Beowulf Antedated.

Last year Karen Schousboe had a very lively review at Medieval Histories of what sounds like a controversial book, Beowulfkvädet. Den nordiska bakgrunden [The lay of Beowulf: The Nordic background], by Bo Gräslund. It begins:

In the 1980s a scandal broke out in Toronto. No longer a venerated poem of the Dark Ages, Beowulf was dated to the turn of the millennium and characterised as a very late Anglo-Saxon pastiche. Although metrical, linguistic, and palaeographic evidence was brought forward to staunch the postmodern erudition flowing from the medievalists – who had drunk from the poisoned chalice of Derrida, Baudelaire, and Kristeva – the standard bearers from Toronto nevertheless succeeded in banning the use of the text by historians and archaeologists. Under pain of shunning, students might no longer “use” the beautiful verses to illuminate the murky mead-hall.

Later, hard-core linguists were luckily able to turn the tide and reclaim the poem from this literary evisceration. Nevertheless, challenges have continued to mar the understanding of the epos and the cultural crucible, in which it was forged. Finally, this summer, a magisterial and erudite analysis by the archaeologist, Bo Gräslund, was published in Sweden outlining the material world and a probable background for the text.

Let it be said initially. Bo Gräslund is the grand old man of Swedish Archaeology. He has worked at the National Museum in Stockholm as well as taught as a professor at the University in Uppsala. Apart from this, he has served as head of the Royal Academy of History and Antiquity, the Royal Gustavus Adolphus Academy, Royal Society of Arts and Sciences of Uppsala and several other august academies. To this should be added a very long list of publications. In his later years he has been occupied with outlining the events in the 6th century leading up to and following the climatic crisis AD 536 – 550. It is as part of this project, the study of Beowulf has been undertaken. Thus, Gräslund is not a perky young fellow with a fixed idea running wild on the fringes of the academic scene. He arrives at the scene with a solid ballast.

Further, the book is softly written, courteously and mildly. Yet, it delivers a decisive blow to the last 200 years debate and adds some well-argued propositions and hypotheses as to the what, where, when, and how of the Beowulf.

While I greatly enjoy that kind of take-no-prisoners review, I have to admit I trust it less than I would a boring, on-the-one-hand-on-the-other analysis; does anybody know enough about this to provide another perspective? At any rate, here’s a bit of linguistic argument:

In the second part of the book, Gräslund discusses the ethnonyms in the poem and argues that the main group, to which Beowulf belongs – the Geats – in all likelihood came from Gotland. Seafaring islanders, known also as wederas, the latter epithet has been consistently translated as wind, weather, or storm. However, much more likely, writes Gräslund convincingly, the prefix in weder-geatas refers to Proto-Germanic wedrą, meaning ram – Old English weder, Old High German wetar, Old Norse veðr etc. It so happens, that rams were significant symbols of the people from Gotland, as witnessed in documents, sagas, and in the official seal.

Gräslund concludes that “the poem was composed in a volatile and dangerous situation in the mid-sixth century.” (Incidentally, we discussed its first word back in 2013.) Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Trond Engen says

    Thanks. Very interesting! Bo Gräslund is the archaeologist who for many years fought for the recognition of the fimbulvetr of 536-ca. 543, which we started discussing in the “Urchin” thread last year. I also thought we’d been discussing the parallels between Beowulf and Scandinavian stories set in the same era, and that I had flouted a speculation about the massacre at Sandby borg and events in Ynglingatal, but I can’t find that now.

    Edit: Fixed and replaced a couple of links.

  2. On the face of it, it does not sound like there’s any conflict between the story material of Beowulf originating in, and referring to, 6th-century Scandinavia and the composition of the poem as we have it in writing any time from 8th- to early 11th-c. England. Indeed, it is generally accepted that the poem contains material formed in the oral tradition centuries before the Christian Anglo-Saxon context in which it was composed in the form we have it. The review suggests that the material evidence could as easily be used to argue for a late (i.e. Viking Age) date, closer to the date of the manuscript, when the Scandinavian artifacts that interest Gräslund are (again) known in England. A less annoyingly tendentious review would be helpful. I have not found a review of the book in English by someone who actually knows what s/he’s talking about, but if anyone finds one, please let us know.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    Seems rather unfair to poor Baudelaire to dump him in the same chalice as the other two names singled out for disapprobation?

  4. Yes, surely Baudelaire is a brain-fart for someone else — Pierre Bourdieu? Judith Butler?

  5. Baudrillard, I would guess. Another of the big French thinkers of big French thoughts that I know nothing about.

  6. Ah yes, Baudrillard it must be. I get them all confused.

  7. I’m pretty sure the only book by Baudrillard I’ve read all the way through was given me as a present 30+ years ago by a young lady with whom I had been romantically entangled. Perhaps those whose romantic lives during the 1980’s were on a different trajectory than mine received different books as a consequence?

  8. Well, Tolkien said in his 1936 talk/essay: “I accept without argument throughout [the paper] the attribution of Beowulf to the ‘age of Bede’ — one of the firmer conclusions of a department of research most clearly serviceable to criticism: inquiry into the probable date of of the effective composition of the poem as we have it.” And after eight decades of debate back and forth, so indeed it seems to be. Though Tolkien did not have access to the evidence of the “hard-core linguists”, he was a hard-core linguist himself, and I can well imagine him saying “Well, of course!” when confronted with it.

    To be sure there are still differences. Gräslund thinks Beowulf is a pagan poem with a Christian glaze, whereas Tolkien thought it was a Christian telling of a pagan tale, later touched up by a post-Viking poet, who Tolkien believed to be Cynewulf.

  9. I am a bit confused how Beowulf could have been dated to the turn of the millennium if the language it is written in is significantly different from late stage of Anglo-Saxon.

  10. those whose romantic lives during the 1980’s were on a different trajectory than mine received different books as a consequence

    Benjamin. Tossing-in some Frankfurters helped any argument back then.

  11. Michael Drout the philologist has a summary of the arguments for dates in the range 500-1000 CE at

  12. Jen in Edinburgh says

    SFReader: It’s always possible to (try to) write in an earlier style – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell comes to mind, but no doubt there are more recent examples.

    The earliest surviving manuscript of the poem dates from ~1000. Part of it has been copied by someone who was careful to standardise the spelling to his own norms, and part by someone who seems to have been less careful, and left in some archaic and regional forms.

    Some aspects of the poem – particularly common phrases – seem to be shared with works which definitely date from around this time.

    Some others – about which kinds of sounds are treated differently from other sounds in rhyme/alliteration – seem to have come from an earlier period, because by 1000 the language changes which made these sounds appear the same were so complete that no one would know to treat them differently.

    There are also some mistakes which seem to be based on misreading a particular kind of earlier writing.

    The date might still depend on where it was composed/first written down, because language changes came earlier to e.g. Mercia than to e.g. northern Northumbria.

    (My knowledge mostly comes from reading an article about the aftermath of the Toronto controversy this morning – hopefully an actual expert will come along!)

  13. January First-of-May says

    The earliest surviving manuscript of the poem dates from ~1000.

    This is a strange phrase to use with respect to Beowulf; there are, I believe, only three known manuscripts of the poem, two of which are very late copies of the third (and are thus irrelevant except with respect to areas that have since crumbled away on the original).

    Of course it’s a good thing that we have a circa-1000 manuscript at all, or there would’ve been attempts at dating it even later.
    I’m reminded of the Tale of Igor’s Host, whose oldest surviving manuscript dates from 1795 (!! – this is because the “original” 15th century manuscript burned down in 1812, so all we have is several copies of it), and only extensive linguistic research in the 2000s (!!!) finally definitively proved that the text had to originate from the 12th century.

  14. How extensive linguistic research is really needed to establish that this

    Sona þæt onfunde se ðe floda begong heorogifre beheold hund missera, grim ond grædig, þæt þær gumena sum ælwihta eard ufan cunnode.

    is several centuries older than this?

    æuric rice man his castles makede and agænes him heolden; and fylden þe land ful of castles.

  15. Jen in Edinburgh says

    How would you prefer to phrase it? There might have been, and probably were, earlier copies (because mistakes and muddles in the Nowell Codex look like someone trying to copy something they couldn’t quite read), but we don’t have them. We can only definitely say ‘no later than this’.

  16. Although the review is a year old, this is the second time I’ve seen it pop up this week. It is a terrible review. I don’t know how much of the problem is in the book itself (which I presume is in Swedish and thus inaccessible to me) or if it’s all the fault of the reviewer.

    First, the description of the Toronto conference is utter fantasy. There was nothing “postmodern” about it, as anyone who reads the book it produced can readily see. It then touts Neidorf’s more recent book as better; a book that has been excoriated by Old English scholars as highly biased.

    Second, it bollixes up the description of the archaeological evidence as it relates to the poem. In particular, the evidence for the rings, as described in the review (as I said, I can’t speak to the book) points to a late date for the poem.

    Third, its argument proceeds from several highly questionable, implicit assumptions:

    1) That the poem is an oral composition. This notion was abandoned by OE scholars decades ago. While the poem has certain features in common with oral composition, it is clearly literary (i.e., composed in writing).

    2) That the poem is originally pagan. Again, the idea that the Christian elements are later interpolations was abandoned decades ago. The poem, while about pagans, is clearly a coherent whole originally written from a Christian perspective.

    3) That the story of Beowulf has significant predecessors to the one existing manuscript (c. 1010). While the existing manuscript was clearly copied from an earlier one (we can see the scribal corrections), we have no idea what this lost exemplar was nor any evidence other than the manuscript itself that the story was in general circulation. The characters and story arise de novo from the manuscript. There are no references to Beowulf or Grendel anywhere else. (The above commenter is incorrect in stating there are three manuscripts; there is just the one. They may be confused by the fact that c. 1800 Thorkelin, the Danish archivist who discovered the poem languishing on the shelves of the British Museum, commissioned two transcripts be made of the manuscript.)

    4) That there was little contact between England and Scandinavia before the Viking age of the ninth century left a trail of Norse archaeological evidence in England. This is untrue. We know there was considerable commerce and travel throughout Northern Europe, so those in England were certainly well acquainted with Norse culture, especially as the languages were so similar. Because of this, arguments about the poem’s date from archaeological evidence are questionable.

    In short, we have no idea when Beowulf was composed. The evidence is incomplete and contradictory. The only firm date we have is that the sole existing copy is from c. 1010.

  17. SFReader: There is really only one Beowulf manuscript, lovingly known as Cotton MS Vitellius A XV (meaning that it originally was the 15th work on the top shelf of a bookcase in John Cotton’s library with a bust of the Emperor Vitellius on top of it). The other two, while certainly manuscripts in the sense of being written by hand, are very well dated indeed: they were made in 1786 by the Icelander Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin and by a copyist he hired (who had a better hand, but knew no Old English), but not published in print until 1815 due to the war. As you say, their importance is that they have held up better than the original, which has been exposed not only to fire but to the later crumbling of the damaged vellum. The transcriptions are later than the fire but earlier than most of the subsequent deterioration.

  18. book that has been excoriated by Old English scholars

    There is hardly any book on Old English or anything else that has not been excoriated by at least some scholars.

    The characters and story arise de novo from the manuscript. There are no references to Beowulf or Grendel anywhere else.

    Perhaps there are. Drout, linked above, says:

    We also have a charter from Wiltshire dating to 931 which includes the places “Beowan hamm” (Beowa’s home) and “Grendeles mere” (Grendels’ mere) in the boundary clause, suggesting that stories of Beowulf might be circulating in England during this period.

    I grant that the former isn’t too convincing without the latter, given the undoubted existence of the name Beō/Beow, but the locational coincidence is striking. Drout reports this as evidence for a late date, but at any rate it shows that the story was in circulation before the MS was written.

  19. It is a terrible review.

    Thanks, Dave; I suspected as much, and you’re the perfect person to respond.

  20. I have to admit, I kind of love the idea of Canadian Anglo-Saxonists being in thrall to critical theory. Dating Beowful requires a deep understanding of différance.

    My overall impression is that there’s far less interest in accurately dating the poem than there is in making it as old as possible.

