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Sutton Hoo Helmet

Learning Anglo-Saxon

Inspired by the famous Old English poem "Beowulf", ICONS writer Emily will be attempting to learn Anglo-Saxon over the coming weeks - follow how she's getting on!

The poem Beowulf was written later than the date of Sutton Hoo, but it describes many of the Anglo-Saxon beliefs and culture, including ship burial. The Danish king Scyld is buried in this way - sent off across the sea in a boat full of riches to sail to the next world. The burial of Beowulf himself displays similarities with Sutton Hoo, in that he was cremated and the remains buried under a large mound.

Hand-coloured lithographic illustration by Lynd Ward to the Anglo Saxon epic story of Beowulf, depicting the fight with Grendel, circa 1935
© Charles Walker / Top Foto.co.uk

Never one to shirk a challenge, I am aiming to be able to translate bits of these passages after teaching myself Anglo-Saxon with the help of the internet and some textbooks. Will I make it? 

  • Day one: My first impressions of the Anglo-Saxon language from my Guide To Old English is that it looks like a mix between German and Welsh. The scariest thing is that there are some completely unrecognisable letters - one that looks like a "P" but is pronounced "th", and sometimes the letters "a" and "e" are joined together.

  • Day two: Today I learned how to say "My name is Beowulf". It's easy! "Beowulf is min nama." That was fun! Then I made the mistake of opening Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Primer - a textbook that tries to teach you Old English grammar. "Wa me!" (That's Anglo-Saxon for "woe is me"…)

  • Day three: Not having a clue what accent to go for when speaking my three words of Anglo-Saxon, I opt for "country bumpkin from historical film", hoping it will add a slightly mystical edge. For some reason I take inspiration from the random villagers in Robin Hood, Prince Of Thieves but it soon turns into Herr Flick from 'Allo 'Allo.
  • Day four: Help is at hand from Old English expert Lucinda Rumsey from Mansfield College, Oxford.  She claims to have a worksheet that will teach me the basics in one hour.  It sounds too good to be true, but arrives and is indeed very helpful.
  • Day five: At the top of the sheet is passage in Old English (not Beowulf quite yet!).  I will use a † for the 'thorn' symbol, although it's supposed to look more like a "p".

Q: Hwæt wille ge sprecan?

A: We cildra bidda† †e, lareow, †æt †u tæce us sprecan rihte, for†am ungelærede we sindon.

There are two unfamiliar symbols, "æ" and "†".  The first is pronounced like the vowel sound "a" in the word "hat", and "†" is pronounced "th" like in "thorn".  So, "†æt" is "that".  Ta da!  I think I'm getting to grips with this! 

This means the word "bidda†" from the passage is "biddeth" (ask) and "†e" and "†u" are "thee" and "thou" (you).  "Hwæt" is "what" and "for†am" means "because".  Not far to go...

In Old English, "c" stands for "K' and the "ch" sound, and "g" stands for both "g" and "y".

So, "sprecan" means "to speak", "cildra" means "children", "tæce" means "teach" and "ge" or "ye" means you.  (All very logical so far.)

The words "lareow" and "ungelærede" from the passage are based on the word "lore" which means "learning".

Finally, the word "sindon" is more difficult to work out.  It means "we are".

So here goes – my first try at translating some Old English. 

Q: What will you speak?

A: We children ask you, teacher, that you teach us to speak correctly, because unlearned we are.

Lucinda was right – it took less than an hour, and I feel I've got my head around the basics.