The Oxford History of the English Language

By Lynda Mugglestone | Go to book overview

2
BEGINNINGS AND
TRANSITIONS: OLD
ENGLISH

Susan Irvine

Moððe word fræt. Me þæt þuhte
wrætlicu wyrd, þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn,
þæt se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes,
þeof in þystro, þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol. Stælgiest ne wæs 5
wihte þy gleawra, þe he þam wordum swealg.

(‘A moth devoured the words. That seemed to me a strange happening,
when I heard of that wonder, that the worm, a thief in the darkness,
swallowed up a man's speech, the glorious utterance and its firm
support. The thievish visitor was not at all the wiser for swallowing
those words.’)

THIS short but evocative poem from the Exeter Book, one of the four major extant Old English manuscripts containing poetry, provides a valuable insight into language from an Anglo-Saxon perspective. The poem, known as the ‘Book-Moth Riddle’, explores the transience of language, both spoken and written. It also acts as a sombre reminder that we rely for our knowledge of Old English on a relatively small number of manuscripts which have survived the ravages of time. More importantly perhaps, through its sophisticated wordplay on the insubstantial nature of words it reminds us that these manuscripts reflect a living spoken language which was as familiar to its speakers

-32-

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