  21. Trond Engen says

    I agree that it’s a onesided review and a gross misrepresentation of the opposite side of the debate, but it’s still a good introduction to a book I want to read. There’s an obvious danger that Bo Gräslund now sees Fimbulvetr everywhere, but there’s also an obvious need to go back to the sources and read them again in light of the new understanding. Whatever the date of its composition, given the similarities with Scandinavian accounts, it must have built on a commonly acknowledged (or at least broadly shared) historical chain of events, including some periods being understood as more interesting than others.

    I’ve been thinking that Grendel could be a name for the Justinian plague, since the image of someone personally “battling” and “beating” an attack of an epidemic disease is quite straightforward. “Grendel’s mother” could have started out as a kenning, maybe for Hel. But we still don’t know if the plague came that far north.

  22. Tolkien took the interpretation of Grendel as OE grindan ‘grind (v.)’ rather than gryndan ‘fierce, angry’, which is cognate to ON grindill ‘storm’ (there are no North Gmc cognates of grindan that I know of). In particular, he named the monster Grinder in his Modern English Beewolf-story, “Sellic Spell” (bound in the same codex as his Beowulf). There is also an OE translation which serves the pedagogical need for easy-but-not-boring OE.

  23. Trond Engen says

    Yes, I know about Tolkien’s Grinder, but if I knew about grindill, I had forgot. I gather it’s poetic register, and also that it’s not completely clear what sort of bad weather it denotes. When I looked into this some time ago, I took note of the noun grand “injury, evil” and the verb granda “hurt” (with connotations of blame and guilt). Now I think the noun grandi “sandy reef” is interesting as well.

    But I’m not sure about anything, and I have no stake in the fight over Beowulf. I’m just trying to get a better idea of what was going on.

  24. David Marjanović says

    There’s a Grant in German, meaning “grumpiness” (and making de Volkskrant all the funnier).

  25. PlasticPaddy says

    In Dutch there is grijnen and kreunen “to moan” (grijnen is louder, compare English groan and croon). The noun for kreunen is kreet and at least in Belgium they have the word volkskreet.

  26. PlasticPaddy says

    Grantig ist seit dem 16. Jahrhundert belegbar, vermutet wird auch, dass es dem oberdeutschen Verb grennen – „weinen“ entstammt.
    So we are back to groan/ Std German greinen/ Dutch grijnen, given as onomatopoeia origin. Meanwhile Scots (and NE dialect) “greet” with the meaning weep, moan is traced by Wiktionary all the way back to PIE ǵʰreh₁d- with meaning “to sound” or *gʰrewd-, *gʰer- (“to rub, grind, remove”).

  27. In general, it’s good to be cautious of anyone tying the question of dating to wider concerns about literary interpretation (or politics), including this review. I at least half suspect that some of the resistance to the evidence for an ‘early’ date (‘early’ is a kind of silly label, but it’s traditional), which is on the whole pretty strong, comes from the fact that people like Schousboe have tried to use it, and linguistic/philological approaches in general, as hammers against literary approaches they don’t like. This has led what should be the rather technical question of Beowulf’s date getting dragged in as a proxy for all sorts of other, perfectly unrelated disputes.

    So on the one hand we get the very real evidence for an ‘early’ Beowulf being downplayed or waved away; and on the other, we get this fact (and the invocation of ‘hard-core linguists’) used as a rhetorical cudgel on unrelated matters. Neither of these is great, and all these grand debates can only detract from the really interesting questions, which (in my view) tend to fall out on rather different dimensions entirely.

    As for SFReader’s question about the spelling – the orthography of the (sole) manuscript is indeed mostly in a superficially West Saxon guise, and a random snippet of it won’t strike the eye as being all that different from other manuscripts of c. 1000. But there are many traces that the two scribes were working from an exemplar that was in a language both older and dialectally removed from this late semi-standard. These include the occasional outright archaism, various mistakes based on misconstruing old forms (including hypercorrections, which are pretty frequent), and a number of particular vocabulary items and morphological elements. For the modernization of orthography, but large retention of archaic grammar and vocabulary, think of how most Shakespeare is presented these days; the fact that we have texts that read ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.’ instead of ‘faire is foule, and foule is faire, Houer through the fogge and filthie ayre’ is not really relevant to the question of Macbeth’s date.

    The dating instead rests largely on other grounds: the prevalence of linguistic forms of an archaic nature (or of forms that are best explained as scribal misapprehensions of such forms); the absence of any Viking influence in the Scandinavian names (a problem especially for theories that hold that the narrative matter was carried over by the Vikings); the evidence of a cultural gap implied by the scribes’ apparent unfamiliarity with many of the names and episodes; and a certain amount of evidence that the scribes struggled also with the specific letter forms of their exemplar, implying the copy immediately preceding our surviving MS was written in a relatively old and (to a LWS scribe) unfamiliar hand.

    This last point as some bearing on one of Gräslund’s points, as reported by Schousboe:

    ‘However, much more likely, writes Gräslund convincingly, the prefix in weder-geatas refers to Proto-Germanic wedrą, meaning ram – Old English weder, Old High German wetar, Old Norse veðr etc.’

    This is a mess. The actual forms are rather Gothic wiþrus, Old English weðer, OHG widar (German Widder), Old Saxon withar, Old Norse veðr — that is, only one forms cited (for Norse) is correct. The Proto-Germanic forerunner of these is not *wedrą (the asterisk is not trivial), but *weþruz.

    Now, there is a Proto-Germanic *wedrą, and it does have descendants more or less as Schousboe (and possibly Gräslund; I’m not sure whether she has distorted his discussion or not) reports, but this means (and is in the forerunner of) ‘weather’, not the sheep-word.

    This confusion doesn’t necessarily disprove Gräslund’s argument. It’s like that the descendants of both *weþruz and *wedrą would have been _written_ as _uuedr_ or _uueder_ in Early Old English, where d could be used to write both [ð] and [d]. So either Beowulf’s _weder-gēatas_ (ƿeder ʒeatas) is an etymologically correct continuation of ‘weather-Geats’ (i.e. ‘storm-Geats’?), or else comes from ‘ram-Geats’ with an EOE that the late scribes simply copied, since they lacked any basis on which to correct it to ð/þ. But all of this is essential stuff to address as part of Gräslund’s proposed etymology, and it’s a little worrying that this is not only ignored in the review (and perhaps in the book?), but actually trotted out so triumphantly, but in such a mangled and unsatisfactory form.

  28. Thanks, Nelson. You were the one who made me aware of the important parallels between Beowulf and Old Norse (pseudo(?)-)historical literature a couple of years ago. I always took the stories of Hrolf kraki and the Yngling kings to be too mangled to have any bearing on the history of Scandinavia, but I have come to see that they must reflect a timeline commonly recognized by later authors, and that it’s a worthwhile effort to try to figure out how this written timeline relates to archaeology.

  29. Thanks, Nelson.

    Seconded. Knowledgeable commenters have saved me from so much bad information!

  30. January First-of-May says

    For what it’s worth, the modern English descendants of those two words are wether and weather respectively – distinguished in spelling, but, as far as I’m aware, homophonous.

    Incidentally, bellwether “indicator of trends” contains the former root, exactly as indicated by the spelling (and in fact the etymology is the transparent-ish bell-wether “sheep with a bell on it”), but had probably often been perceived as somehow involving the latter.

  31. Nelson : On the “Urchin” thread ( ) here at Casa Hat (see my January 26 2017 5:51 comment and others thereafter) I had mentioned Östen Dahl’s theory (which I believe is probably true) that Proto-Norse had spread across Scandinavia at a very late date, i.e. in the sixth or seventh century AD, that is to say some time AFTER the alleged “Norse proto-Beowulf” had first been composed. I suspect much if not all of the linguistic evidence relating Beowulf to Scandinavia might be in need of being revised in the light of this work. Do you have any thoughts on the subject?

  32. January First-of-May, the homophony comes from a late change of [d] to [ð] near [r] in very late Middle or early Modern English. Should be late 15th c. or so, I think. For the entire history of English before that, the two were similar, but certainly distinct.

    Etienne, which evidence are you referring to? Beowulf is related to Scandinavia mostly in terms of narrative content. The language is thoroughly Old English, even for the hypothetical archetype (usually dated c. 700). The idea that it was translated into English from some form of early Norse (as suggested at least by Schousboe, and presumably by Gräslund) would seem to involve all sorts of incredible implausibilities that I have a hard time taking it too seriously. At the least, it would require some extraordinary linguistic argumentation to make it sound even possible. (There are also literary difficulties — I don’t think the Christian elements are nearly as superficial as Gräslund seems to hold.)

    I’ll have to look at Dahl’s theory later. In general, I’m very open to the idea of dialect levelling and looking for traces of ‘para-dialects’, but I’d need to look at what he says specifically.

  33. Trond Engen says

    As I understand it, Östen Dahl’s suggestion is not dialect levelling but outright language replacement, with Germanic coming from the south along with the Runic inscriptions. There was a paper earlier this year that told a different story of successive waves of levelling, the last prehistorical one coming from the west in the centuries just before the Viking Age and leaving Elfdalian and Gotlandic untouched, but I haven”t been able to dig it up again.

  34. Based on historical considerations, I would say that population of southern Sweden before spread of that “Common Nordic” circa 500 AD must have been speakers of an East Germanic language closely related to Gothic.

  35. Trond: yes, Dahl was talking about the spread of a new language. However, he was open to the possibility that (perhaps only some of) the languages replaced by Proto-Norse were themselves Germanic. Now, Nelson informs us that there is no evidence whatsoever that Beowullf was originally written in Old Norse, indeed it is my understanding that there is nothing about the language of Beowulf that points to Old Norse. Yet Bo Gräslund gives us evidence that there indeed is a specifically Southern Swedish connection to Beowulf. There is an apparent contradiction here.

    Well, I did write “apparent”: if we accept Dahl’s theory, I would maintain that both the above positions can be reconciled if we accept that the earliest version of Beowulf was originally composed in Southern Sweden, *in a variety of Germanic not directly ancestral to old Norse*. In fact, let me take this idea one step further: could coastal Southern Sweden, before the spread of Old Norse, have been (partly or wholly) West Germanic-speaking, or indeed perhaps even… Ingveonic-speaking? If Beowulf was composed by and (over the following centuries) modified by Ingveonic speakers (with the Ingveonic speakers of Southern Sweden shifting to Proto-Norse *after* Beowulf had spread among Ingveonic speakers in England, presumably), well, it would indeed be free of any “foreign” (i.e. Old Norse) LINGUISTIC influences, all the while of course preserving the non-linguistic evidence (place-names, tribal names) of its Southern Swedish origin.


  36. Trond Engen says

    @Etienne: That’s more similar to what I’ve been thinking: The relative uniformity of Old Norse suggests a recent koinéization event. I think it was in the Urchin thread that I suggested a wave originating in the south in the Roman Era, but the recent paper I can’t find thought it started in the west after the 536-545 catastrophic events. As for West Germanic in Southern Sweden, I think the collective evidence from Migration Era origin myths suggests otherwise. If anything, North Germanic replaced East Germanic here, but probably centuries earlier than 500 CE. I’m more partial to the idea that the two main branches were North Sea Germanic and Baltic Germanic, and that North Germanic (or Kattegat Germanic) filled the voids when West and East Germanic tribes emigrated. Maybe the Jutes (or even better: the Angles) were the inhabitants of the whole Scandinavian west coast. This could have happened already with the first Germanic settlement of England, as has been suggested for Jutland, but it could also be the end result of a long process that culminated after the Fimbulwinter. The Anglic settlement of Northumbria takes place just at a time when the old West Coast elite culture collapses, with elements of its styles in metalwork and pottery continuing in North England.

    What does this mean for Beowulf? Maybe nothing. I have no particular reason to think that it was composed in Scandinavia, even if the first version was almost contemporary and based upon real events. But it may mean that the cross-North Sea dynastic contacts depicted in e.g. Beowulf and digged up at Sutton Hoo had a long history that continued even as the culture in the old country changed.

    Also: i’m all hypotheses and few facts. My thinking about this changes all the time.

  37. Trond Engen says

    However, clamping all of these Germanics together inside and just south of southern Scandinavia at the outset of the migration era doesn’t fit well with Romans meeting Germanic in Germania centuries earlier. Southern West Germanic ought to be the most diverging branch. Maybe the split between South and True West Germanic is more basic than commonly thought. Maybe the shared innovations of West Germanic are due to shared contact with Celts and Romans and mask older and deeper differences. Or maybe True West Germanic was Southernized later by the Saxons.

