Hwaet. We Gardena in geardagum, theodcyninga, thrym gefrunon, hu tha æthelingas ellen fremedon.
What? You don’t understand? The opening line of Beowulf is perfectly good English – at least for the Dark Ages. Even experts aren’t sure when it was written down.
But sometime between about 650 and 1000, an Anglo-Saxon scop regaled his audience with the derring-do of their ancestors. And the hero of the first English epic likely lived in the Northern Europe area surrounding Jutland, Denmark, Sweden. Some people mentioned in the poem are cited in historical records.
A prose translation of the opening line by E. Talbot Donaldson is: “Yes, we have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes’ kings in the old days – how the princes of that people did brave deeds.” I prefer a more commanding, “Hark!” to open the poem.
What was once normal English has changed over the centuries – along with the society that listened to the original and the government that organized that society.
Languages evolve through usage. Each language represents a particular world view. Changing languages reflect cultural changes.
To correct the young Bob Dylan, whose youth limited his perspective, “The Times Are Always Changing.”
For instance, the audience for Beowulf consisted of Germanic settlers who had earlier invaded and conquered post-Roman Britain, imposing their language and culture upon the native Celtic population.
That Celtic population remains the dominant genetic strand in England – as well in the more obvious Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Oxford researcher Bryan Sikes declared in Saxons, Vikings, and Celts:
“Overall, the genetic structure of the Isles is stubbornly Celtic, if by that we mean descent from people who were here before the Romans and who spoke a Celtic language. We are an ancient people, and though the Isles have been the target of invasion and opposed settlement from abroad ever since Julius Caesar first stepped on to the shingle shores of Kent [55 BCE], these have barely scratched the topsoil of our deep-rooted ancestry.”
So, the term White Anglo-Saxon Protestant [WASP] is a cultural designation, not genetic identification.
Would Beowulf be more understandable today without the Danish and Norman conquests? Those latter Vikings invaded from France, bringing their French over as the language of government and culture for about 200 years, again rearranging cultural norms throughout England.
A hundred or so years after that, Geoffrey Chaucer opens The Canterbury Tales with: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote / The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote, / And bathed every veyne in swich licour, / Of which vertu engendred is the flour;…”
With a little help, this is understandable today: “When that April with its sweet showers pierces the drought of March to the root and bathes every vein in such liquid by which power flowers are produced” … and on for another 14 lines.
Traveling to Europe as a royal emissary, Chaucer brought back French and Italian poetic styles and subject matter. Old English poetry did not rhyme, and if there were any love songs/poems, they have not survived.
Contemporary with Chaucer, but writing in another dialect, “the Pearl Poet” requires scholarly expertise to achieve understanding. His more famous masterpiece is “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” He spoke to a different audience in a different language within a different culture that was probably within 200 miles of Chaucer’s London.
London’s English prevailed, and 200 years later in the days of Shakespeare, the Bard’s 400-year-old English is understandable today with modernized spelling.
The point here – and there is one – is that English culture and its descendants have been as variable as the English language. Concurrently, it points out the futility of the GOP’s alleged “culture warriors” who think they can stop the eternal flux that rules us all.
They are truly warring against all culture since change is an integral ingredient in culture. They are disingenuous at best, hypocritical liars at worst, to claim they are trying to preserve ideal standards of an Edenic past.
Are they trying to return to the days when the Party of Lincoln was not the bastion of racism? Well, no.
Are they trying to return to the pioneer spirit that valued public education as essential to democratic principles and the well-being of the republic? No, they favor indoctrination – and want the rest of us to pay for their religious beliefs – beyond the tax breaks they already receive.
Observer of the American scene George Carlin died in 2008. But not before he had already warned us:
“‘School choice’, and the more sophisticated version, ‘parental choice,’ are code phrases that disguise the right wing’s plan to use government money to finance religious education. If you hear the word ‘voucher,’ watch out for the religious right.”
Maybe the GOP Golden Age is the Teddy Roosevelt/Taft era that busted trusts to protect individual Americans from corporate greed? Not on your life.
And TR, of course, was the first environmentalist to hold the White House. We don’t see many Republicans following that lead today.
The closest standard being promulgated by the Right today is that of the autocratic theocracies of the colonial Pilgrims and Puritans, where any who disagree are infidels, and heretics must be punished. Roger Williams refuted that fascism when it was current, and our country’s founders established a government in direct opposition to such tyranny.
According to population demographics, the U.S. today is populated by seven “generations,” each with its own heritage, representing the particular culture in which they arose.
We have the remnants of: The Greatest Generation [born 1901-1924]; The Silent Generation [1925-1945]; The Baby Boomer Generation [born 1946-1964]; Generation X [born 1965-1979]; Millennials [born 1980-1994]; Generation Z [born 1995-2012] and Gen Alpha [born 2013 – 2025].
And even these designations contain huge divisions. Those of us who witnessed the transition from “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” to “Hound Dog” and then from The Singing Nun to Motown and the British invasion have cultural references not possessed by Boomers born in the latter part of that era.
Currently, we have all of these generations manifesting their cultures on the national stage. Furthermore, when the same generation can produce William O. Douglas and Joseph McCarthy or a Bernie Sanders and a Donald Trump, the myth of homogeneity is exploded even further.
Today’s culture warriors are fighting for power, not principles. Their main goal is to distract the populace with bogus issues while they and their overlords line their coffers with ill-gotten [and often illness-causing] gains.
The main targets that culture opponents are rallying against now are our neighbors who identify as transgender. To hear the usually-wrong Right, you would think that Alexander, Attila, Genghis Khan and Napoleon were massing Roman legion-sized armies of transgender people for a panzer attack on society.
According to wisevoter, 259,680 Americans identify as transgender, a whopping one-half of 1% of the population. Horror of horrors, with .63 of 1% so identified, Oklahoma ranks 10th in the nation percentage-wise.
But these lonely folks must be punished, criminalized, discriminated against. And pay no attention to the poisonous pollution the corporations are spewing into the air and water while destroying the American Middle Class along with the planet’s viability.
Those English folk in the mead hall would have as much trouble understanding us as we do them. Furthermore, even words can change their meanings.
In seventh grade social studies, we were taught the various resources that each state “exploited,” as in “developed.” Today the verb “to exploit” has a more sinister ring to it.
“Plastic” once represented something malleable, not a brittle cheapness.
And, my favorite, is that when “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” was first uttered, “fond” meant foolish – as many a Dear John letter bears witness. [I would insert the Spanish version of this observation here, but someone might translate it literally.]
Every December, various dictionaries snag headlines with words or phrases that they claim defined the ending year. Often, they are words that have become as annoying as the earworm songs we can’t escape. Many are words emerging from specialized disciplines, from science to new art forms. And, when they arrive, the culture shifts ever so slightly.
Linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”
Those limits bump against the limits of other cultures, but none of the limits are rigid. People talk. They hear things. They add new terms. They put together things in ways different than anyone had previously considered.
Sure, there are those who claim that any borrowings are cultural appropriation. But we are one human race with many interacting cultures. Always have been.
Cultures grow, change. Or they decline. As theoretical physicist Fritjof Capra has observed, “An organism in equilibrium is dead.”