You can listen to an excerpt of our interview with Dr. Conner in Act IV of Mystery Theatre’s “The Ælf in the Wardrobe” by clicking here or using the media player at the bottom of this post.
Since time did not allow us to include the entire conversation, we’re making more of it available here as an edited transcript complete with useful links and images–everything you need to converse with the titular ælf in this month’s mystery.
<<< A scope recites poetry to an Anglo-Saxon king, from English Literature for Boys and Girls by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (c. 1910).
Patrick Conner earned a Ph.D. in Old English Literature from the University of Maryland, taught English and Chaucer at WVU, and has written and published extensively on Old English literature and medieval culture (including the highly regarded book Anglo-Saxon Exeter: A Tenth-Century Cultural History). Also an actor, he regularly appears in plays at the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre, Little Lake Theatre Company, and Bricolage Productions as well as commercials and independent films—most recently in Episode 1 of the Showtime series, American Rust.
The transcript picks up right after Dr. Conner offered a greeting in classic Latin, a language that he explained had been on the Isle of Brittan centuries before the Anglo-Saxons developed a written alphabet.
Our previous episode of Mystery Theatre mentioned four English letters we no longer use Today. Where did those letters come from, and where did they go?
Probably from observing the Romans, the Germanic peoples developed an alphabet of their own. That is somewhat like the Cherokee did when they observed colonist writing, and Sequoyah developed an alphabet that sometimes looks like ours and sometimes doesn’t. You can still get the language he wrote down in the 19th century.
Similarly, the Germanic people seem to have observed Latin epigrams inscribed on rocks and wood, and they watched and learned and developed their own alphabet, which is called the futhorc, for the first handful of letters written in a form of letters known as runes. And some of those runes looked vaguely Roman, and some of them didn’t, but many of them seem to have been designed to be scratched with the grain of wood and rock.
We don’t have any long stories from this time. Instead, we have simple inscriptions like, “Ek hlewagastir holtijar horna tawido.” That’s from about 350 AD, and all it says is, “I, Hlewagastir, of the Holtenarn tribe, made this horn.”
That’s it! The equivalent of “Kilroy was here.” But they did create an alphabet, or a futhorc, that was used all the way up through the 12th century.
Above: Hlewagast’s inscription. Note the runes running along the top edge of the horn.
I sat down with a book at Exeter, and it had a whole page of alphabets written in the 10th century. One was a Roman alphabet, another was the poorest example of a Greek alphabet I’ve ever seen, one may or may not have been Hebrew, but the last one was a very good runic alphabet. So they tended to relate those things.
The runic alphabet from a 10th-century book in the British Library. >>>
But when they began to write English, they found they couldn’t just use the Roman alphabet. What they needed to do was figure out some signs for sounds that Old English and all the Germanic languages at that time had but that you didn’t find in the romance languages.
One of those is the th sound, and that’s why you may have noticed a lot of people who don’t natively speak English have trouble with that sound. They say dis and dat and so on, and it’s not out of ignorance. It’s just not a sound that works in their rhythm of speaking.
So the Anglo Saxon’s came up with two representations for the th sound, and I’ll come back to that and right now take care of two others.
First, there is one called the ash.
It looks like an A and an E squeezed together, and they needed that letter because the short a sound didn’t exist in Latin.
And they also had something called a wynn. It was borrowed from the runic alphabet, and it represented the w sound.
It looked like a D that somebody grabbed the bottom of and pulled it down, or like a P that had a descender that went on down below the line. But the reason they didn’t use a W is there was no W in the Roman alphabet.
And then there’s the thorn, which with a little imagination looks like a trorn.
It’s borrowed from the runic alphabet and represents the th sound.
And the other th letter is called eth, and it’s a modification of the letter D.
And the difference between the thorn and eth was whether or not you employed your vocal cords to make the th sound. So you might say thigh, as in “I don’t want the wing, I’ll have the thigh of the chicken.” But if you say thy, you’re using your vocal cords and that’s a different th sound—voiced versus unvoiced.
Interesting, especially since all those letters are mentioned in Mystery Theatre’s “The Ælf in the Wardrobe.” And I understand you have a story about how the Old English word for the article the (which the Anglo-Saxon’s spelled with a thorn and an e) came to be replaced by the word ye, as in Ye Old Shop. Can you tell us about that?
Well, there was a little Methodist Church down where I grew up called Ye Old St. Peter’s. It went back to the 18th century, and it came to be called Ye old Saint Peter’s because my 4th-grade teacher attended it, and she loved making things up. So Saint Peters’s Church was so old and so wonderful that she thought it would be a great idea to make the official name of it Ye Old St. Peter’s. And by god, she did.
You’ve seen that before. You’ve seen pubs and bars and imitation English things.
Well, when Caxton started his printing press in England (I think was 1476), he had to get his fonts from Europe. And while the English were still using the thorn for writing, they didn’t have it in their European fonts, so they used a Y. And they put a little bar over it, and that sort of looked like a thorn.
And people quickly got used to it as a thorn, and the printers said, “You know, this is taking a lot of time putting this little bar over the Y,” So they stopped putting a bar over it and just used the Y. And so … Ye Old St. Peter’s was never meant to be pronounced that way. It was always just The old St. Peter’s Church.
<<< William Caxton demonstrates his printing press to King Edward IV (painting by Daniel Maclise).
Oh, that’s so interesting. I never knew that.
Yes. It’s a fun story.
And in our Mystery Theatre story, our characters use the terms Old English and Anglo-Saxon. Are those terms interchangeable? What’s the difference?
They were interchangeable for years, and the difference is that we are more sensitive to the effects of colonization now than we were.
Americans for a long time have referred to the language spoken by the members of the Anglo-Saxon culture as Old English. And the Anglo-Saxons themselves referred to the language (as did other people who might have occasion to write about it) as English, which they spelled Englisc.
So it’s Old English for the language unless you happen to be an Anglo-Saxon, in which case it’s simply English. Got it!
Now, our previous episode included a single line of Old English, but I think our listeners would be interested in hearing more. Would you be willing to read a few lines for us?
I suspected you were going to want me to do this.
I’m gonna read you this chunk of a poem called Deor. It’s about a man who is a minstrel for a king, and he’s just been replaced by another menstrual. And as an actor, I have this feeling—as an old actor—I have this feeling that could happen any minute.
Weland endured the agony of exile:
an indomitable smith wracked by grief.
He suffered countless sorrows;
in that frozen island dungeon
where Nithad fettered him:
so many strong-but-supple sinew-bands
binding the better man.
That passed away; this also may.
I couldn’t find my translation, but that’s Michael Birch’s translation. And here’s the Old English:
Welund him be Wurman, / wræces cunnade,
anhydig eorl / earfoþa dreag,
hæfde him to gesiþþe / sorge and longaþ,
wintercealde wræce, / wean oft onfond
siþþan hine Niðhad on / nede legde,
swoncre seonobende / on syllan monn.
Þæs ofereode, / þisses swa mæg.
It’s great hearing you read. So finally, you’ve written extensively on medieval literature including the book Anglo-Saxon Exeter, which one reviewer called “revolutionary.”
What other books or resources might you recommend for listeners who would like to learn more about the Old English language or Anglo-Saxon literature?
It’s a solid place to begin.
And if you want to work on the language, go to Peter Baker’s Old English Aerobics.
Baker teaches at UVA, and he has done a wonderful thing of putting huge amounts of useful pedagogical material online.
Wonderful! Patrick Conner, thank you so much for joining us on Prime Stage Mystery Theater.
Click the player below to listen to the episode. I’ll meet you there.