spelled asc in OE where the consonants sc taken together have a /sh/ sound.

The cg in OE words like ecg (meaning an edge or sword) is pronounced as /dge/ as in MnE (Modern English) ‘ledge’, ‘hedge’.

c can also be tricky. If you see it in a text with a dot over it then it is pronounced as we pronounce ‘ch‘.

Sometimes g will appear with a dot over it, or italicised in a word. This means that it has a ‘y’ sound. This happens frequently when making past tenses in OE. A dotted or italicised ge is tacked onto the front of some verbs to make a past tense, as in gelædan (guided, led). In these cases it has a /y/ sound, so the word is pronounced ‘yelædan’.

Using what you have just read, try saying this: Meriadoc gelædde þone eoh ‘Meriadoc led the horse’.

Be sure to sound the final /e/ of gelædde and þone. There are no really silent letters in OE. For example, cniht – ‘boy’ or ‘squire’, needs to have its /c/ sounded [it is not dotted so it has its usual sound], and even its /h/ needs to be ‘breathed’ in.

The ge is also sometimes found at the start of nouns like geweorc (work) and has the same /y/ sound. Modern editors always show by dotting or italicising the ge if it should be pronounced as a /y/ or should be left lone as a /g/.

It can also happen in the middle of words. If we look back a moment, just to make life difficult, in OE the word for ‘hedge’ is spelt hege, but the /g/ is pronounced as a /y/ so it sounds like ‘heye’, from which ‘hay’ as in the High Hay, is derived.

Words and phrases

Probably the best known OE phrase Tolkien borrowed, and one which is fun to use with friends, is the greeting Wes þu hal. It means roughly ‘good health to you’.

The archaic word ‘wassail’ comes from it and Tolkien uses a modern spelling form in the phrase – ‘Westu Theoden hal‘

The later greeting ‘Ferthu hal‘, or ferþu hal means roughly ‘health to your spirit’. See The Two Towers, Book 3 Chapter VI for the use of both these greetings.

There are lots of OE words that Tolkien transfers straight into The Lord of the Rings, mostly into the Rohan episodes.

For example: The names Theoden and Thengel are both common nouns in OE simply meaning ‘prince’ or ‘lord’. The OE word for ‘king’ is cyning and is pronounced with a hard /c/ (a /k/ sound) and note that the /y/ is pronounced as /i/ with lips in a whistling position so it sounds like the /u/ in French ‘tu’. See The Two Towers, Book 3 Chapter VI.

We could then say Theoden cyning rad þone eoh = ‘Theoden the king rode the horse’.

If we learn the verb ‘to be‘ in OE, we make up other sentences of our own. And this is easier than you may expect!

We can say things like – se hring is gold – ‘the ring is gold’; þeoden is wlanc – ‘The prince is proud’. You can see that is does not need to be translated. It has come down to us unchanged, so you use the language of the Anglo-Saxons every day of your life if you speak English!

There are many words in Modern English (MnE) that are the same, or almost the same as words in OE, as you can see with the spelling of ‘hring’ – only the /h/ is missing from the modern word.

Some examples:

* Sam wyrceþ = Sam works [sounds like ‘Sam worketh]
* Frodo bideþ = Frodo waits [biden gave us the word we use in the phrase ‘biding her (or his) time’]
* Gollum biteþ = Gollum bites
* Se stan is heard = the stone is hard
* Ylfe lufiaþ steorran = Elves love stars
* Sam lufaþ Rose = Sam loves Rose
* Ic eom cald = I am cold
* þu eart cild = you are a child [the /c/ of ‘cild’ may be dotted to show that it should be pronounced as /ch/]
* he is wicing = he is a viking
* heo is wif = she is a woman
* wit waciaþ = we two keep watch [‘wit’ is the special OE pronoun used to mean ‘we two’]
* we þencaþ = we think
* git swimmaþ = you two swim [‘git’ is the special OE pronoun used to mean ‘you two’]
* ge cunnon = you all can / know how to

It is easy to ask questions –

* Hwær is se hring? = where is the ring?
* Hwaet hring? = what ring?
* Hwær eart þu = where are you? [this will sound like ‘where art thou?’]
* Hwy stande ge idele? = why are you standing idle? [this will sound like ‘why stand ye idle?’]
* Hwa is se cyning? = who is the king?

Some harder bits

We know that Theoden is cyning. Note that OE does not always use the definite article as we do in MnE (Modern English). The definite article in MnE is ‘the‘. When it is used in OE its form depends on whether the following noun is masculine, feminine, or neuter, and singular or plural. This is something we all need to look up until we have learnt the vocabulary very well.

Because OE is an inflected language, like French, German, Latin, the definite article the has different forms, and nouns change their endings depending on where they are used in a sentence.

OE may begin a sentence with a definite article, e.g. Se cyning – the king (a masc. noun with a masc. definite article). Seo cwen – the queen (fem. noun with fem. definite article). þæt sweord – the sword (neut. noun with neut. definite article).

But in a sentence OE does not always use the definite article in the way we do, so we find sentences like Oswald cyning his cynedom geheold hlisfullice. (Oswald the king held his kingdom gloriously.) You can see how Tolkien adopted this way of referring to a king as the form he uses to name the king in Rohan where he is addressed as ‘Theoden king’, not ‘King Theoden’.

With care we can come up with our own sentences such as se hol bytla feoll in þæm smygle.

