The modern discipline of linguistics, especially historical linguistics, owes a lot to the rather more arcane field of philology, a subject which had its greatest flowering in the nineteenth century—the term is still used by some as a synonym for ‘historical linguistics’. Traditional philology dealt with European, Middle-Eastern and South Asian languages, aiming to trace their histories and thus reconstruct their prehistories. To do these things, it was first important to describe the oldest records of these languages in detail. This ‘basic’ descriptive work might sound straightforward, but, as any historical linguist can tell you, the messy nature of the evidence means that it’s anything but.

Let’s take English as an example. A philologist or historical linguist interested in mapping out developments that have taken place in the history of English needs to have a clear idea of what English was like at different points in time. The earliest period in which English was written is the Old English period—this covers a relatively long period of time, from as early as 600AD up to the year 1066 or so, and lots of change happened in this time. To work out what the language looked like at different points in this period and so what change happened, it’s obvious what we need to do: we need to take all our documents in Old English, order them by the dates they were written, interpret them all and describe how language is used in each.

This is much easier said than done. For one thing, ancient and medieval documents are very rarely dated—unlike in modern published books, there was no custom of writing the year of creation at the beginning of every codex. Some sorts of documents—particularly ‘charters’ and other legal documents—do have explicit dates, while others can be associated with particular historical figures. So one thing we can do is look at features of the language of just those texts which can be dated, and then try to date the others by comparison. One famous attempt to do this with Old English was the so-called Lichtenheld Test, named after the scholar who first made the relevant observation (Lichtenheld 1873). I won’t go into the drier linguistic details, but in simple terms this was built on the observation that a particular syntactic pattern of adjectives (that of ‘weak’ adjectives occurring without a determiner) occurred often in Beowulf, which was generally believed to be a very early text, and barely at all in the poetry of Cynewulf, a poet who can be confidently dated much later in the OE period. The obvious conclusion is that this pattern was possible in ‘early’ Old English, but fell out of favour over time, and so that it should be possible to date a sample of Old English by how often it uses this pattern.

It turns out that there are two problems with this. Firstly, it just doesn’t work. The test was carried out to its fullest extent by Adriaan Barnouw (Barnouw 1902), and the datings it gives for Old English poetry just don’t match any of the other evidence very well. The second problem is that it’s circular. Beowulf was at that point widely agreed to be an especially ancient poem, and many scholars still hold this view. The problem is that much of the evidence for the idea that Beowulf is a very old text comes from the ‘fact’ that its language is very archaic—but at the same time, one of our best pieces of evidence for what ‘archaic’ Old English is like is the language of Beowulf!

Nevertheless, we might still suggest that the way this odd adjectival pattern in Old English differs from text to text is best explained by assuming that its popularity fell over time, even if the evidence doesn’t fit this picture very straightforwardly. But this leads us into another challenge faced by scholars of historical languages. The clearest observation about this pattern is that it’s never used in prose texts—it only occurs in poetry. So evidently if we’re going to describe how Old English was used differently at different times, we’re also going to have to describe how it was used differently in different genres. The problem is that what texts survive from different genres is inconsistent over time—some periods are better represented in Biblical translations, some with saints’ lives, some with different sorts of poetry, some with legal charters… (Incidentally, this problem is multiplied again by the existence of different dialects from different regions). In short, given that we don’t really have enough reliably datable material of enough different genres from every period, how can we ever confidently work out why a particular writer chose a particular linguistic expression? How can we tell whether our odd adjective pattern was used more in some texts because they were composed earlier, or whether it was a feature of poetic style that some poets simply preferred?

In short, it’s a messy business. Our surviving evidence is a tiny, scattershot selection from an unknowable—but undoubtedly vastly larger—whole.

To end on a cheerful note, however, this makes it all the more exciting that we are still making real, unqualified advances in our understanding of this material. A particularly resonant recent example is put forward in Walkden (2013), dealing with the Old English word hwæt. This is famously the first word of the poem Beowulf, traditionally translated vaguely as an interjection (‘Lo!’) and more recently in Seamus Heaney’s lyrical translation and accompanying introduction as ‘So.’—in either case, a word standing outside clausal syntax used by the poet to call for the audience’s attention. Walkden shows that these are not quite right. Hwæt does actually affect clausal word order, so it must be inside the clause after all. By collecting and comparing all the times it occurs in Old English and Old Saxon, Walkden shows that hwæt introduces exclamative clauses, rather like Modern English how in ‘how cold it is today!’, or what in ‘what a wonderful piece of news that is!’

So thanks to Walkden’s research, we can now propose a new, more accurate translation of the first sentence of this most translated of texts—How much we have heard of the might of the nation-kings in the ancient times of the Spear-Danes!

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