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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You’ll find no argument from me. In younger years I could read Old English, and write a little. I did that for the same reason I’ve learned to read Middle English, and use Plain English in Runic devotions. I’ve held onto a scant tad bit of OE vocabulary. Still, your argument is stirring. And it’s been on my mind. What would you recommend for a beginner in attaining a degree of conversant fluency?
Also, as an aside, do you have an informed opinion on the app “Duolingo?” I use it for Danish and have used it for German, as well as flirting with other languages. It seems to me the app is good for building vocabulary and comprehension but I reckon makes a poor substitute for speaking partners.
P.S. the band Corvus Corax has some songs in Old English, as does I believe Leave’sEyes. Both of which are good bands, I think. I’d also like to ask you about the English-Scots connection, if you ever have time or will. Thanks.
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Excellent questions and interesting topics!
You might make a list of basic items in your environment as well as a list of basic verbs, adverbs and adjectives you use on a daily basis. Then find their equivalents in Old English and finally learn them by heart. Really, the first step to reaching fluency in Old English is building your vocabulary.
Try reaching a working vocabulary of some 1000 Old English words. The most important is to identify basic words. Being good at identifying what is relevant to you at this basic level drastically increases your efficiency as well as chances of success. To know what is relevant, you should train your ability to recognise what is irrelevant. Most of the information you encounter about Old English is not relevant to you right now if your goal is to be able to express yourself in Old English with simple sentences.
Vocabulary you should consider is animals, colours, people (family, friends, professionals), celestial bodies, bodies of water, trees & flowers, language, etc. You should develop the following basic skills: describing yourself, describing your immediate environment, describing your family, describing speech (word, language, voice, tongue), interacting with others by reaching consensus, asking for opinion or verifying comprehension (“do you agree,” “what did you say?”, “do you agree?”, “can I ask you about….?”, “what do you think?”, “did you hear what I said?”, “do you understand what I mean?”), making basic wishes or requests, etc.
As for Duolingo, I will soon write a review of a similar type of app. Such apps are vocabulary builders as you correctly noticed. They are useful for one of my least favourite strategies for learning a language: brute-forcing. Basically, when all other strategies fail for whatever reason, you can always brute-force your way to mastering a language. The only reason brute force might not work is if you are not applying enough of it. Brute force is a dumb strategy, but at least it always works.
I am not a fan of such a low-efficiency strategy, because I know of much more better ways to learn languages: I know what vocabulary to select for learning a language and what words I can safely ignore. Only about 900 words are really needed in daily life. Basically, what I recommended for Old English is a high-efficiency strategy. You could technically brute-force your way to mastering Old English, but chances are high you will waste too much time and energy. The disadvantage, however, of using my high-efficiency strategy is that you need to have a highly developed ability to detect what is (ir)relevant. You do not need that for the brute-force strategy.
On the one hand, my favourite method might lead to decision fatigue as a result of requiring you to constantly decide during your Old English study sessions what is (ir)relevant. On the other hand, the brute force strategy, which is extremely low in efficiency as previously explained, might waste loads of your energy without any clear end result in sight.
I do use the brute-forcing strategy sparingly, yet I do use it sometimes when I have no desire to apply any intelligence to my learning process. Being a ‘dumb’ learner can lead to good results, but it may really take a lot of energy that could have been used much more efficiently.
The high-efficiency strategy that I usually employ is the best response to the fact that we are creatures with limited energy and time. If we had unlimited energy and time, brute-forcing might make much more sense as a standard strategy, because why apply intelligence if we have unlimited time and energy anyway?
What would you like to know about the English-Scots relationship?
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Anything you want to tell me. But my curiosities lie with ethnography and etymology. You’ve struck up a linguistic connection. In the books I’ve read, one of which might interest you: https://spergbox.files.wordpress.com/2022/01/img_20220116_093348284.jpg?w=768, the assumption is that the Scots are interchangeable with the English. At some point this assumption seems to have changed, with the Scot seemingly more associated with his Celtic compatriots from The Isles. I have Scotch-American friends who resent the allegation and prefer to embrace all things Celtic. Anywho.
Thank you for the tips. This makes sense. I suppose this would not be altogether different from striking up Plainspeak as opposed to standard American or British (or whatever) English.
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There is really too much to say about the English-Scots connection. Consequently, we have to narrow it down. If you can compile a list of specific questions you are curious about, I can come up with specific answers. I might even dedicate a few blog articles to the topic if that seems appropriate for answering the questions.
