To Be a Philologist…or a Linguist?

Linguists study language as a whole, but they have to learn terms and techniques in which to use or describe it. But the problem is that linguists tend to talk using linguist terms, and readers do not want technical talk in literature when describing the way people live(d). The same can be said of philologists who study the history behind the language. As a historical fiction writer, studying history would be key in knowing how to write authentic dialogue which makes studying the classics important to evolve. I do not see how I could tell readers how people in the 500-1800s lived unless I studied it myself. Modern writers could benefit from learning history. It is not the common words we remember but the key phrases, words, or ideas that make them unique. The uniqueness is found in the people themselves. I think that is the value I am finding in studying works written in history. Do not use technical terms to describe a people. Use reality! What better way to study reality than to study the old texts as they were written? So that is the value of philology in that we can read their reality instead of trying to authenticate it with modern English. By learning from history, we become better writers of it. I can think of no better author that has learned from history than Shakespeare. Not only was he a unique Early Modern English writer, but he knew so many words from Old and Middle English that people in his society did not. He invented many words used during his time that are still used today in Modern English. Many authors today have taken his works to retell them with modern English which makes Shakespeare a perfect candidate to study. But, alas, Shakespeare did not write in Old English, so what text better to study than Beowulf for a first hand account of Old English dialect. It can be an interesting journey to start with a text in Old English and then follow the research to see how many other texts were written based on a single Old English account of history.





Old English:


Old English was found in many texts before 1000AD. Mitchell and Robinson write, “Old English (OE) is the vernacular Germanic language of Great Britain as it is recorded in manuscripts and inscriptions dating from before about 1100” (A Guide to Old English). The author goes on to state that Northumbrian, Mercian, Kentish, and West-Saxon were distinguished languages during this period (Mitchell and Robinson). Their use of spelling and grammar differences existed in each dialect which made them unique, and I think this is what elevates the discussion on regional dialects which we have been studying in class. West Saxon eventually became the dominant form used in writing after 900, so it would help writers in knowing which of the four to study if we were creating characters from this period.  More importantly, the early texts help modern writers recreate scenes that define the thirst for a king and queen’s courtly life, men who roamed for adventure and wealth, and knights who lived by codes of honor and bravery. It is only through literature that we know these people existed. It is only through literature that we know who they were as well.


Hwät! we Gâr-Dena in geâr-dagum
þeód-cyninga þrym gefrunon,
hû þâ äðelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scêfing sceaðena þreátum.

Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements
The folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of,
How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.
Oft Scyld the Scefing from scathers in numbers…



As you can see from the example above, Old English was about glory and achievements as men took their places in history as the new gods of glory, and the language used was as fantastical as the people it represented. Great differences exist in syntax and grammar structure between Old English and Modern English. So it brings the argument to the conversation in that studying old text can be highly beneficial to anyone who either writes in this period or teaches it.


Middle English:


Middle English represents the period from about 1000BC to 1500 BC (debatable). But more importantly, it represents a people who had been defined by religious structure for so long that they were ready for an awakening which started in the Middle English period. That is why I think Middle English  literature is so refreshing as we get an authentic taste of just who these people were. Religion had forced them to live by strict rules, but a yearning for truth elevated literature to great heights. I can think of no better example than Geoffrey Chaucer to represent Middle English literature. What I found interesting about his literature is that there is a blend of Old and Middle English influence, but Modern English speakers do not need dictionaries to figure out what he is saying.


Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);

(Chaucer Ch 6)


One of the interesting changes from Old English to Middle English is that it got rid of gender specific verbs. If you have learned a romantic language, you know how hard it is for a modern English speaker to deal with gender changes in speech pattern. Mustanoja writes, “Grammatical gender ceases to exist in the course of OE and early ME, as a result of the levelling of the final vowels under uniform -e, which eventually becomes mute” (A MiddleEnglish Syntax: Parts of Speech 43). In the example above, you can see clear examples of how -e has taken shape in the text as opposed to the words having a gender specific ending attached. You see the word his (pronoun use) as opposed to a verb with a gender specific ending which i think is one example between OE and ME.