    This need to move people about has to do with not only Old Norse but Germanic being to shallow for its age, especially with Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse being borderline mutually comprehensible in the Viking Age. I’m more for high elite mobility and repeated koinéizations. And I wish I knew more about the dialects contributing to Anglo-Saxon.

  38. David Marjanović says

    One spearhead with one East Germanic word on it (i.e. a nom. sg. that ends in s instead of z) has been found in southeastern Sweden. But I’m not aware of a way to tell whether it was a trade item from Poland.

    Maybe the shared innovations of West Germanic are due to shared contact with Celts and Romans

    Some definitely are, like the two words for “be” (fully preserved only in Old English among documented languages, but there are traces on the continent). Others could easily be, like the unconditional shift from [ð] to [d].

    and mask older and deeper differences.

    The shift from [ð] to [d] apparently happened after Bahder’s law, which devoiced fricatives followed by resonants in most of Old High German.

    (BTW, some people in England are repeating it now, putting a [f] in lovely.)

  39. Beowulf is related to Scandinavia mostly in terms of narrative content.

    Sure. It’s full of Swedish names because it’s set in Sweden, is the obvious interpretation.

    fully preserved only in Old English among documented languages

    And in Welsh, by an obvious Sprachbund development that Tolkien was the first to point out in detail: the b- forms meant ‘future/consuetudinal’ in Welsh and English only, as against their relatives.

  40. It’s obviously pretty hard to be concrete about how the linguistic and social histories of early northern Europe interact. It’s fairly widely supposed that, for instance, the ‘Jutes’ mentioned by Bede (and likely enough appearing in Beowulf) were actually West Germanic (or at least non-North-Germanic) speakers, and that these areas later shifted to North Germanic. In principle, the same idea could hold going further east. There’s an intriguing (though very speculative) idea that at least some movement of people from the Baltic area (including Zealand) had to do with the dynastic struggles presented in legendary form in Beowulf (between two branches of the Scylding clan). If that’s right (and it’s obviously hard to say for sure one way or the other), this could suggest the possibility that the ‘Ingvaeonic’ dialect area once extended over a rather larger and more easterly area than usually supposed, before the shift of most of this to West Germanic.

    ‘This need to move people about has to do with not only Old Norse but Germanic being to shallow for its age, especially with Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse being borderline mutually comprehensible in the Viking Age.’

    This I don’t think is much of an issue. We don’t of course know the ‘age’ of Germanic (assuming, I guess, the time at which the attested divergences began), but North and West Germanic are not any closer than we might expect, really. We know from Early Runic that North Germanic remained relatively conservative through the fifth century, and when it did begin to change rapidly, many of the changes (umlaut, many of the vowel losses, breaking) operating in ways that were rather similar to what happened in Old English (this might of course be due to direct contacts between elites, or else to whatever your preferred explanation for examples of linguistic ‘drift’ might be). So by the time we get to the later ninth century, it’s hardly surprising that we find some degree of mutually intelligibility (itself a gradient and circumstantial thing, and strongly influenced by sociolinguistic factors) between the Norse of that period (which is, of course, not exactly the same as the literary Old Norse we find a few centuries later) and the various Old English dialects.

    To get back to Beowulf, I don’t think we can ‘save’ the idea of a sixth-century Scandinavian composition no matter what we do. For one thing, there’s absolutely no reason to think it was composed there. John Cowan hit the nail on the head: Scandinavian subject material does not mean Scandinavian origin, any more than the content of the OE poetic Exodus means it was composed in Egypt. In any case, even if the range of Ingvaeonic did once extend into ‘Scandinavia’ in a broad sense, it’s not linguistically plausible to project Beowulf (meaning the poem more or less as we have it) back to that kind of date. Archaic as the language is from an OE perspective, it has plenty of innovative elements from a West Germanic one: Fulk argued, if I remember correctly, that Beowulf should probably be dated after c. 685, on the basis of loss of intervocalic *h and subsequent contraction. And if nothing else, things like ‘high vowel deletion’ pretty much thoroughly preclude a date much before, say, 600. Linguistic evidence is more usually used to established a ‘time before which’ for Beowulf, but also sets at least a slightly fuzzy ‘time after which’ as well.

    There are also narrative absurdities that come up if we think Beowulf was composed around 550, as Gräslund seems to suggest. The one datable event in the poem is Hygelac’s Frisian raid, which seems to have occurred between 516 and 531 (and certainly between 511 and 534). The poem then implies that Heardred takes a few years to come to his majority, and then has a brief reign, followed by a long reign by Beowulf (the poem says fifty years, though this is clearly a formulaic expression). Even if we take the earliest usually accepted date of 516 for Hygelac’s death, allow just a few years for Heardred to come to his own and then make a mess of things (bringing us to c. 520), it’s pretty hard to allow Beowulf a reasonably long reign at all without bringing the chronology of the poem up to the time of supposed composition, or at the very least to within just a few years of it.

    This is awkward for several reasons. The most obvious is that Beowulf is widely thought to be a fictional figure, inserted into the more historical context of the Geatish dynasty. And even if he wasn’t, if Beowulf had been real and died just a few years before (at best), why is the poem presented as being ‘in geārdagum’, and isn’t this a bit rushed for fantastic events like the dragon-fight to get incorporated? It’s all kind of weird and difficult. Much better to allow a good century or more after Beowulf’s putative death date for these things to age a bit before being reworked into something like the poem as we have it.

    This is leaving aside the question of the Christian elements in the poem, which are almost universally believed now (including by me) to be original and fundamental to the work. This would make composition before the mid 7th c. extremely unlikely. This of course aligns very nicely with the linguistic evidence.

  41. A very useful summary; thanks!

  42. David Marjanović says

    One thing to keep in mind is that epic poems aren’t terribly stable. Maybe Beowulf was composed, in something like the form we have it in, in the 8th century, using material from the 6th, some of which was already in poetic form. Compare the Nibelungenlied: it’s so young it doesn’t even alliterate, it rhymes, and yet the three kings of the Burgunds are Gunther, Gernot & Giselher, even though they’re spread out over two lines – the composer either didn’t know alliteration as a poetic device, or perhaps considered it embarrassingly old-fashioned and deliberately tried to obscure it, but pretty clearly didn’t invent the names.

    the Christian elements in the poem

    Last I heard (probably here in a thread somewhere), there were a few blatantly Christian elements in it that have widely been considered later interpolations, heathen parts that are presented as normal without any Christian revulsion, and Christian parts that are integral to the story but may well have reached Germanic culture well before the rest of the religion. Cain & Abel, reinterpreted to mean that you shouldn’t murder specifically your relatives, would be one of the latter.

  43. David Marjanović says

    (Now I’m wondering how many actual-factual historical people in ancient Germanic royal families really did have alliterating names. People have done much worse things to their kids.)

  44. PlasticPaddy says

    There are pairs of mythic kings which go back to a Dioscuri motif (Hengst and Horsa). Maybe the Nibelungen story had two kings in an older version. Although the Norse like threesomes. Hildebrand and Hadubrand are another alliterative pair.

  45. David Marjanović says

    Hildebrand and Hadubrand are another alliterative pair.

    Yeah, but their whole epic alliterates and does not rhyme.

  46. David Marjanović says

    Forgot (and can’t edit):

    if Beowulf had been real and died just a few years before (at best), why is the poem presented as being ‘in geārdagum’

    Maybe the first stanza is much younger than the rest, as has long been suspected for the Nibelungenlied.

  47. One indication of an easterly “Ingvaeonic” is that the Swedes of the Mälaren region are the ones actually known to claim descendance from Yngve.

    But do we know what the Roman historians mean by Ingvaeonic? Tacitus divides the Germanic peoples into three branches based on mythic descent: Istaevonic, Irminonic and Ingaevonic. The two latter are transparently from Jörmun (Odin) and Yngve (Frey). But couldn’t this be a description of cultic differences or a politico-religious divide reflecting historical alliances rather than a linguistic or a genetic/genealogical relationship?

  48. Hengst and Horsa

    They not only rhyme but chime semantically: hengest ‘stallion’, horsa too obvious to gloss. Tolkien always pronounced the first name “Henjist” and with good reason.

    Now I’m wondering how many actual-factual historical people in ancient Germanic royal families really did have alliterating names.

    TV Tropes (I will not link!) has many modern examples. The father of Ambrose Bierce named his children (in order) Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Ambrose, Arthur, Adelia, and Aurelia; Goebbels’s children were similarly Harald, Helga, Hildegard, Helmut, Holdine, Hedwig and Heidrun. The baseball pitcher Roger Clemens called his children Koby Aaron, Kory Allen, Kacy Austin, and Kody Alec, because K stands for striKe in baseball scores, something desirable to a pitcher. I don’t know of an abbreviation KA, but perhaps it should be read as ‘strike all’.

    Finally there is the family of Flo (named by Jane “That Tramp” Goodall, of course, and later by her staff): her children Figen, Faben, Fifi, Flint, and Flame; Fifi’s children Freud, Frodo (the one who beat up Gary Larson, presumably for impugning his family’s good name), Fanni, Flossi, Faustino, Ferdinand, Fred, Flirt, and Furaha; Fanni’s children Fax, Fudge, and Fundi; and Flossi’s children Forest and Fansi.

    (Update: I didn’t even notice my own alliteration in the last sentence until just before “Post Comment”.)

  49. David Marjanović, I think the idea that Beowulf had older sources, some (most?) of which were in verse, is a certainty. It’s always good to be clear what ‘composition’ means in this kind of context. I take it to mean the creation of the poem more or less as we have it, barring relatively superficial scribal alterations. But potentially we can break things down a lot more, into some six elements or categories that are crucial components to the work as we have it:

    1) The historical drama of the Scylding house and their wars with the Heaðobeards.
    2) The story of a monster-killer who travels to Denmark to slay a troll-like creature.
    3) The historical drama of the Geatish-Swedish wars.
    4) The dragon fight.
    5) All the other ‘digressions’ that don’t fall into any other category.
    6) The Christian perspective.

    The first ‘half’ of Beowulf is basically a combination of elements 1 & 2, the second ‘half’ of elements 3 & 4; the others are pervasive or sprinkled around. Some of these combinations may be older than Beowulf as we know it (I’d be willing to believe this of at least points 1 & 2), but I doubt they all were, or even most of them. At any rate, to me their history is a matter of tradition and source, and we shouldn’t call them Beowulf, any more than the OE poem Exodus is the ‘same’ as the Biblical book.

    Naturally we can regard any bits we don’t like, or which are inconvenient for some pet theory as secondary ‘interpolations’. I have my suspicions about a handful of lines myself. But for the opening lines to be an addition would take some corroborating evidence. It’s not a matter of adding a stanza (Beowulf is not stanzaic), and it fits into the normal pattern for how an OE poem should begin. If the poem didn’t start this way, how do we think it began?

    Of course the whole ‘exordium’ (fitt 0, as it were) forms a separate piece narratively, and is in a sense clearly added by the poet as a preface to other narrative material. But it’s very well integrated (both into the text that immediately follows, and into the larger structure of the poem), and if we start lopping bits off, we’re quickly departing from the realm of minor or superficial tweaks into what would have been a significantly different work of poetry. Personally, I find it highly unlikely that the Scyld Scefing material postdates most of the other ‘digressive’ material of Beowulf, even if it’s theoretically possible.

    Trond Engen, I wouldn’t make too much of the label Ingvaeonic. The label is (adapted from) Tacitus, but we don’t have any particular reason for supposing that his use of the term overlaps terribly precisely with the modern linguistic one. It’s just a label. When I, at least, and I think most other linguists as well, use ‘Ingvaeonic’, we mean it in a purely linguistic sense — no political, cultural, religious, or genetic implications are meant in the slightest.

  50. January First-of-May says

    Now I’m wondering how many actual-factual historical people in ancient Germanic royal families really did have alliterating names.

    Not quite Germanic, but the children of Constantine the Great (who was himself son of Constantius Chlorus) were named Constantine, Constantius, Constans, Crispus, Constantina (also known as Constantia), and Helena (after his mother).