I looked that title up and found it is freely available in Google Books:
Historically speaking, Scots live in geographic proximity to Celtic-seaking people and so it is natural there would be some cross-influence. Scots speakers traditionally know their environment well and their close interaction with their environment is what influenced the linguistic development of Scots.
Various Frisian peoples, who live in close geographical proximity to Low Saxon-speaking people for the most part, also interacted with their unique environment and this gave unique local features to each Frisian language. They developed their own innovations which could be peculiar words or grammatical or phonetic quirks, came up with new concepts for describing their environment if they had not already inherited them and they adopted useful concepts from their neighouring peoples as well as randomly adopted interesting sounds and words and grammatical patterns from their neighbours. It was a mix of having their own unique developments and making others’ developments their own, for which they had different strategies. Even this is true for Icelandic, which developed its own unique quirks and also learned from outsiders and adopted novel foreign concepts in its own unique way, which is something we often see among Frisian peoples too, who do certainly not lack creativity.
We see a great deal of creativity in Scots as well. Scots has many interesting linguistic quirks. And of course all the other things I said about Frisian are true for Scots as well. Scots, like Frisian, has been strongly influenced by its geographical and historical situation. I really had fun learning Scots last year. I saw many parallels with Frisian as well. Scots, thanks to its linguistic conservatism, is relatively closer to the Frisian languages than English. Both English and Scots belong to the Anglic languages, which means they are genetically closely related. Obviously, the closest to Frisian languages are other Frisian languages and likewise, the closest to Anglic languages are other Anglic languages. Nevertheless, Anglic and Frisian are closely related. In modern times, one may find common features between Anglic and Frisian languages that one will have a hard time finding elsewhere, especially considering the high density of such common features.
One geographical factor to take into account is that Frisians traditionally inhabit the North Sea coasts near or of the European continent and that many Frisians were sea-faring and had an adventurous mind-set like the English, and this made contact between Anglic and Frisian a stable and constant reality throughout the ages. While other peoples were more oriented towards land-based economic opportunities on the European continent, Frisians were more oriented towards sea-based economic opportunities that carried them further from home. (Of course, I will not ignore in my analysis that speakers of Low Saxon and Low German languages have also been living in coastal areas along with the Frisians and were also sea-faring peoples to varying degrees. It does, however, appear that the Frisians generally had easier access to the seas as they often inhabited the islands and lived directly by the sea for the most part.)
I am very interested in the present situation – particularly the degree of linguistic conservatism and linguist innovation – of Old Saxon-derived languages and Old Frisian-derived languages: It appears that Old Saxon may at one time have been more like Old Frisian (I am still planning to study this topic in greater depth), but it gradually became more like the languages of the continent, whereas it seems Frisian retained its unique features better (nevertheless, some Low Saxon languages, such as Groningian Low Saxon and East Frisian Low Saxon which I studied, can be classified as Friso-Saxon due to their Frisian features, which complicates the overall picture), which is something I can judge better when I have studied the Low Saxon and Low German languages more extensively to get a fuller picture, and I am working on just that.
I am careful to pass judgement on this matter, it is possible that I am more careful than others, I have certainly no appetite for blindly following whatever others say (and I will most definitely not copy whatever Wikipedia says), because I want to think for myself and I want to see everything for myself, I am someone who likes to fact-check everything (hence, even though I am quite familiar with what others are claiming, I won’t be blindly quoting whatever others say and I will simply empty my mind as if they never said those things since I do not want it to influence my research: original research is needed for verification of old facts and for discovery of new facts), I want to be absolutely certain while I am very critical and I am open to new discoveries, so I am very eager to learn more than what I already know. Additionally, I like making discoveries on my own and I do not care whether others have arrived at the same conclusions, but what I care about is challenging myself and keeping my own mind sharp by not relying on others for my findings; I only wish to be able to do and achieve things on my own.
However, I believe I know enough to humbly share a little on this topic, I am fairly certain that what I said about the relationship between the Old Saxon-derived and Old Frisian-derived languages is more or less accurate, though deeper analysis is in order and therefore I should learn Low Saxon and Low German languages diligently. Anyway, all scientific reservations of mine aside as you know by now that I am keeping an open mind to all possibilities while I just want to know the truth: If the Old Frisian-derived languages retained their original English-like features better than the Old Saxon-derived languages, it may probably have to do with the more continental focus of the communities who spoke languages descended from Old Saxon, while the communities who spoke languages descended from Old Frisian had a more maritime focus which effectively isolated the Frisians more from the continent, which is a cultural and linguistic reality not lost on the Frisians, who feel close affinity with the Anglic speakers due to them being a similar sea-faring nation that is not as focused on the European continent either.
