Two Linguists Explain Pseudo Old English in The Wake -The Toast

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Gretchen McCulloch: The Wake is a book about the English resistance fighters during the Norman Invasion in 1066. But it’s got something unique going on with the language. Here’s how the Author’s note describes it:

This novel is not written in Old English — that would be unreadable to anyone except scholars. It is written instead in what might be called a shadow tongue — a pseudo-language intended to convey the feeling of the old language by combining some of its vocabulary and syntax with the English we speak today.

So as far as I can tell, the goal of this book is to be something more sophisticated and legit than Ye Olde Tea Shoppe, while still being more accessible than Actual Beowulf.

I’m pretty sure actually found out about The Wake from a Toast link roundup (although now I can no longer find which one), and I was immediately excited. I really enjoyed the speculative, immersive language of A Clockwork Orange when I was in high school, plus I’d just read a book about constructed languages. Old English adapted for the modern ear? SIGN ME UP.

So I bought it, I started reading it, and I started having QUESTIONS. Just how accurate was this book? Would my fellow linguists with actual backgrounds in Old English think the necessary tradeoffs were totally reasonable or completely far-out? So I tweeted a couple photos of its pages and Twitter friend/medievalist/linguist Kate Wiles jumped in with comments. A few minutes later, I realized we should it pitch to Nicole as “like my usual A Linguist Explains, mixed with An Historian Watches Downton Abbey and the Two Monks series. Either it’s impossibly obscure or the most Toastean thing ever.” She went for it, evidently.

First, Kate, do you want to tell the Toasties a bit about who you are?

Kate Wiles: I research Anglo-Saxon scribes and Old English for a living, as an academic and as a consultant and contributing editor for a history magazine. I like lasagne and wine and ABBA and Borgen.

Gretchen: And how did you find out about The Wake?

Kate: I’m a big fan of Unbound, The Wake’s publishers, and when basically everyone I know told me about the book and badgered me to read it, Unbound very kindly sent me a review copy. Full disclosure: the publishers are friends. Further disclosure: I can’t comment on it as a novel because I didn’t get very far — I had to keep stopping to take notes. I don’t think I’m its target audience.

Gretchen: You know too much! I bought it with my own money, don’t know the publishers at all, and read the whole thing, which of course means I’m completely objective. Ahem.

Anyway, let’s start off with spelling and typography. (If anyone wants to follow along in more detail, here’s photos of a few pages or the “look inside” view.) Kingsnorth says in the Author’s Note:

I did not use letters which did not exist in Old English. The OE alphabet was more limited than ours. There was, for example, no letter ‘k’ — it is replaced by ‘c’, which is always pronounced like the modern ‘k’, never like the modern ‘s’. There was no ‘v’ either; ‘f’ takes its place in words like ‘seofon’ (seven). ‘J’ and ‘q’ were similarly absent.

I think this is pretty accurate, right?

Kate: Yes, he’s made good choices here. When you’re reading actual Old English you’ll notice that, while most of the letters are the same as we use for Modern English, some are different because the Roman alphabet was designed to represent the sounds of Latin, not Old English. When English scribes started to use it they had to adapt it; they dropped some letters and adopted others, most characteristically: ð (called ‘eth’), ϸ (‘thorn’), ƿ (‘wynn’) and æ (‘ash’). Eth and thorn do the job of ‘th’, wynn is ‘w’ and ash is the ‘a’ in ‘cat’. Thorn and wynn were both originally runes. I understand why Kingsnorth hasn’t used these (not least because having ϸ, ƿ and p alongside each other just creates unnecessary confusion): Old English can be written perfectly reasonably without them, and a word like ϸing is instantly recognisable when thorn is replaced with <th>.

And they didn’t use k, j, q, and v. Although they did still have the sounds: the letter <c> was both ‘ch’ and ‘k’, so cyning was ‘king’ (pronounced like k) and cild was ‘child’ (pronounced like ch). And ‘f’ is sometimes pronounced as ‘v’, as in heofon, ‘heaven’. It really threw me off when Kingsnorth had things like ‘cepe’ for ‘keep’, because before an ‘e’ it should be pronounced ‘ch’ and my brain read ‘chepe’ EVERY. TIME. I can’t tell from the Author’s Note whether he didn’t know that <c> was pronounced two ways, or just didn’t care. But you’ll do better following your instincts as a native speaker of English for words like cild, cildren ‘child, children’ than by paying attention to the Author’s Note.

Gretchen: And Kingsnorth doesn’t use capitals either, or any kind of punctuation except periods. Is that a thing?