  51. David Eddyshaw says

    The Wessex royal dynasties evidently went for this, despite a few exceptions:

  52. David Eddyshaw says
  53. David Marjanović says

    When I, at least, and I think most other linguists as well, use ‘Ingvaeonic’, we mean it in a purely linguistic sense — no political, cultural, religious, or genetic implications are meant in the slightest.

    These implications were of course intended when the unfortunate names were taken up by 19th-century historians, first to refer to peoples, and only as a side effect to languages.

  54. Andrej Bjelaković says

    They not only rhyme but chime semantically: hengest ‘stallion’, horsa too obvious to gloss. Tolkien always pronounced the first name “Henjist” and with good reason.

    What would that good reason be?

  55. The shift from [ð] to [d] apparently happened after Bahder’s law, which devoiced fricatives followed by resonants in most of Old High German.

    What would be an example of that? Germanic /d/ ([ð]?) seems to be represented by OHG /t/ before /r/ at least in wetar, heitar, nātara, leitara.
    Before /m/ there is some weirdness, but seemingly only affecting original /t/: bodam, widamo while /d/ becomes /t/ in ātum.
    I can’t see anything going on with /g/ either: fogal, hagal, legar, regan.
    Only with /b/ I can find swebal/swefal and eibar/eifar also always scūfla, if related to schieben?
    But sūbar, lebar, habaro, gebal, eban, raban, …

  56. Von Bahder’s law (which has a number of surface exceptions, which might be explained in various ways; possibly in some cases anaptyctic vowels had already formed before the law applied) is in fact limited to the labials. It’s even in the title: ‘Zur hochdeutschen Lautlehre (hd. f = wgerm. b)’. I seem to remember de Vaan mentioning the law having a wider applicability in Dutch, but I’d have to check up on the details there.

  57. What would that good reason be?

    The English compound henchman, originally ‘horse-holder’, now ‘right-hand man’, shows that the /g/ was palatalized early, indeed before English split from Frisian. So aside from vowel reduction, Tolkien’s pronunciation was the OE one. A similar effect causes the practitioners of the religion called Wicca to pronounce it unhistorically with /k/, but its palatalization is shown by the direct descendant of OE wicca, which is witch.

  58. Huh, the first OED citation spells it with one c: “1959 G. B. Gardner Meaning of Witchcraft 259 One of the ways in which the Craft of Wica has served the Aquarian Age has been in the way it has kept alive the teaching of reincarnation and karma.”

  59. I goes beyond alliteration, but the later French Bourbon monarchs basically named any son who a had chance of becoming king “Louis.” By the time of the patron saint of France, Louis IX (a direct Capetian, died 1270), Louis was already the most popular name for French kings, by a wide margin. (There were four kings of the Franks named “Clovis” who are not counted in the standard regnal numbers.) The Bourbons, for whatever reason, were particularly fond of their saintly ancestor, so they took to using his name almost exclusively.

    As specific examples: Louis XVI had two sons, both “Louis.” Louis XVI also had two brothers of the same name, one older and one younger (Louis XVIII). The fourth son, the Count of Artois, Charles X, was probably considered too remote from the throne to get the same name; the oldest brother, who did not succeed to the throne, was still alive when Charles was born. To be fair, their father’s younger brother was not named Louis, but Phillip. Yet their grandfather, Louis XV did have two older brothers by the same name, although the eldest died in infancy, before either of the others were born.

  60. Trond Engen says

    @Nelson & @David M.: Yes, the question was more in reply to myself. Invoking Yngve as evidence for Ingvaeonic dialects in the Baltic gave credence to the 19th century historians, and I wasn’t ready for that.

    1) The historical drama of the Scylding house and their wars with the Heaðobeards.
    3) The historical drama of the Geatish-Swedish wars.

    These are my main interest here.

    I once did a rough calculation back through the Ynglingatal and (IIRC) got the reign of king Helgi in the early 500s. Give or take a couple of decades, it doesn’t fit with a historical Beowulf (or his Old Norse counterparts) living through the Fimbulvetr, but I still think it’s worth considering that Grendel is a representation of the plague. A later poet could have chosen to set the magical or allegorical account of the disaster against well-known political events.

    Why does it matter? Because these more or less tall tales of heroes of the past are the closest we have to eye witness accounts, and if we manage to sort out what was history (or, at least, what was commonly understood as history) and combine it with the growing archaeological evidence, we would be able to see much clearer. That’s why I think Bo Gräslund’s book is an important contribution, even if it (if and when I get around to reading it) should turn out to be a disappointment.

  61. David Marjanović says

    What would be an example of that?

    Boden “bottom”, as presented on p. 65–66 of this book.

    always scūfla

    Also scūvala and scūbla, as mentioned on p. 66 of the same book, together with OHG weval but MHG webel “weft”.

    Modern Schaufel, but there’s the surname Schäuble.

    a number of surface exceptions

    Total chaos! I can’t come up with a better idea than dialect mixture.

  62. Trond Engen says

    Me: the reign of king Helgi

    Misedit cum brainfart. I meant “king Óttarr, who was a contemporary and close in age to Hróarr and Helgi”.

  63. Dialect mixture is the last resort of a historical linguist (especially when up against the wall).

  64. Having just read this thread and three others linked, with a combined word count that is Tolstoyian, over large parts of the day, chasing references through whole prairie dog towns of interlocking tunnels, I went to look up a simple phrase in French for my daughter — put a shirt on. The first page to come up gave a rather ornate example — “Have you ever thought how a hedgehog could put a t-shirt on.”

    Using herisson.

    The lord works in mysterious ways.

    If you’re not sure why I say that, you should probably read this thread in its entirety together with all its links.

    There are lots of interesting theories and speculations here, but I’m having a hard time squaring them with the hard facts of Vennemann’s Semitic influences on preProtoGermanic.

    Which did actually pop up in one of those prairie dog towns.

  65. Just like they kiss.

    Very carefully.

  66. This is the hérisson thread, for those following along at home.

  67. Just ran across this tidbit, from here (by Aisling Byrne):

    At the end of the thirteenth century, a Norwegian diplomat visiting the king of Scotland came upon an epic story of familial strife set in the Carolingian period. He had the work translated from English into Old Norse and it went on to circulate in Norway and Iceland as part of a cycle of Charlemagne narratives.

  68. Trond Engen says

    Interesting. The commissioning of translations of (especially French) medieval literature is usually attributed to queen Euphemia, princess of Rügen, who is said to have owned a huge library. The main street in the new Bjørvika quarter of Oslo is named after her, a street passing the monumental new National Library.

    But the princess of Rügen didn’t marry king Haakon V of Norway until 1299. The king was first married to the French princess Isabelle de Joigny, who died only a year or two after their wedding in 1295. It would make sense if the project started with material brought by the French princess — or maybe even in anticipation of her arrival.

  69. Stephen Carlson says

    Hengst and Horsa

    They not only rhyme but chime semantically: hengest ‘stallion’, horsa too obvious to gloss.

    Lightbulb moment: Hengst = Sw. häst (‘horse’) < ON hestr.

    (Does anyone know why Swedish sometimes spells inherited ‘e’ with ‘ä’?)

  70. Trond Engen says

    I want to argue that Swedish generally spells inherited /e/ as <ä>., while <e> is for borrowings and the old diphtong /ei/. It’s not that simple, but it has to do with the way reflexes of especially short /e/ is merged with the reflexes of /æ/, while a long /e/ [e:] is still partly separable from a long /ä/ [æ: ~ e:].

    This will be knocked down when an Actual Swede or a historical linguist or dialectologist of Swedish comes around.

  71. Trond linked the herisson thread in the first comment here.

    Do you know which of your posts has generated the most comments, Hat?

    How about greatest word count? Probably not.

    The thing about urchin is that it’s not only got 260+ comments, but many of them are 3-400 words and more.

  72. Do you know which of your posts has generated the most comments, Hat?

    I think it was a bizarrely contentious one on Indo-European; I imagine John Cowan will know.

  73. January First-of-May says

    I agree that it was probably the Indo-European one (which, IIRC, I have actually read in its entirety a few months ago), and I suspect that it takes first place in word count as well – some of those comments were quite lengthy.

  74. My new script to re-create the COLHP has to download every post, but it doesn’t store every post.

  75. Stu Clayton says

    Why not put them into a NoSQL database and add to it from time to time at your leisure ? What you do with it is read plus occasional inserts, no updates or deletes, and there are certainly no concurrency issues.

    August 23, 2015 by languagehat 1,945 Comments

    255,521 words or 1,276,665 characters.

    Not quite War and Peace, but about two or three average paperback novels in volume.

  77. Stu: The point is that I don’t want to abuse the space kindly provided by my host on to store the posts. Any database would be a whole lot bigger than just keeping the raw HTML files.

  78. Stu Clayton says

    Set it up in a Cloud of Knowing. Gotta move with the times. I would welcome an opportunity to use this stuff for the first time, to perform a public service im kleinen.

    MongoDB Atlas pricing

  79. @Stu Clayton: To me, the phrase “im kleinen” is associated with, of all things, topology. In the first half of the twentieth century,* the heydey of point-set topology, there was a scramble to find the right definitions for various properties. Most significantly, the definition of compactness is quite abstract and non-intuitive: that any open cover of a compact space has a finite sub-cover. It is an odd definition, but we know it is the “right” one, because it makes the product of an infinite number of compact spaces compact. (This also required figuring out the right definition of the product topology at the same time.)

    Anyway, there developed two possible definitions of local connectedness. One was found to be the “right” one, but the other was not completely useless, so it was kept around under the name “connected im kleinen.” It can be useful for things like proving two spaces A and B are not homeomorphic, because A minus one particular point is not connected im kleinen, but B minus any one point, is connected im kleinen.

    * Point-set topology is very much a subject of the first half of the twentieth century. By 1950-51, Nagata, Smirnov, and Bing had provided necessary and sufficient conditions for a space to be metrizable, and after that point, the field went in different (largely algebraic) directions. Point-set topology questions that were not solved by that point were basically abandoned. For example, the Stone-Cech compactification construction shows that the class of subspaces of normal Hausdorff** spaces can be characterized intrinsically ad the completely regular spaces; however, the intrinsic characterization of arbitrary products of normal Hausdorff spaces was never solved, and basically nobody cares to work on it.

    ** I always have to look up whether “Hausdorff” has a double s or double f. In doing so just now, I discovered from his Wikipedia page that the Jewish Hausdorff actually tried to escape Nazi Germany but was unable to find a job outside before it was too late, and he subsequently committed suicide when his deportation to a concentration camp was ordered in 1942.

  80. Stu Clayton says

    @Brett: Yes, of course. I studied algebraic topology in Bonn in the 70s – when I wasn’t playing bridge and drinking coffee. That’s why I slipped in “im kleinen”. Hirzebruch, by the way, was a fabulously informative lecturer.

    Those are the unfortunate facts about Hausdorff.

    It’s Čech or Czech in both English and German, as I recall.

  81. Stu Clayton says

    Most significantly, the definition of compactness is quite abstract and non-intuitive

    Not at all. Look up the 19C history of what Weierstrass and Bolzano discovered about functions on bounded intervals – now called limit-point compactness. Dedekind, Borel were interested in the structure of the real line. Borel proved covering compactness in a lemma in 1904. I read that Heine knew about that in the 1850s but his notes were not published until 1904.

  82. Hauss/Hauß is a perfectly cromulent archaic spelling, but we must await David M to tell us if Dorf has a long fricative in his neck of the (Vienna) woods.

  83. Lars Mathiesen says

    I like the version that X is compact iff every infinite subset of X has a complete accumulation point (under AC, I think).

  84. PlasticPaddy says

    Metric space: compact iff closed + bounded. Complications only arise where topology does not arise from a metric.

  85. David Marjanović says

    if Dorf has a long fricative

    It does, as expected from the English cognate -thorpe. However, the spelling with -ff, which is very common in surnames, is probably just ornamental anyway. In Berlin there’s a Schwartzkopffstraße, and pff makes no etymological sense whatsoever.

  86. What about iff, does that have a long fricative too? I have occasionally heard it spoken that way in English.

    Thorpe has a doublet dorp, borrowed from Afrikaans, and long ago the demonym for Poughkeepsie [pəˈkɪpsi], N.Y. was Dorpian.

  87. When used as a word on its own (meaning “if and only if”), iff definitely has a long fricative—sometimes absurdly long to emphasize the distinction with if.

