Digollice 36

For those who love words and enjoy exploring dictionaries, a slowly emerging Dictionary of Old English holds priceless treasure. It is coming out of the University of Toronto, which has been granted some $1.8 million to compile it.

Ammon Shea – a snapper up, it would appear, of unconsidered trifles, who is “currently writing a book on the telephone book” – lifts out a few examples for our wonder and delight:

The Dictionary of Old English has so far cataloged and defined all of the words between A and G. This represents greater progress than it might seem, since Old English has only twenty-two letters…

While it is true that this is a dead language, it has died so recently (at least compared with the dinosaurs whose fossils are perennially alluring) that the corpse is still warm.

You can see the roots and traces of our language, evident even in the words that did not quite survive until the present day. Bealofus (liable to sin) did not last into our vocabulary, having been pushed out by the upstart and Latinate peccable (we apparently do not need more than a single word for this concept). But the bealoful of yesteryear became the baleful of today, and so even though bealofus lost the evolutionary battle it still tickles the familiar to see it there.

Much has been said about how our modern English language has drawn its highbrow vocabulary, the words to describe fancy or fanciful things, from the snooty French conquerors. Likewise, the base and basic elements of our language have come from Old English, which supplied the everyday words. To my mind, we may add to these everyday words many of those that are larcenous and violent (although violent and everyday may well have been one and the same), with specimens such as cyricbryce (the act of breaking into a church) and what seems to me to be a delightful superfluity of words for breaking bones, bruising, assaulting, warring against, and otherwise doing grievous harm.

Browsing through a small section of the alphabet, I happened across gederednes, derian, gederian, gederod, deriendlic, deriendnes, derung, gedeþed, and gedigan, all of which are words that have to do with injuring, harming, or killing (with the exception of the last word, which means ‘to survive’). But lest you come away with the idea that the speakers of this language were linguistically brutish, I would draw your attention to a word that appears shortly after all of these bruising terms: digollice.

Digollice is one of those words of which any language should be proud. It is elegant yet robust, clear yet multi-faceted—a description that perhaps sounds like that of an overpriced wine, but which is apt nonetheless. Among the meanings of this single word are the following: in a manner intended to avoid public attention, stealthily or furtively, in a manner that is unnoticed, with a lack of ostentation, in hiding, secluded in monastic life, spoken in a low or soft voice, spoken with circumspection or restraint, whispering slander, relating to secret thoughts of inward affliction, obscure or requiring interpretation, and a handful of others that I’ll let you find on your own.

Small wonder that a language that is capable of producing such delicate shades of meaning as are found in digollice has evolved into the gloriously descriptive mess that is English today.

We are all expert speakers of our own language, and whether we recognize it or not, the words and meanings laid out so carefully in the Dictionary of Old English are far more innately familiar to us than are the fossilized tibia or femur of some long extinct life-form. These words are the bone structure of the language that we speak and breathe today.

Find yourself a library that has a subscription to the Dictionary of Old English, take a spell of time and wander about through this fascinating precursor to your language. Take a look at the Old English word for ‘go’ (gan), and see how much of this language from a foreign century reminds you of your own in ways you can’t quite wrap your mind around. Allow yourself to forget that you don’t speak or truly understand what you are reading, and you’ll be surprised and delighted at how much of it seeps in.

Posted under education, Miscellaneous by Jillian Becker on Friday, February 26, 2010

Tagged with , ,

This post has 36 comments.