Old English Not So Old – Modern Uses of an Ancient Language


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Few of us ever stop to think of Old English anymore, unless we come across it in a movie or the occasional book. Fans of films and books like The Lord of the Rings may take the time to learn a little about the roots of English, but for the most part it’s viewed as an impractical language to learn, reserved for scholars and literature professors.

However, Old English continues to pop up in surprising places in the modern world. Language expert Mark Forsyth has just published a new book which brings to light many Old English words and their unusual meanings – and it turns out many of them may be quite useful. There are many words in other languages which have no direct single-word translation in modern English – but it also turns out there are Old English words which now have no modern equivalent. For example, ‘uthceare’ translates to ‘lying awake before dawn and worrying.’ Although it’s unlikely these words will enter back into the modern lexicon any time soon, it’s fascinating to consider that Old English people had words at their disposal that may even better describe modern feelings and thoughts than what we have available in our own dictionaries.

In more academic circles, a debate continues to rage over the meaning and origins of the word ‘mankind.’ Mankind has been used for well over a century to refer to the entire human race – and while this may cause little controversy outside of universities, there is a fierce argument going on about whether ‘mankind’ or ‘humankind’ is the right word to use. Some scholars still posit that ‘mankind’ actually refers only to men, without women, and could therefore be seen as a very sexist term.

Amongst those Old English scholars of the past, of course, is JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was the world’s foremost expert on the Old English poem, Beowulf, during his later years. The inspiration of Beowulf is easily spotted in the LOTR trilogy and The Hobbit, the feature film of which is due for release in December 2012.

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