Mission Impossible Leads Us Into Clover


‘Neorxnawang: Aelfric’s Flawed Anglo-Saxon Paradise’, by Sandra M. Hordis
in The Heroic Age – A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe – Issue 16 (2015)

Your mission, if you choose to accept it: diss a leading Anglo-Saxon writer on grounds of poor expression
Extra difficulty: base the argument on the use of a word that is poorly understood by modern scholars

Despite the seemingly overwhelming odds, Ms. Hordis accepts the mission. Let’s watch.

….we might turn to one rare word which appears in Aelfric’s translation three times and explore the veritable cultural battlefield which it reveals.

This should be fun.

The compound neorxnawang, conceptually translated by linguists such as Robert Simek (2007, 229) and Jacob Grimm (1882, 405) to mean everything from “Asgard” to “garden where there is perpetual change,” presents an interesting lens into the discordances of Aelfric’s translation. For the purposes of direct translation, we might closely translate the word into “garden-not-near,” acknowledging that linguists have not yet discovered the meaning of the first element of the compound.

The old make up a translation trick, eh? By the way, Simek’s name is Rudolf.

These first instances of the word neorxnawang are something of a surprise, considering what follows in the next chapter. No other word or name referring to Eden has been used yet in the text, and the two proximal references to the “garden-not-near” suggest that the Old English word is not simply an adjectival referent describing a formal place-name. Indeed, the consistency of the Old English would have us believe that it is more of a place-name in itself which has taken the place of the Latin Vulgate’s Paradise in Aelfric’s translation.

Um, yes. The fact that he uses it the first time he refers to Eden probably means that it is a normal word used to mean Paradise.

Here, within two lines and within a single quote from Eve, Aelfric uses the Latin dative plural Paradisum and returns to the Old English dative singular compound neorxnawange. In this abrupt shift from the initial Old English conceptual place-naming in Chapter 2, to the Latin form in the serpent’s dialogue, then back to the Old English compound in Eve’s quote in Chapter 3, we discover an unsteady tension and negotiation occurring between the languages of the two contending cultural idioms.

Um, so there are two words which mean Paradise, swapped for rhetorical effect. And you just said above that “the Old English word is not simply an adjectival referent”, i.e. its not conceptual place-naming. And the -um ending in Paradisum is probably dative singular, not plural. As Sweet, in his Anglo-Saxon Primer, tells us: “… the Latin endings are used somewhat loosely, the accus. ending being often extended to the other oblique cases; thus we find nom. Cȳrus, gen. Cȳres, acc. Cȳrum, dat. Cȳrum (þǣm cyninge Cȳrum)”. Underwhelming.

In a footnote, Hordis tells us that:

James Bright suggested that the first element of the word might be a conflation of the phrase ne wyrcan, meaning “no work”

Now James Bright was a serious scholar, even though Henry Sweet claimed he ripped off his Reader. Bright’s brilliant conjecture of 1913 was an improvement on the baffling attempt in his 1897 edition of the same work, where he gave us *neo-rohsna. Now neo means ‘corpse’, but rohsna means, well, it doesn’t seem to mean anything.

Hordis’ conclusion:

In the end, we do not have a clear picture of the accommodation of Anglo-Saxon thinking into a Christian translated text, nor do we see the Bible being clearly translated to suit the Anglo-Saxon. Aelfric’s purpose, surely, was to make the Bible accessible to Anglo-Saxon readers, but in exploring the shift—Mitchell and Robinson might call it a “marred” shift—of Old English to Latin and back again, we discover that Aelfric’s translation falls short of both foreignizing and domesticating consistency, thereby troubling the smooth incorporation of the text and Christianity into Anglo-Saxon thought.

The very idea that one could draw any conclusions about as complex a matter as “the accommodation of Anglo-Saxon thinking into a Christian translated text” from the use of two synonyms in different places in a single text is laughable. And one of the more important results of modern scholarship must surely be that we can’t really assume anything about a mediaeval writer’s purpose or audience, given how limited is our knowledge of the context.

A bit of etymology (the fun part):

The only take-away from this piece of fluff is the fact that the word neorxnawang is rather a mystery, and that James Bright made a valiant attempt to solve it. Anglo-Saxon religious terminology sometimes goes back to pagan terms (viz. Easter) and at other times reveals intelligent efforts to translate biblical terms into the vernacular (viz. Dryhten).  So it’s always worth the attempt to get to the bottom of them.

neorxnawang is made up of two words, neorxna and wang. Wang means ‘field, plain, land, country, place’ (Bosworth-Toller). In Old Saxon, wang means ‘meadow’ and in the Heliand, the phrase godes wang means Paradise (Braune-Helm, Althochdeutsches Lesebuch).

But what does neorxna mean? Let’s take two starting points: Bright’s conjecture (using the noun weorc instead of the verb wyrcan) and the obvious fact that the word is a noun in the genitive plural. So it breaks down as follows:

ne + weorc + s + (e)na (weak noun)
ne + weorc + sn + a (strong noun)

We need a candidate for the obviously severely reduced ‘s’ or ‘sn’. Using a search for the combinations -sn- and -sna- in the Digital Bosworth-Toller I got lucky and found two possible candidates for ‘s’ or ‘sn’:

esne  ‘servant, man, youth’
æfesen, æfesn, æbesen, æbesn, e; f. ‘a pasturage fee’, where æf– is equivalent to of– and *esen, otherwise unrecorded, is believed to mean ‘pasture’, related to modern German äsen, ‘graze at pasture’.

Neither of these is weak, so in the genitive pl. we would be looking at esna ‘servants’ with the initial e elided or *esena ‘pastures’ with both e’s elided. Now while the combination ‘land of no-work-servants’ doesn’t seem very promising, the correspondence between ‘land of no-work-pastures’ could fit well with the Anglo-Saxon idea of Paradise. ‘Land of the easy pastures’ would be the shepherd’s equivalent of the Native American ‘happy hunting grounds’.


So perhaps neorxnawang = ne + weorc + *esena + wang = ‘land of easy pastures’.

Naturally this could not have been coined by Aelfric, it must have been a traditional phrase, a little worn down by time and use. But while it doesn’t tell us much about Aelfric (pace Hordis), it might tell us something about the communication strategies of the early evangelists to the English.


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