Why Study Old English? – Part I

Many years ago I had a job teaching English as a second language. (That’s a misnomer: often my students were learning English as their third or even their fourth language.)

Along the way I took some courses to enhance my teaching skills. One course that was strongly recommended was the history of the English language. I thought that was ridiculous, but I wasn’t about to argue with my mentor. It turned out to be one of the most useful courses I’ve ever taken. (More about this in a future post.)

I had a small advantage because I’d already studied Old English in graduate school. (In a later course I read a big chunk of Beowulf in Old English. Talk about a challenge!)

I don’t know whether the history of English course made me a better ESL instructor, and I’m still not sure why I decided to spend all that time studying Old English. I am not good at languages. If you showed me a line of Beowulf today, I’d be lost. None of the grammar and vocabulary stuck.

But those courses did reshape my thinking about English – and about languages in general. Along with an introductory linguistics course, they’re probably the most important learning experiences I had in college.

They convinced me that some of my ideas about English – and languages in general – didn’t work, and they prompted me to replace those outworn ideas with better ones.

I used to worry about the deterioration of the English language. Every day I saw clumsy sentences, misused words, and bad grammar. I viewed the future of English with dismay and foreboding.

So it was a salutary shock to learn that the deterioration had already taken place – back in the eleventh century! Before the Norman Conquest in 1066, Old English was an incredibly sophisticated language. It had an elaborate system of genders, declensions, and conjugations. Many nouns had eight forms, and some had ten.

Modern English has only two forms for most words (bird, birds, rock, rocks). Some nouns have only one. When I say pants or scissors, I could be talking about fifty of them – or only one.

If the Beowulf poet could hear us talking today, he would weep. Almost all of the elegant grammar he used so carefully has disappeared.  Cat is cat whether you’re using the nominative, accusative, dative, or ablative cases. We do have a genitive form: cat’s. But that’s all.

And yet we can write and speak with immense subtlety and sophistication. We have the plays of Shakespeare, the poems of John Donne, and the complexity of a technology manual or a medical textbook. How is that possible?

The answer is that word order took over the job that those declensions used to do. In Old English (as in Latin and many other languages), word order didn’t matter. The endings told you whether John loves Mary or Mary loves John.

And so I learned here’s no such thing as a “primitive” or “deteriorating” language. When one feature is lost, another one takes its place. Language always finds a way.

Think for a moment about sign language. There’s very little to work with – no sounds, very little punctuation, and no capital letters. But a hearing-impaired person can grasp even the most subtle points in a lecture just by paying attention to the person who’s signing.

Charlie Labonte – a friend who’s an interpreter – told me that interpreters use facial expressions to convey adverbs (happily, sadly, quickly, angrily).

Back to English. It’s likely that English will undergo some significant changes in the next 70 or 80 years. We may lose some cherished grammar and venerated rules. But English won’t lose its power. As little snippets of our language fall into disuse, new ones will come along…that’s a guarantee.

So we can all relax – at least as far as the future of English is concerned!

There’s one more point before I go. You might wonder if I was exaggerating about the differences between Old English and Modern English. I can assure you that I wasn’t. As evidence, here’s the Lord’s Prayer in Old English:

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