  88. When used as a word on its own (meaning “if and only if”), iff …

    I don’t count iff as a word at all. It’s a made-up abbreviation. And yes it would be so easy to mis-hear as “if” that it’s bound to get a spelling pronunciation. So that’s no evidence either way that bears on Dorf(f).

  89. Of course not. I was just curious how David, for whom long fricatives are phonemic, might pronounce it.

  90. Lars Mathiesen says

    Complications only arise — and of course it’s the complicated cases that force all the niceties of definition. The complete accumulation point one actually pokes my intuition in a useful way. (It means that for every infinite sequence there is a point such that every neighborhood of the point contains a subset of the sequence with the same cardinality — or in looser terms, the compact set does not have room to spread out an infinite sequence enough that every point can have a neighborhood containing a ‘lesser infinity’ of sequence points).

    In the metric case I think a complete accumulation point is the same as a limit point, but I only gave it a minute of thought.

  91. Terminology for accumulation points is unfortunately not standardized. Sometimes “accumulation point” means the same thing as “limit point”—that every neighborhood of x contains a point of A distinct from x.* The other definition an accumulation point requires that the neighborhood contain an infinite number of point of A. (It is immediately obvious that any limit point in a metric space is an accumulation point of the latter type, but that does not hold in more general topologies.)

    Tychonoff’s original proof that an arbitrary product of closed intervals** is compact used a complete accumulation point as the criterion for compactness. It also used induction over the class of ordinals, and is generally rather awkward (as the first proofs of hard theorems often are), so that it is little studied today. I really had to dig to find a sketch of the original proof online a few years ago (although the original paper is now online), and no pedagogical treatment I have ever seen uses anything like that proof. The usual way to prove it is by convergence of some kind of maximal object (filter, net, etc.), and a form of the Axiom of Choice is always needed to construct the maximal object in the product space.

    * Typing that definition was surprisingly difficult. I am used to using HTML tags to italicize things, but when I am writing mathematical material, my fingers automatically go the LaTeX formatting, so I kept typing dollar signs around the symbols.

    ** Tychonoff later stated the more general theorem, although only remarking that the proof was essentially the same as the one he had given for closed intervals. For this reason, some people credit the general proof of the Tychonoff Theorem to Cech.

  92. Eduard Čech was Czech, so the set of mathematicians whose surname equals their nationality is not empty. I imagine there must have been at least one German mathematician named Deutsch, but I don’t know how to find out.

  93. Aha, Jacques Frédéric Français was a French engineer and mathematician!

  94. David Marjanović says

    There are people named Österreicher in Austria, but I don’t know if any of them have been mathematicians.


    Probably a Bohemian emigrant to Moravia!

  95. Wikipedia lists Germans named Alexander Deutsch, planetologist; Harri Deutsch, publisher; Immanuel Oscar Menahem Deutsch, orientalist. Austrians: Helene Deutsch, psychologist; Helmut Deutsch, pianist; Julius Deutsch, politician; Max Deutsch, composer and director; Otto Erich Deutsch, musicologist (the cataloguer of Schubert); Simon Deutsch (writer and revolutionary). Swiss: Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, artist (apparently his birth name was Aleman).

  96. And Sir Walter Scott was Scott

  97. This list of mathematicians is sortable by surname or country, but it is woefully incomplete. It only includes one Russian (who is not even Lobachevsky)!

    However, it also includes some people one might not expect, such as Edward Lorenz (who I remember as one of the nicest professors I ever met) and Filippo Brunelleschi. I had actually been thinking about Brunelleschi a fair amount lately—thanks to the Cupola thread about the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral. I still feel a little ashamed that when I was in high school, I mistakenly attributed the design of the cathedral to Botticelli. It was in an unedited draft, but one that ended up being shown to quite a few people.

    When I was attending Charles A. Sprague High School, the school developed a new integrative method of teaching American Literature and Advanced Placement U. S. History—American Humanities, they called it. (I just looked it up on the school’s Web site, and it looks like the class still exists in name, but not with the fully integrated curriculum that was originally developed.) As originally conceived, the American Humanities class ran for two periods per day, and most of the advanced students in the school took it during their junior years. It was taught by the American history teacher and the public speaking teacher (who had also taught various other English classes).

    By my junior year, I had already taken American Literature, so I took just the standalone AP U. S. History class, taught by the same teacher but not part of the American Humanities framework. However, the teacher still put a very heavy emphasis on developing writing. In high school English classes of the 1980s and 1990s, we had a lot of “freewriting” exercises. For some period of time—anything from two to twenty minutes—we would have to put pen or pencil to paper and write something. The point was to give us practice putting thoughts into words, without getting caught up worrying about quality or censoring ourselves. I was never sure how useful it was as a teaching tool though. It was certainly not useless, but it does not seem like American high school English classes today have the same zeal for freewriting that they did when I was a teenager. My daughter has done relatively little of it in middle and high school, whereas in most of my high school English classes, we must have done freewriting exercises at least once a week. And in the communications-oriented AP U. S. History, we also did frequent freewriting, usually starting with some textual or visual (or musical) prompt to think about and to help us get us going.

    For the first such exercise in that class, probably near the end of the first week of school, the teacher projected a picture of some of the neoclassical stone buildings designed by Thomas Jefferson for the University of Virginia and asked us to start writing, thinking about how those buildings—their planning, design, and construction—might serve as a “metaphor” for Jefferson’s larger body of work and accomplishments. Just a few days earlier, I had learned the word metonym, since it was on the list of vocabulary words were were given to learn on the first day of AP English. So I started by pointing out that those buildings were better described as “metonyms” than “metaphors,” since they were a part standing in for the whole. I then wrote a couple hundred words about the metonymy of various architectural trends for the zeitgeists of when they were built. I do not remember much else that I said, except that I talked about the Santa Maria dome as an exemplar of the Renaissance—when Italians were both trying to recapture the glory and majesty of the ancient Roman edifices, and when they were at the dawn of a new scientific age, when (thanks to rapid developments in the understanding of mechanics) it was possible to engineer new kinds structures—like the monumental brick dome Botticelli [sic.] designed—with confidence that they would be strong enough to hold themselves up.

    The history teacher was impressed, and he made a copy of my writing to show as an example of the kind of interdisciplinary thinking that the American Humanities class was supposed to foster. (He did admit to me, privately, that it was an irony that he was using something written by a student who was not actually enrolled in American Humanities, and moreover, something that student had written only a few days into the school year.) When he gave talks to groups of English and social studies teachers, trying to get them interested in teaching American history and literature in an integrated way, he would show them my freewriting on transparencies and read out a few selections, like about the definition of metonymy. I was proud that my writing was getting put to use, but I was always concerned that by writing “Botticelli” instead of “Brunelleschi,” I had probably made myself look like an idiot to some teacher in the audience.

  98. Let’s not forget the most famous mathematician country-namesake!

    Al-Khwarismi from Khwarazm who invented algebra and whose name is the source of the word “algorithm”.

  99. Al-Khwarismi’s treatment of completing the square was entirely verbal, with no symbolic notation, making it extremely tricky to describe (even with the use of geometrical analogies). Interestingly, while it was his book on algebra that gave algebra its name, it was his other book (now lost) on the decimal number system that gave rise to the word algorithm, via algorism (meaning place value notation for representing numbers—although I have never seen it applied to written numerals, only used in the context of calculations being done on an abacus).

  100. January First-of-May says

    It only includes one Russian (who is not even Lobachevsky)!

    Nor even Kolmogorov (probably the second most obvious option, aside from perhaps Euler, who is listed but as Swiss).

    In fact, the one listed Russian is a person whom I would probably rather call infamous than famous (pretty much the only well-known thing he did is a silly stunt, of the kind that makes the news for its sheer silliness), and would really rather prefer not be the best known mathematician of my country (or, come to think of it, even the best known mathematician of his last name – there’s a much more deserving candidate, even if said candidate isn’t really that much of a mathematician).

  101. David Eddyshaw says

    Georg Cantor was born in St Petersburg.

  102. Lars Mathiesen says

    Back when I was a maths student, I enjoyed reading Counterexamples in Topology on the train. Eheu fugaces.

    And what I think I meant above was that in a metric space, a complete accumulation point of a sequence will be the limit of a subsequence so this definition is sorta kinda a generalization of sequential compactness.

  103. That sounds like an essay of jaw-dropping brilliance for a high-school junior, Brett. It fits well with the three typologies and the building types that were a big discussion in architecture in the late 70s and 80s when I was a graduate student. My own equivalent to Botticelli was at a similar age mispronouncing Corbusier as Courvoisier, the brand of cognac.

  104. Stu Clayton says

    Counterexamples in Topology

    One of my favorites ! I sorta remember one diagram in particular, but not what it was trying to give an idea of. There were lots of crescents pinching down on other crescents. That Cantor missing-middle-third set, maybe.

  105. That does look like a wonderful book I’d have a dog-eared copy of if I’d stayed in math (I loved topology).

  106. Counterexamples in Topology is such a wonderful book. The space that I found particularly memorable was I^I, which has some really weird properties, in spite of being a compact Hausdorff space The weirdness makes more sense if you think of I^I as the topology of pointwise convergence on the space of all functions from the closed interval to itself. The space of all functions is just to “wild,” but if you restrict attention to continuous functions, you can make the topology finer and less pathological.

  107. Pathological topology is waiting to be written. Wikipedia already has some examples.

  108. Is that the one where the topologist tries to drink out of his doughnut, but it turns out to be the Midgard Serpent?

  109. No, they have some serious examples. Maybe Midgard Serpent has to be included, but before I only knew about attempts to dink from Klein’s bottle. And for topologists it is not pathological. They do it every day. The book should be about objects even topologists find cuckoo.

  110. The best humorous science fiction story about pathological topological objects appearing in real life is Martin Gardner’s “The No-Sided Professor.” Deutsch’s story is quite clever too, but my enjoyment of it was hurt a tiny bit by the inaccuracy—not, ironically enough, the inevitable inaccuracy in the descriptions of the topology, but the inaccuracies in his depiction of the Boston-Cambridge subway and tram system. For example, the story mentions “straphangers.” I was going to say that the Boston system has never had hanging straps, but I just learned that they apparently started installing them in some trains just this year. However, the main issue is that where the train disappears in the story, the tracks actually run above ground (across the Longfellow Bridge, not through a tunnel).

    On the other hand, Gardner’s story (as I pointed out in the question I asked here) takes us back to a time when it was apparently considered acceptable to have a professional meeting for mathematicians hosted at a strip club—which kind of creeps me out.

  111. Deutsch’s story is quite clever too, but my enjoyment of it was hurt a tiny bit by the inaccuracy—not, ironically enough, the inevitable inaccuracy in the descriptions of the topology, but the inaccuracies in his depiction of the Boston-Cambridge subway and tram system.

    That’s supposedly because Campbell or one of his minions redacted the original MS set on the London Underground. The changes were systematic but the mapping was definitely not topology-preserving.

    There’s a 1996 Argentine film Moebius closely based on the story, using a version of the B.A. metro much more complicated than than in reality, with (some of?) the stations renamed. In particular, Catedral station (the only intersection of three lines in the actual system), where the protagonist gets on the missing train, appears as Borges.

    Deutsch has a crater named after him on Farside.

    a professional meeting for mathematicians

    I don’t think it’s a professional meeting; it’s a private (and stag) social club that restricts its membership to mathematicians, even if they do have a guest speaker every year.

    After reading this story in Principia Mathematica as a kid, I got out the scissors and tape and found a magazine with a Ballantine ad in it, and made the logo to see if it’s really true that the three rings are linked but no two rings are linked. Yup.

  112. David Eddyshaw says

    In Ian McEwan’s (repellent) short story collection First Love, Last Rites, the story Solid Geometry describes a rather similar trick with a human body – as a sex act. (I did say it was repellent.)

    Don’t know if McE was plagiarising Gardner (he may have given credit where it was due, or may have had the basic idea independently. I have no desire to find out.)

  113. Is the London underground knotted?

  114. In the Deutsch story Tupelo taxied down there alone, and pored over the maps till morning. He had coffee and a snail, and then went to Whyte’s office.

    “Snail”? There’s a few OCR errors in the story (or are they mere typos?), but I can’t guess what “snail” is a corruption of.

