I used to be a medievalist.

I’m still a medievalist, of course, but in the years between grad school, where I wrote a master’s thesis on Beowulf and the Old Saxon Heliand and a doctoral dissertation on the scribes of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, I have not done the kind of manuscript study or textual analysis that I did in these works, much less kept up my reading facility in Old Saxon.

Actual evidence that I could translate Old English in grad school.

I am a generalist. I teach poetry from Homer to the 18th century, and I also teach a seminar on a 20th century Italian novelist. I guess it was bound to happen.

But it’s also a series of choices.

I have, in working toward tenure and promotion, done more research about the act of teaching than about the content I teach. That’s fine. Teaching is vitally important to me, and I do not regret that work. Also, I have never stopped wanting to read more, learn more, and broaden my scope. It’s why I chose Medieval Studies, as opposed to a smaller, more focused field. Some people make a whole career out of a single author. I have never been able to choose just one. (This holds for cookies too–and other things–if one kind is good, isn’t five a whole lot better?)

But I opened up my thesis the other day, and reading through my translation of the Old Saxon gospel and my argument about how the language was developing in relation to its other Germanic sibling languages, and the impact of that on our understanding of that text made me long to wander back to manuscripts and lay aside my anthologies for a bit.

Old English and Old Saxon texts minus the sweat, tears, and graphite.

There is a different kind of pleasure in encountering an ancient text in its original language. This was my job throughout most of graduate school, and if there is one thing I miss about that kind of study, it’s the language. To read The Heliand at that time meant calling up all my Old English and Old Norse knowledge and triangulating to deduce meaning in the Old Saxon. Otherwise it’s Dictionary City, and you look up every word. But if you’ve met Beowulf in an Anglo-Saxon bar, and watched Thor bash giants in Old Norse, Jesus’s life is pretty easy to follow in Old Saxon.

They warned me. My Anglo-Saxon professor said to relish our Beowulf reading, because that seminar was likely the only time we’d read the whole thing in the original. He was right. I look at excerpts to critique translations. I show my students a page or two, but never the whole thing. It’s not appropriate or practical in a sophomore level survey of British Lit.

But I miss it.

So diving back in a bit has been a joy. Not the deadline for this paper I’m writing, but the sitting and reading the stories again, and the language. Hearing the sounds of the long dead languages as I roll them around in my mouth and realizing I can still read them. Because the pleasure of a medievalist is to study languages for reading ability without the pressure of having to produce intelligible Old Saxon on my own. I don’t need conversation skills, just reading skills. And those skills have not diminished in my absence from the manuscript rooms.

Beowulf is still fierce and cocky (ӕglӕca); the Danish queen is still decorously smacking him down, telling him not to push his luck. Peter is still a badass; Jesus still is a powerful lord (mahtig drohtin), trying to rein him in. For my money Game of Thrones has nothing on these stories.

Maybe I’ll pursue this kind of work again seriously, but if I don’t, it’s nice to know I can still enjoy the experience of reading these “olde bokes,” as Chaucer called them. That’s what I was after all those years ago anyway.

Happy summer, everyone. May you find time for all the weird little things that make your heart happy. I’ll keep my nerd flag high, so you’ll know where to find me.


The Mild Mania of Loving Languages

Can one be addicted to learning languages? If you can, aren’t there worse obsessions?

It’s not like I do it thoroughly. I know a fair bit about a number of languages. Most of them aren’t spoken anywhere (hands up if you know anyone who speaks Gothic or Old French?), so there’s no immersion program where I can relocate for six months and come out the other side able to converse with Alaric the Goth.

Mostly it’s about reading. I do like to be able to speak, but my fear of sounding like a jerk or an idiot overcomes my desire to communicate most of the time. It has taken decades to get better at–not over—that. But I really like to read in different languages.

When I was wending my way through graduate school, trying to pin down a field of study, I embarked on a linguistics program. I told my advisor I wanted to focus on historical linguistics. He told me that wasn’t done anymore, that it was just a relic–something non-linguists think of when they think of linguists. What I should have told him was that I wanted the keys to the kingdom—the secret to learning languages. Because the real reason was that I didn’t trust translators. I wanted to read Beowulf and Vǫlsunga Saga and the Romance of the Rose without an intermediary.

