old-english

Recently, Lorde has referred to the Moon as “brother” instead of “sister” in one of her songs, and even addressed it as “he”. Needless to say, that made me think a lot. 

In German “moon” (der Mond) is a masculine noun. A quick research confirmed that, in fact, “moon” is a masculine noun in every Germanic language, including Old Norse. 

However, English, which has lost all its case endings and levelled any difference of gender and number in nouns, seems to have somehow retained a thousand-year old perception of the Moon as being masculine. And I think that is one of the most fascinating things about people in relation to languages. It’s as if the English language never really lost its bond with the cosmic and primitive nature.

In Old English, thou (thee, thine, etc.) was singular and you was plural. But during the thirteenth century, you started to be used as a polite form of the singular - probably because people copied the French way of talking, where vous was used in that way. English then became like French, which has tu and vous both possible for singulars; and that allowed a choice. The norm was for you to be used by inferiors to superiors - such as children to parents, or servants to masters, and thou would be used in return. But thou was also used to express special intimacy, such as when addressing God. It was also used when the lower classes talked to each other. The upper classes used you to each other, as a rule, even when they were closely related.

So, when someone changes from thou to you in a conversation, or the other way round, it conveys a different pragmatic force. It will express a change of attitude, or a new emotion or mood.

— 

David Crystal, “The Language of Shakespeare” — as included in The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, Second Edition.

I found this incredibly fascinating and informative, in regards to the difference between the Old and Middle/Modern English “thou” and “you” forms.

How to Tell if You are in an Old English Poem

By Samantha Finley, originally posted on The Toast

You are a man: a worthy warrior, a hard-hearted hero, a mighty mail-warrior, a sturdy spear-bearer, a resolute retainer, an eager earl, a fierce-minded fighter, a stalwart soldier…

You deliver both insults and speeches exclusively in tight alliterative verse.

You are a pagan, and this is very sad.

You are a Christian, but in a suitably Germanic way.

You are the last survivor of your people.

No one understands your suffering.

You bury gold with your dear ones. You cover your people with earth. You conceal treasure under the ground.

Your favorite sport is ill-advised wrestling.

You drink mead from a mead-cup while sitting on a mead-bench in a mead-hall at a mead-party.

It is unclear whether you are in need of a lord or the Lord.

The case system is collapsing around your ears. Grammatical gender is disintegrating. The dual number is only for special occasions.

Most of your problems have probably been caused by prideful boasting or Vikings.

Indeed, Vikings are your most hateful enemy, but you reserve your real ire for Jewish people. Also, you have never met a Jewish person.

The grey wolf, greedy for gore, and the dark, dewy-feathered crow are waiting for the battle to end.

You are a Biblical figure, but your version of the Bible story is much cooler than the canonical one.

Your entire economy is based on gold rings, precious gifts, from your lord, the giver of treasures.

You have an encyclopedic knowledge of the local seabirds because they are your only companions.

You have a dream vision. There is absolutely no symbolism involved. The central figure of the vision tells you directly what the theological takeaway is.

Suitable prizes to claim from a battle include your enemy’s rings and other treasures. In the absence of treasure, you take an arm instead.

Your sword is either beautifully decorated or stained with blood.

You are tricked by the Vikings, which is to say they ask politely for a more advantageous position on the battlefield and you give it to them.

Your fate is inexorable.

You are geographically separated from your spouse, so you may as well sit in a hole until you can be together again.

Your name alliterates with your father’s, your brothers’, and all your immediate male relatives’.

You are the subject of a riddle. You are either genitalia or some innocuous household object. This is hilarious.

Roman ruins are the most existentially distressing things in the world to you.

Your corpse-pole is ash. Your battle-bill is iron. Your war-board is linden.

You die for your lord. This may or may not be anachronistic.

You brought your sword and chainmail shirt to a swimming contest. They came in handy.

You are doomed. Your people are doomed. Your world is doomed.

Your weapon breaks in battle. This proves to be less of a problem than it might at first seem.

Your heart, mind, and spirit only grow stronger as your comrades fall in battle. You still lose.

Whether you go to Heaven or Hell, it is ultimately due to the faults or virtues of your body, the life-house.

You use incredibly artful metaphors in your speech, but have never even heard of an analogy.

You have never run out of synonyms. If you ever run low on synonyms, you can create a new metaphor.

When you behead a man, your greatest concern is how to transport the head home. Fortunately, you planned ahead and brought a bag and a handmaiden for the purpose.

The apocalypse is coming. The apocalypse is coming. The apocalypse is coming.

Evolution of the English Language
  • Old 

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

  • Middle 

Ye seken lond and see for your wynnynges,
As wise folk ye knowen all th'estaat 
Of regnes; ye been fadres of tydynges
And tales, bothe of pees and of debaat.

  • Early Modern (early phase)

So whan the duke and his wyf were comyn unto the Kynge, by the meanes of grete lordes they were accorded bothe. The kynge lyked and loved this lady wel, and he made them grete chere oute of mesure – and desyred to have lyen by her. But she was a passyng good woman and wold not assente unto the Kyng.

  • Early Modern (later phase)

Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

You will say that it’s easier for a Dane to study English than for a Spanish-speaking person to learn English or an Englishman Spanish; but I don’t think this is true, because English is a Latin language as well as a Germanic one. At least half the English vocabulary is Latin. Remember that in English there are two words for every idea: one Saxon and one Latin. You can say ‘Holy Ghost’ or ‘Holy Spirit,’ ‘sacred’ or ‘holy.’ There’s always a slight difference, but one that’s very important for poetry, the difference between ‘dark’ and ‘obscure’ for instance, or ‘regal’ and ‘kingly,’ or ‘fraternal’ and ‘brotherly.’ In the English language almost al words representing abstract ideas come from Latin, and those for concrete ideas from Saxon, but there aren’t so many concrete ideas.
—  Jorge Luis Borges
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