Remember when pronouncing a sentence like this to sound all vowels and consonants. Remember /æ/ has the sound of /a/ in ‘mat’, and note that the /g/ in smygle is itself a /y/ sound so the word sounds like ‘smiyl’. The form of the word perhaps reminds us of Smeagol who lived in a hole, but Tolkien seems to have derived /smial/ from the OE word although he says in the Appendices that it is pronounced like ‘smile’. [Smeagol’s sneaking suggests his name has a closer relationship to OE /smeagan/, a verb which means ‘to investigate, look closely into’].

The whole sentence – se hol bytla feoll in þæm smygle means ‘the hole-dweller fell into the burrow’. Which is better, as we know, than saying se hol bytla feoll in þæt wætere (the hole dweller fell into the water)!


By alancaster149 – from alancaster149.hubpages.com/hub

Northumbrian Nobility at War with itself joins Forces to rebut

Bamburgh  Castle  now.
Bamburgh Castle now.

Arnkell, son of Ecgfrith, had married into the Bamburgh kindred.
His wife Sigrid was half-sister to Ealdred, and had been married to Eadulf, by whom she was mother to Earl Osulf. She was also aunt to Gospatric, son of Maldred. Arnkell’s own kindred were from Deira – south of the Tees, now Yorkshire – and he and his son Gospatric held about 285 carucates* of land in Deira, to which should be added the estates of the Bishopric of Durham. It was claimed in her mother’s right as grand-daughter of Bishop Ealdhun of Durham.
The four sons of Karli, another clan in the eastern Deira region now the East Riding of Yorkshire, were connected to the House of Bamburgh (Baebbanburh) by a long-standing feud that dated back to the first year of Knut’s reign, when Karli’s father Thorbrand the Hold killed Earl/Ealdorman Uhtred of Bamburgh. Thorbrand was in turn killed by Uhtred’s son Ealdred and Ealdred fell to Karli Thorbrandsson. In AD1038 Karli invited him to his hall in the Forest of Risewood (near Stamford Bridge, East Riding) and murdered him in an ambush.
The matter rested there for a while. Karli himself was dead by 1069, when his four sons were listed amongst the rebel leaders of the Northumbrian rising against William. The presence of both Gospatric and the sons of Karli in the same host (army) shows the depth of feeling amongst the rebels, although the feud could always flare up again (it did begin anew in AD1074). A powerful motive was needed for these entrenched enmities to be buried, even if only briefly, and the key had to be the Norman presence in the north – and in particular a castle within the bounds of York (Eoferwic).
A writ of AD1069 addressed to “all the thegns, French and English, of Yorkshire” shows that the Norman settlement, or was it entrenchment, in the North had begun in earnest.
Hadrian  Wall
Hadrian Wall

William de Percy and Gilbert de Ghant – a Fleming – were established by AD1069 at the latest and it may be significant that the latter’s only manor in the shire was at Hunmanby (near Scarborough), once owned by Karli Thorbrandsson. William Malet held three estates in Holderness which had been Knut Karlason’s and in AD1086 the jurors of Holderness testified concerning these and other lands that they had not seen the king’s writ or seal for them! This suggestion of Norman waywardness on the part of Malet does not stand alone. The jurors of the Ansty Wapentake (Danelaw equivalent of the Saxon Hundred, an administrative district) testified about land in Scagglethorpe and Poppleton that “they saw William Malet in possession… but they did not know in what manner he held it”, i.e., how he came by it.
The community of York Minster later believed that Malet had seized the goods, if not the land, of the Church. If Malet’s remit included collection of the geld levied in AD1068 his actions may well have aroused hostility. The Anglo-Norman historian William of Malmesbury mentions a quarrel between Archbishop Ealdred and the king over an ‘unsupportable tax’ levied on the diocese, presumably in AD1068.
Viking  Ship
Viking Ship

Warkworth Castle
Warkworth Castle

West Saxon customs (particularly in respect to tithes) was only ended by King Eadward’s promise to ‘renew the laws of Knut’. As for those nobles north of the Tyne they had been as likely to submit to the authority of the Scots’ kings as those of the Wessex dynasty. The men of the north killed Robert de Commines and his Norman knights in AD1069 in the same spirit as they had despatched Tostig’s Danish huscarls in AD1065. In only one respect did they go further. In AD1065 they chose a new earl – Morkere – and in AD1069 they had a rival candidate (Eadgar the aetheling) for the kingship to William.
This was an eventuality that had been feared by the powers that be in Winchester as far back as rule over the infant Aengla Land by the kings of Wessex had begun under King Aelfred’s grandson Aethelstan. In AD1013 Uhtred of Bamburgh, ealdorman of Northumbria, and the northern nobility shocked Wessex by being the first to acknowledge Svein ‘Forkbeard’ Haraldsson as king of England. Now there was a West Saxon aetheling Archbishop Ealdred had been willing to crown after the death of Harold. However, if Eadgar had expected to be crowned by him in AD1069 he would be bitterly disappointed. By then Ealdred was a staunch supporter of William’s. Nevertheless the treat to the Norman king was real. Eadgar’s rights were still being voiced by 12th Century writers.
William’s recognition of the danger to him posed by support for Eadgar was demonstrated by his ostentatious crown-wearing amidst the smouldering ruins of York at Christmas, AD1069 after the rebellion had been savagely put down.
There would be no doubt as to who was the crowned head of the Aenglish state.

Next – 4: Uprising in Northumbria
The land measure ‘Carucate’
* The land measure ‘Carucate’ touched on in the body text above was used primarily in the Danelaw counties in the east of England between East Anglia and Northumbria. It was around 120 acres in size, or about 490,000 square metres (or 490 hectares). The carucate was introduced to England by the Danes under Knut and was comparable to the hide in Wessex, and was sub-divided into ‘oxgangs’ or ovates. The land tax levied was known as ‘carucage’.

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