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Everything Old (English) is new again

March 29, 2007

At one end of the campus, ASU researchers are working to develop improved antidotes for chemical-based terrorist attacks.

At the other, students gather around a table to read and translate “Juliana,” a poem written in the 9th or 10th century in Old English, a language that has not been spoken since the early 12th century.

Such is the joy of a university campus. It's a mix of those who are seeking, remembering, trying to understand and creating.

The Old English Reading Group has been in existence since 1994, and is one of three language study groups that Robert Bjork started when he became director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies that year.

“The purpose for all three – Old English, Old Norse, and Medieval and Renaissance Latin – is two-fold: to foster a sense of community through the study of a shared language, and to allow students and faculty to get together informally for an hour per week without any pressure to prepare or perform and enjoy reading a text in the original,” Bjork says. “The group selects the texts to be read. No one is supposed to prepare the text beforehand (that way, no one spends more than an hour per week, not several, and this eliminates pressure), and anyone who's working on a particular text could have the whole group work on it with her or him.”

Bjork says that although all three groups still are going, the Old English and Latin groups have had the highest attendance.

“But Old Norse – usually only two or three of us – is still a mainstay,” he says. “As we gain more faculty in medieval and Renaissance studies with knowledge of other languages, I'm hoping to add more languages, such as Old French.”

Every Thursday at 3 p.m., a small but intense group gathers in a conference room in Coor Hall to read Old English poetry under the direction of Heather Maring, a visiting assistant professor of English, who will begin a tenure-track position at ASU in the fall.

This semester, the group is working its way through “Juliana,” the story of a saint whose father wants her to marry someone who is not a Christian, which is drawn from an early Christian legend. Last semester, the group read “The Wanderer,” a poem in which a retainer laments the loss of his lord and war band, and a handful of the Old English riddles.

It's slow going, but the group's members are patient. All of them are language scholars, and they love the challenge of finding meaning in the antiquated sentences and words.

Victor Para-Guinaldo, for example, who is working on a doctoral degree in historical linguistics, enjoys comparing Old English with Old Spanish.

Lynn Sims, a doctoral student in historical linguistics, is interested in how language changes.

Sims says she likes to come to the reading group to enjoy the texts as literature.

“In my own work with Old English, I typically focus on the syntactic aspects of the language and not the literary nature of the text,” she says. “I also think Heather, because of her background in the oral tradition, provides great insight into the interpretation of the material. And finally, the reading group lets me practice with pronunciation.”

So how does one learn to pronounce words in a language so far removed from today's English?

Answers Maring: “I learned to speak Old English by practicing pronunciation in class with my Old English professor (John Foley), and by listening to recordings of others speaking Old English. Compared with Modern English, Old English is not that difficult to pronounce because, with a few exceptions, each written letter corresponds to a single sound. The word ‘hwæt' at the beginning of ‘Juliana' has four letters, and each of these are pronounced, while a modern word like ‘enough' has silent letters.”

But why do they spend hours reading stories and poems in a language that grows more distant each decade?

“As we learn to read literature from any period, we improve our ability to read ourselves,” Bjork says. “Literature is complicated, embracing as it does both the expository, factual level of discourse that science communicates in, and the metaphorical, symbolic and rhetorical levels of discourse that we all inhabit and use every day.

“As we engage literature, listening to its nuances and studying its aesthetic features, we see how complex a gesture it (and language) really can be. From my point of view, then, there is no old literature. It lives from any period whenever we read it.”