Saturday, August 06, 2011

A Saga sort of post.....

A brief post today, but one of joy. For a number of reasons, not least because it will form part of my teaching stable of texts this fall, I've been trying to work my way through Hrafnkel's Saga in Old Norse. My favorite spouse's decision to take a job half a continent away and all that that entails lost me a month of scholarly fun and work. Ah well. So I was running a quick eye over what I had translated so far of the saga before taking on the next chunk. One of the things I was struck by was the names for Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire, and the Greeks.

Constantinople is called often in Old Norse Miklagarthi--the great enclosed dwelling place. The emperor is called Garthikonungr, king of the dwelling place, but alos Grikkjakonungr, king of the Greeks.

This raises some issues for me, some of them good. First, I love as always the compounding (there is a great deal of compounding Latin and Romance languages too, but that often goes unappreciated. Admittedly the nature of compounding there is somewhat different.) But the name "Great Enclosure" just strikes me as so descriptive. "Garthi" (and forgive me, I don't know how to get eths, thorns, ashes, and the like into blogger) is cognate to Old English geard, which gives modern yard: both mean an enclosure and can be applied to a house, a farm, a yard in our sense, a garden, a enclosed space. I love this word. So versatile, so meaningful.

"Garthi" has interesting cognates around the I-E family besides in Old English. Latin hortus is, as in horticulture, as is the second part of the word cohors, giving modern English cohort. Cohors in it's primary meaning is simply an enclosure, but comes to signify a troop whether legions, cavalry, or other unit since they are enclosed in a fort. Greek Xortus (x=chi) for a pasture, OIrish gort for a garden and Breton garz for the same are likewise cognate.

In English we have other related words: gird the verb, and from gird the verb girder, the thing enclosing space in buildings; another enclosing device from the same root is girdle. Speaking of things going about one's middle, there's also girth, as in what goes around a horse's middle for the saddle, and then by extension talking someone's girth in the sense of how round about they are or are not. An archaic word from the north derives directly from garthi in Old Norse: garth. It now survives chiefly as the technical name for the cloister garth, the cloister enclosure. The word court has an interesting history as well. It comes to English from OFrench, cour, itself from Latin cohors. Orchard is another English derivative, probably wort (vegetables) geard in Old English, or vegetable garden...and as long as I'm mentioning "garden" how about the word garden itself? That's a round about one, coming from OFrench by way of Latin again though vulgar Latin picked up a Frankish word, *gardum, cognate with yard.

There are important names that should make more sense now. Asgard, the enclosure of the Aesir, Midgard, the middle enclosure, related to middenerd and middengeard, Old English terms for "middle enclosure." We now call this middle enclosure, Middle Earth after a certain someone's books. And now you will be able to tell what the names Hortense and Hildegard have in common besides being old-fashioned now.

Anyway, the second issue is that I love the descriptive compounding of the Germanic languages. Constantinople, Constantine's polis, as the "Great Enclosure" and the emperor as "king of the enclosure" is something that rather tickles my philology bone. But it is also reminiscent of Tolkien who obviously copied this type of compounding, descriptive names from Indo-European, nay, specifically Germanic languages. Nor am I only thinking here of Mundburg, the hill of protection, as the Rohirrim call Minas Tirith. Rather I am thinking of Minas Tirith itself, the Tower of Guard. Even in his invented languages, Tolkien is still using the Germanic mechanism of descriptive naming. Ok, to be fair there are other languages that certainly do similar things. Jerusalem, built in peace for example. Still we know that ol' Tollers knew the Germanic and other Indo-European languages long before he looked too closely into Hebrew. So, when he writes about Minas Tirith, using that descriptive compound, and the Rohihrrim call it Mundburg (direct from old English mundbeorg, btw, which is used to describe Jerusalem.....), we see the same naming conventions at work that we do with Miklagarthi. Nor are these the only examples. One could look at the fabulously named Orthanc, which in the invented Sindarin means "Mount Fang" since the structure rises from the Ring of Isengard rather like an iron fang out of the earth. But it is also an Old English word meaning a skillful contrivance or construction...but like "crafty", orthanc can have another meaning, something cunning...cunning being a skillful contrivance that has bad connotations to it. Not surprisingly, the character who dwelled in Orthanc, Saruman, whose name in Old English means "man of skill" or man of cunning depending on context. Point is, the man and the place have synonymous names.

What does this segue into Tolkienia have to do with Hrankel and stuff? Not a lot admittedly, but let's bring it back there. Orthanc and Saruman live in the Ring of Isengard. Isengard means "iron enclosure", here in the sense of fortress, not unlike Miklagarthi. But the Tolkienian name could secondarily be "enclosure on the Isen" since the Isen River, the Iron River, flows right by Isengard. But the "gard" and the "geard" and yard, and Miklagarthi bring us back full circle to Hrafnkel.

1 comment:

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