Podcast 6: How to ‘say’ things in Old English

Have you ever wanted to speak Old English? Or say things in Anglo-Saxon?

Can you tell the difference between those two questions?

This week we were joined by Myriam Frenkel, who specialises in verbs for speech in Old English poetry. As it turns out, ‘to say’ (‘secgan’), ‘to speak’ (‘sprecan’), and ‘to tell’ (‘tellan’) were all used rather differently in Old English (spoken in England from around 450CE – 1150ish, when it crossed the boundary into what we now called Early Middle English).


The word ‘secgan’, for instance, seems to have often been used in assertions of truth. This  has possibly carried on into modern English in the form of ‘sooth sayer’ – soð (the ð is pronounced -th) being the OE word for truth.

‘Tellan’ is an Old Norse loan word, which originally had to do with counting. We still get it in words like ‘bank teller’ and telling cattle.

‘Maðelian’ is another speech word in Old English, used in more formal settings, often in the context of gift-giving. It’s used ironically, then, in the poem The Battle of Maldon, when the leader of the English army, Byrhtnoth, tells a Danish messenger that he will pay his ransom with weapons. In this parody of a gift-giving ceremony, Byrhtnoth is essentially telling the messenger that the English army will fight the Danes.

See the poem here and decide for yourself whether Byrhtnoth was blinded by ofermode when he let the Danes cross the causeway: the Old English Version can be found here while a modern English translation can be found here.

Here’s a picture of Northey Island in Essex, where the Danes were stationed. You can still see the causeway stretching off to the mainland on the right:


Photograph by Terry Joyce, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0


We should have mentioned that Proto-Germanic dates from around the 4th or 5th century BCE (or possibly much earlier), and is thought to continue until the start of the Common Era.

Myriam mentions that sometimes the same word is borrowed twice into a language at different times, varying their meaning each time. Myriam has this to add: ‘Church is an early borrowing, probably into Proto-Germanic from Greek. A range of words are later borrowed from the same Greek words, such as ecclesiastic. You can tell something about the date of the earlier borrowing from the ways it has been Anglicised, and the sound changes it has undergone. A similar point can be made about candle/chandelier, although the latter of these is borrowed via French, whereas the former is straight from Latin.’

Calque borrowings are when a word is borrowed and made into a natural part of the adoptive language. You borrow the idea of a word, though. For instance, hedgehog is a direct translation of the Old French (and originally Latin) porc espin. Porc espin was then  re-borrowed to denote a different animal, a porcupine. Both halves of the compound are translated into the adoptive language. Biologically, hedgehogs and porcupines may be different animals, but linguistically they’re almost the same!

‘The exact means by which porcupine was calqued into hedgehog is difficult to reconstruct precisely, however in middle English hegge still had the sense of ‘boundary’, and in OED the word is still associated with thorns, hence the link to Latin pinus. It is also worth noting that while Swedish igelkott again has reference to pine (kott refers to a pine cone), and Danish pindsvin and Norwegian piggsvin likewise make the same link (pind- and pigg- translate as ‘prickle’, and svin as ‘pig’), Celtic names refer to hedgehog as ‘horrible one’ grainneog (Irish), crainneag (Scottish Gaelic) and draenog (Welsh). There is a more detailed version of some of this in Chapter 2 of Hugh Warwick’s book Hedgehog.’


Here is an adorable hedgehog. Photograph by Lars Karlsson.

Other calques include: gospel/god-spell, which is a borrowing of evangelium, or good news. And flea market from the German Flohmarkt.

For those of you interested in the details of Old English grammar, Myriam has this to add: ‘ge- prefix is most often a marker of the past participle, (which is sometimes used as a gerund, and therefore can be used to form a noun from the verb. As a result ge- also occurs in nouns). Some past participles do not use ge- to mark the tense, however, and do so using different markers. This is similar to the distinction between weak and strong verbs found throughout the marking of tenses in verbs, with some verbs marking the past through the addition of a dental suffix (-ed) and some using stem change (shine, shone). In non-participle forms of the verb, ge- also quite often has a perfective aspect (denotes completed action), but is not associated with tense (the past). Mitchell and Robinson are quite helpful on this and other aspects of the language in their Introduction to Old English’

‘When I talk about the different functions of verbs (whether they are used in the ways we expect verbs to be used, or more like other word classes), the more technical description is the difference between finite and non finite forms of the verb – I didn’t bring this up in the chat because it is a bit complicated to explain/in the heat of the moment – but here are some more details. Non-finite forms of verbs are participles and infinitives (which are used less like verbs usually are – not so much for action, and more like nouns and other word classes). Gerunds are also non-finite. Finite verbs are everything else.’

And yes, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (and etymonline.com…) ‘very’ does indeed come from the Latin veritas, via the Old French verai. Now you know! Think twice the next time you use it to emphasise a statement.

Myriam recommends The History of the English Language by Baugh and Cable for anyone who wants to read up on the history of the language – it’s comprehensive and readable.

We hope that the bells tolling 10 o’clock didn’t confuse you!

As usual, let us know if you have questions or comments, and we’ll do our best to answer you!


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