Old English in the Modern World: Its Didactic Value

Oliver M. Traxel

University of Stavanger


Unfortunately, in recent years the opportunities to teach Old English and other stages of English language history have declined rapidly in Germany. Several professorships devoted to historical linguistics have been dropped completely or have been modified to focus on more general or contemporary linguistics. In undergraduate and graduate programs offering English philology and/or English language, the growing number of students (and declining number of faculty) has contributed to a greater emphasis on Modern English at the expense of language history; students training to be English teachers are no longer required to study historical linguistics. At Würzburg, my former place of employment, one introductory class in either Old, Middle or Early Modern English is still compulsory for some English philology students, but not for those who aim to become teachers at elementary schools. In the written Bavarian state exams, students of English Linguistics used to be able to choose from eleven major fields, including possible specializations in Old, Middle, or Early Modern English. A recent reform has reduced this number to four, albeit with the Old and Middle English options still included.1 It is of utmost importance that Old English does not vanish from the catalog of the German University—besides the obvious importance of preservation of cultural heritage, linguistic parallels between German and Old English enable an ease for German students to understand these early stages of English language history, deepening appreciation and understanding for the language in all its historical forms. The current situation requires fresh strategies to raise students' interest in this field; use of Old English in current contexts is an excellent opportunity to do so. In fact, the number of potential students and appreciators of Old English will be increased by making Old English more attractive through more modernised, culturally relevant, and student-friendly ways of teaching it.

At Würzburg, English philology students need to choose a follow-up seminar after an introductory course in a past language stage; that seminar differs from semester to semester and may focus on a specific or interdisciplinary area of medieval language, literature or culture, or a particular subject in modern linguistics. These choices also depend on the university catalog, the courses available that term, and the interests of the lecturer. Class sizes for such advanced seminars differ, but there are usually between 20 and 30 students (a mix of graduate students and upper-level undergraduates). The seminars relevant to this study took place at the universities of Göttingen and Munich; titled Medievalism and Old English and the Anglo-Saxons after the Norman Conquest, they addressed various aspects (linguistic and otherwise) of the Middle Ages from a modern point of view.2 The interdisciplinary nature of the seminars allowed for broad inquiry; the pedagogical methods described below were immediately relevant to the linguistic sections of the seminars, but ultimately informed the students' understanding of the subject as a whole.

In traditional research and teaching, study of the Old English language is focused on texts from the Anglo-Saxon period. However, there are also occasional occurrences of Old English in modern contexts, for example, isolated words in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-5), or some passages in Robert Zemeckis' motion picture Beowulf (2007), and the TV series Merlin (2008-12) and Vikings (2013-). Four children's books have been translated entirely into Old English: Wilhelm Busch's Max und Moritz (Görlach 1992), Heinrich Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter (2010), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince (2010), and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (2015). Despite their teaching potential, such resources have rarely been used in the classroom, let alone been examined as pedagogical tools; in fact, only three studies on neo-Old English have come to my attention, namely Neuland & Schleburg (2014) on Englisc Wikipædia, Radman (2014) on Merlin, and Ruszkiewicz (forthcoming) on the Old English Le Petit Prince (Be þam lytlan æþelinge).3 In contrast, speaking and writing in another extinct language, namely Latin, has had a long school tradition (Black 2015). In addition to Latin versions of Max und Moritz, Struwwelpeter and Le Petit Prince, several more modern works of fiction are available in Latin, such as J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2003) and J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (2012). Though such books are largely provided as entertainment, the translation and composition of texts into earlier language stages are pedagogically successful strategies. In fact, translating into rather than out of Old English teaches students an enormous amount, not just about Old English but about more general linguistic issues as well.

