Old English vs modern Swedish via Beowulf and Heaney


Having recently taken to learning some Old English as part of my Continued Professional Development*, and hearing the sad news of Seamus Heaney’s passing, I decided to get a grip on that most famous of stories; Beowulf. I started with Heaney’s translation, which was a great work in its own right. His translation was overseen by a long-time Beowulf lecturer from Harvard, yet he was given plenty of license to stray from the stilted ‘accurate’ translations that already existed. I quite enjoyed the result.

I then turned to a bilingual Old/Modern English version and noted the differences and similarities between Heaney and Bede. The little Old English (OE) I have made it easy enough to follow along with both versions side by side, getting a feel for the varying pace, sounds and imagery evoked. While I can’t imagine Heaney’s translation ever being beaten for style and originality in our English, there’s something grittier still in the original that really plunges you into those fear-filled ages. Almost unnervingly so.

This gritty, earthy and ancient quality was part of what drew me in to the Scandinavian languages. Especially when they were compared to French and then after going over much of Tolkien’s ‘word-hoard’ in my own tongue. It seemed like we’d turned our backs on a lot of shared Germanic history with our Modern English, all for the sake of one-upmanship in Europe. All the changes made probably helped to secure English as ‘That Language’, I’m sure, but it’s fun to think of what could have been had we not severed those linguistic links so soon.

In doing all of this I noticed a few words used in OE that actually still feature in modern Swedish. These Swedish words haven’t been replaced by cheap imports like ours have. I don’t know yet how mutually intelligible OE and Old Norse were, but early indications from my armchair research suggest that they were close enough to enable Danelaw deal-makers to get by without calling on Ye Venerable Capita border-region interpreters. An interesting (scholarly) book published relatively recently on this very subject is reviewed here, and will be something I’ll be looking to get my hands on soon. In the meantime my interest in Scandi-langs saw me noting down the odd word or two that is still used in Swedish. I, as a non-native Swedish speaker, could only see a few at first. An hour or so later I noticed I’d found around 100. I thought that was about the right time to stop, given life’s other commitments… So over the course of this 3000+ line story it struck me how close the Germanic languages were at the time. Here’s an example I came across recently:

Old English: Ic sello þē þæt hors þæt mīnne wægn drægð –(lit. I [will] sell thee the horse that my wain draw’th)

Old Norse: Ek mun selja ðēr hrossit er dregr vagn mīne –(lit. I mean-to [i.e. “will”] sell thee horse-the that drags cart my)

Seems like they’d manage to sell each other their horses, then, for all the good it’ll do them. All of this is to say; I’ve made a list of words that feature in the original Beowulf that are no longer used in English, but still feature in modern Swedish. This would also extend to the other Scandinavian languages in most cases. It’s not complete, I’m sure a native could find many more, and some may be not directly linked, but it’s certainly more than I expected to see. Here they are:


OE ME Swedish
gomela aged/old gammal
ymb about om
ymbsittend surrounding omsittande?
laeg lay lag
andswaru answer svar - ansvar (responsibility)
-ig -y -ig (endings)
sorh sorrow sorg
heofod head huvud (also heafde/hafelan)
rice kingdom rike - sve-rige
healse neck hals
frægn ask fråga
sélran seldom sällan
syþðan since sedan (dutch sinds)
ætwæg away väg = way
fornam took away anamma/nehmen… closer to german
gelaérdon advised lärt = taught
guma man etc. gumman = endearment (OE gumen also)
scyldig guilty skyldig
frioð/frið peace fred/frid
gréoteþ weep/cry gråta/grät (also used in Eng: wóp)
sár wound/sore sår
hine him han
micle much/mickle mycket
bewaépned armed beväpnad
cræft strength kraft
swin boar (vild)svin
dyhttig firm duktig (superlative/praise)?
togen drawn/taken tog
manig many många
héo she hon/henne
befangen seized fängelse/fångenskap jail/confinement
gang went gå/gick
hæleþa hero hjälte
twá two två
gewrixle exchange växla (wrixlan OE)
wisse knew visste
sigoréadig victorious segerrik (sigehréðig OE)
snotera wise snottas ham…? origin of nottingham leader’s name?
scaða dmg/scathe skada
eaxl shoulder axel (skuldra)
forþan because för att (weak link)
now nu
londbúend land-dwellers landboende
raédende advisors råd(givare)
secgan said sagt/säga
healdan haunt hålla till
gewislícost certainly visserligen/visst
nither downwards neder
fród wise Frodo! Frodigt = lush/oppulent
feorran far off fjärran
ástígeð rises stig (move in/walk)
lyft air luft
dyrre dare dyra = cost/expense (våga = dare)
swá like/so så (så som = swa swa = such as)
þú you du
bearn son barn (child)
sceal must/shall ska/skall
yrra angry/irked yra = whirl/dizzy
draca dragon drake
bégen both bägge
 spræc spoke språk = language
 wisse knew visst
 onsýn appearance syn = view/åsyn = in view/opinion
 enta giants tolkien!
 discas plates diska = wash up (tallrik = plate)
 hátan name heter
 brúcan use bruk = use
 wyrd fate öde = fate
 dóm judgement döma = judge
 eorðan Earth jorden
 scearde scarred skada/ärr
daél share del = share
scamiende shamed skämmande/skamlig
forléas lost förlorad
sóð truth sooth = old truth (sanning in SW)
ealubence alebench (öl)bänk
eal ale öl
ðá when då = then
mid with med
saémra weaker sämre = worse (svag = weak)
drep struck - kill dräpa = kill/slay
lýt few lite
how hur (hur ska/hú sceal)
morgen morning morgon (mergenne  OE)
mægene strength makt
búgan bow (down) buga
fuglum birds fåglar
mod spirit mod = courage
trúwode trust/faith förtroende
snella brave snälla (endearment - kind - uncertain link)
gecéapod bought köpt
earne eagle örn
léag lied lög
dæg day dag
dýre dear dyr = expensive
cræftig powerful kraftig
stigon stepped onto stig in, step in
stig path stig

For someone who has grown up in the West Coun’ry, an area whose accent is said to have close linguistic links to a popular brand of Old English, and then spending later years in the East Midlands, formerly Mercia, Danelaw border-country (living near former Saxon and Viking strongholds), whose accent features strong Norse influences, I have always enjoyed trying to put my finger on the many linguistic and cultural North and South differences that you know are there, just under the surface, still to this day. With all of that, plus Irish family, and the Scandinavia interests, you can imagine that I took as much of a shine to the original text as I did to Heaney’s work. I suppose that might be obvious by now, though.

If you’ve read this far then I recommend you dig in, if you haven’t already! And if you have already, let me know what you think.


*Although not as useless as it might at first sound, I’m not actually noting this down as CPD :)


Thanks for reading. I do translation from French and Swedish to English, so if that's useful to you, feel free to connect and message me on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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