[Guest Post by Sharon Rhodes]
This guest post by Sharon Rhodes considers a subject of great interest in medieval studies at present, the use of the term “Anglo-Saxon.” Rhodes takes a fresh approach to the subject, focusing on how to teach Old English language and literature (with relevance for the teaching of related subjects, such as medieval English art, history, etc.) without welcoming or fostering the racist fantasies about linguistic and cultural “purity” that have plagued the field more or less since its inception. Rhodes argues this case by focusing on the linguistic diversity of the period—and the modern era—that is often glossed over or outright effaced in the classroom as well as in published editions of Old English texts. (For background on the current controversy in the field, see essays by Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm, Dr. Adam Miyashiro, Dr. Dorothy Kim, The Medievalists of Color, and, most recently, Dr. Catherine Karkov.)
-Asa Simon Mittman, for The Material Collective
I specifically discuss modes of resisting White Supremacy when teaching Old English, but many of the points of history and teaching techniques I discuss could be applied in other classes, such as composition, survey courses, art history, and so on.
Too many people are drawn to “Anglo-Saxon” studies—and I use that term consciously—by the idea that Old English is the ur-English and that this supposedly pure version of English points to a historic ur-culture characterized by the peaceful homogeneity that Richard Spencer and other members of the alt-right dream of restoring. Of course, this notion aligns with the motivations and conclusions of many of the earliest Old English scholars. As Christopher M. Cain states in a 2010 article about George Hickes, early Old English scholars’ linguistic ideology viewed “dialects as a devolution of language” and saw “early English as having devolved from a purer past state.” Or, as Sir Thomas Smith, the man who coined the term “Anglo-Saxon” in the 1560s, wrote, “our ancestors, the original Anglo-Saxons looked much more closely into the nature of letters, and wrote more correctly than we do today.” Others in the same basic milieu, according to Rebecca Brackmann’s The Elizabethan Invention of Anglo-Saxon England: Laurence Nowell, William Lambarde, and the Study of Old English, latched onto what they believed was pure “Anglo-Saxon” because they believed non-native and Latin-based words were corrupting English and would corrupt its governance in turn. Language is inextricably linked to culture and thus to power structures and their supporting narratives; as such, views like those of Hickes and Nowell are still pervasive today. We see this in discrimination against speakers of non-standard English dialects and the accompanying presumption that such speakers are unintelligent. Despite many strides forward the belief that linguistic diversity points to a crumbling civilization pervades our culture both within and without academia. Indeed, many high-achieving students pride themselves on their mastery of Standard English and its prescriptivist rules and are quick to correct peers’ non-standard usages. Moreover, many would-be students are barred from educational (and thus other forms of) success by the all-too effective gatekeeping of standardized tests written in Standard English.
However, I believe humanities professors and instructors, particularly early medieval scholars, have an opportunity to push back by explicitly stating that Old English, like Modern English today, was once a living language subject to the same continual forces of change active in any other living language: each successive generation and sub-field of users adapts their language in order to effectively communicate their different needs and experiences. So too, then and now, the language of those in power distinguishes them from those not in power and thus can become, if not a force of oppression itself, a means of maintaining a status quo in which some groups are marginalized or oppressed on the basis, in part, of their speech.
As Cain puts it, the earliest Old English scholarship was shaped by “a pervasive cultural anxiety that the mixture of language was ‘barbarous’” as well as a desire to taxonomically distinguish different political groups and their claims to space, such as with the term “Anglo-Saxon.” George Hickes, born in 1642, dedicated much of his life to the study of what he called “pure Saxon … no Dialect, but the principal Language” from which other forms of Old English and thus early Modern English had strayed. Hickes was writing and working in a time of great political turmoil which directly impacted his own life: a nonjuror, he refused to take the oath of allegiance to William and Mary in 1689. His search for an original “Saxon,” was deeply tied to his ideas about his nation, his culture, and how things were supposed to be. Other scholars were less obviously politically motivated in their philology and editorial work, but, perhaps because of the field’s origins, implicitly suggest a singular Old English rather than a patchwork of dialectically diverse speech groups. However, if we reverse their work, we can see the diversity of textual evidence and explore these dialectical differences not as flaws but as evidence of linguistic vitality.
