Course Spotlight – English 331: Old English Language & Literature

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Can you read English? Ok. How about this?

Swa cwæð eardstapa,

earfeþa gemyndig,

That’s a bit of Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon. It originated during the mid 5th century when it was brought to England by the “Angles,” a Germanic tribe from what is now Denmark. The language was spoken until after the Norman invasion in 1066. The Normans brought with them a French dialect, which heavily influenced English vocabulary and grammar.

At CCSU, Professor Candace Barrington teaches students how to read and translate Anglo-Saxon literature. “It’s fun to teach because it’s really like learning another language,” explained Dr. Barrington. “Each word is packed with a lot of information. [Meaning] is conveyed by word ending and not word order.” For example, in Modern English the difference between the boy hit the ball and the ball hit the boy is shown by word order. In Anglo-Saxon, much like in Latin, words can be put in more than one order because it is the word endings that determine who hit what.

Students are not used to paying close attention to individual words. “It can be frustrating at first for them to slow down. One reason they are English majors is because they love to read and they are often quite proud of how quickly they read,” said Dr. Barrington. However, over time students gain an appreciation for reading word by word. “They tell me they become better readers of Modern English,” she said.

The Anglo-Saxons lived in a brutal and difficult world defined by war and material deprivation. It was also a very religious society. “Anglo-Saxon poetry, very broadly, combines two traditions: Germanic warrior culture and Christianity… Students get a sense [through poetry] that Germanic culture was built around giving loyalty to one person and that person watching over you and taking care of you. In that interface between Germanic and Christian culture, Christ becomes that lord who takes care of you. Sometimes in a poem you can’t tell if it addresses a secular lord or Christ,” said Dr. Barrington.

Original manuscript of "The Wanderer"

Original manuscript of “The Wanderer”

Although the Anglo-Saxons lived in a world very different from our own, students are often moved by the pieces they read. Dr. Barrington has noted that students particularly like “The Wanderer,” a poem about a solitary warrior traversing the countryside. He speaks of missing the lord he used to serve and the rest of his former troop. “Students understand that sense of loss, of being alone. College students know what it is like to be on your own and vulnerable. They love the end of ‘The Wanderer.’ I first started teaching this course after 9/11. It really resonated then. That fragility of not only ourselves, but of our close relationships and the constructions of our society,” said Dr. Barrington.

The course is different from most English courses. “I tell [students] they have to have a place to spread out all their charts and dictionaries. It’s a pencil and eraser kind of class,” said Dr. Barrington. “It’s not a lecture or discussion course. They have a certain number of lines to translate. In class I put them in pairs and have them compare. They have to explain their decisions for every word. I get to know them well. I hear their thinking processes. There is a lot of critical thinking and problem solving. They end up having fun. It’s not just memorization,” she said.

For the final, students attempt to translate a poem that is notorious for being difficult to translate. The poem, “Wulf & Eadwacer,” is about a woman whose family has separated her from her husband, Wulf. If he tries to come get her, he will be killed. She misses her husband, and calls out to her captor Eadwacer as her child is being carried out to the forest to die…Except that maybe she’s Wulf’s lover and they are involved in an illicit affair and Eadwacer is really her husband. Or maybe she’s Wulf’s mother. And Eadwacer could be Wulf’s father. Or maybe Eadwacer and Wulf are the same person. Or maybe the whole poem is about animals.

“No one can agree on what it means or how it should be translated. Students have to translate it on their own. [Also] I give them four translations that have been done and they have to choose their favorite and say why. They were done over the course of the past hundred years so [students] can also see how translation changed over time. They see the difficulties of translation. It’s never a 1:1 correspondence,” said Dr. Barrington.

 

 

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