There are several reasons why neo-Old English is useful for teaching purposes. For German students, well-known books like Max und Moritz, Struwwelpeter, and Le Petit Prince diminish some potential fear of authentic Old English texts because the contents are already familiar (students in the U.S. and U.K. would probably have similar reactions to the newly available Old English translation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Æðelgyðe Ellendæda on Wundorlande). My students enjoyed seeing these books in a new light and were eager to try out some similar translation techniques and challenges. The student project Engage with Old English, from the University of Sheffield in 2012, strikingly illustrates the strength of potential student engagement with translation into Old English (Stone 2012).4 Students obviously enjoyed (and provided correct Old English versions of) their re-creations of brief passages from the motion pictures Forrest Gump (1994), Grease (1978) and Titanic (1997). Moreover, translating from one's own tongue into an extinct language, or in this case language stage, provides a useful experience to students as it parallels a practice in medieval schools, where the target language was Latin. Another important linguistic issue is the solely textual nature of both the extant Old English sources and the neo-Old English translations we use in class; even halting and awkward presentations of spoken Old English remind students that the language was primarily oral rather than textual. Modern reconstruction of spoken language has been rare, as illustrated, for example, in the TV series Vikings (2013-), and due to the lack of comparable evidence it is even more tentative than the representation of written language. Among other potential benefits, students who speak Old English in class demonstrate how Anglo-Saxon students may have felt when they learned Latin.

Such translation exercises need not involve film production or digital media: one routinely successful translation exercise involves the question of what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle could look like today, expressing current issues in the Old English linguistic medium. Students are assigned the compostion of entries for recent years, with samples from Michel van der Hoek and Anthony Appleyard's New Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as inspiration (for example, an entry for 2014: "Her forþferde Pete Seeger se Americisca singere ond he wæs feower and hundnigontig wintra").5

Use of the neo-Old English translations and students' own translations into Old English present a number of important linguistic issues to students in engaged, accessible ways. One of the biggest problems faced by a writer or translator is the absence of an Old English standard. Since the largest amount of Old English literature is written in West Saxon, this dialect seems an obvious choice for use in class. But this variety is by no means homogeneous, and a modern translator has to decide whether to focus on Early West Saxon, as favored in the Alfredian court (cf. Englisc Wikipædia), or Late West Saxon, as used in the Winchester School (cf. Be þam lytlan æþelinge). However, since there is inconsistency even within these varieties, any translation or composition can only reflect an idealised standard that never actually existed, an important concept for students.

Another particular challenge is posed by translating into poetry: the restrictions and requirements demanded by alliteration and the five Old English verse types can only be truly grasped if the students try to act as scops themselves.6 Not only do alliteration and correct meter need to be included, but also stylistic devices, such as kennings and poetic variation in the form of synonymous words within one sentence. Moreover, literal translations may result in hypermetric lines, which should be avoided if possible (Hoffmann 2010: 5-6).

Students must also address issues of word availability in a number of ways. Not all Old English words that were in use at the time have been transmitted. Some were simply not written down due to their predominantly oral nature, while others may have been recorded in now-lost manuscripts. Moreover, there cannot be any words for objects, concepts, and names which did not exist at the time. Due to the need for words that denote objects or concepts that were unknown during the Anglo-Saxon period, students are confronted with the subject of lexical expansion. They therefore learn about the various means that are possible to increase the vocabulary of a language. Specific examples demonstrating these various issues are provided below; the neo-OE children's books provide examples to students that also spur class discussion about linguistic history and translation choices.

One final warning to student translators alerts them to the fact that some Modern English words which have been in use since the Old English period may have changed in meaning, for which reason any semantic interference from the modern equivalent needs to be excluded. One example is the word wiþ, as it appears in Be þam lytlan æþelinge (11, line 20); the cognate suggests the same meaning as with rather than the correct against. In Old English, mid has the correct meaning 'with' (cf. Traxel 2011b). Particularly helpful to students are the methods outlined by many translators into Old English (Görlach 1986; Hoffmann 2010: 5-6; de Saint-Exupéry 2010: 96; Englisc Wikipædia 2015; Wiles 2013). These should be addressed in class, but students should also be encouraged to develop and defend their own translation principles.7 In doing so, all kinds of linguistic creativity may be allowed as long as they adhere to the means available in Anglo-Saxon times.

Any exercises regarding the creation of neo-Old English words which cannot have existed at the time should be preceded by confronting students with the concept of missing vocabulary since this is a general problem in historical linguistics. Words that are not attested as a result of non-literary usage or manuscript loss may be reconstructed by various means (Hoad 1985). Evidence from Middle English may point to an earlier existence, in particular if the words in question consist of native morphemes or have cognates in other Germanic languages (Traxel 2011a). However, it must be pointed out that none of the results needs to have existed with absolute certainty: they could have been formed in Middle English or in the cognate language. In fact, cognate languages are particularly useful for exercises in class as they may suggest parallel formations in Old English.

