This semester I’m teaching a History of the English Language course, and it’s offering no end to delights in my life. I taught a HEL course only once before, as a two-semester grad seminar, with about 10 students. My course this semester is a 400-level undergraduate class with 22 students. So this time around is very different.
Last week, we started looking at sample texts in Old English. My goal was to show students an actual text, play a recording of it to get them used to the sounds, and talk through some of the features that they noticed together, as a way to show them the continuities and discontinuities between Old and Present Day English. So I pulled out the first several sections of Wulfstan’s Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, with a facing translation (you can see the version I used here, which is not my own).
Students identified a number of features that they picked up on right away. Along the way, they commented on the tricks that reading aloud open up, like differences in the look of words, but similarities in sounds; some words that have remained relatively the same in spelling and function; and plenty of things that raise questions for those who have never delved into Old English before.
One of my favorite excursions during the class was when a student asked about the word “antecrist” (“Antichrist”) in the text. Here’s the passage, with the translation I provided:
(2) & þy hit is on worolde aa swa leng swa wyrse, & swa hit sceal nyde for folces synnan fram dæge to dæge, ær antecristes tocyme, yfelian swyþe.
(2) And therefore things in this world go ever the longer the worse, and so it must needs be that things quickly worsen, on account of people’s sinning from day to day, before the coming of Antichrist.
Off we went. This word in this text, it turns out, offers a number of interesting ways into thinking about Old English and the broader history of the language.
A primary feature that one student was quick to point out is the spelling. Considering Latin (which he studied in high school), he wondered why it’s spelled “ante” (before, as he said) and not the expected “anti” (against). I noted briefly that this had to do with dialect, but that we had more work to do before we could tackle that. Through a series of questions, I led them through the etymology of the word, from Greek to Latin, with a digression on the chi-rho, to the importation of the term into Old English as a loanword.
Tracing the roots of the word also allowed us to tackle the differences of inflectional suffixes in different languages (which we had already discussed in relation to Old English). The moves from Greek to Latin to Old English that the word took also necessitated a shift in how the word would be used in each language. Most notably, this meant dropping the Latin -us for a subject and replacing it with the necessary Old English inflectional ending. So we were staring at the -es inflection of the word, not a Latin inflection held over. That led us to figuring out what that particular inflection indicated in this grammatical instance (it’s the genitive case), and how to parse the functional grammar of something like a genitive that indicates a possessive sense.
And here’s where my student’s observation of the ante-/anti- spelling came up again. Just like the change to the inflectional ending from one language into a new system, and for each new grammatical context, the spelling also had shifted. This has to do with dialect instead of grammar.
Here’s what I argued I think happened. In this case, the word Antichrist was no longer understood as a loanword by the scribe of this text when he wrote it down. The term had become embedded in his language to the point that dialect became apparent in this instance. In other words, the originally Latin term Antichrist was, in the scribe’s mental framework, just like any other word in the Old English language at the time. Antichrist was part of his mental furniture like other vocabulary.
From this argument, what seems intriguing to me is that the scribe handled writing it down like he would any other word in his head: as it would be pronounced in his own dialect. He spelled it out, as Anglo-Saxon scribes did, as it sounded to him. And this necessitated a change from the received Latin form Antichrist to the variant here, antecrist.
This particular instance of the word antecrist, then, is a fascinating example of language for a few reasons. First, it shows how loanwords work, which is a major feature of English across the centuries. It also offers an example of dialect and phonology winning out over any notion of standard spelling, which didn’t come into play until centuries later.
Even more, the word is most compelling to me because it demonstrates how a word can be borrowed into a language, accepted into someone’s basic mental categories, and then conforms to the general uses of any linguistic feature. And this is one of the most fascinating parts about studying language as a window onto the human past.