Having put my trusty almanack of folklore to one side for another few years, I have now started dipping into my User-Friendly Dictionary of Old English (Bill Griffiths, Heart of Albion Press) once more. It isn’t as dry as it sounds because it contains lots of fascinating examples of Anglo-Saxon English as used in daily life. It barely seems to be related to modern English when you first look at it, but with a bit of patience and study it soon becomes clear that is closer than you might think.
What really tickled me was when I read this, which comes from a question-and-answer passage originally written in Latin by a monk called Ælfric, but translated into Old English by an unknown Saxon writer:
Hwæt sægest þy, yrþlingc?
It looks pretty incomprehensible at first sight, but with a few clues it becomes more familiar than you might think. Try saying each word out loud once you’ve got the explanation!
- The æ was similar to the ‘a’ in modern English. (King Alfred’s name was actually ‘Ælfred’)
- The letter ‘g’ was in some contexts pronounced like the letter ‘y’ today
- The þ symbol has been lost from the alphabet. Although it looks like our P, it is actually a ‘th’ sound as in ‘the’.
- The letter ‘y’ itself, just to make life more complicated, sounded like ‘oo’
Now that you are an expert in Old English, you will quickly be able to see that the translation is:
What say you, ploughman? (Or perhaps more literally, What sayest thou, ploughman?)
Either way, I love the idea that a ploughman was called an ‘earthling’!