What I Learned From Anglo-Saxon

Firstly, let me say Happy Tolkien Week friends! It has been a fun couple of days connecting on Twitter and Facebook with fellow Tolkien fans like myself, and hearing from other bloggers and educators who love to talk about old Tollers and his influence. From teachers to philologists to artists, everyone has been coming together, and it’s heartwarming to see how our community bonds over this love.

Two semesters ago, I began connecting with Tolkien in a new way than I was used to by taking “Introduction to Anglo Saxon,” and then “Beowulf in Old English” for the following semester. Other than Spanish (and a year of Latin in the 6th grade), I was not familiar with many other languages, and it had been a few years since I had taken a formal class. I immediately plunged into brand new territory- while Anglo Saxon is one of the many roots of our own English language, its alphabet and grammatical structures felt completely foreign to me. I was determined to learn it, for this was one of the language that began the young student Tolkien on his philological journey, shying away from the Classical languages that typically encompassed the Oxford literature degree. I had also heard from the Tolkien Professor in one of his podcasts that Anglo Saxon language and culture was the basis for Rohan, and the Anglo Saxon poem “The Wanderer” inspired Tolkien to write “Where Now the Horse and the Rider.” After visiting the landscape and site where Meduseld was filmed, I felt a strong desire to learn more about those roots.

The Mountains by Mt. Sunday, in New Zealand, which was used to film scenes of Rohan.
Beowulf Manuscript from the British Library

I had no idea what I was in for.

Almost immediately, I was taken back to the old ways of diagramming, conjugating, and structuring sentences from my youth. I read, I practiced, I translated, I listened to recordings and lectures, and I even created flash cards using Quizlet so that I could practice vocabulary and conjugations. However, the problem (for me) with learning a dead language is that the rules can be very fluid. Philologists and linguists studying Anglo Saxons use very old manuscripts that are crumbling, smudged, or burnt to determine the grammatical rules. That is, until another manuscript reveals a different dialect or an exception to the grammatical rules that I had studied, leaving me puzzled and confused. Anglo Saxon is a fascinating language, but I struggled to learn for a good two semesters.

Graphs that made my brain hurt

I struggled in a way that I hadn’t struggled in quite a long time. For the past decade, any class that I had taken in school or online had been aligned with my skills and interests. I also hadn’t taken any formal Spanish classes in a while- any language learning I had done recently was through immersion in talking with my in laws. I quickly remembered the anxiety and frustration that I had felt in high school when trying to memorize verb conjugations, the difference between a nominative and genitive, and then applying it to a translation. Despite my struggle, I truly enjoyed these classes, and I learned quite a few lessons, not only in the language itself but in myself as a learner and a teacher.

Lesson 1: Putting myself in the shoes of a struggling student, particularly a student who struggles to read. I was reading English, but it certainly wasn’t an English I was familiar with. I was reading aloud at times without understanding. There were times I knew the vocabulary, but I wasn’t comprehending the text. I was starting all over again at the beginning. Suddenly, I caught a glimpse of what learning was like through a student’s eyes. Imagine if I were a student who was learning English for the first time at an older age… the pressure of learning all of the rules of that language, especially when the rules don’t make sense or change on you at specific times (and then you have to remember what those times are) could be incredibly frustrating. However, that frustration led me into Lesson 2.

Lesson 2: I needed to be kind to myself. When I was in class, I found myself comparing my work to other students’. Some of these students were already proficient linguists or philologists, and the grammar rules were like second nature to them. I was on a completely different field, but I was pushing myself to be on their level of expertise. If I didn’t translate a line or pronounce a word perfectly, I would apologize to my professor or mentally kick myself. It took a while before I realized what a Sisyphean task it was. I was not a trained linguist, and I did not understand language in the same way that they did. However, I did have skills in analyzing the text once it was translated, and I was able to make connections between different translations of Beowulf as well. I learned to focus on the skills I did have rather than lamenting the skills that I did not.

Lesson 3: Tolkien really was a genius. Before these classes, I had no idea of the lengths he had to go to in order to study this language. He had to convince his professors, his mentors, and his guardian that Anglo Saxon was his passion, and that he was not going to stop until he learned the language that he loved. He had to keep convincing them when money ran out, and when the Great War broke out and he was enlisted as a Commander. He used what he learned to create his own languages, his own rules, his own vocabulary, and his own history. He completely changed Beowulf scholarship during his time as the head of Anglo Saxon at Pembroke and the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature (the American equivalent of being a department head). His famous lecture The Monsters and the Critics is the reason that we study Beowulf in schools today as a poem, as a literary text, rather than as an example of an old, crusty historical document. Critics had beaten it to death, but Tolkien revived its literary significance.

I am forever grateful for the lessons that I learned in Anglo-Saxon, not only in language building, but also in myself as a teacher. I am also grateful to the professors (Thank you Nelson and Larry) who so graciously coached me as I fumbled through my translations and encouraged me to keep trying, and I am grateful to my classmates for cheering me on and guiding me, and for showing me different perspectives in language that I had never known existed.

If you are interested in learning languages like Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, and other Germanic Philological studies, or if you are interested in Tolkien’s contribution to Philology, I highly recommend taking or auditing a course in Signum University’s Language concentration. Despite my own personal struggles, it really is fascinating and a lot of fun!