Cur Scriptor Hoc Librum Theodisce Legerit

If you read Old English for pleasure and have ever studied modern German, you will be aware not only of the large amount of common vocabulary, but that the grammar is remarkably similar. Modern German still has 3 genders and 4 cases and a large number of strong verbs. Noun and adjective declensions are recognisably similar, as are verbal conjugations, at least in the singular. A little mental gymnastics with the High German sound shifts and you can really feel that they are fundamentally the same language. So much for modern German, but what about the older material?

I suspect that most Anglosaxonists, when they read German mediaeval texts concentrate on the Old Saxon poems, on grounds of metrical and linguistic similarity, and when reading High German skip straight to the glorious late medieval literature (e.g. Parsifal) for their reading delight. Old High German has a reputation for being mostly dry literal translations of Latin works and basically not much fun at all. A quick dip into the shorter poems (Hildebrandslied, Muspilli, Georgenlied, Ludwigslied) and then it’s back to Cynewulf and thank god the Anglosaxons had official spelling rules and everyone used the same consonants!

Not so very long ago, I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of the Althochdeutsches Lesebuch, 11th ed. 1949, by W. Braune and K. Helm, with the companion volume Althochdeutsche Grammatik, 7th ed. 1950. I subsequently discovered that I already possessed a later edition of the Grammatik (12th ed, Braune-Mitska, 1967) which has exactly the same paragraph numbering, and an Abriss Der Althochdeutschen Grammatik, 12th ed, Braune-Ebbigshaus, 1964, which is an abbreviation of the Grammatik. At the outset, I have to say that everything you could possibly need on the grammar side is in the Abriss. The only advantage of having the full Grammatik is that the Dictionary in the Lesebuch refers back to it by paragraph number.

The dictionary in the Lesebuch is rather challenging. Contractions are not separately listed and one can spend hours scratching one’s head over the meaning of a word until it finally dawns on you that the first consonant is an elided preposition! The alphabetical scheme of the dictionary is based on the Tatian spelling system, which is Old East Frankish. If a word has the misfortune to appear in Bavarian, Alemannic, a different or later variety of Frankish or, heaven forbid, Old Saxon, one has to perform a series of mental gymnastics to work out whether a word starting with ‘t’ will be found listed under d, t, or even z! This certainly puts to the test whether you paid attention during the chapters on dialects and consonant shifts, but can be extremely distracting. Every unknown stem starting with ‘l’ or ‘r’ has to be checked under ‘hl’ and ‘hr’ as well, even though most texts have already lost these combinations. The listing of verbs is also unfortunate, as all verbs are listed under the stem infinitive, regardless of their prefix. This is a shame if you can’t immediately work out the Frankish present to your Allemanic preterite and can’t rely on the prefix to narrow the search.

I eventually ferreted out the texts which interested me most – surprise surprise: the Hildebrandslied, Muspilli, Georgenlied and Ludwigslied. The funny thing was that I had much more fun with the latter two, which are rhyming verse, than I had with the alliterative verse of the former. The Georgenlied needs a good clean-up, as the spelling is diabolical (looks like it was dictated to a Frenchman, which may well be what happened!). Once you have pulled out all the stray h’s, and traipsed to the library to discover that actually we know exactly what the last verse says, because we have the original story in Greek, you realise that these verses are really quite fun. Step up and see the relics of our George, he keeps springing back to life even after they grind him to powder, wotta guy! The Ludwigslied is much better spelled and the story of God calling on Ludwig to come home quick and save his people from the maurading Northmen should tears to the eyes of any red-blooded fan of King Alfred or Ealdorman Bryhtnoth.

Before archiving my excursion into OHG, I thought I’d at least try one of the excerpts from Otfrid von Weissenburg’s Evangelienbuch, a verse translation of parts of the bible, including considerable amounts of exegesis and meditation. Guess what? It’s pretty good. The verse is quite readable and most importantly it’s all in the same dialect! Not just any dialect, either. It is the dialect of the German-speaking Franks who were politically the most important continental partners of the Anglosaxons ever since the conversion. Of all the various OHG dialects, it is also the closest to modern German from a sound-shift perspective, retaining initial ‘b’ and ‘g’. And it contains a large number of words which are present in Anglosaxon, but which eventually were superceded by newer coinages from Bavaria and Alemannia.

I ended up reading all 20 excerpts in the Lesebuch and a number from another reader I picked up (Althochdeutsche Literatur,  H.D. Schlosser ed., Fischer 1970, poor “translations”, no glossary, not recommended). And I must say that at the end I’m pleased to have done so. You certainly get some appreciation of how the guy felt when he actually finished writing the thing!

Selben Kristes stiuru         ioh sinera ginadu
bin nu zi thiu gifierit,        zi stade hiar gimierit;
Bin nu mines uuortes          gikerit heimortes
ioh uuill es duan nu enti,       mit thiu ih fuar ferienti.
Nu uuill ih thes giflizan,      then segal nitharlazan,
thaz in thes stades feste       min ruadar nu gireste.
Bin gote helphante           thero arabeito zi ente

(from Conclusio Voluminis Totius)

There are two C19th editions of the entire work available online through :  the editions of Paul Piper and of Oskar Erdmann, both with glossaries. The Erdmann edition is the better of the two. Apparently Piper’s scholarship was a little too dogmatic and he was not always right. Here is a link:

But for those who don’t want to wade into the entire work, I have a treat. I have prepared html copies of the excerpts in Braune-Helm and in the Schlosser reader, together with the Erdmann glossary accessible through an index. This means that not only can you cut and paste segments of the text and run computer analytics on it :-), but you can click directly through to the correct page of a dictionary in proper alphabetical order containing only words from Otfrid. You can find the link to them on my Resources Page.

A final word on the pious Franks from the man himself:

Gidan ist es nu redina,             thaz sie sint guate thegana,
ouh gote thiononti alle                  joh uuisduames folle.
Nu uuill ih scriban unser heil,        evangeliono deil,
so uuir nu hiar bigunnun,            in frenkisga zungun,
Thaz sie ni uuesen eino            thes selben adeilo,
ni man in iro gizungi            Kristes lob sungi,
Ioh er ouh iro uuorto            gilobot uuerde harto,
ther sie zimo holeta,            zi giloubon sinen ladota.

(from Cur Scriptor Hoc Librum Theodisce Dictaverit)

We now resume normal programming……


One comment

  1. […] fact that Otfrid of Weissenburg (you might like to read my post about him here) used the word theodiscus in his Latin preface, but invariably frenkisg in the body of the work in […]


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