  115. It’s perfectly normal for the French to eat snails for breakfast.

    I suspect there are places in Boston where you can eat them too.

  116. “Snail”?

    Snail ‘a cinnamon roll or bun.’

    1908 [US] Wathena Times (KS) 28 Aug. 3/1: Try Stephan’s coffee cake and snails.
    1948 Quad-City Times (Davenport, IA) 20 Sept. 12/1: he saw ‘coffee and snails’ on the menu.
    1958 Times (San Mateo, CA) 4 Sept. 11/8: Turnbull […] served coffee and snails to teachers and parents.
    1971 [US] Sheboygan Press (WI) 9 Feb. 16/4: Root’s Monday Morning Koffee Klatch […] Doughtnuts […] Snails.

  117. (Both my wife and I are familiar with it, but that doesn’t mean it’s been in use later than 1971.)

  118. Stu Clayton says
  119. January First-of-May says

    …Huh. We call them улитки in Russian too, now that I think of it, but somehow that doesn’t stop the English term from looking really weird anyway.

    (Admittedly, now that I think about it, if I saw кофе и улитки or кофе с улитками in a Russian story, I probably would’ve been just as surprised.)

  120. Stu Clayton says

    I’ve said the following before, and I’m sure it applies to other languages besides German and English: a fluent speaker does not necessarily think of a “basic meaning” of words which occur in different contexts, even when they are visually/metaphorically/etymologically related. When someone says “Rosinenschnecke“, I don’t think about a Gartenschnecke. These too are Schnecken.

  121. Lars Mathiesen says

    You take your basic square of pastry dough, cover with filling and roll it up from one side, then slice the roll into ‘snails’ and bake them. It’s the most common type of danish in Denmark, popular flavors cinnamon and ‘rum’ — romsnegl.

    I though it was a purely danish idea, and I was a bit surprised this September to get a wonderful escargot de pistache et chocolat at the boulangerie that my local Copenhagen baker had recommended in Paris.

    Hat can go to Ole & Steen, 873 Broadway, NY, NY — a branch of one of the better Copenhagen bakeries.

  122. Hat can go to Ole & Steen, 873 Broadway, NY, NY

    If he wants to spend way too much time in cars, trains, and subways. Hat hasn’t lived in NYC since 2004, alas.

  123. Lars Mathiesen says

    Stu’s Schnecken are snekker in Danish, not to be confused with the Viking longships of the same name.

    While the gastropods are snäckor in Swedish, and their spiral-shaped baked goods are snurrar. (Not pastry, though, just yeasty dough — to the extent that one Copenhagen bakery I know has both proper snegle and snurrer for those who prefer to have a lump of wet flour sitting in their stomach).

  124. Lars Mathiesen says

    too much time — and they probably don’t do post order. Well now you know, if you happen to find yourself there one day and are still curious.

  125. Stu Clayton says

    a lump of wet flour sitting in their stomach

    That was my evaluation of the “cinnamon rolls” (snails) I had once in the States, decades ago.

  126. David Marjanović says

    It’s perfectly normal for the French to eat snails for breakfast.

    Except for the “breakfast” part.

  127. Really?

    For some reason I had mental image of French aristocrats starting new day sipping cold champagne with snails and frogs…

  128. Andrej Bjelaković says
  129. Man, those look good.

  130. Lars Mathiesen says

    Cheese? I don’t rightly know if I hold with that. But it’s a pastry crust at least, though with much less butter than the Danish version (and salt instead of sugar). Could be fun trying.

  131. Lars Mathiesen says

    French aristocrats starting [the] new day — that’s because they break fast at 7 pm or thereabouts. Right?

  132. In Belarusian, Esperanto, Indonesian, Italian, and Welsh, there is also this snail: @.

    Ole & Steen, 873 Broadway, NY, NY

    A very short subway ride for me, however! The website gives no indication that they ship, alas.

    Cheese? I don’t rightly know if I hold with that.

    The cheese danishes of NYC generally use cream cheese / mascarpone (the Italian variety has more butterfat in it) with sugar. The Balto-Slavic-plus-Hungarian cheese used in pierogis /piroʊgiz/ and what not, farmer’s cheese in English, is cottage cheese (curds and whey) with all the whey squeezed out. It’s not clear to me if hytteost denotes both cottage and farmer’s cheese or just one of them: WP:nb says “Mysen fjernes”, which suggests it is farmer’s cheese, at least in Norway.

    ObTrivia: industrial cottage cheese is white because it contain titanium dioxide.

  133. Ian McEwan’s story of a moebius strip in human form was apparently turned into a movie starring Ewan McGregor.

    If there’s ever an audio book version they should look for someone named Gregory McShane to read it

  134. Was it an intentional part of an inside joke that you guys bent a thread on moebius strips to introduce the fact that there’s a place where they call pastries snails while calling snails snacks? A little subtle moebius humor?

  135. This aristocrat doesn’t eat snails for breakfast, but has an ad for oysters on a chair. Probably, would have eaten them in the morning if he could afford it.

    Thinking about 19c humor from another thread, it was heavy handed for our tastes in literature, but what about visual humor, have it become subtler as well?

  136. escargot de pistache et chocolat

    Wow! those look so good. It’s breakfast time here.

    Ok in New Zealand’s Danish-style pastry shops, those are called ‘pinwheels’, yes with cinnamon and/or raisins. Probably flakey pastry, dough at the more upmarket places. I’ll have to work on my local artisan bakers for the pistache et chocolat.

    As for flipping/looping the spiral back on itself … is there a bakery enterprising enough to offer a Moebius Snail?

  137. someone named Gregory McShane to read it

    I know nothing about this Gregory McShane’s speaking voice, but he is a topologist! Apparently low-dimensional topology does not include the fifth dimension (from the Gardner tale), but what’s a dimension or two between friends? (I just googled the name; the fact that he came up right away is strictly from Serendip, as opposed to being from Hungary.)

    Our low-esteemed postal service has been called the U.S. Snail, although its official name is the U.S. Postal Service (“In the U.S., the Postal Service carries the mail, whereas in the UK the Royal Mail carries the post.”)

  138. Mention of eating snails and oysters made me think of this famous deleted scene from Spartacus. If the snails were actually a kind of pastry, it would definitely change the tenor of Crassus’s insinuations about bisexuality.

    The scene was included in the first 1960 theatrical prints of the film, but was excised from all release prints by the 1967 rerelease at the latest. (Other scenes were also cut, but more for pacing issues.) The scene was restored for the 1991 rerelease, but by that point the original film of the cut segment was in terrible shape. The bath scene, behind the curtain, is very dark, but it is not really known precisely how dark it was originally supposed to be. Moreover, the audio track was not usable, so the dialogue had to be rerecorded. Tony Curtis redubbed his own brief lines, but Laurence Olivier was deceased and had to be impersonated by his protege Anthony Hopkins. Stanley Kubrick (in a move rather atypical for him) provided written directions for how the scene should be played.

  139. Trond Engen says

    Hytteost has no tradition in Norway. It’s a (mis)translation of ‘cottage cheese’ that may have had some usage as a generic term for true cottage cheese and copies thereof.

    Norwegian cheesemaking traditions were almost wiped out by the import of Swiss dairy experts and technology in the 19th century.

  140. PlasticPaddy says

    But saved by the advent of condensed milk☺(also 19th century?).

  141. Lars Mathiesen says

    shipping cinnamon snails: I was facetious — the products have a pretty short shelf life, they dry out fast, JC, if you go there, try the ‘frøsnapper,’ it’s the only thing on the menu that has the same name as in Danish. They call the snails ‘swirls’ and the pastry lengths ‘Socials’. Oh, ‘Spandauer’ is the danish name too.

    The ‘Copenhagener’ is properly a tebirkes, where birkes means poppy seeds, loaned into Danish from the German Jewish Berches which is a bread covered in poppy seeds. The frøsnapper is the same thing, just another shape — it is named for a eponymous hero (Orla the Frog Snatcher) of a children’s book popular at the time when some baker shop came up with the gimmick of changing the shape. Possibly because it could remind you of a tongue.

    Cottage cheese: You do drain the whey, and add cream or similar, to get the familiar product. Production was started in Denmark in 1960 at the request of the US Army, Wikipedia tells me, and I do remember that it was a ‘new-fangled’ thing when I grew up, often served as a snack with cherry preserve. It’s still not a thing as an ingredient in hot dishes or cakes here. The farmer cheese type is not known here — though we do get goat cheese rolls that are probably made that way, nominally French, but aged with a white mold crust.

  142. Norwegian dairy industry survived and prospered. It’s the local cheesemaking traditions that were all but forgotten. The Jarlsberg cheese is the result of a post-war research and design project by the dairy institute at the Norwegian Institute of Agriculture. The brand name was carefully chosen: Jarlsberg is a manor in Tønsberg south of Oslo, so a hint of class and tradition. It’s also the old name of the surrounding district, and cheese from that disrict was popular in Oslo in the 19th century. But nobody knows what that cheese was like. The modern cheese is in the “Swiss” tradition.

  143. David Eddyshaw says

    Blessed are the cheesemakers.

  144. PlasticPaddy says

    You are forgetting the brown cheese, of which I am a fan (good with herring in tomato sauce).

  145. More glossing over it, since brown cheese isn’t cheese but caramellized milk, a traditional process that the dairy industry managed to scale up and industrialize. We use brown cheese with a lot of things, up to and including lutefisk, but herring in tomato sauce sounds perverse.

  146. Blessed are the cheesemakers

    For theirs is the kingdom of Herve.

  147. Stu Clayton says

    Hering in Tomatensoße

    There are many commercial versions in flat tins like those for sardines, only larger. I selected a simple recipe, you can doll things up with cinnamon and other crazy-ass condiments to which herring is purportedly amenable.

    Hering in whacky Tomatensoße

  148. Lars Mathiesen says

    Pickled herring is a big thing on Danish lunch tables, and it is indeed amenable to various spices. Traditional kryddersild has a marinade of pepper (crushed), cinnamon (whole), cloves, sandalwood (ground bark of African coralwood), allspice, coriander seeds and red onion boiled in vinegar with sugar. The color might tempt you to think it has tomato, but it’s just the onions.

    You might find the sort of tomatsild from Stu’s first link in the stores, but it’s not traditional. The other dish on the picture looks like traditional hvide sild with bay leaves and onions. (Just add pepper, juniper berries and allspice).

    These are true medieval tastes. While allspice is from the Caribbean, here it is probably a replacement for older Arab trade spices like nutmeg.

  149. David Marjanović says

    Hering in Tomatensoße

    Bonne viande, courte sauce.

    (Not understood in my local cafeteria.)

  150. The one thing I remember very clearly from a childhood visit to Mystic Seaport* was the presentation about how to preserve fish. Cod caught on the Grand Banks were traditionally salted, and salt cod became an important source of protein in many different cuisines. (I thought the sample they had of a whole cod, split and salted, looked really gross—which is probably why I remember the episode.) However, by the time Mystic Seaport was an actual thriving seaport, near the very end of the nineteenth century, freezing fish onboard ships had become a viable option, providing a much fresher product for those willing to pay a bit more. (Freshness, of course, is a relative thing. If one is used to salt cod, then frozen fish will be great improvement. However, expectations nowadays are higher. Anthony Bourdain’s most famous quote was, “I never order fish on Monday,” since the fishmonger would typically be closed on Sunday, and any fish served on Monday would be frozen leftovers from the previous week.**) Pickling of fish, for reasons that are not clear to me, never became a major preservation method in North America.

    However, in northern Scandinavia, another fish preservation method is available that is not practicable in most places. Thanks to the low temperatures and high coastal winds, it is possible to cure fish just by splitting it and then laying it out to air dry (on a frame, so that both sides are exposed). The result is called “stockfish” (also the name of an open-source chess engine). Prior to modern times (when salt had to be obtained by mining, rather than by directly evaporating seawater), this was the easiest reliable preservation method in the region. Apparently, while it was once the most basic protein staple in Norway, Sweden, and Iceland, most stockfish produced today is exported.

    * As opposed to the time I went there as an adult, which I remember pretty well, especially (as I know I have mentioned) the horrifying black-and-white film of a whale carcass being stripped.

