Tom Birkett’s TLS review of Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake, “set in the aftermath of 1066, during the period of resistance to the Norman invasion,” makes it sound quirkily interesting in a linguistic way:
As the author explains, this account of invasion and insurgency is written in a “shadow tongue”, a curious imitation of Old English “intended to project a ghost image of the speech patterns of a long-dead land”. This involves limiting the protagonist’s vocabulary to words with Germanic roots for the most part, as well as reviving several Old English terms including “smearcian”, a verb meaning both “to smirk” and “to smile”, whose duality is exploited effectively to heighten the paranoia that plagues the narrator. The noun “stenc”, meaning “smell”, but surviving as “stench” is another word deployed with unsettling effect, and other less-familiar words such as “scucca”, “gebur” and “esol” are used so frequently that they present few barriers to fluent reading. This shadow language underscores our distance from the world Buccmaster describes, while recalling what Geoffrey Hill refers to as the “strange likeness” of this culture.
Since the Old English words that survive into the modern language tend to refer to the natural world and everyday objects and actions, our continuing relationship to the landscape is reinforced at a linguistic level. The limited vocabulary also gives the novel a feeling of constriction that adds enormously to the protagonist’s progressive isolation. Reading this imitative language as an Anglo-Saxonist, there were a few places where I felt the rich Old English word-hoard was done a disservice – particularly in the liberal use of “Anglo-Saxon” language of another kind – and there are other moments where the idiom is more “Merrie Olde England” than pseudo-Old English, but the “shadow tongue” is nonetheless an impressive simulation.
The review ends, “the message of this extraordinary novel is as honest and timely as it is discomforting: being waecend to the grim fate of your society doesn’t mean you can do anything to prevent it happening. Ultimately, The Wake highlights the difficulty of finding triewth in a world where comfortable certainties have been eroded and words no longer mean what you expect them to mean.” Thanks, jamessal!