Soooo. I think the best answer to that is yes and no. They did have what we would recognise as capital letters but they didn’t work entirely the same way as in Modern English. They’re a bit more slapdash and every scribe basically does their own thing. They’ll mark the start of a text; sometimes they mark a name, or the start of a sentence (I use that word loosely) or paragraph (ditto); but sometimes they just crop up in the middle of a word, or at the end of a line if they’re trying to justify to the right-margin and the line’s coming up short. Even if it were the only one I would at least have liked to see the first letter capitalised. Nothing fancy. I’m not demanding illumination, but a nice majuscule would be grand.

Gretchen: Well, I could have gone for some illumination. But it’s probably expensive to publish.

Kate: And unlikely to have featured on something like non-Biblical fiction.

But the punctuation. Again, the Anglo-Saxons used punctuation, but not as we know it. And again it’s hard to describe how they did it because every scribe’s different. But they did use punctuation. The main ones are a mark that looked like a period . one a bit like a semi-colon ; and an upside-down semi-colon. Because texts were read aloud these marks often indicated how long the reader should pause at those points, but they could also be used like modern punctuation to indicate sense. The Wake uses the occasional period, generally to mark a break within a paragraph and, more infrequently, at the end of a paragraph. We could probably cope with more though.

More puzzling is — with his apparent devotion to manuscript conventions that make the text harder to read — why he’s chosen to get rid of capitals and punctuation, but introduce italics and paragraph breaks. And there’s nary an abbreviation mark in sight!

Gretchen: Let’s talk about fuck for a bit. I’ve written about its syntax here at The Toast, but when it comes to medieval swearing, you’re really the fucking expert.

Kate: Yeah, so I accidentally ended up knowing a lot about the earliest instances of fuck because they appear in place- and personal-names and those are my pet hobbies. But that’s pretty common, right? I wrote about its history once…

Gretchen: The Wake uses fuck quite a bit, with the spelling fucc or fuccan because it’s avoiding k. Here’s an example sentence from page 99: “go fucc thyself i saes and let thy frenc freonds do the same”. It’s set in 1066, so is fuck old enough? Should Kingsnorth have been using swive or something else instead?


He’s fallen into the most basic of heffalump traps. Everyone calls it an Anglo-Saxon four-letter word but it’s really not. In fact, none of the Anglo-Saxon four-letter swear words were Anglo-Saxon four-letter swear words. Most of them aren’t even Anglo-Saxon. There’s no denying they had a filthy sense of humour so there’s plenty of smut. But they were a pragmatic bunch and their taboo words, certainly as we have them recorded, were pretty literal: shit had all the scandalous effect of ‘defecation’; words for sex were no ruder than ‘intercourse’ in the contexts that we find them used and ‘bastard’ just meant illegitimate.

And this is super weird as he went to such pains to stress he’d only used vocabulary which existed in Old English and has survived to today. But I suppose ‘fuck’ really works to confirm our stereotypes of this period as nasty, brutish and short and its people as crude and bodily. Why bother trying to conjure up a nuanced and balanced world and take the reader ‘back to what it was like without anachronism’ when you can use the language as a tool to bludgeon the reader with the stereotype they’re expecting.

Gretchen: Fuck isn’t the only modern swear to find its way into The Wake. There’s also scit (“shit”, since sc is pronounced like modern sh), cunt, hore (“whore”), bastard, and arse.

And except for bastard, which a) is from French and b) pretty much exclusively refers to William the Bastard (but he’s French so that’s a legit context for a loanword), most of them are used non-literally. So cunt isn’t used to refer to the body part, but rather as a derogatory term for both men and women (but especially men, who the narrator also sometimes derogatorily refers to as wifmen i.e. “women”). Hore is used as a generic insult for women, and arse is primarily used in the phrase “being fucced up the arse by”, another non-literal insult.

So a) were these words around at the time at all and b) were the Anglo-Saxons really this misogynistic and homophobic?

Kate: Shit. Was around but wasn’t rude.

Cunt. Ditto.

Whore. I will allow this. Although it wasn’t necessarily derogatory (that change didn’t happen until the 13th century) hore did mean ‘prostitute’.

Arse. Likewise. Although, as it was used by Ælfric, the least fun-having of all the Anglo-Saxons (except maybe Bede), it was probably no ruder than ‘rear’. The rather prudish Old English dictionary very sweetly translates it as ‘The breech, the buttocks, the hind part’.

Gretchen: Though the dictionary at the link spells “arse” as “ears” — I can see why Kingsnorth didn’t use that spelling, but wouldn’t it have been amusing.

