New Merchandise, and Why One Should Never Translate Old English with Insomnia

A popular math joke on the internet has the punch line “don’t drink and derive.” I’ve been trying to come up with a joke that would work with a similar punch line: “Don’t translate with insomnia.” No success yet. I have occasional bouts with insomnia, so when I really can’t sleep, I use my time to translate Old English for blog posts. I found out the hard way that translating store merchandise at 3am is a bad idea.

Preterit/present verbs and weak verbs of class 1 have imperative cases that end in “-e.” As I was translating “Wes smylt ond feoht forð,” I saw the subjunctive case on the charts for strong verbs, which also ends in “-e,” and immediately used it without reading closely. I also used an adjective ending with “-e,” “smylte,” and failed to see the note about the proper way to decline an adjective ending in “-e.” Shame on me. I checked my translations several times, most of them with insufficient sleep, and made the same mistake every time. Next, I put up a fabulous new shirt on CafePress that said “Wes smylte ond feohte forð.” Finally, I bought one. This experience has taught me several things:

  1. Strong verbs take the imperative with the consonant stem.
  2. Adjectives ending in “-e” decline the same way as strong nouns ending in “-e”—that is, they drop the ending vowel and decline as a regular strong adjective.
  3. CafePress customer service representatives are really nice. They let me cancel my order since it hadn’t been printed yet.

I’m still not entirely confident in my translation. Since “feohtan” is a class III strong verb, I don’t know if the imperative case has vowel mutations in the stem. In all of the examples in my books, the stem changes apply only to certain present or past tense conjugations, while an alternative from the infinitive’s stem is never given for the imperative, so I’ll accept the delusion that I’m correct.

Chances are, even if I’ve made mistakes, I won’t get caught. The number of people who are both capable of translating Old English and interested in reading what I have to say is miniscule. The invitation to correct my mistakes still stands—I don’t have the benefit of an instructor, so I’m eager to find out what I’m doing wrong—but I’ll secretly be praying that I don’t have to change the shirt again.

And…hey…new merchandise!


New Merchandise, and Why One Should Never Translate Old English with Insomnia — 4 Comments

  1. Sweet is the grammar I used to re-teach myself Anglo-Saxon when I was starting my masters, so I’m particularly fond of it. I’ve also heard good things about Quirk and Wrenn’s grammar for the Methuen Library series, though I haven’t used it myself. Both are going for a couple of dollars on Amazon.

    For readers, Sweet is again definitely the way to go. Dorothy Whitelock has revised his Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader, and it’s a really great little anthology. I kind of wish someone would revise his dictionary as well, but everyone seems content with Clark-Hall as a student dictionary.

  2. I assume you’re using Mitchell and Robinson as your grammar reference? I feel like they can be a bit confusing in their attempt not to overload grammar, and the ‘nouns and adjectives in e‘ are a case in point. You actually had it right the first time around: the nominative singular masculine of an adjective like smylte is the citation form, smylte. Mitchell and Robinson mean that for forms other than the nominative (and, for nouns, accusative) singular, you can arrive at the right inflection by dropping the ‘e’ and then treating them like normal strong nouns. If they’d have just given a full paradigm along with an explanation, things would be clearer.

    You might like to take a look at Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer for a very concise introduction that prefers giving full paradigms to confusing explanations.

    • Thank you again for your help! (It seems so obvious now that you’ve explained it…I wonder how I missed that the first time.)

      Indeed, I’m using Mitchell and Robinson for my grammar reference. I have two other grammars (An Anglo-Saxon Reader, Krapp and Kennedy, 1929/Bright’s Anglo-Saxon Reader, rev. Hulbert, 1953), but I find them both more confusing than Mitchell and Robinson. Thank you for the recommendation!

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