Although the majority of scholars may recognize that the academic concept of “Anglo-Saxon England” encapsulates diverse peoples and cultures—none of which were the direct antecedent of modern constructions of whiteness and whose languages were only a small part of what would become Modern English, Standard or otherwise—we need to be more conscious of practices that support the myth of a historical, white mono-culture. To teach our students about the cultural and linguistic diversity of this period we need to explicitly acknowledge three things:
- the violence between various ethnic groups during this time period, such as between Germanic settlers and Celtic peoples (both of whom would be considered white by modern standards) and between different groups of Germanic settlers themselves,
- the non-existence of a singular, real English in any period, medieval or modern, and
- editorial practices that gloss over the textual evidence of linguistic diversity and present language communities as homogeneous groups with firm and impermeable borders.
With these three factors in mind—intra-racial violence, the multiplicity of Englishes, and editorial work—we can guide students through an exploration of the textual evidence we do have even as we may gratefully fall back on readers that standardize morphologies and spellings or anthologies that simply elide these issues entirely through Modern English translations.
Violence in the So-Called “Anglo-Saxon” Period
The first point requires only that we include texts that discuss the wars and battles waged among groups now considered as a monolith—like many passages of Bede, The Battle of Maldon, and Beowulf—and highlight that, however they might seem from the vantage of the present, the peoples of Wessex, Essex, Anglia, and Kent, saw themselves as distinct from one another and other Northern European peoples. Such discussions might seem secondary to or beyond the bounds of classes on Old English, medieval art, or even literature surveys, but acknowledging the violence and discord of the period is an important counterbalance to white-supremacist narratives that ignore the facts and namecheck Beowulf without delving into its stories of inter-tribal warfare and intra-tribal violence. Of course, as scholars like Mary Rambaran-Olm, among others, have pointed out, a number of prominent figures of the Old English period, such as the seventh/eighth-century monks Hadrian and Theodore, would not be categorized as white today, and many of the Latin Fathers of the Church. However, to directly counter the alt-right equation of racial homogeneity and peace/prosperity it’s useful to remind students that, beyond the monsters, the plot of Beowulf revolves around tensions between people who, under modern classifications, would all be considered white.
In many cases, this can be achieved simply by highlighting notes and inviting discussion. For instance, the enterprising student who not only takes Old English but also reads the entirety of the text will find this passage in Mitchell and Robinson’s Guide to Old English:
There was certainly much fighting between the various kingdoms, with now one, now another, temporarily ‘top-dog’ under some powerful warrior-king . . . By 800, however, four great kingdoms survived, Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex, and East Anglia.
To make sure that students cannot complete the course without at least hearing these facts, it’s important to highlight notes such as these in lectures and invite discussion of the impact of, at minimum, having four dialects in play.
The Many Forms of Proper English
The second point is more difficult because acknowledging historical linguistic diversity requires that English teachers consciously and respectfully acknowledge the linguistic diversity of our own era. Without this, we cannot hope for our students to both understand and appreciate the linguistic diversity of past cultures or the idea that there may by more than one “correct” way to express an idea. The singularity of the term “Old English” is as misleading as the singularity of the term “Modern English.” However, anthologies like the Norton Anthology of English Literature, many students’ first and last encounter with pre-nineteenth-century English, do little to convey the vast diversity of the texts we designate as “Old English.” We must also remember that the readers used in introductory Old English courses—which only a very small subset of English students encounter—frequently standardize orthography and even grammar. While these editors’ work is hugely useful in terms of accessibility, in either case such casual exposure may suggest that diversity is a modern invention or, as the George Hickes and the alt-right might put it, a modern corruption. Leaving aside the sectors of the US that would prefer that English be made the official language of the US, there is a deeper, more insidious problem of Standard English privilege. Whether Bostonian or Black Californian or Appalachian—or the Englishes that have developed in India, Singapore, and so on—the idea that variations are errors or devolutions persists. Speakers of such dialects are often presumed to lack intelligence or even full humanity, a message popular culture regularly reinforces by using non-standard Englishes to point to negative characteristics while speakers of Standard American English are presumed to be non-violent and possess at least baseline intelligence and education. For instance, the linguist Nicholas Subtirelu points out that while the evil henchmen of Disney’s The Lion King, the hyenas, use African American English and Latino-inflected English, the hero Simba, along with the other “good guys,” uses Standard American English. Even those born into white privilege sometimes strive for the greater privilege that comes to those who successfully shed a New Jersey, Long Island, or Tennessee accent, while those who maintain such geographically specific speech patterns often end up the butt of jokes.
