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A dead language comes to life: Early medieval Old English in the 21st century

From films, video games and historical novels to Nordic folk bands, Old English from the early Middle Ages is experiencing a revival in the 21st century. Together with international colleagues, university lecturer Thijs Porck (LUCAS) made a book about the 'resurrection' of this dead language.

Old English in modern media

The last speaker of Old English (spoken between c. 500 and c. 1100) has been dead for almost a thousand years, yet you come across this language more and more. In recent historical TV series and video games, such as Vikings (History Channel/Netflix) and Assassin's Creed: Valhalla (Ubisoft), for example, Old English can often be heard. Books are also appearing on the market that are written entirely in (pseudo-)Old English, including the historical novel The Wake (2014) by Paul Kingsnorth and Old English translations of Alice in Wonderland (Æðelgyðe Ellendæda on Wundorlande) and Le petit prince (Be þam lytlan æþelinge). YouTube is full of Old English covers of modern pop songs (see, for example, this version of Disney's Let it go). Together with international colleagues, university lecturer Thijs Porck (LUCAS) has made a book about this phenomenon: Old English Medievalism: Reception and Recreation in the 20th and 21st Centuries (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2022).

Different perspectives on ‘new Old English’

In this new book, scholars examine the use of ‘new Old English’ in the work of modern poets, historical fiction, museums, education and film. In addition to scholars, historical fiction authors, poets and translators also have their say; the book thus offers different perspectives on Old English in the modern age. There appear to be several reasons for the reuse of Old English. For modern poets, the early medieval sounds and poetic forms are an aesthetic inspiration; for historical fiction authors, the use of Old English is a way of giving their stories a form of "historical accuracy"; elsewhere, Old English is used as a mysterious, alienating language. For example, in the 2007 film adaptation of the Old English poem Beowulf (with Angelina Jolie), the monsters speak Old English, while in the BBC/Netflix series Merlin, the magical spells are written in English from the early Middle Ages – Old English as the language of monsters and magic!

SOWULO: A Dutch Nordic folk band that sings in Old English

The reuse of Old English is not limited to the Anglo-Saxon world, the album Wurdiz by the Dutch Nordic folk band SOWULO was released a few months ago. SOWULO is the project of multi-instrumentalist Faber Horbach (known from, e.g., the film Redbad (2018) and the international band Heilung). For their inspiration, in terms of music and themes, SOWULO goes back to the early (pre-Christian) Middle Ages; the lyrics in Old English fit in nicely. For the Old English lyrics of the latest album Wurdiz, the band was helped by Porck and two students, Simon den Hertog and Lucas Gahrmann. Using dictionaries and grammars, Porck and his students set to work with the lyrics supplied by the artist: how best to express these concepts and how do you ensure that the sentences are grammatically correct? And what would this sound like? They also provided audio recordings to help with pronunciation. All of this turned out to be quite a challenge, but the result is impressive: on the new album by SOWULO, the 'dead language' Old English really comes to life:

SOWULO - Begalan

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