    ** This advice was by no means original to Bourdain, nor did he claim it to be. His book Kitchen Confidential was, in large measure, about sharing insider knowledge from the restaurant industry with the general public. The same opinion about not ordering fish on Monday was previously stated by Lenny Henry’s character on the British comedy series Chef! in 1993—with the implication that anybody who really cared about food ought to know already; somebody who did order the fish on Monday was simply a “prat.”

  151. Stockfish, aka tørrfisk (google translates this well enough) or ‘dried fish’ is the main ingredient in bacalao, perhaps the most common originally foreign food in any Norwegian supermarket. We eat it every couple of weeks (it’s much better to make your own, not that we do). You see the cod drying on racks along the shore in Lofoten. I read somewhere that a good deal is shipped to Perugia, for some reason, though everyone here considers it to be Portuguese (bacalhau is Portuguese for cod). I wonder if the dish bacalao is really Italian and came from China.

  152. herring in tomato sauce sounds perverse
    Yeah, it’s mackerel.

  153. Herring in tomato sauce doesn’t sound that perverse. Using brown cheese with it does.

    Canned mackerel in tomato sauce is objectively perverse, though. To make the matter worse, it’s a perversion shared by half the country.

  154. Before I moved to Norway I didn’t know that brown cheese is only eaten with sweet things like strawberry jam. I’ve still got no problem with a brown-cheese, lettuce & tomato sandwich, something that horrifies Norwegians.

    Canned mackerel in tomato sauce is objectively perverse
    My dentist lives on it. He’s half the size he used to be.

  155. Lars Mathiesen says

    Eh, maybe I should try that. I like it, and I could go down a few sizes without looking any worse. Black rye bread with mackerel in tomato or smoked mackerel, if that’s perverse I’m proud to be perverse.

    And for the outsiders: Boiling milk until it’s a hard brown sticky lump and calling it cheese is a uniquely Norwegian perversion, though a few places in Denmark do carry it. Do not conflate with dulce de leche, the milk is not sweetened and it’s boiled until there’s only umami taste left. But a bit of lettuce might actually help…

  156. There is one additional way of preserving fish – fermentation. As Brett said, salt was expensive, so the brine in which the fish is fermented is quite weak. Consequently the fish produced by this method – named surströmming i.e. sour herring – exists in a kind of limbo state between preserved and putrefied. The smell is overpowering and deeply unpleasant – decaying organic matter produces some visceral response in the mammalian brain and surstromming is somehow the worst imaginable version of that. It is, without a doubt, the most disgusting thing I ever ate, and I only managed to choke down one little piece before deciding I’d had enough. I honestly refuse to believe that even the poorest medieval peasants ate this willingly when there were much more palatable alternatives available such as lichen and twigs.

  157. Trond Engen says

    No, sweet stuff is not necessary. It’s sweet and mild enough that I don’t like adding sweets to it myself — at least the commersial version. It’s used in sauces for tasty meat or with lutefisk. I’ve had it served in a salad with … lettuce, nuts and balsamico, I think. Now that you mention it, I believe it would be delicious with smoked mackerel. It’s the combination with tomato sauce that makes me shiver.

    There’s also some traditional production in Sweden, but it was never taken up by the dairy industry there.

  158. I honestly refuse to believe that even the poorest medieval peasants ate this willingly when there were much more palatable alternatives available such as lichen and twigs.

    I’ve been eating rakørret (“soft trout”?) every day this Christmas. I love it! It all comes from one valley in the middle of Norway, called Valdres. It does smell a bit dodgy, but the squirrels took the hazelnuts and all the lichen is under the snow.

  159. Lars Mathiesen says

    I think what they called gravlax in the old days was (bacterially) fermented too, but today’s version is just marinated with sugar and vinegar and spices for a few days. None of this fermented stuff is traditional in Denmark, I suspect that our winters are not always cold enough to keep the wrong sorts of bacteria from growing.

    Except bread and beer, of course, but that’s yeast, and milk products — when you got the wrong bacteria and your butter wouldn’t churn, you just burned a witch.

  160. Then there’s the sauce called variously kôechiap (the remote ancestor of ketchup), colatura di alici [anchovies] garum, nam pla, teuk trei, and nước mắm, among its many other names. It is not only an example of fish fermentation, but an example of what people will willingly eat.

    Anthony Bourdain in Narnia, complete with Marsh-wiggle cuisine (mud-potato porridge, anyone?) Wer-Wolves [sic], on the other hand, are big on grilled leeches (well-fed first).

  161. Oh I adore fish sauce – especially in larb – so I’m not, like, anti-fermentation or loathe to try new foods or anything of the sort . Worcestershire sauce is made of fermented….sardines? I think. So i’m fully onboard for fermented fish-based foods And i’m not easily put off by unusual smells or flavors – apart from the wretched herring, that is. Surströmming is not, like, a pungent version of the smells present in fish sauce. It’s something far more revolting…..somehow even unsettling. If you’re familiar with durian, it’s reminiscent of that but grosser. And it’s just overpowering, from the moment you open the can, despite being outdoors. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ICJ held that it’s prohibited under that the Chemical Weapons Ban, Not to inflame intra-Scandinavian tensions but lutefisk or hakarl, which are frequently mentioned in this context, are a goddamn delight compared to the unrelenting horror that is surstromming.

    AJP, rakørret sounds marvelous – I would have no objections to eating my fill of it. And even if it was allowed to partially decompose I’m sure trout would still taste better than herring.

    Lars, yeah in retrospect eating surstromming in Lund is sort of like …..I don’t know, ordering a lobster roll in Atlanta. It’s not part of the local tradition.

  162. My wife—a fan of both retro cooking and ancient Roman culture—was unable to find a garum recipe that she was willing to try making. (She is fastidious about spoiled food, and so very wary about home fermentation.) However, there are examples online of people who have tried to recreate the sauce from traditional Roman descriptions, and the results are generally bad—sometimes ludicrously so. As far as I know, none of the extant recipes were written by people who actually made garum commercially. In earlier Roman times, garum was probably manufactured by many people at home, but by imperial times it was being made on an industrial scale and was consumed all around the Mediterranean. (My Roman history professor used the spread of garum around the Roman Empire as an example of how locals in conquered areas, especially local leaders, tended to ape Roman culture even when it made no sense. Another specific example I remember was building Mediterranean-style villas in places like Colchester.) The recipes we have are mostly for garum of the homemade sort, but they were written down after homemade garum had largely ceased to be an important product. The large-scale producers who took over the industry probably considered the details of their production methods to be a trade secret. So the surviving recipes tend to be sketches, from people who probably lacked hands-on familiarity with the process; some are, in fact, clearly just descriptions of what they have observed of garum making. Whatever techniques were used to make the resulting sauces marginally more palatable have probably been permanently lost.

    The other particular fact that I remember about graum is that in the 1984 television miniseries of The Last Days of Pompeii, the merchant Diomed (played by Ned Beatty) is specifically a garum merchant, which adds to the humor of Beatty’s portrayal.

  163. surströmming

    Sounds like hákarl.

  164. (Both my wife and I are familiar with it [“snail” as a pastry], but that doesn’t mean it’s been in use later than 1971.)

    Report from some gumshoeing in pastry shops just short of the ends of the earth: “snail”/”escargot” is recognised in the sense ‘pinwheel’ or ‘Danish spiral’ in NZ, but regarded as markedly foreign: American or Continental European tourists.

    Fillings have been australised: Vegemite with cheddar anyone? I’ll exert pressure on my favourite craft bakery wrt the pistacchio + dark chocolate. (Truth be told, authentic pistacchio seldom gets this far, but I have found a source of yummy icecream, in the port suburb catering for cruise liners.)

  165. authentic pistacchio

    What about macadamia nuts?

  166. Lars, today’s gravlax is just marinated with sugar and vinegar and spices for a few days.
    And then they add a sprig of dill. In that case, I don’t understand why it’s so much more expensive (at least in Norwegian supermarkets) even than the einerrøkt (juniper-smoked) salmon.

    Nemanja, AJP, rakørret sounds marvelous – I would have no objections to eating my fill of it.
    I think it’s marvelous, but some Norwegians (my wife) are quite wary of it.

  167. Lars Mathiesen says

    The Danish shopping site that I just checked has smoked and gravad salmon at exactly the same prices (two different brands, for each brand the two products have the same package size and price). And this was just plain smoked salmon, no mention of juniper. I don’t know what determines prices in Norway.

  168. Trond Engen says

    Me: Now that you mention it, I believe [brunost] would be delicious with smoked mackerel.

    I no longer believe that. I’ve tried, and I know.

  169. However, there are examples online of people who have tried to recreate the sauce from traditional Roman descriptions, and the results are generally bad

    Laura Kelley appears to have had some success, described here and here. Though I share your skepticism regarding the degree of confidence with which we can regard any modern garum as an accurate recreation of the original article, given the nature of the sources.

    Fermented foods comparable to surströmming and hákarl might include the Korean fermented skate hongeo-hoe, said to have a strong ammonia smell, and kiviak, a Greenlandic preparation in which a number of whole unplucked seabirds are wrapped in a sealskin, buried under rocks and left to ferment for several months.

  170. @Tim May: It sounds like she did manage to produce a reasonable garum. I’ll have to share that site with my wife.

    In a facsimile of a seventeenth-century cookbook, I also found a prescription for getting the bad smell off venison that had started to go bad. It involved wrapping the meat and burying it in the earth for a day.

  171. In high school I read a book by an Arctic explorer who described kiviak in great detail, including the taste of various parts, from cheesy to beery. He made it sound attractive.

  172. Trond Engen says

    Brett (one year ago): The result is called “stockfish” (also the name of an open-source chess engine). Prior to modern times (when salt had to be obtained by mining, rather than by directly evaporating seawater), this was the easiest reliable preservation method in the region. Apparently, while it was once the most basic protein staple in Norway, Sweden, and Iceland, most stockfish produced today is exported.

    I remember looking this up last year but somehow must have forgotten to post it. The etymology of bacalao is uncertain, with any account involving back-and-forths between Portuguese, Basque and/or Dutch, but it could ultimately be from Latin baculum “staff, stick”. The stock of stockfish also means “staff, stick”, and “fish on a staff” is a straightforward descriptive term, which quite likely could have been coined in North Sea Intergermanic. The interesting question is how it ended up with a contorted latinate name in Southern Europe. Even if it was promoted actively by the Church as food for Lent, I wouldn’t expect it to have been sold under its Latin name. Could it have been subject of ecclesiastic or diplomatic correspondence in Latin on a level that established the latinate term thoroughly already before the introduction of the product on the market? If so, how isn’t that visible in the records?

  173. Corominas’ Spanish etymological dictionary is a delightful work. It has a page on bacalao and all its proposed etymologies, which it examines carefully. He notes the “stock” parallel too. Corominas proposes the following, not proven, but at least plausible in all its stages, starting with an idea by Barbier: Gascon cabilh ~ cabelh (from Latin capitulum or capitulus), hypocoristic of cap ‘head’, referring to the cod’s large head (as do several older Italian names for the fish: caputo, testuto, mazzo, and French têtu). From Gascon the word travels to French cabillaud (att. 1278); from French the word travels north to Dutch kabeljauw (att. 1163 as cabellauwus) and from it to German Kabeljau; and east to Italian cabiglio. French cabillaud enters Basque as bakail̮ao, through a common process of metathesis in that language, and thence to Spanish bacallao and Portuguese bacalhao. From Spanish it passes to Catalan bacallà, thence to Italian bacallano and the newer baccalà. The Italian dialectal baccalaro is the source of Serbo-Croatian bakalâr.

  174. John Emerson says

    On the Christianity of Beowulf (far above): to me the Christianity is exceptionally thin. How would someone describe Christianity if their only source were Beowulf? What I remember is monotheism, Cain and Abel, the expulsion of demons, and maybe a few other points, plus a lot of stuff about monsters that might just barely be compatible with Christianity, but not central to it. And in one place the sun is given an importance I haven’t seen in any other form of Christianity.

  175. @Y: Thanks. I couldn’t make sense of Dutch kabeljauw, but the borrowing from French iseems very plausible.

  176. Barbier’s original discussion is here.

  177. I came across another reference to fermentation yesterday. I was rereading Call it Courage, so I could discuss it with my eight-year old, and near the end, I found Mafatu packing his canoe for his return journey.