Linguistic discrimination often serves as a socially acceptable screen for less palatable forms of prejudice. But even the unprejudiced too often fail to appreciate, let alone celebrate, the variety of Englishes that exist at present and turn the same prescriptivist attitude on Old Englishes. Professors in the humanities must be conscious of the factors surrounding linguistic classism so that we can acknowledge that no version of English is more pure than any other.
While my own ability to read papers and my employment in English departments and writing programs necessitates that I require students to write in Standard English, I like to start all of my classes by (1) acknowledging that the rules of Standard American English and its position as the language of privilege are arbitrary, (2) briefly recounting the history of standardization, and (3) leading discussions on the pros and cons of standardization (e.g., the way that standardized spelling and punctuation eases reading but also flattens and limits expression). Although standardization means that English speakers from Glasgow and New Orleans are mutually intelligible in writing—and consistent orthography allows us to read more quickly—it also flattens the variety of expression that we hear and would see in non-standardized English. To prepare my students for the larger world, I do teach prescriptive grammar rules, standard usage, and what are widely accepted as best practices in expository writing, but I am careful to frame this as an issue of genre rather than one of “right or wrong.” It is a subtle push against linguistic prejudice, but not penalizing non-standard usage and welcoming diverse expression in classroom discussions helps to raise the status of diverse forms of English, open up discussions to students who feel that their own voices are unwelcome in the classroom, and puts Standard English in its place as a tool for communication rather than an inherently superior form of expression.
Standardization in Teaching Texts and Editions
Finally, many Old English textbooks use “corrected” and standardized Old English orthography. While this practice eases the difficulty of learning the language it also, like modern standardization, flattens the diversity otherwise found in pre-modern, manuscript languages and lends credence to the myth that there was once a “real” English from which a variety of less legitimate Englishes descended. Variant spellings in many cases may represent variant pronunciations, and different translations of the same Latin text may indicate different lexicons and semantic conceptualizations. Without help, students can easily miss the subtleties of the trees for the forest of paradigms and edited texts. For instance, Mitchell and Robinson offer just one version of the Old English Lord’s Prayer. But, in an article on the evolution of the Lord’s Prayer in early medieval England, the philologist Albert S. Cook, writing in 1891, created a composite text from five different manuscript witnesses. He described his Franken-text as “[t]he typical or standard Old English form.” To appreciate the variety of Old Englishes that might have been we are better served by comparing the various translations. We also need to occasionally let go of prescriptivist rules, old and new, to explore the idiosyncrasies of individual usage and remind students that what has survived in text is only the tiniest fraction of Old English voices and idiolects. And again, when we do use prescriptivist rules, it is imperative that we highlight their arbitrariness.
Even if a course does not allow for long discussions of the theory behind standardized English, past or present, it’s important to selectively call attention to notes. For instance, both Mitchell and Robinson and Krapp and Dobbie correct “wael weg” to “hwael weg,” typically translated as “whale’s road,” in their edition of “The Seafarer.” In doing so they delegitimize a potential pronunciation and eradicate the overtones and associations of a word that might evoke slaughter as much, or almost as much, as whales. Perhaps another version of the poem did use hwael, but the manuscript we have uses wael and the implications of this spelling are worthy of consideration. Similarly, we can assign texts that have multiple versions such as the various surviving Old English translations of The Lord’s Prayer, each of which, it must be noted, is correct (see here for a PDF to read or print out).
