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Who knew that Beowulf came from London?

I saw a screening of Beowulf last week but have been holding off commenting on it until it opened. I am not planning to post a review (since I worked on the film, I wouldn't exactly be objective) but I did want to make a few remarks on the use of language.

When Steve Boyd, one of the producers, called me to discuss the nature of my work on Beowulf, he told me that they wanted Grendel (Crispin Glover) and Grendel's Mother (Angelina Jolie) to speak in Old English, an opening voice-over of a scop reading from the opening of the original poem, and the occasional word here and there in other places.

If you've seen the movie, you'll know that plans changed somewhat. When I received the script I set to work translating the Grendel scenes into as accurate a version of Old English as I could manage. By the time of my first meeting with Bob Zemeckis, however, the plan had changed. Bob vetoed the use of any subtitles, which precluded truly authentic Old English. Instead, the idea was to have Grendel speak a version of Old English that was somewhat accurate and yet still at least mostly intelligible without subtitles. If we had to trample on the grammatical fine points to make him understood, that was OK because Grendel was supposed to be mentally defective anyway. Grendel's Mother would speak something closer to Present-day English, although we would try to put in some Old English features.

Personally, I liked the idea of subtitles for these scenes. They weren't particularly long, and many other movies have successfully used subtitles for scenes of this length. And using full Old English would have given me the opportunity to throw in some subtle things for those who know Old English to appreciate. For example, as I originally translated it, Grendel's Mother uses the dual pronouns wit and unc when she refers to Grendel and herself. But that wasn't my call to make. My job was to give the director what he wanted with as much accuracy as I could manage given the constraints I was set.

Having Grendel's Mother speaking more-or-less contemporary English also had one big practical advantage: Angelina Jolie wouldn't have to learn how to pronounce Old English. Since she was only on set for five days, including rehearsal time, there would be little chance for anyone to work with her in person. All we could do is record what the lines were supposed to sound like, send them to her, and hope she could mimic what was there.

In the next iteration, I sat down with Crispin and the dialect coach Roisin Carty in order to reformulate the scenes. They were both great to work with. Crispin was very enthusiastic about the language. He had even gone on the Internet to try to look up his own translations for the scenes. And precisely because he was unfamiliar with Old English, he had a good sense for what would be comprehensible to a contemporary audience. My basic procedure was to suggest the most authentic language I thought I could get away with and then let myself be whittled down in the direction of Present-day English.

Because Grendel's Mother would be mostly comprehensible, I reasoned that we could use her as an implicit translator. She echoes some of Grendel's lines in Present-day English. When she says something in Old English, it would typically either echo something she also said in Present-day English or something very basic with a close analogue in Present-day English. She also echoes Grendel, her reactions to his lines giving the audience clues as to what he actually says. Unfortunately (from my perspective) a significant portion of the scenes between Grendel and his mother did not make it into the final cut, and much of what was dropped consisted of the Old English stuff.

The reading from the poem turned into a somewhat bastardized version of the fight with Grendel, and appears much later in the film than originally planned. (I'll explain how that worked in a later post.)

There isn't much Old English in the rest of the film, apart from the names and a few Old English terms to replace vulgarities (e.g., pintel for "penis") and words like scop.

One thing that will be obvious in watching the film is that the actors are not consistent in how they pronounce names. I was only on set the days that Old English was recorded, but I did give pronunciations to all the actors (and the dialect coach). The extent to which pronunciation varies is mostly an indication of the ingrained habits of the actors, who do tend to fall back on their ordinary habits, even of individual words.

The dialects in the film were meant to suggest two groups (Hrothgar's people and Beowulf's troop) of different background by having them speak with different accents. Since Anthony Hopkins is Welsh, it was decided to have him use his native accent and try to have the rest of Hrothgar's people match that. Beowulf's group was meant to have West-Country accents. (The instructions from Zemeckis were lower-class, but not London.) Unfortunately, Ray Winstone, who is from London, is one of those people who find it extremely difficult to adopt any phonology other than their native one. This will probably go over the heads of most of an American audience, but anyone familiar with British dialects will catch it right away. As one of the loop-group actors said to me during additional dialog recording, "Who knew that Beowulf came from London?"

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But I'm just glad their was some Old English. If for no other reason, it opens the door for the likes of us to talk about the Old Enlish language with students. Today, for example, I gave a few presentations at a high school in Albuquerque to 11th and 12th graders on the history of the English language, and they seemed quite interested when I mentioned the presence of Old English in the movie.

I seem to have also misspelled "English"

"Englisc" would also be an acceptable spelling ;)

Not to mention "there".

Dear Karl, I saw the movie last night and was delighted to see your name amongst the credits. Please get in touch to catch up: robert.bjork@asu.edu All best, Bob

And I have studied Old English.

As I said, I would have preferred subtitles myself. The words Grendel says pretty much all have direct cognates in Present-Day English--which would not have been the case if I'd been allowed to use my original translation--but the pronunciation differences are vast. Another thing worth remembering is that we don't teach conversational Old English. It is studied almost exclusively through written translation. Sure, we can read that stuff aloud, and with a text in front of you or with one you know thoroughly, you can follow a recitation, but it's much more challenging to interpret something that is completely unfamiliar in real time. If I were to read you a random passage out of some obscure Old English text, one that you hadn't studied and without names to clue you in to the context, how confident are you that you could follow it? This is true, I think, even with Middle English. Our deep familiarity with the written form blinds us to how different the spoken language was.