That’s pretty close to what I got. I got a chance to study language and language change in the abstract and I got to know a few languages in very concrete, “this text and one other are all we know of this language” terms. Perhaps most importantly, I learned how I learn, and that did me in. I swear it’s addicting. Like Bubble Pop or crosswords, languages feel like puzzle games, and I will be that old, weird little person trying to figure out what dragoncello means in Italian.

Discovering how you think and learn is both empowering and baffling. I know I see words in my head as I hear them, that I parse them, search for cognates, and am genuinely annoyed if I can’t figure out how something is spelled. It makes me good at deducing meaning from words, and good at slipping in to rabbit holes mid-conversation (which is usually not good). In my case it means that I have the same sense of wonder about words as I do about cloud formations, genetics, and how they cram music between the ridges of a record.

It means I recently spent a disconcerting amount of time wondering whether there was a corresponding opposite to the Latinate word “crepuscular,” which means ‘growing dark’ as in twilight or dusk. There was a word in Latin, “clarescere” which meant ‘to grow clearer and brighter’ but English didn’t steal  that one, apparently, and I haven’t found a cognate in other modern Romance languages.

This is all to say that thinking in words is a way of thinking, as is thinking in images or concepts. And as the world continues toward global community, it’s not a bad one to cultivate.


Never Trust a Vowel

Vowels are shifty things. I teach literature, and when people have trouble making out words in the text that they haven’t met before, I ask them to try and take them apart to see if they recognize the parts; then they can guess at the word’s meaning. I teach medieval lit, so sometimes students are looking at Middle English or another older form of English, but just as often, it’s a Modern English word that’s flummoxing them, and the rules don’t change.
My reasons for not trusting vowels are:1. Vowels can vary from language to language, so if we know the roots of words, we can see why the vowels are what they are. For instance, Latin “e” often corresponds to Greek “o” as in English “dentist” and “orthodontist.”

2. Vowels can vary to denote tense in English. Now if we invent a new word, we just slap an “-ed” on the end of it to make it past tense, but older forms of English had elaborate systems of vowel gradation, some of which we still have (“sing/sang,” “fly/flew,” etc.). So sometimes if a word has a funky vowel in it, you just aren’t familiar with its old past form.
3. Regional accents change the vowels mostly. Occasionally there will be a consonant difference, like the b/v variation in dialects of Spanish, but usually it’s vowels. The “You say potato; I say potato” song/joke/aphorism makes this pretty clear. It’s not potato/potaco (although I’d be willing to try a potaco). It’s all about the vowels.
So if you’re trying to deduce what a word means, there’s a process I advocate, and vowels figure absolutely last, the treacherous little buggers.
First, try and figure out the root word. Take off anything that looks suspiciously prefixey or suffixey, like “-ey” or “pre-.” Then look at the root in terms of the frame of consonants, not really looking at the vowels.  So if we’re trying to deduce, say, podiatrist, we’d first remove the “-ist“ which is a clearly a suffix. It indicates a person who does the thing at the beginning of the word (like artist or philanthropist). Next we cut off the “-iatr” from Greek iatros, meaning “doctor” (as in psychiatrist), and we are left with “pod.”
Pod. Pod. So how’s your Greek? English speakers are usually better guessing Latin than Greek because English borrowed so much from Latin directly, as well as from French, Italian, and Spanish. But Greek “pod” means ‘foot.’ In Latin it was “ped.” Never trust a vowel. English has more common words with ped-, like a bicycle pedal or a gas pedal, or different animals being bipedal or quadrupedal. But “pod,” not so much. Cephalopod. Arthropod. (These are literally head-footed things, like squids, and joint-footed things, like crabs or ladybugs. But we were talking about vowels.)
And now we’re done. But consider next time you have trouble understanding a person’s accent, just relaxing your head when it comes to hearing vowels. When you don’t recognize a word you read on the internet or in a newspaper, try it with different vowels, and see if you can figure it out. I think adopting a playful, puzzler’s attitude toward language is a recipe for easier understanding, less frustration, and maybe even compassion.