Thursday, January 12, 2012

Old English: Esperanto of Dead Languages

Yeah, that one.

I've been reading and listening to Mark Atherton's Teach Yourself Complete Old English.

On the language nerd sites, I've seen a lot of talk about the wonders of Esperanto. Since it is deliberately regular and simple, it is supposed to be a great first step in to wider language learning for the monolingual.  I don't know. It sounds to me like the claims about Latin (logical) and Sanskrit (mystical), but I know zip about Esperanto so I'll stay quiet.

Anyway, I'm about two-thirds of the way through the book. And I've realized something: for native English speakers, Old English is the Esperanto of dead languages. Sure, it's not as clean and free of exceptions as Esperanto, but its core assumptions about language are the same as modern English. Here's an Old English quote taken from Atherton:
Ða Iosep wæs syxtynewintre, he heold hys fæder heord mid hys broðrum.
Ok, there are two words you aren't likely to know. Like ða and mid. So I'll give you their modern equivalents.

When Iosep wæs syxtynewintre, he heold hys fæder heord with hys broðrum.
If you are generous with the spelling, you should pretty easily see:
When Joseph was sixteen winters, he held his father's herd with his brothers.
I don't know how much easier a different language gets. Admittedly, this is pretty easy, but there's a lot of stuff like that throughout the book. Yes, there is some learning curve, because Old English relies more on case than word order to convey meaning. And some of the vocabulary is different. And word order is sometimes different in subordinate clauses. But at the end of the day, it's the same language separated by 1000 years. 

If you're looking for a first dead language to study, you could do much worse than Old English. Atherton's book is lighter on grammar than others, but for a first foray into a dead language you don't want the grammar. It's theory, and you want practice. If you want grammar talk, may I suggest this. (Oops, did I just sound like I was on an anti-grammar rant?)