Why Modern English is Not Better than Old English
Sometimes Old English gets characterized as evolutionarily inferior to Modern English—the communicative Neanderthal to today’s Homo Linguisticus. And in a way it’s understandable: the language certainly had a smaller vocabulary before the introduction of Norman French, and it barely resembles today's English on the surface. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature states that
“Old English poetic language is not necessarily congenial to the demands of precise reasoning; sentence boundaries and relationships between clauses are often uncertain. And yet despite these interpretative problems, the Exeter Book ‘elegies’ are among the most moving and powerful poems in Old English.”
Moving and powerful they certainly are. But what Broadview misses is that they have such force because of, not in spite of, these interpretative problems—or at least the linguistic differences in which they have their roots. If English’s evolution made it broader, it also made it shallower. The gain in quantity of verbiage available was accompanied by a loss of significance: when you have more words to choose from, each word must necessarily embrace less meaning. This dearth is evident in modern attempts to translate the Anglo-Saxon classic The Seafarer, one instance in which Modern English shows itself to be far less expressive than its “less evolved” antecessor. Because it lacks the necessary density of meaning and economy of language, Modern English grunts and snorts through The Seafarer where Old English sings.
Translation dilutes The Seafarer‘s content by shearing off the multiple associations Old English attaches to each word. The language is more condensed than we can adequately express with Modern English. In their translation, Igor Fux and Matthias Kasimir try to limit the effects of this problem using parentheses and slashes to indicate ambiguous or multi-layered meaning in the original. It opens “May I by myself sing (work) a true song” (Fux and Kasismir, l. 1). This significant double-meaning in the word “wrecan” (l. 1) is lost in other modern translations, which each choose some variant of one meaning or the other. As such, modern readers miss out on this imagery that blurs the line between tangible and metaphysical creation, a connotation that would have been clear in the ears of Anglo-Saxon listeners more accustomed to working with their hands than we are today. Fux and Kasimir seem similarly ambivalent about “narrow/ frightening” (l. 7), “weep/ wail” (l. 10), and “lowered/ cut” (l. 12). These are not different voicings of a similar concept, but radically divergent readings of each word in question. Shifting them into our more narrowly defined language requires excluding some of the meanings present in the original Old English words, and the poem loses thickness as a result.
Modern English also fails to invoke the significance of The Seafarer’s original spare form. Jonathan Glenn’s translation showcases how Modern English relies on too many words to truly capture the stoic melancholy of the Anglo-Saxons. The poem is an elegy, dealing heavily with loss, hardship, and solitude. Because its tone is so subdued, it needs to be pithy: what it says is enhanced by how few words it says it in. After all, these are warrior-folk living a lean existence. They place no premium on filigree; every word counts. Even the best modern approximations are too verbose. For example, “abode and still do bitter breast-care” (Glenn l. 4) cannot hope to be as concise as “bitre breostceare gebiden hæbbe” (l. 4). Even though the number of syllables is the same, the increased number of accents and stresses in the modern line gives it more insecurity, more desperation to make its point known. And “the mind of the sea-weary one” (Glenn l. 12) can only stammer in blustered awe at the serene majesty of “merewerges mod” (l. 12). Modern translations may be considered to be less disjointed, more flowing and lyrical. But even this detracts from the original work’s significance, since elegies are meant to evoke abandonment and disconnection. Modern English loses the minor tonality expressed in that heavily rhythmic stress pattern, a pattern like oars rowing steadily away from home.
Languages suit themselves to the needs of the societies that employ them. In an orally literate culture like the Anglo-Saxons’, people can only understand words as fast as they can be spoken. So it makes sense, especially in poetry, that storytellers should layer each word with multiple meanings to provide maximum expression. Furthermore, in an environment of verbal economy, it is absolutely necessary to rely on form as much as content to communicate tone, style, setting, and even theme. Modern English is good at expressing a lot of things, but Anglo-Saxon elegies are not among them, perhaps because we don’t use English to pass down stories by oral tradition anymore. So the word “modern” does not at all confer superiority—it merely indicates what era the language is best at describing. Modern English does pretty well with stock markets and shopping malls and identity theft. But there’s nothing like Old English for talking about earfoðhwile.