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That’s all very fascinating. I’ve probably said it before but I have a copy of the Oera Linda book which I adored reading. Mine was a dual language edition – I could intuit a small amount of the Friesian, although I imagine being (very roughly) acquainted with German and Danish as well as (extremely roughly) with Old English and Dutch gave me something of a panel of lucky guesses.
I was always under the potentially mistaken impression that Scots had English imposed upon them when my ancestors did England. However, looking through different articles and books, it seems Scots-English had a parallel evolution to English… English. An example, the last book I read is called “The Witch Cult in Western Europe.” A predominant feature of the book is her citing primary source documents and offering no translation. I can read Middle English, but there seemed to be stark variances between the English of say, London or Anglia, and that of Scotland. Scots retained a high volume of terms that English did not, etc.
For a Yankee it’s a curiosity. In Maine where I live, the Scottish are seen as the pinnacles of Celtic-dom, but it’s almost easy to see Scots as an extension of the Anglosphere.
Does Lowland vs. Highland Scottish make an impact on the concentration of English to Celtic influence? And supposing you give equal credence to Celtic influence, is Scots or Irish Gaelic closer in structure to Gaulish or proto-Gaelic or what-have-you?
Bit of a brain dump, but as you might expect, I’ve not a long line of people in my life who want to talk to me about these sorts of things. My chunk of Maine is not well known for breeding antiquarians, although, in this day in age, antiquarians are becoming – forgive me- antiquated.
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Now that is really interesting as I had assumed the Scots language had come from Irish…… that both Scottish and English languages may have come from a similar source has never come to mind!
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I really liked reading this. Connections my brain made:
1. I’ve been exploring ways to better understand my history/ancestors and have wanted to find a connection that is pre-feudal/royal/colonial system (not sure if those are all different at the moment, it’s been a while since I last was researching) and had not thought about the link of language.
2. I also really appreciate the comment and response above – it gives me some ideas to seek out and try.
3. I was thinking of a north american indigenous language I stumbled down the rabbit hole of a couple months ago + oral histories — in this case it started with 1 family who was carrying, reviving it, but they had grown to 4 or 5 generations of that family, a couple generations of small classes, publishing a dictionary and catching younger and younger members to bake that ‘culture sauce’ in earlier. It reminds me of the work shared here, and what benefits there might be if more groups like this were connected, even if they are/appear very different.
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Such connections are inspiring!
1. Language is definitely not to be overlooked in the adventure of finding oneself and one’s roots. It is but my humble wish that my article genuinely help (English subjunctive, not an error) people develop their own understanding of this. Language is too important in our life’s journey, it would be a missed opportunity not to try including it in one way or another.
2. You are welcome to ask anything with regards to language-learning here, I am happy to share my thoughts.
3. Do you still happen to know which language it was?
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1. Ooh this brought up some really distant connections — I’ve been learning about different communication styles & ways we learn/acquire language (analytic vs. gestalt language processing)
2. Much appreciated! I think my curiosity is pointing toward getting my bearings and learning or connecting a bit of context (history, definitions, locations maybe?) for terms frequently seen here – old english, anglo saxon, germanic languages, etc.
3. It took me some digging, but I knew I’d want to re-find it – it’s Wukchumi. I had found this amazing mixed-media journal piece on it –> https://emergencemagazine.org/feature/language-keepers/#/chapter/wukchumni
but that’s actually 1 chapter of a larger project Emergence Magazine did called ‘Language Keepers’ that I was spellbound with (and that’s with more chapters yet to explore) –> https://emergencemagazine.org/feature/language-keepers/#/chapter/introduction
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There is a saying that old is gold hence the process you have undertaken proves this very point and hope you achieve it with great heights.
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It is a beautiful English saying that fits the article perfectly, thank you for bringing it up! 😊
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What are the Frisian languages? I’ve never heard that word before.
It’s one thing to study up on Old English but the real challenge would be to find others to converse it with.
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That depends on how one goes about it. If done with the aim of being able to speak and write it, then studying Old English can be synonymous with the process of acquiring the skill of being able to speak and write Old English.
I would welcome a real life example.
There are people to speak OE with, just not that many yet. However, that is a matter of time. I am myself open to teaching new speakers.