Over at Unlocked Wordhoard, Scott Nokes is getting ready to teach Old English this fall. I’ve seen the excellent rapport Scott has with his undergraduates; his current crop of students can look forward to a memorable semester.
But why dabble in a dead language, especially if you’re not a medievalist? Scott has spelled out several pragmatic reasons for studying Old English, all of which I heartily endorse. Here’s an addendum to his list; naturally, the actual pragmatism of each entry is in the eye of the beholder.
To get to know your native language better. You understand that “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” and “to attempt, to quest, to locate, and not to quit” convey the same basic meaning even as you sense that these phrases resonate with wildly different tones. There are historical reasons why that’s so—and dabbling in Old English will allow you to look at any snippet of modern English and behold those gnarled medieval roots. If you’re a writer, you’ll benefit immeasurably from this wisdom. It’s one thing to have vague feelings about the implications of diction; it’s quite another to know exactly why you choose the words you do.
Because you’re paying how much per credit hour? You can spend $1,500 to have some TA explain the obvious (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is totally about society’s destruction of natural human impulses”), or you can learn to read the poetry and prose of a lost medieval world. The English curriculum is stereotyped as being easy, and often deservedly so, but when you study Old English you enter a less forgiving realm of history and hard grammar. It’s not always hospitable, but it does have its charms. For one thing, no one ever starts a sentence with, “What this poem made me feel was, like…”
Because Old English is a gateway drug. You do eight or nine lines—think “Caedmon’s Hymn”—and you figure that’ll be it: youthful experimentation. But you can’t quit, and soon you’re taking Middle English, or studying German, or dabbling in (Bože moj!) linguistics. Filthy, filthy linguistics. Your parents pray it’s a phase. How will they explain to your grandmother than you’re a…medievalist? When she was growing up, the world was a different place; people didn’t talk openly about such things…
To gather new data points about human nature. Old English poetry is like nothing else you’ll read in college: stoic, brooding, high-minded, unfrivolous, and formal. Sometimes, even my students who’ve served in the military are baffled by the foreignness of the Anglo-Saxon heroic code but haunted by the elegies, while irreligious students are often surprised to find themselves impressed by the inventiveness of “The Dream of the Rood.” That first encounter with Old English poetry can be unnerving, like the rustling of soil on a grave, but Anglo-Saxon poetry prepares you to think more deeply about the difference between the transient aspects of culture and traits that are timelessly human.
To learn something no one else knows. At some point after you graduate, someone—cousins, co-workers—will be musing about a quirk of modern English, and they’ll decide it’s time to ask the English major. Wouldn’t it be nice to wow them with a technical explanation about i-mutation or strong Germanic verbs?
Because it’s not as difficult as you think it is. Some English majors—and professors—are impressed when a medievalist can rattle off the opening lines of Beowulf from memory. They shouldn’t be. Study Old English and you’ll learn much about mnemonic devices and the amazing human capacity for memorization and oral composition—and you’ll stop being one of the easily impressed.
Because you can earn valuable prizes. Last year, I won a Major Award in the trivia contest at my office Christmas party because I knew the Old English cognate of “wassail.” Sure, the Major Award was a florescent green T-shirt with a cartoon monkey on it, but you don’t have one, do you?