I leapt at the chance to study Old English when the opportunity arose recently. I’m focusing on language change as part of my masters programme, and here was an exciting prospect to explore this in action in my own language.
Disclaimer: I’m a complete newbie. I’ve never studied Old English before. But I was stunned to find out how much of the grammar was oddly familiar. That’s not only because present-day English is the descendant of Old English. In fact, the unexpected boost was due to the fact that I’ve spent so much time with Modern Icelandic.
So how does knowledge of a different modern language help you learn an ancient one?
Well, the Icelandic spoken today is remarkably similar to the Old Norse of a thousand years ago. Its system of inflection is the most undisturbed of all the present-day Germanic languages. Where English, Dutch, Swedish, and even relatively conservative German lost or collapsed their grammatical case endings, Icelandic preserved their intricacy almost in its entirety.
Wind back a thousand years…
Wind back a thousand years, then, and you undo centuries and centuries of change that simplified the systems of those other languages. And at that point, at the end of the 10th Century, English was still young enough to bear a huge family resemblance to its Norse cousin.
Just look at the paradigms for house in Old English and Old Norse:
Here you see some recurring themes in these young Germanic languages. For instance, the zero ending of the plural nominative and accusative with strong neuter nouns, the -um of the dative plural and the -a of the genitive plural are all hallmarks of their shared linguistic DNA.
It doesn’t stop there. Besides noun endings, many other features are still shared by Old English and Old Norse at this point – features preserved in Modern Icelandic today. They include the difference between weak and strong adjective endings (which German also clings onto), and sibling sets of personal pronouns (including a dual number), that almost look the spitting image of each other.
Unsurprisingly, you actually don’t have to wind back too many more centuries to get to the point where this pair were the same language (perhaps another 1500 years by one reckoning).
Heavy Lifting Done!
At the simplest level, this little voyage of discovery is just a fascinating observation in its own right. It leaves you wondering just how mutually intelligible the languages still were at that point in time – could Lindisfarne monks, for example, just about make out what the Vikings were shouting at them in that strangely familiar tongue?
Beyond that, however, it also shows the incredible utility of side-stepping from one subject to another related one. So much previous experience in Icelandic can be of use when starting out in Old English. The big grammatical challenge, the heavy lifting of getting your head around case and noun inflection, is already done. Just as it is in different ways, when skipping from German to Norwegian, or from Dutch to Afrikaans, or from Icelandic to Faroese.
It’s certainly a compelling argument for building up your polyglot stash by hopping between fairly closely related languages – a much-loved technique in the community.