Episode 37: Seafarers, Poets and Traveling Minstrels

Old English poets were ‘word weavers’ who often created new words to comply with the strict requirements of Germanic poetry. In this episode, we explore the role of the traveling minstrel in Anglo-Saxon culture.  We also explore the etymology of many Modern English words related to travel.


24 thoughts on “Episode 37: Seafarers, Poets and Traveling Minstrels

  1. You say that Anglo-Saxon poets used swanrad (swanroad) and seglrad (sailroad) because they wanted a word for sea that began with “s”. What was wrong with sæ?

    • I suppose they could have used “sae” and in some cases, they did. Part of the skill of Anglo-Saxon poets was their ability to play with words to express certain ideas. So I guess it was considered more skillful and poetic to say ‘whale-road’ rather than ‘sea.’ That’s my assumption.

  2. The first stressed word in “went up the hill” is “up,” not “went.” That is, unless you imagine the reciters say “JACK and JILL // WENT up the HILL,” which nobody does. They say “JACK and JILL // went UP the HILL.” That is, in fact, what you say when you first read it at 31:28. If you want to preserve the original stress pattern, and assuming that it’s correct that the alliterative sound must come on the first stress of the second hemistich, then the line would have to be something like “JACK and JILL // did JOG the HILL.”

    Also, not to get too officious, but you won’t find many poets who endorse the notion that poetry is merely or mainly for “conveying emotion or sentiment.”

    • Hi Joshua,

      I think you have effectively deconstructed my “Jack and Jill” example. Your comments are duly noted.

      With respect to second comment about the sentiment of poetry, here is my full quote from the episode:

      “A poem was a type of word play, and when used as originally designed, it was a mnemonic device. It was a tool of the poet – just as much as the lyre itself. So once upon a time, poems had a much more practical use beyond simply conveying emotion and sentiment.”

      My point was not that ‘poets’ think of poetry as conveying emotion or sentiment, but that many ‘non-poets’ think of poetry that way. I was trying to express the idea that poetry had a much broader use and application. I think a lot of people tend to think of poetry as “Roses are red, and violets are blue…,” but it was obviously much broader and more substantial than that. So I think your comments are actually consistent with the point I was trying to make.

  3. I recently discovered this wonderful podcast and have been voraciously devouring your back-catalogue of episodes!

    Where can I find the original Old English of the poignant marginal note you quoted in modern translation at the end of this episode? (In it, the scribe was lamenting the loss of the old oral poetic tradition— and Anglo-Saxon culture in general— after the Norman conquest.)

    • That passage is usually attributed to a scribe called the Tremulous Hand because he had a shaky handwriting style. (His actual name is unknown.) I discuss the work of this scribe and this particular passage attributed to him in “Episode 102: A Medieval Glossary.” Here is the passage in Modern English and then in the original English of the scribe:

      Saint Bede was born here in Britain with us
      And he wisely translated books so that the English
      People were taught through them
      Abbot Aeflric whom we call Alcuin
      Was a writer and translated five books
      Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Numbers, Leviticus
      Through these were our people taught in English
      These people taught our people in English
      Their light was not dark but it glowed fairly
      Now is that teaching forsaken and our people lost
      And another people teaches our folk
      And many of our teachers are damned
      And that folk with them

      Sanctus Beda was iboren her on Breotone mid us
      And he wisliche bec awende thet theo Englise
      leoden thurh weren ilerde
      Aelfric abbod, the we Alquin hoteth,
      He was bocare, and the fif bec wende,
      Genesis, Exodus, Vtronomius, Numerus, Leuiticus,
      thurh theos wæren ilærde ure leoden on Englisc
      theos lærden ure leodan on Englisc,
      Nes deorc heore liht, ac hit feire glod.
      Nu is theo leore forleten, and thet folc is forloren.
      Nu bes othre leoden the lereth ure folc,
      And feole of then lortheines losiæth
      and thæt folc forth mid.

  4. I recently discovered this podcast and it is really fascinating! Thanks for putting it together.

    I have a question on the shift from p to f in Germanic languages vs the Latin in relation to ‘per.’ Specifically, what do you think the relationship between the Latin verb ‘fero,’ to bring or bear and the Grimm shift. Still has to do with movement but has the f instead of the p. Granted, its a funny verb anyway but just wondered your opinion on it. Are there some Romance words that make the ‘p’ to ‘f’ shift as well and the Germanic?