Kate: As for this whole homophobic attitude that seems to prevail in the book: there is certainly evidence of homosexual activity in Anglo-Saxon England, which we see mostly in a church context, within monasteries and in the Penitentials — church laws outlining punishments appropriate to the sin in question. But concepts of homosexuality and homosexual identity were not the same in Anglo-Saxon England as they are today and Kingsnorth here is just plastering modern attitudes onto his characters using ‘olde’ language to make it seem legit.

Gretchen: And furthermore, the book sets up the narrator as this guy who’s anti-Christian and into the “old gods” (the Norse pantheon) instead, which means that he can’t have gotten his homophobic attitudes from Christianity. So much for being fucced up the arse.

But also a) could you find some Norse swears for us? Should he be swearing by Odin’s beard or something? And b) I know this is slightly out of your purview as a linguist, but do you have a sense of how realistic is it that, 400 years after Christianity came to the British Isles, the narrator and his grandfather would still have been into the previous religion?

Kate: There are some fantastic sweary Old Norse bynames (kind of like a nickname, attached to your main name as a descriptor/identifier: the Lothbrok in Ragnar Lothbrok means ‘hairy trousers’, for example). My favourite cheeky ones include horse penis, merchantship bosom or button arse.

And Scandinavia was well on its way to being Christianised. Even if not everyone had converted they were certainly well aware of it. England was definitely Christian, so when the Vikings started invading, and then settling and intermarrying, they very quickly adopted Christianity. They’d undoubtedly still be aware of other religions — ties with Scandinavia were still very strong, and oral traditions would keep the memory alive — but practising them would be trickier in face of the overwhelming strength of the English church.

Gretchen: So that’s ix-nay on the uck-fay, aybe-may on the eligion-ray. Moving on, let’s go from swears into words more generally. Here’s the Author’s Note:

The first and most important rule was that I wanted to use only words which originated in Old English. The vast majority of the vocabulary of this novel consists of words that, in one form or another, existed in English 1000 years ago. The exceptions are cases where words did not exist for what I wanted to say, or where those that did were so obscure today, or hard to pronounce or read, that they would have detracted excessively from the flow of the tale.

Well, we’ve already seen that swears were exceptions to this rule, but how well does the rest of the vocabulary do? I noticed blithe for “happy”, which I looked up on Etymonline, and sure enough happy was only used at the time for “fortunate” (from hap meaning “chance”, as in happen), and blithe is indeed an old-enough alternative. So that was cool!

But I also noticed ire and ired, which, nope: ire comes from Latin via Old French, aka that whole Norman Conquest thing. (Example sentence, p 89: “around the abbodrice the bastard had put his cnihts with sweord and hors to kepe him safe from anglisc ire”.) There’s two perfectly recognizable words the author could have used instead: anger, which comes from Norse, and the amazingly Anglo-Saxon WRATH. Are you as wrathful about this as I am?

Kate: Not so much wrathful as bemused (Anglo-Norman root). For example, Kingsnorth uses two words for April: eosturmonth and thrimilci ‘three milkings’. But another Old English word for the same is April itself (which he doesn’t actually use), and I cannot find any reference to Ðrymylce being April — everywhere says it’s May. Not even in Clark Hall, the dictionary Kingsnorth has chosen to use despite Bosworth and Toller’s dictionary being more exhaustive, widely used and easily available online.

Gretchen: But specific words aside, and even with the 85 extra words that are in the glossary at the back, the vocabulary feels simple, reduced, circuitous. How well does this represent what the Anglo-Saxons were like?

Kate: Yeah, kind of but not really. He’s used words like gar ‘lance’, glaif ‘three-pronged fishing tool used in the fens’, and scramasax ‘dagger’, which feels like sprinkling ‘local flavour’ to make it seem more authentic, when what is actually needed to give more than a nod to trying to get into this world is to think about the medieval mindset.

Gretchen: Now I want to move on to the other thing that really stuck out for me, as a person who knows normal-linguist levels of stuff about Old English rather than Hi-I-Wrote-My-Dissertation-On-This levels of stuff about Old English, and that’s the word endings. Here’s what the Author’s Note says on the subject:

To achieve the sound and look I wanted on the page, I have combined Old English words with modern vocabulary, mutated and hammered the shape of OE words and word endings, and been wanton in combining the Wessex dialect with that of Mercia, Anglia, and Northumberland — and dropping in a smattering of Old Norse when it seemed to work. The syntax used is mine, its structure often driven by the limitations placed on me by the available vocabulary.

There was one final rule I set myself, and it was this: all of the previous rules could be overridden, if necessary, by a meta-rule, which functioned as a kind of literary thegn: do what the novel needs you to do. This, in the end, was a matter of instinct, which means that I have no-one to blame for the results but myself.