Ultimately, professors in the humanities must be conscious of the factors surrounding linguistic classism and should explicitly tell students that no version of English is any more correct or pure than any other. Indeed, such purity is neither possible nor desirable; languages must shift, mix, merge, and evolve to express what speakers need to express and herein lies their value, scholarly interest, and artistic potential. With this in mind, students can better appreciate the benefits of standardized Old English orthography—and modern standardized English—without succumbing to the myth of a proto-white monoculture that elides the diversity of voices we find in Old English or Modern English literature. Discussing the arbitrariness of what is considered “correct” by those in power and validating all students’ speech (a) supports students who weren’t born into Standard English-speaking communities; and (b) is a more effective mode of helping students acquire Standard English and the opportunities it can open. Linguistic discrimination perniciously supports power structures that benefit white supremacist movements at the expense of other demographics and so it is not surprising that white-dominant institutions would continually seek out a supposedly “pure” form of this language to reinforce their privilege with historicity. However, simply by calling attention to the exclusionary forces sustained by standardization in any period, scholars and instructors can create more inviting spaces in which to explore language, combat the use of medieval studies in white supremacist and misogynistic movements, and maybe even chip away at our institutions’ ability to exclude speakers of non-standard Englishes.
[Sharon Rhodes is a practicing translator with a background in applied linguistics and a PhD in English Languages and Literatures from the University of Rochester. Her PhD research focused on Latin to Old English biblical translation and how translation impacts storytelling in the target language and culture.]
 Although in undergrad I was taught to use “Anglo-Saxon” as a sort of shorthand for the various Germanic peoples that invaded/settled what would become “England” in the fifth century—reserving “Old English” to refer to the language of Beowulf, the Exeter Book, etc.—the term stems from a nationalistic and racist project and is now frequently used by groups who claim racial superiority. For those unfamiliar with the most recent debates, see https://medium.com/@mrambaranolm/anglo-saxon-studies-academia-and-white-supremacy-17c87b360bf3 and https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/09/20/anglo-saxon-studies-group-says-it-will-change-its-name-amid-bigger-complaints-about.
 Christopher M Cain, “George Hickes and the ‘Invention’ of the Old English Dialects.” The Review of English Studies, New Series, 61.252 (2010), pp. 729-748, 746.
 Rebecca Brackmann, The Elizabethan Invention of Anglo-Saxon England: Laurence Nowell, William Lambarde, and the Study of Old English (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2012), 75.
 Brackmann, 56-57.
 The Irish-American author Frank McCourt writes of his own fear of speaking in class because of his accent in ‘Tis: A Memoir (New York: Scribner, 1999), pp. 169-70. See also these two podcasts that discuss modern linguistic discrimination: https://www.alieward.com/ologies/phonology & https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/dolly-partons-america/episodes/dolly-partons-america-episode.
 For an illustration of the advantages and disadvantages of different Englishes see this interview with the many-accented actress Sarah Jones, https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=362366569 as well as her Ted Talk on the same subject: https://www.ted.com/talks/sarah_jones_as_a_one_woman_global_village?language=en.
 Cain, 731.
 Cain, 739.
 Mary Rambaran-Olm, “Anglo-Saxon Studies [Early English Studies], Academia and White Supremacy,” Medium (27 June 2018). <https://medium.com/@mrambaranolm/anglo-saxon-studies-academia-and-white-supremacy-17c87b360bf3>
 Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, eds. A Guide to Old English. 7th ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 123. N.b. On page 124, however, Mitchell and Robinson, do assert that national and racial unity “had developed” by 1066, though this is arguable it also does not undermine the point that before the Norman invasion the Germanic inhabitants of England were often in disagreement.
 Nicholas Subtirelu, “Hearing Skin Color: The Connection Between Language and Race,” Linguistic Pulse (8 September 2013) <https://linguisticpulse.com/2013/09/08/hearing-skin-color-the-connections-between-language-and-race/>.
 Albert S. Cook, “Evolution of the Lord’s Prayer.” The American Journal of Philology, 12.1 (1891), pp. 59-66.
 “The Seafarer.” Eds. George Philip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie. The Exeter Book (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), p. 145, l. 63.
 A similar exercise can be done with the various versions of “Caædmon’s Hymn,” as my mentor Prof. Thomas Hahn does at the start of his British Literature survey courses.