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Mel Gibson’s Next Movie to Be Shot In Old Norse

Mel Gibson is making a Viking movie. The movie doesn’t have a title yet, but William Monahan is writing the script, and it will star Leonardo DiCaprio. Oh, and the movie will be shot entirely in period languages. That means Leonardo DiCaprio will most likely deliver his lines in Old Norse or perhaps Old English (depending on whether he’s playing a Viking or an inhabitant of a town that is being pillaged by them).

Apparently, for Gibson, the idea of making a Viking movie in Old Norse isn’t a new idea. He told Collider.com that “The very first idea I ever had about making a film…my first thought about ever being a filmmaker was when I was sixteen years old and I wanted to make a Viking movie.  And I wanted to make it in Old Norse.”

Meanwhile, on CHUD.com, he explains the rationale behind using the languages of the period for the movie:

“I want a Viking to scare you,’ he said gleefully.’I don’t want a Viking to say, [Tony Curtis style] “I’m going to die with a sword in my hand.”  I don’t want to hear that.  It pulls the rug out from under you.  I want to see somebody who I have never seen before speaking low guttural German who scares the living shit out of me coming up to my house.  What is that like?  What would that have been like?’

Some of the movie will no doubt be in Old English, but don’t expect to be able to understand any of it without subtitles. To give you an idea of how different Old English is from the language we speak today, here’s a sample from Beowulf (via Wikipedia):

Hwæt! wē Gār-Dena in geār-dagum,
þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

In the modern English we know and love, that translates to:

Listen! We have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes, of the kings of the people, in the days of yore, [and] how those princes did deeds of glory.

It will be interesting to see these ancient languages on the big screen.

Tolkien’s Beowulf Translation Coming This Spring

J.R.R. Tolkien fans and fans of Old English literature alike will get a treat this spring: Tolkien’s Beowulf translation will be published in May, according to the Guardian.

Edited by his son, Christopher Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary is due out of the 22 May. Included will be Tolkien’s translation of the epic poem, transcripts of Tolkien’s Beowulf-themed lectures from Oxford and a previously unpublished short story called “Sellic Spell,” based an Old Norse saga about Hrothgar’s family.  Be still, my geeky heart!

Tolkien was obviously fascinated by Beowulf.  The Guardian quotes him as calling it

“laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination”, saying that “the whole thing is sombre, tragic, sinister, curiously real”.

Themes and images from Beowulf appear throughout Tolkien’s work. Tolkien scholar John Garth told the Guardian that the story had

“a deep and detailed impact on what Tolkien wrote – from his earliest poem of Middle-earth, written in September 1914, right through The Hobbit with the theft of a cup from a dragon hoard, and The Lord of the Rings with the arrival at the halls of Rohan”.

Of course, when it comes to Beowulf, the real question is: How does Tolkien translate “Hwaet”? The first word in the text, “Hwaet” is an exclamation that has been translated as everything from “Listen!” to “Lo!” to the decidedly un-epic “So.”

There’s also some evidence that “Hwaet” may not have been a stand-alone interjection as it is usually treated, and that instead the famous first sentence should read something like this: “How we have heard of the might of the kings!”

There’s word yet on how Tolkien translated that tricksy opening line, but it will be interesting to see.

Is English a Scandinavian Language?

A linguistics professor at the University of Oslo has been making headlines with a controversial claim. He believes that English is, in fact, a Scandinavian language, placing it in the North Germanic language family rather the West Germanic family, where it has traditionally been placed.

The professor, Jan Terje Faarlund, explained his hypothesis in an interview with Science Daily:

“Modern English is a direct descendant of the language of Scandinavians who settled in the British Isles in the course of many centuries, before the French-speaking Normans conquered the country in 1066,” says Faarlund.

This goes against the prevailing scholarly view, which is that Modern English is a direct descendant of the Old English dialects brought to England by the Angles and the Saxons, with a hefty dose of influence from Old Norse as well as from other languages like French.

Instead of merely influencing Old English as it transformed into Middle English, Faarlund believes that Old English was almost completely replaced by the Old Norse dialects carried over the sea by waves of Scandinavian invaders in the 9th and 10th centuries. According to Faarlund, the huge gulf between Old English and Middle English exists
“because Old English quite simply died out while Scandinavian survived, albeit strongly influenced of course by Old English.”

As proof, Faarlund points to changes in both vocabulary and grammar. English undoubtedly borrowed a tremendous amount of words from Scandinavian languages. In many cases, even if there was already an Old English word for the same concept, the Scandinavian word is what we use today.

English also borrowed a striking amount of grammar and syntax from Old Norse. According to Faarlund and his team, in almost every instance where English sentence structure differs from that of other West Germanic languages, it is because the structure is Scandinavian in origin. According to Faarlund,

“The only reasonable explanation then is that English is in fact a Scandinavian language, and a continuation of the Norwegian-Danish language which was used in England during the Middle Ages.”

But is that the “only reasonable explanation?”

According to Sally Thomason at Language Log, the answer is “no.” She points out there have been a number of documented cases of one language borrowing both vocabulary and grammar from another language. She also notes that while Norse may have had all of the prestige in the Danelaw (because the Scandinavians were the ruling class), Old English had the numbers. She writes,

“After the period of Norse rule, when the former Danelaw was once again under English control, the available evidence indicates that Norse ceased to be spoken after just a few generations, about sixty years.”

So, perhaps you’re not reading a Scandinavian language right now after all.