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Hwæt! Did you know that you can study Old English at MIT? by Anna H. '14

The language of Beowulf and J.R.R. Tolkien's Rohan

From the MIT Lit dept’s Spring 2014 course catalog:

21L.705 (Major Authors): Old English and Beowulf

hwæt ƿe gardena in geardagum þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon… Those are the first words of the Old English epic Beowulf, and in this class you will learn to read them.

Besides being the language of Rohan in the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon) is a language of long, cold, and lonely winters; of haunting beauty found in unexpected places; and of unshakable resolve in the face of insurmountable odds. It is, in short, the perfect language for MIT students. We will read greatest hits from the epic Beowulf as well as moving laments (The Wanderer, Wulf and Eadwacer, The Wife’s Lament), the personified Cross’s psychedelic and poignant account of the Crucifixion (The Dream of the Rood), and a host of riddles whose solutions range from the sacred to the obscene but are always ingenious. We will also try our hand at composing our own sentences—and maybe even poems—in Old English.

England, 1530s CE: Dissolution of the Monasteries. King Henry VIII gave the word to take over or destroy the nation’s monasteries and monastic libraries, leaving us with single digit numbers of books from ancient collections of many hundreds. You’re probably wondering how you’re expected to sleep for grief, so I’ll try to comfort you with a scene from Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play Arcadia (which MIT is currently putting on!)

Thomasina: “Oh, Septimus! – can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes – thousands of poems – Aristotle’s own library brought to Egypt by the noodle*’s ancestors! How can we sleep for grief?”
Septimus: “By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?”

*Cleopatra

Different fire, different lost texts, but I find the idea comforting all the same.

While Henry VIII’s crew were burning books, theologians ran around trying to save their ancient texts from destruction. At some point, they opened some of these books and realized that they couldn’t read them. This cryptic language was Old English.

Old English was the language of warriors and mercenaries in England between 600 and 1100 CE; our more familiar Germanic-French fusion language took root when William the Conqueror brought the French language across the channel in 1066. To give you more perspective, Shakespeare (Shakespeare) wrote in Modern (well, Early Modern) English. Chaucer wrote in Middle English. Old English resembles modern German more than modern English (it was spoken pre-French influence) and I can guarantee that it would look like complete gibberish to you.

In the spring, I told my Chaucer professor (Arthur Bahr; more on him here and here) that I was eager to learn Old English. In a nutshell, Prof. Bahr said “well, if you find a critical mass of 5+ who quasi-commit to take it, I’ll teach it!” So, I found 5+ people who were willing to quasi-commit, and now Prof. Bahr is teaching the course. And 29 – TWENTY NINE – MIT students enrolled in it. (I’d like to casually mention that Old English was offered at Harvard last semester and seven students enrolled.)

Prof. Bahr thinks that the class is attractive to MIT students because not only is Old English awesome, it’s also extremely challenging, and MIT students tend to gravitate towards challenges. In this class, we’re starting from scratch (no prior Old English knowledge required!) and in a single semester will work our way into reading extracts from Beowulf. Right now, we’re zipping through the basics of grammar (demonstrative, interrogative pronouns, the past participle, conjunctive adverbs, subordinating conjunctions, prepositionals, predicates…) and case (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental) since Old English is (like Latin, and unlike modern English) a case language. We’re also zipping through the basics of pronunciation. It’s a full-blown, intensive language course.

In case you aren’t sufficiently jealous yet, are you a fan of the Lord of the Rings universe? JRR Tolkien studied Old English texts, and the riddles that Bilbo exchanges with Gollum in The Hobbit come from Old English riddle collections. In this class, we’re going to read them in Old English. YEAH.

When I announced my class schedule on Facebook, a friend commented with “You still take each class from a different department?” More on the rest of my classes later, but I want you to know that it’s totally possible to study Lots Of Things at MIT – to be well rounded – and still be successful in your major and your field. I just finished applying and being accepted to grad school, and am now trying to decide where I want to go. I’m continuing with my astronomy research. I consider myself a scientist. But I am also studying Old English with an incredibly dedicated professor, and wouldn’t think of taking advantage of MIT’s subject offerings any other way.