    He filled bamboo containers with fresh water, sealed them with leaves that were gummed into place, watertight and secure. Then he stored them carefully in the canoe. He prepared a poi of bananas and sealed it, likewise, into containers; there it would ferment and sour and become delicious to the taste. Then he picked a score or more of green drinking nuts and flung them into the canoe.

    Fermented banana mush does not sound very delicious to me, However, the author Armstrong Sperry had extensive experience in the Pacific, both as a ethnologist and as a sailor,* and I doubt he would have included that if it were not authentic.

    * He came from a sailing family. His older brother invented boat shoes.

  178. this seems like the place to report that i finally (not that it’s long; i got interrupted*) finished headley’s Beowulf, and found it satisfying all the way through. her introduction (which i read afterwards) is also lovely – a thoughtful dive into Beowulf translations past and present.

    based partly on that experience, i think part of the problem with deciding how deep christianity is integrated into the poem is just people having very different understandings of what counts as christian. to me, headley’s beowulf reads like a story from before any trace of christianization, as told by someone deeply committed to a christianity that doesn’t bear a very close relationship to any contemporary versions. i could describe it as “thin”, as “syncretic”, as “minimal”, but i think any of those would be missing the point (or possibly the différance) by taking christianity as we know it as the center of reference…

    i read and adored A Subway Named Mobius as a kid growing up in cambridge, and only recently got to re-read it – i had no idea until revisiting this thread that it had been transplanted from london! (which would’ve made a lot more sense – the boston subway has nevershown signs of becoming notably convoluted – but not captured my imagination in the same way)

    and just for the chronicle: that scene in Spartacus was, according to gore vidal, very carefully engineered to get past the censors. he talks about it in The Celluloid Closet (i couldn’t find a link to a clip, but the whole movie is worth a watch)…

    * insert your own person from Porlock joke here; i’m underslept…

  179. that scene in Spartacus was, according to gore vidal, very carefully engineered to get past the censors

    While I love Vidal’s writing, I’m not sure I trust his accounts. I mean, in this case the general thrust of his story is doubtless accurate, but I would guess he embellished for effect. (Not having read the book, I am free to opine unfettered.)

  180. @rozrke: I’ve seen The Celluloid Closet, and I remember that Spartacus was a topic discussed, although I don’t recall much else detail. However, I suspect you may be misremembering about Gore Vidal. Vidal wrote the script for the other big Roman epic that came out in 1959–1960, Ben Hur, which is also famous for its homoerotic subtext.

  181. Lars Mathiesen says

    FWIW, Danish has kabliau for large cod (as captured). It comes from the Dutch word and was spelt kabbeljov and similar earlier, I think somebody tried to make the spelling look French. (My source is unclear, but Modern German may or may not have the same spelling). Otherwise they are torsk, and (unsalted) stockfish are simply tørfisk.

  182. My source is unclear, but Modern German may or may not have the same spelling
    It’s Kabeljau.

  183. And here is the clip from The Celluloid Closet of Vidal talking about the gay undertones on Ben-Hur.

  184. That’s a great clip!

  185. John Emerson says

    Often conversion to Christianity was done by whole nations as part of the formation of diplomatic alliance, and often also as part of the assertion of central political authority (St Olaf is an example of this), and I think that it is reasonable to describe such Christianity as thin. I can believe that from the beginning Beowulf was in this sense a Christian poem, working on the Christian flag, but I was hard put to find specifically Christian elements in the poem and didn’t feel that a knowledge of Christianity would illuminate the reading of the poem. The only thing that came to mind was the idea the it may have been Arian and non Trinidadian, like Gothic Christianity, but even so the absence of Christ in the poem (as I remember it) was striking.

    I do have a feeling that it was a general Teutonic poem — an Anglosaxon poem about Danes and Swedes in which the Goth Eormanric plays an ancestral role. These differences didn’t seem to have been thought of as important.

  186. John Emerson says

    “under the Christian flag”


    Both autofill mistakes.

  187. David Eddyshaw says

    Beowulf is certainly non-Trinidadian. Perhaps that could be remedied by a latter-day Derek Walcott. The weather in the poem would be better, for one thing.

    Grendel’s mother might well have something to do with the Bermuda Triangle.
    These are deep waters. So to speak.

  188. I don’t think we should too hasty about ruling out a Trinidadian origin for Beowulf.

    ETA: Sniped by David Eddyshaw.

  189. John Emerson says

    Early reggae I guess, or maybe calypso.

  190. David Eddyshaw says

    An origin in Trinidadian protocalypso would certainly explain the Indic motifs. It has often been pointed out that Beowulf is portrayed as an avatar of Indra.

  191. Grendelina, Grendelina, please bring down your concertina, and play a welcome for me…

  192. Trond Engen says

    We must still try to peel off the apocalyptic additions in order to identify the true calyptic core.

  193. David Eddyshaw says

    I agree. That would be the most eucalyptic.

  194. January First-of-May says

    I think I just parsed “Trinidadian” in this context as a fancy synonym of “Trinitarian” (it probably helped that this is in fact the correct etymology: “Trinidad” is Spanish for “Trinity”).

  195. Ha, so it is — that hadn’t even occurred to me.

  196. Katsuobushi

    The (skipjack) fish is beheaded, gutted, and filleted, with the fatty belly, which does not lend well to being preserved, trimmed off. The fillets are then arranged in a basket and simmered just below boiling for an hour to an hour and a half, depending on their size.

    The rib bones are then removed and the fillets smoked for up to a month using oak, pasania, or castanopsis wood. They are smoked for 5-6 hours in one session, left to rest one day for the condensation to rise to the surface, then fired and smoked again the next day. This smoking and resting cycle is repeated 12–15 times in total. The built-up tar from the smoke is cleaned from the surface using a grinder.[further explanation needed] At this stage the fillets are called aragatsuo (荒節) and most commonly found in stores shaved and packaged for sale under the name katsuo-kezuri-bushi (鰹削り節) or hanakatsuo. They are not true katsuobushi without the last fermentation stage, but still valued as a good substitute.

    The last stage of creating katsuobushi is to allow the fish to sun-dry using the assistance of mold. The fillets are sprayed with Aspergillus glaucus culture and left for two weeks in a closed cultivation room. The mold ferments the fillets and also draws out any residual moisture.

    The mold is continually scraped off, with further sun-drying increasing hardness and dryness until the fillet resembles a piece of wood, with less than 20% of its original weight. By definition, only fillets that have been treated in this manner may be referred to as katsuobushi. However, after repeating this process of mold growth and sun-drying at least twice, the katsuobushi can also be called karebushi (枯節, “dried fillet”), and fillets repeating this process more than three times can be called honkarebushi (本枯節, “true dried fillet”). When tapped together lightly, they sound almost metallic, and unlike their dull beige outer appearance, when broken open they are a translucent deep ruby color inside. Rarely, very high-end honkarebushi repeat this drying process for over two years.

  197. And then what? Does one make wind chimes of them?

  198. Stu Clayton says

    Is this originally poor folk food ? All that processing to turn a plain old fish into a xylophone bar. Ritual to distract from hunger.

    One of Miyazaki’s animated films is set in Japan during WW2. As rationing gets ever tighter, the central figure elaborately prepares a meal from, as I recall, a bit of radish, tofu, a wild herb, a small amount of rice and 4 (or 5?) tiny sardines. She knew the recipe as the invention of a famous old Japanese general. This part of the film lasts at least 10 minutes.

  199. Then you shave them (it’s otherwise hard to shave a fish) and sell them as bonito flakes. They are used to flavor soups with and to favor cats with.

  200. in Celluloid Closet, the Spartacus bit comes right after the Ben Hur bit; i can’t remember whether vidal was just using it as an example of what was possible in swords & sandals epics, or whether he was involved…

    and yes: uncle gore kinda lives in the space where an unreliable narrator isn’t necessarily an inaccurate one.

  201. John Emerson says

    In Beowulf there is a phrase which, in translation, remains idiomatic afternoon 1200 years: “sorge ne cuthon” = “feeling no
    pain” (I.e. drunk).

    Those feeling no pain were often eaten by Grendel, so maybe Beowulf was a temperance tract.

  202. John Emerson says

    “after 1200 years”

  203. So that’s when rum-filled chocolates were invented.

  204. you shave them

    Or just use some dashi no moto powder:

    Dashi is one of the stocks which form the basis of almost all Japanese cooking. Dashi is commonly made by heating katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), konbu (kelp), shiitake mushrooms or iriko (sardine) and draining off the resulting broth. It is used for flavouring dishes such as soups, nabe (Japanese hotpot), sauces and rice dishes. Dashi in easy-to-mix powdered form is very popular as it can be used to produce authentic-tasting Japanese cuisine without the effort of making stock from the raw ingredients.

  205. Some interesting resources relating to garum are linked in this Stack Exchange question.

  206. Thanks, that’s interesting stuff. One snippet:

    …it remained in a few little pockets — like in Southwest Italy, where they produce colatura di alici, a modern descendant of the ancient fish sauce. The product was barely known even in Italy just a few years ago, but it is gradually being rediscovered.

  207. David Marjanović says

    On p. 9 of this handout there’s a metrical argument for dating Beowulf before 725: the language it was composed in still had long vowels in unstressed syllables, or at least a completely accurate memory of which unstressed vowels had been long and which had not.

    Yes, I know about Tolkien’s Grinder, but if I knew about grindill, I had forgot. I gather it’s poetic register, and also that it’s not completely clear what sort of bad weather it denotes. When I looked into this some time ago, I took note of the noun grand “injury, evil” and the verb granda “hurt” (with connotations of blame and guilt). Now I think the noun grandi “sandy reef” is interesting as well.

    I mentioned Grant “grumpiness”, but forgot to mention the obsolete Grind “rash”, which survives in Vienna as grindig “disgusting” ( ~ “dirty”, not of food).

    From “rash” it isn’t far to illnesses that cause such. That might include the Justinian plague.

  208. @ John Cowan. “Thorpe has a doublet dorp, borrowed from Afrikaans, and long ago the demonym for Poughkeepsie [pəˈkɪpsi], N.Y. was Dorpian.”

    What is your evidence for Dorpian as the demonym for Poughkeepsie?
    I find only this:

    Dorpian ~ Schenectadian < Schenectady
    Poughkeepsian < Poughkeepsie

    Dorp is indeed Afrikaans, but the relevant word here is European Dutch dorp, whence New Netherland Dutch dorp, as in New Dorp (a toponym on Staten Island, New York) and in Dorp[ian], the above-mentioned demonym.

  209. A resident of Poughkeepsie is a “non-elf.”

  210. January First-of-May says

    A resident of Poughkeepsie is a “non-elf.”

    My uncle had been resident in Poughkeepsie for several years, and probably wasn’t an elf (…mostly on the account of being my uncle) but we met so rarely that I’m not entirely sure.

  211. John Cowan says

    I don’t know how or why I conflated Poughkeepsie (a Munsee word) with Schenectady (a Mohawk one).

  212. January First-of-May says

    Now I’m wondering how many actual-factual historical people in ancient Germanic royal families really did have alliterating names. People have done much worse things to their kids.

    I’ve since realized that name element reuse (common in Germanic families, especially royal) can result in something like this; the children of Æthelwulf of Wessex were Æthelstan, Æthelswith (daughter), Æthelbald, Æthelberht, Æthelred, and Alfred (sometimes spelled Ælfred).

    Alfred in turn had daughters named Æthelflæd, Æthelgifu, and Ælfthryth; he also had a son named Æthelweard, though his most famous son was named Edward (that is, Eadweard) without any Æ in the name.

    (And then the names of Edward’s children mostly started with the Ead- element. It seems to have been more common than I thought, at least in that dynasty.)

  213. David Marjanović says

    Many people are saying that ea, at least where it came from *au as it does here, actually started with [æ].

  214. Trond Engen: Canned mackerel in tomato sauce — quite popular in Bulgaria also! Weird. Especially sometimes with beans and pickles.

  215. Many people are saying that ea, at least where it came from *au as it does here, actually started with [æ].

    As it is in Southern American English, along with a repetition of much of the rest of the sound shift, beginning with ai > a:. I sometimes wonder if that isn’t where somebody (I want to say Sweet?) got the idea.

  216. David Marjanović says

    That part is widespread in England, too, even though the rest of the shift hasn’t followed.

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