Cognates are therefore of particular interest to native speakers of German or other Germanic languages, who can look for synonymous words in their own language and try to find etymological equivalents in Old English. An example from Struwwelpeter (Be Siwarde þam sidfeaxan) is neo-Old English scotisen, which is based on German Schießeisen 'shooting iron' and is used for German Flinte 'shotgun', as found in the original. As an example of the variety of potential translation choices, I also present my own fitting neo-OE word to translate Flinte: þunorbox, for synonymous German Donnerbüchse 'blunderbuss/shotgun', though the precise etymological relationship between the second elements is unclear (cf. OED box, n.2). Moreover, there would be no alliteration with scotmele for German Pulverhorn 'powder horn' in the same line (Be Siwarde þam sidfeaxan 19, line 3), which makes my þunorbox a less suitable suggestion than Kemmler's scotisen. The word scotmele in this context may be regarded as a loan creation by Kemmler, since none of the respective elements translates the German original literally, but the attested Old English words scot 'shot' and mele 'cup' are combined to form a new word with a sense that is similar to Pulverhorn. The linguistics seminar students address these various types of lexical loan processes that then serve as a basis for the students' own lexical creativity in their class work.

Loan creations are frequently encountered in Old English, where they are mostly based on Latin. By attempting to form words on this principle, students learn to put themselves in the mind of an Anglo-Saxon translator; they are forced to think about the processes with which a culture creates new words when confronted with a new object or concept. For example, the text of Be þam lytlan æþelinge necessitates a creation of a neo-OE word for "plane"; Kemmler translated the French word avion 'airplane' into neo-OE lyftfloga 'air flyer'. Just as in neo-Old English scotmele, two existing Old English words are combined to form a fitting compound.

In a loan translation, in contrast, a word is rendered literally. Though there is naturally no Old English word for motor, as represented by French moteur in Le Petit Prince, the original meaning of this 15th-century Latin loanword, namely "a person who or thing which imparts motion" (OED motor, n. and adj.), provided Kemmler with the pieces needed for translation. The verb "to move" can be translated by Old English astyrian, so Kemmler derived the agent noun astyrere 'mover', which therefore also suggests motor (for example, Be þam lytlan æþelinge 11, line 14). The subjects of cognates and loan creation are particularly popular with my linguistics students, providing for them a relative freedom for their own ideas about word formation. Some neo-Old English words devised in my classes include recenere, which was based on German Rechner, an alternative term for computer and cognate to reckoner, and nettgewrit 'net writing' for "website."

A loan rendition can be seen as a cross between a loan creation and a loan translation in that only part of a word is translated while the rest is formed differently. French géographie in Le Petit Prince has the same ultimate Greek source as the 15th-century Latin loanword geography, but only the first element is translated in neo-Old English eorþlar 'earth-lore'. A loan translation would have been eorþgewrit 'earth-writing', but this form is semantically less suitable, for which reason a loan rendition may be preferred. Moreover, there are parallel Old English formations like boclar 'book-lore', which may be a loan rendition itself considering the possible Latin model doctrina 'teaching, learning'. However, in this case it is the second element lar 'lore, teaching, learning' rather than the first one which translates part of the donor language (cf. Latin docere 'teach'. By such comparisons students are confronted with actual Old English words and become familiarised with complex processes of word formation.

The existing Old English lexicon may also be used to convey new meanings, namely in the form of semantic loans. Since there is no Old English word to translate Sonnenschirm 'parasol' in Struwwelpeter, its protective function is paralleled in scield 'shield, protector', which thereby undergoes a semantic extension. Similarly, Feuerzeug 'lighter' in Struwwelpeter is rendered as fyrstan 'fire-stone', which is attested in Old English, but with the meaning 'flint'. This case may also be seen as loan rendition due to their parallel first elements, but since fyrstan already existed, it may be more apt to talk of a semantic loan. The formation of a neo-Old English agent noun lihtere, based on the Old English verb lihtan 'light', would also have been possible. The Modern English equivalent lighter, though formed in the 16th century, did not receive the meaning represented by German Feuerzeug until the 19th century when this particular device was invented (OED lighter, n.2). However, not only does fyrstan sound more poetic, it also alliterates with færlice and fæmne in the same line (Be Siwarde þam sidfeaxan 13, lines 7-8), for which reason it may be preferred to lihtere.

