Written by Dyami Millarson
An argument for the study of Old English that may resonate with contemporary speakers of English and Scots is reconnecting with our roots. This year I am focused on the study of dead Frisian languages; a strong motivation for studying these languages is my desire to connect with what I have come to regard as my roots because all living Frisian languages are part of me now since I managed to acquire all of them by 2021 and what is left for me to do is delving into the past to seek deeper meaning and connection, which is why the study of Old English for connecting with one’s roots makes sense to me intuitively. The desire to reconnect with our roots is modern yet it is also as old as humanity.
The roots of English and Scots can be found in Old English; for Old English is the ancestor language of English and Scots. Reconnecting with our roots is ultimately an emotional affair associated with an authentic experience and consequently defining what it is exactly may be different for different people. Nevertheless, I will attempt to reach an understanding of reconnecting with our roots in this article and I will try my best not to be irreverent to whoever wishes to reconnect with their roots; the best way to understand an experience is by participating in it rather than being a bystander and that is why I continue talking in the ‘we’ form about reconnecting with our roots. Veneration of the ancestors, which is as old as humanity, is characterised by a human desire to be close to the ancestors; staying connected with the past is the essence of the human desire to be rooted. The ancestor-descendant relationship is psychologically vital for us just like the parent-child relationship.
I define reconnecting with our roots as a psychological journey on the same level with the spirit journey of the shaman; reconnecting with our roots implies getting closer to people we experience as the ancestors. Reconnecting with our roots as a psychological journey is therefore achieved by pursuing something old, pristine or ancestral that has been handed down to us; reconnecting with our roots practically means seeking to be part of something ancient that is bigger than ourselves by reclaiming something we may regard as inherited.
If Old English had not been written down, the route of achieving an authentic experience through Old English would not have been possible; the pursuit of something old, pristine or ancestral allows us to experience the comfortable or calming mysterious feeling of safely arriving home after an arduous journey. One might find a philosophical, psychological and spiritual parallel in the journey of the Greek hero Odysseus as described in Homer’s Odyssey.
The beauty of getting closer to the ancestors through Old English is that although the authentic experience we wish to obtain is magical, we cannot expect to obtain the experience magically, but we have to obtain it in the way that Odysseus got home: overcoming all challenges along the way by relying on our own hard work, intellect, and perseverance. There is no free meal, we have to make a real effort for it, and that makes the taste of success all the more special. If just anyone could get closer to the ancestors, the dangers that the shaman traverses during his spirit journey would be meaningless; when we adopt the role of students who wish to study Old English for gaining an authentic experience that connects us with or brings us into contact with the ancestral world, we are nothing less than shamans who willingly expose themselves to danger for obtaining greater wisdom.
Othin, the Lord of Vahalla and of the Asa-Gods who was known among the Anglo-Saxons as Wōden, sacrificed himself in such shamanic manner and thereby obtained wisdom. Othin’s ancient path may not be unlike our modern path. Studying an old language such as Old English can be very strenuous; the path towards achieving profound knowledge of the Old English language is riddled with obstacles that may cause pain, suffering, frustration, despair, and sadness. That path is not a gay and happy path, but that is why a strong motivation or conviction is needed for traversing it. I would not have studied all the living West Frisian, East Frisian and North Frisian languages if I had not been willing to embrace the challenges; I learned to love fate through the challenges I have experienced in my life, whilst misfortune, pain, sickness, and unhappiness have made me better and stronger.
The shaman faces these unfortunate aspects of life as opportunities for self-improvement; the acquisition of wisdom through difficult experiences is shamanic. Learning from the most troubling times of weakness, disease, and illness requires Nietzschean amor fati (love of fate); if we are to learn from what life throws at us, we have to be willing to embrace life fully and only then we are truly alive. The irony of achieving true strength and wisdom is the acceptance of our weakness and vulnerability; we are but victims of circumstances, yet we can make the most of what we are given by life and thrive in those circumstances we find ourselves in. Othin’s strength and wisdom is found in his relatable weakness and vulnerability; he distinguishes himself by accepting his doom and using that acceptance of his inescapable circumstances as motivation to make most of his life. Othin is not a superior man by virtue of just being strong and wise, but by virtue of becoming such by accepting himself fully with all his human flaws and by virtue of facing the trials of life as a weak and vulnerable man.
Othin’s superiority lies in his humanity, and thus the ancestral secret of becoming a superior man is right in front of us; honestly facing what we are is the key to becoming the best we can ever be. This self-reflection or introspection is scary, and while people fear facing themselves, they avoid the challenges that could have taught them valuable life lessons which can help them unlock their full potential as human beings. The study of all Frisian languages was a mentally taxing experience for me, but I always looked forward to the future feelings of satisfaction with the greater wisdom I could obtain; I would never have wanted to miss the Frisian languages in my life, they are part of the fate I embraced.
We may feel indebted to the ancestors thanks to the worldview we entertain or the philosophy we follow, the culture we are part of, the language we speak, the geographical place where we live, or the ethnic history we know is ours. Getting closer to the ancestors requires us to immerse ourselves in their worldview or philosophy, their language, their culture, etc. and consequently learn to understand the ancestors better.
We are lucky such an authentic experience is possible in the case of English and Scots; such immersion into the Anglo-Saxon ancestral world would not have been possible had it not been for Old English. If one totally immerses oneself in Old English and does so with the intent of becoming an Old English speaker, one can get an authentic experience that truly will open one’s eyes; if reconnecting with our roots is based on feelings derived from an authentic experience of interaction with the ancestral world, then what is more authentic than going all the way and becoming a fluent speaker of Old English?
When we reclaim the roots of English and Scots as our roots by learning to speak and write Old English fluently and thus making the language an intrinsic part of who we are, we are becoming one with the ancestral world, and that is the ultimate fulfillment of the desire inherent in reconnecting with our roots. It is a worthwhile path which can ultimately give us the greatest satisfaction if we are willing to face our demons; when we learn to speak and write a language like Old English, we will inevitably be faced with ourselves. Language-learning is an intense form of introspective meditation, and we can be the most successful if we are willing to face our greatest challenges and our greatest fears as human beings; unless we are willing to do just that, we cannot be bold and brave like the ancestral heroes.
The intuitive argument of reconnecting with our roots for the study of Old English is relevant for Old Frisian, but also for Old Norse, Old High German, Old Saxon and Old Dutch. Context matters for arguments we may construct for studying each old language. For instance, the fact that English is historically tied to Old English matters for the concept of reclaiming our roots; the same is true for the Frisian, German, Dutch and Scandinavian languages.
Speakers of descendant or cognate languages of Old Frisian can benefit from studying Old Frisian, speakers of descendant or cognate languages of Old High German can benefit from studying Old High German, and so on. English, Frisian, Dutch, German and Scandinavian people have ample reason in the modern world to study their ancestral languages, yet they should be offered the opportunity by life to do so. One of the purposes of this blog is to open people’s minds, hearts and souls to that opportunity.
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