Tuesday, December 11, 2007

It's a boy or a girl

I had a chance recently to go back and look over the Beowulf translation I completed a year ago. On the second day of class I was given the five or so lines ending with the memorable exclamation regarding Scyld Sheafson: "Þæt wæs god cyning" -- translated by Seamus heaney as "That was one good king."

When I got to the line I read it as "That's a good king" -- the professor just looked up at me and said "Well that doesn't help us out any." *sigh*

His contention was that because Þæt is neuter and cyning is masculine it just doesn't make sense grammatically to say that they were both referring to the same good king. His suggested translation? Something along the lines of "Thusly (he) was a good king." "That" had to serve an adverbial function not a nominative -- perhaps like that or in that way.

It made sense so I lowered my head with a quiet yessir and ceded to floor to the next trembling classmate.

Looking at my translation again it occurs to me that my first attempt might work. Think of "That's a good king" as All that behavior adds up to a good king.

Or let's look at another language.

I say of my wife 'That is my wife' and I repeat it in Spanish: 'Ésa es mi esposa.' The demonstrative agrees with the gender of the predicate nominative.

And if I use the definite article saying 'That is the best wife' my Spanish echo would say 'Ésa es la mejor esposa.'

But if I change the sentiment slightly and say 'That is a good wife' I would say it in Spanish: 'Eso es una buena esposa.' The determiner on the nominative NP constrains the demonstrative.

A possessive forces agreement:
Ésa es mi amiga.
Ése es mi padre.
Ésa es mi casa.

(I have a sense that perhaps a flippant phrase like 'that's my friend' delivered with a sigh meaning 'what more can we expect from her/him?' could take the neuter. I'll have to look into that.)

But an indefinite article is fine with the neuter demonstrative.
Eso es un padre.
Eso es una casa.
Eso es una mujer.

If we use an intensifying quantifier in English: 'That is one big house' -- the Spanish counter would be 'Ésa es una casa grande' -- The quantifier looks identical to the determiner but each functions with a distinct demonstrative.

English: That is a big dog.
Spanish: Eso es un perro grande.
English: That is one big dog.
Spanish: Ése es un perro grande.

Even tho the article forms are identical in Spanish the sharper semantic focus is evident from the demonstrative. Perhaps one≠one. (This may be further evidence that dividing determiners and quantifiers into definite and indefinite determiners is problematic.)

For the sake of analogy (but not argument) I suggest that similar constraints on agreement might work in OE. When the demonstrative might indicate an collection of behaviors or qualities more than an individual or an item a neuter can function even when equated with a masculine or feminine noun.

The line in Beowulf doesn't have an article. OE didn't have true articles. But because we have neuter þæt and not masculine se a translation into Modern English could easily be That was a good king distinct from He was a good king. If we accept this analogy we then have to reject Heaney's translation: "That was one good king."

But I'm loath to criticise any decision Seamus Heaney makes regarding poetry. He's earned his license.

(Yes--the line from the MS was cropped and reorganized to fit the space.)


  1. In the memorable words of Dean Martin, "That's amore!"

    Do you know of other cites in OE where this construction is used? Seems like a good theory, anyway.

    (Also, and BTW, are there any known grammatical errors in the OE corpus? Seems like it would be inevitable that a copyist would have dropped an ending or something, but in my limited exposure to working with medieval texts, I've never heard anyone posit a genuine error.)

    PS Nice job on inventing word wrap for the MS. :-)

  2. I recall dropping the class after witnessing that professor's rather arrogant dismissal of your quite reasonable translation--though that wasn't exactly my reason for dropping.

    I have found that teachers of ancient languages are often arrogant in this way because they cannot achieve fluency in their subject and must make up for their imperfect knowledge with pedantry.

  3. mike: I'm not sure I can think of any grammatical errors other than orthography or substitution errors. That's one of the tricky parts of basing linguistic study on the corpus.

    I know that Robert Fulk (at Indiana) has done a lot of work trying to work with the various types of errors in Beowulf as he continues to edit Klaeber’s translation. The Klaeber has a nice system of dots dashes stars green clovers and blue diamonds that mark different types of errors.

    dave: I've always appreciated that you have my back.


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