Early Modern English:


Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg write, “A crucial difference between the Early Modern English section and those representing earlier periods is the standardization of spelling, which affected most of the written language and led to the disappearance of localizable regional dialects in written material” (Early Modern English). But, Shakespeare was a learner of the old languages, and you can see that influence of all of the languages in his work. The word thane was used by medievil Anglo-Saxons.  There are also combinations of old english, middle english, and made up words like brainsickly that influence early modern English speakers. Interestingly enough, many of Shakespeare’s works have been transformed into modern movies based on his original theme.


Who was it that thus cried? Why, worthy thane,
You do unbend your noble strength, to think
So brainsickly of things. Go get some water,
And wash this filthy witness from your hand.
Why did you bring these daggers from the place?
They must lie there: go carry them; and smear
The sleepy grooms with blood.



Shakespeare was a philologist in theory. He studied all the old languages which is why he was originally credited with many more words than he is now after other modern philologists found some of the words in older texts. But, his work brilliantly defines a shift from ME to EME just by looking at syntax and grammar structure of the lines above. While hints of the old languages are found, it is his sentence structure format that allows us to use his work as a reference to early modern English literature.


Modern English:


There are many movies today set in history that embodies all of these languages in some form. Game of Thrones use some references to Old English, Middle English, and Early Modern English in it. Oxford Dictionary writes, “Martin’s languages – Valyrian, the Common Tongue of Westeros; Braavosi; and Dothraki among others – are not conveyed in any great detail; instead, the tongue in which they are speaking is noted but rendered in English” (The Language of Game of Thrones). For a writer to know how to invent a historical fictional language, one must have researched it a great deal. But, what is better is that in the digital age, we can see what other GOT fans are highlighting on their kindles. In A Feast for Crows, it says, “I prefer my history dead. Dead history is writ in ink, the living sort in blood” (Martin). That being said, you can see archaic forms of language in use like oftimes and  seneschal  in order to bring in that old English feel to their modern English speaking readers or watchers.


I feel that is the value of studying history. As a modern speaker, you learn much like Martin how to use a hint of earlier English systems to sell the idea to modern users. It gives just enough to make it authentic without forcing modern speaker to have a OE dictionary on hand. The influence to each of these periods come from the people themselves. They used both the written texts of the past and a vision of the future to create lands never seen before. They created people mirrored from their own societies, but they used their criticism and hopes to define the new land as a way to influence their own society. We, as writers, must know the people we are writing for to be able to create a work of art they will connect to because of their own belief systems. No matter what era you use to inspire, you must know the society that will read your work. In so knowing, you can gamble on the amount of influence from each historical society in regard to language influence. Personally, I dig through history to find stories not yet told. That is what influences me most as it is the history that no one cared to document in their own era that gives me license to create in my own. As a recent professor taught me, it does not matter if something did or did not happen in history. It matters that I can create my story in such a way that my readers believe it is possible to have happened. The only way to do that is to read the classics to know how best to articulate it. Creativity has no boundaries when you know the audience you are writing for. I look to each of these periods to help in creating my own place in history.



Note: If you do a spellcheck of my writing, you will see many modern “mistakes” that are not mistakes because it is OE or ME or EME. Also, some of the writers write using British English which has spelling differences than American English. Have any of you come across this issue in your own writing? If you were going to write in OE, would you use the old spelling or would you write in modern English as your readers read it?


Chaucer, Geoffrey. The canterbury tales. Broadview Press, 2008.


National Endowment of the Humanities. Old English, New Influence. Nowell Codex. (2011 June 14). neh.gov/news/old-english-new-influences. Accessed

10 Aug 2017.

Nevalainen, Terttu and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg. Early Modern English. VARIENG. 2011.

Mabillard, Amanda. Are Shakespeare’s works written in Old English. Shakespeare-Online. (2014). shakespeare-online.com/biography

/shakespearelanguage.html. Accessed 10 Aug 2017.

Martin, George R. R. A Feast for Crows. New York :Bantam Books, 2011. Print.

Mitchell, Bruce, and Fred C. Robinson. A guide to Old English. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.
Mustanoja, Tauno F. A Middle English Syntax: Parts of Speech. John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2016.

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