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Hærvest of Trēow-lufu
Hana Videen ’07 finds her passion on-lūcan (unlocking) the mysteries of Old English
Hana Videen ’07 treasures words. In fact, she loves them so much that the unusual term in the title of her 2022 book, The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English, means “treasure chest of words.”
“It refers to the stockpile of words and phrases that poets used when composing poetry,” says Videen, who earned a doctorate in medieval English literature from King’s College London. “I love the idea of having a personal hoard of words you can draw on.”
She is quick to note that the word on-lūcan (unlocking) often appears in ancient texts next to the word wordhord. “That’s what I want my book to do: unlock my personal set of favorite Old English words that I want to share with other people.”
Reviewers were quick to deliver praise that was sunwlitigost (most beautiful with sunshine). “Well researched and cannily written, this smart survey makes the old feel new,” Publishers Weekly declared. The Wall Street Journal said of Videen, “The pleasure she takes in her subject is infectious.”
A Toronto-based freelance writer, Videen sees her book as more like an old photo album than a language primer. “Old English words are familiar but also strange, like seeing pictures of your parents as children,” she writes.
Since 2013, she has made it her life’s mission to share Old English. As @OEWordhord, she posts a word a day on Twitter, where she has nearly 28,000 followers. She is equally active on Instagram, Facebook, and Patreon.
Her passion for the field began during the first semester of her first year at Smith. “She was an unusually eager and proactive student,” recalls Craig Davis, professor of English language and literature. “From the very beginning, she showed an unusual attention to linguistic detail and grammatical precision.”
Studying Old English requires Videen to have the patience of a sanct (saint), the courage of an eorl (warrior), and the willingness to walk a ranc-stræt (bold road). Commonly confused with Shakespeare (Early Modern English), Old English defies easy comprehension. Consider “Hwæt we gar-dena in geardagum þeodcyninga †rym gefrunon hu ∂a æþelingas ellen fremedon.” Translation: “So! We have heard about the glory of the Spear-Danes’ great kings in days gone by, how those noble men performed brave deeds.”
Videen credits Smith with sparking her interest in the language of Beowulf. (The above are its opening lines.) As a first-year student, she attended a foreign languages information session thinking she might continue her study of Japanese. Instead, she found herself held rapt by a presentation about Old English given by Davis.
“I was really intrigued that my mother tongue could be considered a foreign language,” Videen says. She immediately signed up for Davis’ Old English grammar and vocabulary class and studied under him throughout her time at Smith. “The way he taught piqued my interest,” she adds, “because he would constantly go off on tangents about what different words said about their times.”
Spoken from about 500 to 1100 CE, Old English poses challenges as beastly as Grendel (Beowulf’s monster): It has different vowel sounds, uses no punctuation, has inflections (differing word endings), and places words out of modern order.
Writers also tossed in runes, pre-Roman letters like ƿ (wynn) that has a sound (w) and a meaning (joy). To top it off, three archaic letters—ash ǣ, thorn þ, and eth ð—add another layer of difficulty. In a starting linguistic revelation, it occurred to Videen that no one ever said “ye olde.” Our word "the" comes from thors and eth, which were pronounced th-, but pages from early printing presses make us think the word “ye” existed because medieval printers used Y’s instead of the extinct letters.
To the uninitiated, reading Old English can make one feel possessed by dēfol-sēocnes (devil-sickness) or perhaps even beset by ælf-sogeþa (elf disease). But many words, such as bliss, cat, dust, God, hand, snot, and wit, have kept both their spellings and meanings, while others, like æg (egg), beor (beer), ear-finger (pinky), englisc (English), hærvest (harvest), heort-lufe (heart love), leornung (learning), and leo (lion), are easily puzzled out.
Part of Videen’s fascination with Old English comes from her delight in trying to tease out meanings of words that have vanished. For example, the ancient word for paradise, neorxnawang (NEH-ork-snah-WAHNG), has long stumped scholars.
“Why is it neorxnawang?” Videen asks. “Would people at the time have known why it was neorxnawang, or would they have been so far removed from when it became a word that it wouldn’t have meant anything in particular?” One authority, she says, believes it meant “place of no work.”
Then there’s the mysterious ælf-sogeþa. “We don’t know to what degree people believed in literal elves or what those elves were. So, ælf-sogeþa is presumably a disease you get from them, but it also could have been a way of explaining something you can’t explain. Whether people believed small magical people existed, no one knows,” she says.
Videen finds the word ælf-scyne (elf-shining) equally baffling. It means “radiant” or as beautiful as an elf. “If elves are responsible for doing bad things, why would elf elements be in a positive word?” Videen asks. “Maybe if you’re going to be beautiful, you might as well be supernaturally beautiful. Maybe it’s about the power behind the word ælf.”
While Old English presents mysteries, it also reveals that people’s wants and fears have remained the same across centuries. A millennium before Facebook, people decided to un-wine (un-friend) acquaintances. They moped with ofer-lufu (excessive love) but also knew trēow-lufu (true love). Yet at an un-tīma (bad time), perhaps during un-weder (bad weather), they experienced ūht-cearu (predawn anxiety). “That’s a word I can relate to very well,” Videen says.
Her next book, The Deorhord: An Old English Bestiary, is set to be published in November. She wrote it while bearn-ēacnod (pregnant) with her first cild (child). “This book developed along with my child, who also had a strong permanent deadline,” she says.
Deorhord celebrates every creature from the lowly wyrm (worm) and gærs-hoppa (grasshopper) to moon-heads and teeth-tyrants, whose identities baffle scholars. The fiery fēnix (phoenix) and fearful lyft-floga (air-flier: dragon) win Videen’s scrutiny too. The scaly monster got its bad reputation because it sat on its wealth of gold. No wonder Videen advises, “Always share your hoard.”
Freelance writer George Spencer is a former executive editor of the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine.
This article appears in the Spring 2023 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.