Old Norse and Earlier English Pronunciation

Robin Hamilton robin.hamilton2 at BTINTERNET.COM
Mon Jun 14 18:10:01 UTC 2010

I'd agree with Ron that this is entirely to the point of the list.  Amy has
raised lots of fascinating issues in her posts on this thread.

Picking up Ron's point about Wyatt, and Chaucer and the Gawain Poet, could
this be carried further?  Chaucer, read in a contemporary voice, is
intelligible, but the rhythms of his poems are completely lost; the Gawain
Poet (at least to me) is writing in what is virtually a foreign language;
but Langland, from exactly the same period, *can be read in a contemporary
voice without (too much) loss.

To which of these three writers would Old Norse correspond, for a
contemporary Icelandic speaker?


From: <ronbutters at AOL.COM>

> 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.
> Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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