The changing words of Beowulf (and language, too)

This is the first page from the Beowulf manuscript, in Old English.

The first page of the original Beowulf manuscript, in Old English. Image from http://bit.ly/2jdxSdW.

After I told people I was studying English in university a strange change came over them. They would start listening to me a little more closely. They would hang on my every word for a few minutes after learning that fact. And they would point out any grammatical mistakes I’d make while speaking.

Sometimes these corrections would take me aback. But I can’t say that I blame those who would, jokingly, jump down my throat when my verbs and subjects didn’t agree or I threw an “ain’t” into what I was saying to blend in with the people around me. When I was in university I was the person those who learned of my major became. I was a grammar Nazi.

That is, until I learned about things like Old English and Middle English, and the joy of learning to read languages that were different enough from Modern English to be unintelligible at first look, but that were familiar enough to grasp with a mix of knowledge and intuition. Exposure to these things, and even to the idea that the Latin ancient people spoke changed over time, really made me realize that spoken English doesn’t need to be “perfect”. Neither does written English.

In fact, correctness just comes down to authorial intent and audience. After all, language is most correct when it’s a medium for clear communication between people, so knowing your audience and tailoring your language to make your meaning as clear as possible for that audience is the best way to make it “correct”.

Anyway, the fact that languages change is something that’s pretty well known in general. As Tristin Hopper points out in this article from The National Post, things written around the second world war have totally different uses of words like “queer” and “ejaculate”. Underscoring the article’s point that all languages adapt to what modern speakers need to say about modern life, even the word “humbled” has changed from something with negative connotations to something that gets paired with “honoured”.

Where Beowulf fits in with all of this is that it stands as a marker of the starting point for English. But, it’s also something that even now is constantly changing since our understanding of it is based on best guesses rather than the insight that a native speaker could bring to it. I was pretty shocked to learn that the first word of the poem “Hwaet!” may mean “How” rather than my dearly enjoyed “Listen!” as I read Hopper’s piece.

Ultimately, if you like a language, no matter what your age, you should definitely study it. Even if it’s a dead language like Latin or Old English, there’s likely still more for us to find out about them, and there are still useful insights to pull out of old stories and poems and expression. I’d say this is especially true if the stories and written expression of today don’t speak to you. After all, one of the reasons I went into English after finishing high school was to learn more of the medieval stories that were in seriously short supply throughout my high school run.

If you could learn any language, which language would you want to learn? Why?

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