Illustrating why Old English is a different language

Cotton Vitellius A.xv, folio 132r. Better known as the beginning of Beowulf.

Our writing center had a party on Monday to celebrate  a successful semester and to say goodbye to departing tutors. As sometimes happens to medievalists, I got into a conversation about the history of English. One tutor mentioned how they learned that Shakespeare is not Old English, despite what some of her friends think. Another tutor chimed in: she’d heard that Old English was a different language. What does it look like? And what’s Middle English?

After a bit of back and forth, she asked this: “What would a simple sentence like ‘the sun is high in the sky’ look like in Old English and Middle English?”

Pin depicting the sun. From Salisbury, England, 14th c. Found via Kunera, database for late medieval badges and ampullae.

That is an excellent question. I worked out some of it with them. I’d like to give a fuller treatment here using both word choice and syntax to show how an Old English translation of that statement might vary.

Word choice

“The sun is high in the sky.”

So, when we’re translating into another language, we should recognize that several words may be potential translations of the one. These differences can change the tone of the piece. For instance, we could translate to modern English through direct paraphrase: “The daystar is far up in the heavens.” The shift of vocabulary creates a shift in register: this version sounds more poetic. Maybe it’s the metaphorical “daystar” or the multivalent “heavens.” It also breaks the sing-song rhyme of “high in the sky.”

“Heaven” by Theophilos Papadopoulos, Flickr. It’s hard to think of heaven without thinking, at least a bit, of the sky.

Some translators try to maintain a comparable register or tone in their translation. That can be difficult, since there’s no guarantee that the words’ connotations will precisely line up. In particular, Old English doesn’t use different words to distinguish sky as “that big expanse above us” from sky as “the place where God lives.”

Nor would an Old English speaker likely go for sky – unless they were Norse. Norse words like sky (then meaning “cloud”) enter English in the 12th and 13th century, a period that we call early Middle English thanks to the large Norse and French influence on language.

So what’s available for the sky, the sun, and height? Here’s a sample, each with a brief gloss of associations. All links are to an online version of the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary:

  • Sky
    • heofon – sky, firmament, heaven

    • hrof – roof, ceiling, sky
    • lyft – air, sky, elements, clouds
    • rodor – firmament, technical term for night sky
    • swegel heaven, sky, sun
  • Sun
    • sunne – sun
    • sweglcandel – sun (lit. “sky-candle”)
    • dægcandel – sun (lit. “day-candle”)

    • dægscield – sun (lit. “day-shield”)

    • friþcandel – sun (lit. “peace-candle”)
    • swegel heaven, sky, sun
  • High
    • héah – high, lofty, sublime, haughty

    • brant – high, steep, difficult
    • steáp – high, steep, towering (buildings and hills)
A firmament implies a structure – of the movement of the skies which originates from a Prime Mover. “Firmament,” Tom Parnell – a photo of the same-named sculpture by Antony Gormley.

Sunne and héah are both familiar enough in form. So is heofon. Depending on a speaker’s purposes, they might use any of these terms, but for the sake of consistency let’s stick to these three.

As for the other words, Old English conjugates the verb meaning “to be” (béon) differently. The present conjugations are based directly on “be,” so rather than “is” we would have biþ.

Old English doesn’t require articles in the way we do. Se exists as a kind of demonstrative article meaning “the” or “that,” and þes functions as”this.” They are declinable, which means they change forms based on the grammatical function and gender of the word they’re pairing with. So if we wanted the article, we might say seo sunne (nominative feminine) but þá heofone (accusative feminine). However, these were often unnecessary.

Finally, while in does exist in Old English, the preposition most commonly used in this situation would be on. At least, that’s our guess, because the word in  doesn’t appear in several key Old English texts.[1]

So based on this we have a rough bank of words to use, and we begin to approach the form of our sentence. Plugging them in recklessly, we get:

Sunne biþ héah on heofon.


We know this is wrong because I’ve already mentioned declensions. These nouns and adjectives all decline based on their grammatical function. We have the nominative, usually the subject or a subject complement; the genitive, often denoting possession; the accusative, often denoting the object of a verb or preposition; the dative, most often an indirect object; the instrumental, indicating the use of a thing. Dictionaries index nouns and adjectives by their nominative form, and the gender and strength of the word indicates how it should decline, what form it should take.

Sunne will be nominative because it serves as the subject of the sentence. Héah complements the subject, and so it will also be nominative. (The sun is high = the high sun.) Both of these words will look the same as we’re using them. Heofon is dative; on takes the dative case because it’s describing the location of what’s going on. Because of that, we will change the ending to reflect its function: heofonas.

Then we weren’t that far off! We might say:

Sunne biþ héah on heofonas

and an Old English speaker might understand what we meant, even if s/he were baffled about why we were talking about the sun’s height. They might like the little alliteration happening with the /h/ sound.

One other concern is word order. Would they say it in that order? They might. Even so, the word order could vary considerably. Compare:

Héah biþ sunne on heofonas.
On heofonas biþ sunne héah.
Biþ sunne héah on heofonas?[2]
Sunne on heofonas héah biþ .

Some word orders were more common, but thanks to the word declensions the functions of these words would be intelligible in any order. In poetry, one could even put heofonas away from the preposition, since only heofonas could correspond with on anyway:

On héah sunne heofonas biþ.

We can’t say the same for our own order:

On high sun sky is.

So there we go. That’s an expansion of the example that I was given. I hope it highlights some of the features of Old English, as well as some of the difficulties in any project of translation, no matter how simple.

However, let me urge caution. Let’s not label something “Old English” merely because its form looks unfamiliar to us. That bugs me as a medievalist because it repeats the habit of viewing the medieval only as the not-modern without understanding what constitutes it.

[1] This glosses over the regional differences and differences in dialect, which can considerably vary the word forms commonly used.

[2] The inversion of subject and verb was and is a common way to ask questions: “Is the sun high in the sky?”

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