Old Norse and Earlier English Pronunciation

ronbutters at AOL.COM ronbutters at AOL.COM
Mon Jun 14 14:47:01 UTC 2010

Thanks to Amy for the information. I have removed her "OT" designation because this is clearly a linguistic topic and relates directly to issues involving the rationale for pronunciation of written texts.

Do the Icelanders give some rationale for reading 13th century texts with 21st century pronunciations? If not, then it must be so obvious to them that they do not even think of giving a rationale--any more than we see a need for giving a rationale for not reading 16th century texts (Wyatt, for example) with 16th century pronunciations, even though the actual differences might well be viewed as considerable to a philologist.

I have been told by Icelanders who are also medievalists that the early texts are linguistically quite accessible to living Icelanders. These are highly literate people, of course. But my guess is that, even though the phonological differences may seem considerable to a nonnative speaker, they seem relatively minor to an Icelander; insisting on the earlier pronunciations would seem trivial and distracting. I can't imagine teaching "Fairie Queen" and insisting on 16th century pronunciations. They probably feel the same way about classic ON literature. Moreover, given that the texts range in age from 900-1400, there is no single pronunciation set that would be completely accurate for all texts.

It does seem a bit odd that I could not imagine teaching Chaucer or "Gawain" and not insisting on authentic pronunciations. This may be in part simply tradition. But I suspect that the tradition is rooted in the native speaker perception that Chaucer spoke the equivalent of a psycholinguistically different language, whereas Shakespeare just spoke "funny" English.

Stage presentations, of course, have their own constraints: a tug of war between intelligibility and verisimilitude. Historically accurate renderings of Shakespeare would be even less intelligible.
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-----Original Message-----
From: Amy West <medievalist at W-STS.COM>
Date:         Mon, 14 Jun 2010 08:59:03
Subject:      [ADS-L] OT: Re: Old Norse (was The magistrate said "Merry")

On 6/12/10 12:00 AM, Automatic digest processor wrote:
> Date:    Fri, 11 Jun 2010 13:19:54 +0000
> From:ronbutters at AOL.COM
> Subject: Old Norse (was The magistrate said "Merry")
> Who uses Modern Icelandic pronunciation in reading Old Norse literature aloud? Maybe people who speak Modern Icelandic natively. But why would anyone else? (Of course, there is not a lot of reading aloud of Old Norse anywhere in the world, anyway.)
> Are the phonological differences really all that great? As I recall, skaldic is somewhat older than the language of the eddas and sagas.
> Chronologically, Old Norse is more comparable to Old and Middle English. Nobody reads Beowulf or Gawain or Canterbury Tales with Modern English values for the letters.

Folks who learn ON/OI during summer programs in Iceland learn it with a
modern Icelandic pron. Folks who learn it from Icleandic profs. learn it
with a modern Icelandic pron. The Viking Society for Northern Research
put out a CD to accompany its New Intro to Old Norse reader and the
readings are read aloud with a modern Ice. pron. So, more people than
you'd think, Ron.

This is all very different from what I learned long ago: my ON prof. was
a historical linguist in the German dept., and although he had studied
in Iceland also, he used the historical pron.

Yes, the prons. are verrrrry different. As different as modern English
is from Old English. The New Intro to Old Norse shows both: I believe
that's available on the Viking Society's publications Web site, so if
you poke around you can find it.

As for my rationale for continuing with the historical pron -- other
than it being what I learned -- you basically stated it, Ron. Treating
it as I would OE.

"Skaldic" refers to the skaldic poems, and they vary in date. Yes, the
sagas and eddas weren't recorded until the 1200s or 1300s, and it's in
the sagas and the Prose Edda/Snorra Edda that we have the skaldic poems
preserved. The question always arises just how closely the poems were
composed to their recording date. Some can be dated with some certainty
to 800s/900s, some are more clearly closer to the 1200s/1300s. So the
language reflected in the skaldic poems isn't always older than that of
the surrounding prose preserving them. Runic inscriptions tend to
reflect an older version of the language, but again, because there are
runic inscriptions well into the 1400s, it's not necessarily an
"archaic" language.

Enough of this tangent: thanks for making me feel less of an oddball.

---Amy West

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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