The most obvious way of lexical expansion is the adoption of loanwords. However, though this aspect should be discussed in class, in particular with regard to Latin, it is to be avoided when composing neo-Old English. A text full of borrowed vocabulary would miss the point of teaching lexical creativity in Old English. Any loanwords that are already attested in Old English can certainly be used for processes like semantic loans, but their introduction should be restricted to specific cases, in particular names. Although Canada, as found in Englisc Wikipædia, is [claimed to be] a Native American (Iroquoian) term for "village" or "community" (DCHP-1), like other names it simply should not be translated as it is now generally associated with the country. Some alterations of names may be permitted, in particular if they contain a clear meaning, such as in the first element of Suðafrica 'South Africa' in Englisc Wikipædia. It may be assumed that a comparable adaptation would have been made in similar cases during the Anglo-Saxon period. Another possibility is the Latinisation of names, as seen in Maccus and Mauris for Max and Moritz (Görlach 1992). This could have been done also with regard to the name element Peter in Struwwelpeter, where there is a Latin equivalent Petrus. However, the translator Fritz Kemmler substituted it with a more typical Old English name in that he changed it to Siward. This choice may have been made to make it alliterate with sidfeax 'long-haired', a semantic loan for Struwwel- or struwwelig 'tousle-haired'. The neo-Old English Struwwelpeter contains several more name substitutions for alliterative purposes, such as Stigand for Friederich, and Æþelþryþ for Paulinchen. As an added benefit, these examples provide students with a general introduction to onomastics, perhaps fueled by the information that many names of the Rohirrim in The Lord of the Rings also consist of Old English elements, such as Éowyn, Grimbold and Théoden (Tolkien 1954-5).

Generally, it needs to be pointed out that some neo-Old English resources that may be considered for teaching purposes must be approached with caution due to their many obvious grammatical mistakes, as has been discussed with regard to Englisc Wikipædia (Neuland & Schleburg 2014) and the TV series Merlin (Radman 2014).8 But all available neo-Old English resources are of some value in the classroom. While students should of course focus their attentions on original Old English texts, entertaining but nevertheless academic pedagogy incorporating neo-Old English increases their enjoyment with this past language stage. And what is more satisfying to a teacher of Old English than seeing students having fun with it? Compositions and translations into neo-Old English are one way to help save Old English from university budget and staffing cuts.




Primary Texts

Carroll, Lewis. Æðelgyðe Ellendæda on Wundorlande. Translated into Old English by Peter S. Baker. Portlaoise, Ireland: Evertype, 2015.

Görlach, Manfred, ed. and trans. Mac ond Mauris in Old English Rhymed and Alliterative Verse. Old English Newsletter Subsidia 19. Binghamton, NY: CEMERS Suny, 1992.

Hoffmann, Heinrich. Be Siwarde þam sidfeaxan: Myrge mæþelword ge lustbære licnessa. Translated into Old English by Fritz Kemmler. Neckarsteinach: Edition Tintenfaß, 2010.

Rowling, Joanne K. Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis. Translated into Latin by Peter Needham. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.

Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de. Be þam lytlan æþelinge. Translated into Old English by Fritz Kemmler. Neckarsteinach: Edition Tintenfaß, 2010.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings, 3 vols. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1954-5.

Tolkien, J. R. R. Hobbitus ille. Translated into Latin by Mark Walker. London: HarperCollins, 2012.


Black, Robert. "School." In The Oxford Handbook of Neo-Latin. Ed. Sarah Knight and Stephan Tilg. Oxford: University Press, 2015. 217-32.

Görlach, Manfred. "Diachronic Translation, or: Old and Middle English Revisited." Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 18 (1986): 15-35.

Hoad, Terry F. "The Reconstruction of Unattested Old English Lexical Items." In Problems of Old English Lexicography: Studies in Memory of Angus Cameron. Ed. Alfred Bammesberger. Eichstätter Beiträge 15: Abteilung Sprache und Literatur. Regensburg: Pustet, 1985. 131-50.