So, Old English’s big deal was that it had all kinds of fiddly little endings on its words: nouns changed their ending depending on gender, number, and case; verbs changed their endings depending on who the subject was and also tense and stuff. If you’ve ever learned German or Latin, Old English did that thing that gave you all those tables of paradigms to memorize; if you’ve ever learned French or Spanish or Italian, Old English did that but on the nouns too. And the adjectives.

And I mean, I get that Kingsnorth couldn’t just blithely import the entire Old English inflectional system, because that kind of defies the point of making it readable for modern people, but the solution he ended up with just strikes me as really far in the opposite direction.

One easy place to see this is that Kingsnorth takes a lot of words that end with a silent -e in Modern English, and deletes the -e entirely. Does this succeed at making the words look strange but not entirely unintelligible? Sure.

But it’s strange in the wrong direction: that silent -e was once pronounced, in an earlier form of the language, and even earlier, in the actual time he’s set the book, there were even more letters that came after the -e and were also pronounced. For example, Kingsnorth renders “come” as cum — which has the vowel of Actual Old English cuman, but as this table on Wiktionary shows, Old English actually had over a dozen different forms, such as cuman, cume, cymst, cymth, cumath, cwom, cwome, come, cum, cumende, gecumen, etc. Same goes for all the other verbs: tac (“take”) has about the same number of endings as “come”, while gif (“give”) has a small army of ’em.

What this vast array of endings lets you do in Old English was move around the words into a whole bunch of different orders, since the endings are telling you who did what to whom, everyone still knows what you’re saying if you move them around.

I mean, I could understand not using ALL of these endings, and I can certainly understand not wanting to go for Old English flexible word order, but would it really have been that bad to keep modern word order and use a reduced set of endings? Readers could basically ignore them, but they’d be there, and by the end you might get a subtle sense that you’re dealing with a highly inflected language and therefore the stuff at the ends of the words changes around a lot.

Kate: And actually, having variable spellings would do a lot more to conjure the feeling of reading actual Old English and its alphabetti spaghetti approach to spelling.

Gretchen: That too! Instead, this major grammatical feature of Old English is just not reflected in the book at all. Worse, the “shadow tongue” goes in the opposite direction. For example, the narrator keeps saying “i is”, which is actually less realistic Old English than if he’d just used the modern “am”. The whole reason the irregular “I am” has survived into Modern English is that there was already a precursor to it in Old English (“eom, eam”).

In many senses, the extreme letter drop is actually a FUTURISTIC version of English rather than a historical one. The way to create that same effect of semi-intelligible strangeness while actually being consistent with what we know about Old English would be to add letters instead of deleting them, even if you have to make a few simplifications about how many letters you’re adding. Okay, this isn’t really a question because I’m already just ranting, but do you want to comment on this too?

Kate: Yes. Again, like ‘the Crist’ and ‘I seen’, ‘I is’ is bending the language to make the Anglo-Saxons seem a bit backwards and olde (again). Having them say ‘Christ’, ‘I saw’ and ‘I am’ might be more accurate, but it makes them too literate and not remote and exotic enough. His literary thegn is straight out of the Dark Ages. (I wrote an article on why the “Dark Ages” is a terrible term.)

Gretchen: The other thing that got me was the second person pronouns. Kingsnorth has “thu is,” “thu has,” and “i tellt thu” (I told you) where I would have expected something closer to “thou art”, “thou hast” and “i tollt thee” (although I recognize that I know those from Shakespeare, who is Early Modern English aka a good half-millennium later).

But the thing is, it’s because of Shakespeare that I can’t believe that he’s using “thu is” or “thu” as an object instead of “thee” for legibility reasons — I mean, if you’re the type of person who’s going to read a book entirely written in an invented pseudo-Old English tongue, chances are pretty good that you’re also a person who’s encountered a decent share of “thou hast”s and “she maketh”s and you’re okay with that. Like, seeing “thu is” instead of “thu art” just hurts my delicate nerdy soul.

But maybe I’m missing something. Is “thou hast” more Ren Faire than Auld Angland? What do you think about the inflections?

Kate: Well, I wouldn’t expect to see a “hast” anywhere. That’s too modern. But if he wanted to go all Old English here, a “thu hafst” and a “he hafth” would not have gone amiss and are, surely, intelligible. Right? Right?!

And speaking of Ren Faire nonsense, ‘thy’ and ‘my’ are both examples of it — for the possessive, just use ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ (Old English mīn and ϸin).

