On Beowulf, William Safire, Old English and the Constitution.

“Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don’t start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Last, but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.”
— William Safire

William Safire, the late columnist for the New York Times, a delightful mind and fearsome writer, described himself as a “libertarian conservative.” I have professed conservative credentials from time to time myself and have also been accused of being libertarian and rightly so. Neither label has caused me shame, nor has the moniker, “liberal.” I have held and still clutch close important beliefs from all three of those approaches to life and how it should be communally experienced.

I have often agreed with things Safire said about the world, but one of the places we have veered off mutually inclusive paths is with the subject of language. I began this blog with a semi-tongue-in-cheek quote from Safire about how one should write, and I suppose, as a continuance of his notion, how one should speak. I think Safire was interested in keeping language, especially written language, consistent within itself and within its history. And I would expect him to feel that way, given his conservative bent.

But I have a bone to pick with that notion.

Above, Safire says “Don’t and don’t and never and unqualified, and improper and avoid.” Although he semi-toys with us, Safire held an underlying belief in strict rules for English. All through school we had rules, and in the world of editing we have rules. So with all the rules we have one would think that English today might look like it did one hundred years ago, five hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, since no right-minded writer or speaker would break the rules. But that is not the case. Below I have quoted the first four lines of the epic poem, “Beowulf,” composed in Anglo-Saxon, which, in the year 800 AD was English. Below it I have given a rendition of those same four lines from an early twentieth century translation by Francis Grummere. Both are written in the English of their times. Note the difference between our ability to understand the words in terms of the English that we spoke and read twelve hundred years ago and the English we speak and read now.

THEN: Ða wæs on burgum Beowulf Scyldinga,
leof leodcyning, longe þrage
folcum gefræge (fæder ellor hwearf,
aldor of earde), oþþæt him eft onwoc

NOW: Beowulf bode in the burg of the Scyldings,
leader beloved, and long he ruled
in fame with all folk, since his father had gone
away from the world, till awoke an heir,

Beowulf is a Danish-Viking story but it has come to us in Old English, which was the Anglo-Saxon lingo of the late first millennium. About the time that Beowulf was being written in Old English, Danes and Vikings were raiding, plundering and then settling the British Isles. With them, they brought some words that we have added to our language. Words like: Mink, flounder, cog, lug, spry, nudge, wicker.

If we had obeyed all the rules for keeping Old English pure, then those words would not have been added to our panoply of utterance. English would not have changed. Our language would be poorer, in my estimation.
In 1066, William the Bastard led an invasion of England that changed the history of our language some more. French became the official language of England, and of course the number of words that came into our language was quite large. An example of some follow: Archer, bacon, embezzle, gutter, salary, venison, vicar.

A couple hundred years after William’s Norman troops pacified the Anglo-Saxons, the diplomat and poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote his famous narrative poem titled, “The Canterbury Tales.” I have included a four-line segment so you can see how much our language changed in a five hundred year period. Although Chaucer’s lines are hard to read, you can see that there are quite a number of recognizable words. Right below Chaucer I have included a translation that illuminates the full gist of his words.

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
There was a duc that highte Theseus,
Of Athenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour.

Once upon a time, as old tales tell to us,
There was a duke whose name was Theseus:
Of Athens he was lord and governor,
And in his time was such a conqueror,

You can guess where I am headed. If we listened to thinkers like William Safire, our language would still look like it did when that first monk in an English abbey wrote Beowulf in the native tongue of the land. About three hundred years after Chaucer wrote, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes composed the following words in his famous philosophical work, Leviathan.

Nature (the art whereby God hath made and governes the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal. For seeing life is but a motion of Limbs, the begining whereof is in some principall part within; why may we not say, that all Automata (Engines that move themselves by springs and wheeles as doth a watch) have an artificiall life? For what is the Heart, but a Spring; and the Nerves, but so many Strings; and the Joynts, but so many Wheeles, giving motion to the whole Body, such as was intended by the Artificer?

Again, you can see how our language changed over a three hundred year period and now, after another three-hundred-fifty years, our language has changed a lot more. Today, we have a large number of words that were not in the original Anglo-Saxon: Rodeo, raccoon, substitution, constitution. That word, “constitution,” comes from Latin, and also exists in French and very likely came to us with the Normans.

It is fascinating to me that although we have an old and famous language, one spoken world-wide, we still are subject to the necessities of time and change. What was said and written in the time of Beowulf is not how we write and speak today.

Before I quit, I want to go back to this word, “constitution.” Right now, our notion of that word as it regards our country’s “Constitution” is subject to a lot of argument regarding what it is and what it is not, what it means and does not mean, what was originally meant by its framers. I suppose I come down on this subject sort of like I do with language. Constitutions change. The meanings of words change. Times have changed. A lot of my good conservative friends believe that what the framers wrote, literally, is how the constitution should be interpreted today.

But I wonder about that. The Constitution, although it did not mention slavery, did say that Congress could not prohibit the importation of people held to service or labor. We had to fight a war to get rid of that “peculiar institution.” Yet, prior to our Civil War, no amount of argument, legislation, legal activity could get rid of slavery. So I wonder, is that the original Constitution my conservative friends want to go back to? (I think I just broke one of Safire’s grammar rules here.) Or the one that said you could not vote if you were a woman? Or the one that said you could not vote unless you were a property owner? Or the one that said that when counting population for purposes of districting congressional representation and distributing taxes that African-Americans only counted for three-fifths of a person? Are we to believe that the language we speak and write now is exactly the same language written by Franklin and Adams and Jefferson? Do the words and their intent mean the same thing now as they did then? And besides, the Constitution exists to regulate the behavior of men, and does not stand on its own above and beyond that purpose. No people…no need for a constitution. And people and their necessities change over time.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that the Constitution we had two-hundred-thirty years ago has changed, mostly for the better, and having said that, it seems evident that it is a changeable document that has modified over the years to meet the times and the trials of our country. So, to me, like language, the Constitution has evolved to match the age we live in, and is not some immovable object that cannot deal with the crises we face today, tomorrow and the next day.

1. “Beowulf, from the website http://www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~beowulf/main.html
2. Francis Grummere, , from the website: http://www.alcyone.com/max/lit/beowulf/
3. Geoffrey Chaucer, from the website: http://www.canterburytales.org/canterbury_tales.html
4. ibid
5.Thomas Hobbes, from Leviathan, http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=1451508&pageno=7

2 Replies to “On Beowulf, William Safire, Old English and the Constitution.”

  1. Is language (all language, in general) more sophisticated today than it was 200 or 1200 yrs ago? More complexly organized, using more specific words? The words have obviously changed to account for changes in the world; new products, new governments, new concepts need new descriptors, new identifiers, new labels. Is it just the words that have changed or also how we use them? Meanings of words have changed, too. “Cool” will mean something different to an 1860’s storekeeper than it would to a 1960’s teenager, perhaps. Words and language, their history and use is fascinating.

    1. I doubt that language is any more sophisticated, relative to our era, than it has ever been, I think we have a lot more words to deal with a lot more things and ideas. 350 years hence, our lingo will be different and they will probably shake their heads at the primitive nature of our language, and other things. The meanings of words do change and getting specific, what was said in a document 250 years past might be a little different in meaning although the words may be the same. But we have difficulty right now with the meaning of words. What does the word dierctmean: to organize, to manage, to administer, to regulate, to give authoritative instructions to, to serve on a board of directors, to guide, to point, to channel, to aim, to direct a play, to proceed on an unbroken line from one point to another. This is just a smattering of meanings for that word, and over time what a word as written implies might change due to cultural influences, economic influences, all kinds of influences.

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