Neuland, Christina, and Florian Schleburg. "A New Old English? The Chances of an Anglo-Saxon Revival on the Internet." In The Evolution of Englishes. The Dynamic Model and Beyond. Ed. Sarah Buschfeld, Thomas Hoffmann, Magnus Huber and Alexander Kautzsch. Varieties of English around the World G49. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2014. 486-504.

Ruszkiewicz, Dominika. "'Chaque jour j'apprenais quelque chose': Using Le Petit Prince and Its Translations to Teach Old and Modern Languages." In Saint-Exupéry relu et traduit. Ed. Joanna Górnikiewicz, Iwona Piechnik and Marcela Świątkowska. Kraków: Biblioteka Jagiellońska, forthcoming.

Traxel, Oliver. "The Katherine Group as a Source for the Reconstruction of Unattested Words from the Old English Period."In More than Words: English Lexicography and Lexicology Past and Present. Essays Presented to Hans Sauer on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday Part I. Ed. Renate Bauer and Uli Krischke. Frankfurt: Lang, 2011a. 185-201.



all links last accessed on 28 July 2015


DCHP-1: Dollinger, Stefan, Laurel J. Brinton and Margery Fee, ed. DCHP-1 Online: A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles Online. 2013. [LINK].

Englisc Wikipædia. 2015. [LINK]

OED: Oxford University Press, ed. Oxford English Dictionary. 2015. [LINK]

Radman, Ivana. Old English Spells in BBC's 'Merlin'. Diploma Thesis. Filozofski fakultet u Zagrebu, Department of English Language and Literature, 2014. 6 Feb 2015. [LINK]

Stone, Amy. Old English Life and Language Opens up at University. 10 May 2012. [LINK]

Traxel, Oliver. "[Review of] Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de. Be þam lytlan æþelinge. Translated into Old English by Fritz Kemmler. Neckarsteinach: Edition Tintenfaß, 2010; and Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de. The litel prynce, Translated into Middle English by Walter Sauer. Neckarsteinach: Edition Tintenfaß 2008." Perspicuitas Internet Periodicum (2011b) 9 March 2011. [LINK]

Wiles, Kate. Vikings. 24 Oct 2013. [LINK]



all links last accessed on 28 July 2015


Beowulf (Motion Picture). Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. Starring Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins et al. Paramount and Warner Bros., 2007. [LINK]

Engaging with Old English (Videoclip, Youtube). Uploaded by The University of Sheffield, 8 May 2012. [LINK]

Making of Merlin [Part 2] - Talking Spellish (Videoclip, YouTube). Uploaded by BJsRealm, 9 Feb 2010. [LINK]

Merlin (TV Series). Created by Julian Jones, Jake Michie, Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy. Starring Colin Morgan, Bradley James et al. Shine and BBC Wales, 2008-12. [LINK]

Vikings (TV Series). Created and written by Michael Hirst. Starring Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick et al. MGM Television and History Channel, 2013-. [LINK]

1. The other two segments cover several aspects of Present-Day English.

2. More detailed information including course outlines is available on my website.

3. Some studies of my own, which also pay attention to other language stages, are currently in preparation.

4. Unfortunately, the original website http://www.engagewitholdenglish.co.uk is no longer available. The video is available here.

5. This exercise was inspired by Michel van der Hoek and Anthony Appleyard's neo-Old English New Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which has been providing select entries from 1997 onwards; see [website].

6. For Max und Moritz, Görlach (1992) provides both an alliterative and a rhymed version without alliteration and verse types. But since this publication can be seen as a scholarly parody that claims an Old Saxon origin of the text in endrhyme, this particular verse form can be disregarded for our purposes.

7. In the "translator's note" to Le Petit Prince, Fritz Kemmler juxtaposes some French words with their Old English equivalents and writes that "the list is not exhaustive and readers are invited to use their imagination" (de Saint-Exupéry 2010: 96).

8. In Merlin, Old English was chosen as the language of magic spells as it was considered "realistic" in the context of the series and fans of the show could look up its actual meaning if they wanted to (Making of Merlin [Part 2]—Talking Spellish 2010). Ironically, here it is used by Britons and could have been understood by their enemies, the Anglo-Saxons!