Caedmon’s Compounding

May 25, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of languages is understanding how they grow. In order to allow for outside influence, a language must be able to change. Old English, for example, often used compounds as a way to form new meanings. While Old English did accept loan words from other languages, it also developed a system to accommodate acculturating forces. One of the techniques used in Old English was to link together two nouns or a noun plus an adjective. This practice was called compounding. (In fact, we still use this method today. A few modern-day examples are: network, snowball and punchline.)

One of the earliest poems in English (some would say the earliest), “Caedmon’s Hymn,” displays some really interesting compounds. As Christianity’s importance grew within the Old English culture, the language needed to expand and account for these new ideas. Poets and authors creatively combined words in order to achieve the desired effect.

The West Saxon version of “Caedmon’s Hymn” reads:

Nu sculon herigean           heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte             and his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder,          swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece drihten,                       or onstealde.

He ærest sceop                 eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe,                halig scyppend;
þa middangeard               moncynnes weard,
ece drihten,                       æfter teode
firum foldan,                      frea ælmihtig

Seth Lerer (of the University of California, San Diego) translates Caedmon’s song as:

Now we shall praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian,

the Creator’s might, and his mind-thought,

the works of the Glory-father: how he, each of us wonders,

the eternal Lord, established at the beginning.

He first shaped for earth’s children

heaven as a roof, the holy Creator.

Then a middle-yard, mankind’s Guardian,

the eternal Lord, established afterwards,

the earth for the people, the Lord almighty.

There are a couple of interesting things to note about this song. First, it is easy to see that the space (caesura) has dropped out. Typically, the caesura is a place to pause for breath between phrases. It may be replaced by commas or // in modern poetry. It was a form of controlling the breath, much as is commonly used in music.

Second, this poem contains a lot of repetition. Before books, the technique of repeating phrases or ideas aided memorization and reinforced the main idea. Caedmon sings of the Lord in many different ways, the “Guardian,” the “Glory-father,” and the “holy Creator” (among others). In such a short work, Caedmon has created metaphors that elaborate on the importance of God.

Furthermore, Caedmon effectively employs compounding. Lerer translates “heofonrices Weard” as “heaven-kingdom’s Guardian” - weard being the warden, and heofonrices translates to heavenly riches. The term “modgeþanc” is really interesting also. Lerer translates it as “mind-thought”, though I find that term also unclear. Others translations simply use “thought”, but that too seems to miss the term’s full meaning. Caedmon did not simply write about thought. It is possible that since alliteration is so important to the poet, he may have included modgeþanc (rather than “þanc”) simply because it added a third “m” sound to the line. The poem pays attention to rhyme and meter and alliteration just as much as it does to meaning, though, and I believe that Caedmon would have been interested in creating compounds that advanced his point, not merely stylized it. I wonder if Caedmon is getting at the idea of a thoughtfulness that accompanies creation. To me, mind-thought in modern English sounds a little too science-fictiony, reminiscent of Doublethink in 1984. Regardless of translation, however, Caedmon clearly utilizes compounding to reinforce his point.

One final compound that I want to mention is "middangeard." A similar term appears in Old Norse, Old Saxon and Old High German. It is important to note, however, that middangeard is part of a mythology in each of those cultures. In other words, Caedmon anchors Christian elements to a pre-existing mythological term to better describe God’s effect on man. Translated as “middle-yard” here, it likely means earth, but not in the sense of dirt and terrain. Rather, Caedmon chooses this term (over something like Old English “eorthe”) because it symbolizes the human middle-ground, in between heaven and hell. Just as he is not simply speaking of thought, but of thoughtfulness, Caedmon wants to invoke the spiritual space that we inhabit and the best way to do that is to co-opt a familiar term.

In using repetition, alliteration and compounds, Caedmon creates a song that gives us a sense of how language adjusts to new ideas. He embraces Christian elements by incorporating traditional elements and adding the idea of God the father or God the Guardian. He offers simple metaphors, such as heaven as a roof, to help others access the complex ideas of Christianity. God is mentioned in nearly every line in order to solidly establish the lineage and upend previous mythologies. Perhaps this song is best heard. You can listen to a choral arrangement by the University of Louisville Cardinal Singers here.

** Much of this blog draws on ideas from a lecture given by Seth Lerer through the Great Courses. Find more about “The History of the English Language” at the Great Courses website.


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