Shadow Tongue.

Tom Birkett’s TLS review of Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake, “set in the aftermath of 1066, during the period of resistance to the Norman invasion,” makes it sound quirkily interesting in a linguistic way:

As the author explains, this account of invasion and insurgency is written in a “shadow tongue”, a curious imitation of Old English “intended to project a ghost image of the speech patterns of a long-dead land”. This involves limiting the protagonist’s vocabulary to words with Germanic roots for the most part, as well as reviving several Old English terms including “smearcian”, a verb meaning both “to smirk” and “to smile”, whose duality is exploited effectively to heighten the paranoia that plagues the narrator. The noun “stenc”, meaning “smell”, but surviving as “stench” is another word deployed with unsettling effect, and other less-familiar words such as “scucca”, “gebur” and “esol” are used so frequently that they present few barriers to fluent reading. This shadow language underscores our distance from the world Buccmaster describes, while recalling what Geoffrey Hill refers to as the “strange likeness” of this culture.

Since the Old English words that survive into the modern language tend to refer to the natural world and everyday objects and actions, our continuing relationship to the landscape is reinforced at a linguistic level. The limited vocabulary also gives the novel a feeling of constriction that adds enormously to the protagonist’s progressive isolation. Reading this imitative language as an Anglo-Saxonist, there were a few places where I felt the rich Old English word-hoard was done a disservice – particularly in the liberal use of “Anglo-Saxon” language of another kind – and there are other moments where the idiom is more “Merrie Olde England” than pseudo-Old English, but the “shadow tongue” is nonetheless an impressive simulation.

The review ends, “the message of this extraordinary novel is as honest and timely as it is discomforting: being waecend to the grim fate of your society doesn’t mean you can do anything to prevent it happening. Ultimately, The Wake highlights the difficulty of finding triewth in a world where comfortable certainties have been eroded and words no longer mean what you expect them to mean.” Thanks, jamessal!


  1. So, Mr Clevver, Riddley Walker reversed?

  2. This reminds me of a major theme in “Ishi the Last Yahi”.

  3. “my father Galiaudo always use to say I must have a gift of Santa maria of Roboreto because since I was a little pup if somebody say just quinkue five V words I could do their talk right off whether they came from Terdona or from Gavi and even from Mediolanum where they talk stranger than dogs, anyway even when I met the first Alamanni in my life who were laing siege seige seege to Terdona, all Toische and nasty and they say rousz and Myn got, before the day was over I was saying rousz and Myn got too and they woiud wwould say to me Kint go find us a pretty Frouwe and we’ll do fiki fiki even is she doesn’t wan to just tell us where she is and we’ll grab her fast”

    — Baudlino tries his hand at writing (Chapter 1, Baudalino, by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver)

  4. Michael L. says

    Baudolino is exactly what came to my mind as well. I haven’t read the original, but Weaver’s translation is a fantastic read.

  5. Jeff Semel says

    Also see “Uncleftish Beholding” (meaning “Atomic Science”) by Poul Anderson (1989). There is a Wikipedia article on it.

  6. David Marjanović says

    “Uncleftish Beholding” (meaning “Atomic Science”)

    Fail. That should be a compound noun, not a Romance-style sequence of a noun and an adjective.

    Uncleftbeholding! 🙂

  7. No, it’s an English-style sequence of an adjective and a noun. Anglish is not German; see the Fifth Amendment.

  8. Belatedly: Having just read this book because the description here made me curious, I suspect knowledge of (current? historic?) Midlands/Lincolnshire dialects would help contextualize some of the author’s grammatical and phonetic choices regarding the simplification that led to his shadow language. At least, I hope that’s what was going on.

    Still, it’s a fun read for the language if you can handle the protagonist. Or a fun read for the psychology if you can handle the language, whichever your preference.

  9. Thanks for the review, and I suspect you’re right about knowing the dialects.

  10. David Marjanović says

    No, it’s an English-style sequence of an adjective and a noun.

    Oh, actually… now that I remember northern German weirdness, you may be right. I’m thinking of:
    1) -‘sch adjectives formed from personal names, clearly shortened from -isch. They correspond to English adjectives like Darwinian, but also to plain genitives: Newton’s laws are die Newton’schen/newtonschen Gesetze. Not only haven’t I encountered this shortening anywhere except in adjectives formed from place names in northwestern Germany (hannoversch, hannöversch, bönnsch, kölsch), I’ve always found it thoroughly weird to form such adjectives in the first way. The expected Standard German solution would be to use the genitive or to resort to compounding. Indeed, I just found a case where the German Wikipedia even prefers resorting to “of” over a -‘sch adjective.
    2) Französische Straße in Berlin heavily implies to me there’s something French about that street. There isn’t, it’s named after the French and would be Franzosenstraße farther south.

  11. Alon Lischinsky says

    @Jeff Semel: nihil sub galero novum, I’m afraid.

  12. Is a puzzlement now where to put a comment on topic X when there are Y Languagehat posts relevant to it. I usually choose the most recent as a proxy for the most recently active.

  13. Stefan Holm says

    David: I’ve always found it thoroughly weird to form such adjectives in the first way. The expected Standard German solution would be to use the genitive or to resort to compounding.

    What about Kölnisch Wasser, known to the rest of mankind as Eau de Cologne? I’m not a native but I believe it to have the prosody of a compund, like blueberries vs blue berries. And Köln (Cologne) isn’t that far north. Do you find Kölnisch Wasser weird?

  14. David Marjanović says

    Do you find Kölnisch Wasser weird?


    There’s a second reason, too: the lack of declension on the neuter adjective (instead of *Kölnisches Wasser). Nowadays that’s another vaguely northern feature, though it was more widespread in Early New High German some 500 years ago.

    Linguistically, Cologne is fairly far north; it’s in the northern half of the Central German area, north of the Dorp/Dorf line for example.

  15. SFReader says

    Excerpt from the book:

    “i was no i is a socman of holland a part of the scir of lincylene where the ground was blaec and good and deop. our ham was an ealond in the fenns on all sides the wilde on all sides the dabcic the water wulf the lesch and the deorc waters. our folc cnawan this place lic we cnawan our wifmen and our cildren. we cnawan fiscan and fowlan the gathran of the lesch the ploughan and the pannan of the salt we cnawan the paths through the fenns the ways with the ael and the alor mastors we was of the blaec lands”

  16. Thanks, that’s both more comprehensible and weirder than I would have expected.

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