The best writers can trace their language to its roots; C.S. Lewis fought for the worth of Old English:
The taproot, Anglo-Saxon, can never be abandoned. The man who does not know it remains all his life a child among real English students. There we find the speech-rhythms that we use every day made the basis of metre; there we find the origins of that romanticism for which the ignorant invent such odd explanations. This is our own stuff and its life is in every branch of the tree to the remotest twigs. That we cannot abandon.
Margaret Gelling, the subject of this week’s back-page obit in The Economist, would have agreed. Before her death last month at 84, Gelling had worked for the English Place-Name Society since the 1940s and served for a while as its president. Her knowledge of Old English allowed her to survey the landscape and see more than most people do:
No subtlety escaped her. The suffix fyrhth was not simply wood, but “scrubland at the edge of the forest”. The word wæss was not just swamp, but—she was particularly proud of this—“land by a meandering river which floods and drains quickly”. She had observed this herself at Buildwas, on the winding Severn in Shropshire, where between Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon the flooding river drained from the land “as if a plug had been pulled out”. A feld was not necessarily ground broken for arable, but any open country in the almost all-covering fifth-century forest. And an ærn was not merely a house, but a place where something was stored in bulk and worked on: so that Brewerne, in Cambridgeshire, acquired a smell of beer, and Colerne, in Wiltshire, a dusting of charcoal.
Gelling’s obit is worth reading, especially since it offers ample reason to study Old English. It’s one thing to squint at words and discern that the names Chapman and Kaufman, the English word “cheap,” the German verb kaufen, and the Icelandic bank Kaupthing are all cousins. It’s quite another thing to read in hillsides and valleys the twilight thoughts of the long-gone people who named them. Margaret Gelling didn’t need C.S. Lewis to scold her about the “taproot” of English—but she might have added, with the certainty of expertise, that the foreign language you haven’t learned may, in fact, be your own.