    • Despite the tempting similarities, “per” and “fero” are not cognate. “Per” is derived from the PIE root “per-“. It produced Latin “per” and (thanks to the P-to-F sound shift) it produced words like “for,” “forth,” and “further” in English.

      The Latin root “fero” was derived from the PIE root “bher-“. That root produced the word “bear” in English. There was a separate sound shift within Latin that converted the aspirated ‘bh’ sound to an ‘f’ sound in many words inherited from PIE. That’s why PIE “bher-” became Latin “fero.” That’s also why English “brother” is cognate with Latin “fraternal.”

  5. Hello Kevin!
    First of all, thank you very much for this wonderful podcast. You have at least one listener from all the way up in Sweden, who really appreciates your work 🙂
    I’ve listened again but I still can’t hear you mentioning which that translation was that you really liked of the wadsith (?) poem. That is, the one that had preserved much of the original alliteration. I’d like to read that version for myself, so who was done by?
    Thanks again!

  6. A tiny quibble on your wonderful podcast: “Chord” does not mean three or more notes played in unison. If more than one voice (or string, or other instrument) are in unison, they are sounding the same pitch. A chord by definition consists of three different pitches.

  7. First off I’d like to say I’m thoroughly enjoying every minute of this podcast. Thanks for all your work on this!

    I’m curious to know a bit more about the pronunciation of the letter “g” in the first line of Beowulf. It seems like “gar” and “geardagum” are both used to prove that the other was pronounced as a hard “g” (as in modern English “garlic”). You state that “g” in “geardagum” was almost certainly pronounced this way because “gar” was also pronounced with a hard “g” and it needed to alliterate, but in my (laughably small) bit of reading on OE, a “g” at the beginning of a word would almost certainly be pronounced as a modern English “y.” Is it possible “gar” would have been pronounced “yar,” making the Beowulf line read “Hwaet, we yardena on yeardagum” for an alliterated “y”?

    Please enlighten me! I’d love to learn something new.

    • Hi Tyler. Great question. The short answer to your question is that the hard ‘g’ sound in early Old English was spelled with the letter G, but when the sound appeared before a front vowel sound (i.e., the sounds represented by the letters E, I or Y), the sound shifted to a ‘y’ sound. That sound change occurred in the middle of the Anglo-Saxon period. So “geardagum” would have originally been pronounced with an initial ‘hard G’ sound, but the sound shifted to the ‘y’ sound over time, and “gear” produced the modern word “year.” Again that sound change was probably in place by the 10th century.

      Given that phonetic history, the word “gardene” and “geardagum” would have had the same initial sound (and the same sounds in the middle) if Beowulf was composed in the first couple of centuries of the Anglo-Saxon period. That would have satisfied the alliteration requirements of the poem. I think the overall subject matter of the poem is consistent with an early date. (I discuss that in more detail in the ‘Beowulf Deconstructed’ audiobook which I prepared.)

      Lastly, the ‘hard G’ sound never really changed when it appeared before a back vowel sound (i.e., the sound represented by letters A, O and U). So as far as I know, the “gar” in “gardene” has always been pronounced with a ‘hard G’ sound and is still pronounced that way in words like “garlic” and “garfish” which are constructed on the same root word.

      • Thanks for the reply and the explanation. I’m seeing the train of thought now. I’m realizing I was basing my guess about a possible “y” pronunciation for “gar” on “gard,” as in “Midgard,” cognate with ME “yard.” I failed to look into this in more detail though, which would have shown that while the Norse spelling was “g” + back vowel (a), the OE was “Middan-geard,” proving your point about the pronunciation as “y” only occurring before a front vowel.

        But that might raise another question. Namely, how English came to introduce front vowels to this word (and others? maybe?) in the first place where Old Norse maintained the back vowel and hard “g” pronunciation (ref Icelandic gar∂i). Was the original “g” an aspirated hybrid lending itself to both sounds, ultimately differentiated in different dialects and creating a dipthong (for some) where there used to be a back vowel? Or was it more certainly a hard “g” as we think of it today that was influenced over time by an existing dipthong (*ea* in geardagum)? If the latter, why don’t we see this dipthong in Norse languages?

        To be more concise, I think my question is this: did the dipthong create the “y” pronunciation from an earlier hard “g,” or did an existing (if latent) “y” sound create the dipthong? If this is already covered in any episodes, I’m happy to just be pointed to the right one. Thanks in advance for your thoughts and time!

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