Anyway, the Old English pronouns would have been “thu” and “the”, but with thorn (ϸu and ϸe), and we’ve established that replacing thorn with “th” is a reasonable concession to the modern reader. And it makes sense to not use “the” since that looks like the definite article not the pronoun. But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have gone for “thee” instead of collapsing the subject/object distinction.

In general, though, Kingsnorth isn’t great on word endings and has collapsed Old English’s rich and sometimes hellish variety of weirdness into this all-purpose ‘-an’ suffix, which he puts on the end of everything: in place of Modern English ‘-ing’ (fuccan for fucking) and ‘-en’ (tacan for taken and gifan for given).

Gretchen: This isn’t a comprehensive review of the plot side of The Wake, but I also want to talk a little bit about why it’s worth doing a linguistic review in the first place. Here’s the Author’s Note about why Kingsnorth was doing it:

I simply don’t get on with historical novels written in contemporary language. The way we speak is specific to our time and place. Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes — all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them. To put 21st-century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappuccinos: just wrong.

From my perspective, if one of the major selling features of your book (and reasons it got nominated for a Man Booker Prize) is that you’ve written a hybrid language that evokes the linguistic spirit of a particular era, it’s an important service that someone analyze this language for how well it does that, so your readers know what’s being evoked in them. And unfortunately, I have to give it a failing grade.

The problem is, okay, Kingsnorth hasn’t outfitted his characters with the verbal equivalent of iPads and cappuccinos (but would any author, really? No one’s gonna have their medieval peasant saying “lol brb :P”). But he HAS outfitted them with the verbal equivalent of the printing press, horned helmets and chocolate — words and ways of saying things that are still old, but not old enough or right for that place and time.

Let’s take the swears, for example. What annoys me is not so much the odd anachronism for the sake of the story. Heck, I read historical fiction in basically-modern English all the time, I was expecting that. What annoys me is the false promises that Kingsnorth’s “shadow tongue” sets up. Going into the book, I believed that in exchange for struggling through an unfamiliar dialect, I was going to experience from the inside a linguistic system that was as close to Old English as my non-medievalist brain could handle, with only the minimum necessary compromises — and that’s not actually what The Wake does.

Especially in the case of the swear words, there’s just no way I can conceive of them as a necessary compromise. Legibility to the modern reader isn’t enough of a reason — authors make up swears wholesale all the time, from “frak” in Battlestar Galactica to the names of famous magicians in Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On. And that works fine, because swears are easy to recover from context. So if Kingsnorth was going to teach us the Anglo-Saxon word for “dragonfly” (it’s “wyrmflege”) he could just as easily have introduced some totally unfamiliar swears and we would have picked them up too.

Kate: Well said. The reduced vocabulary, simplified syntax, and avoided punctuation/capitalization also take readers in a particular direction, making the Anglo-Saxons seem less capable of complex thought. As an artistic decision, I’ll defend to the end of the world an author’s right to muck about with language however they like; but as a decision that’s explicitly meant to put readers into the Anglo-Saxon “worldview”, I need to point out that the world we’re viewing is through glass that’s more cracked and warped than it needed to be.

Gretchen: Yeah, and instead, he’s actively choosing to perpetuate a certain mindset associated with Anglo-Saxons, that they had the same taboos as a modern reader, which is just so many kinds of false. But it’s the type of false that most people aren’t going to catch, and therefore highly misleading. Throwing around Ren Faire thees and thous might not be completely accurate either, but adding an extra letter to a pronoun isn’t wholesale cultural revisionism the way altering their entire taboo system is.

Kate: Exactly. All of this feels like cherry-picking the best olde bits that most match his preconceptions of Anglo-Saxon England, rather than building the world from the roots up. Which is fine, but by using the language in this way it gives such a message of ‘authenticity’ that everything that’s expressed in his shadow tongue is represented as ‘historical truth’.

And this is one of the dilemmas of creating historical fiction; what do you sacrifice because it would be misunderstood by modern audiences? What do you alter because it’s important to the story? Are these little extras like bonus Easter Eggs, or are they just a shortcut to history?

Note from Gretchen: It’s been wonderful being your Resident Linguist at The Toast! I’ve got one more (solo) article coming before The End, so for now I’ll just point out that if you’d like to keep having regular doses of linguistics in your life, I have a daily linguistics blog called All Things Linguistic as well as a monthly newsletter. You can also follow me on twitter for mostly-linguistic thoughts at unpredictable intervals.

Gretchen McCulloch is The Toast's resident linguist. She has an upcoming book about internet language and writes pop linguistics for various places. She lives in Montreal, but actually on the internet at All Things Linguistic.

Kate Wiles is Contributing Editor at History Today, a postdoc at the University of the Basque Country on the @Langchart project, and provides the Old English translations for Vikings.

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