Words matter. They’re like icebergs; nine-tenths of their meaning lies beneath the surface. But that hidden meaning has mass, it has momentum. A single word can crush your pretty sentence, or paragraph or even scene, like tin.
The Britain of Hild’s time was a seriously multi-ethnic, multi-lingual place. She would have heard Old English of West Germanic origin (what she called Anglisc), a variety of Brythonic Celtic dialects (British), Ecclesiastical Latin (Latin), and Old Irish (Irish).
Old English was foundational for me. I began by reading several different translations of the extant poetry. I also read the original/s (they come in a variety of recensions) — though I admit my understanding of the language is pitiful. I can puzzle out a few phrases but I’m lost without the bilingual editions.
What we think of as Old English, it turns out, is a West Saxon dialect. Hild would have spoken what scholars now label the Northumbrian dialect. The two look startlingly different on the page; I prefer Northumbrian, but perhaps I’m biased.
There’s very little Northumbrian left; most of it was destroyed by Vikings. All that remains is Cædmon’s Hymn (the very first piece of English literature), Bede’s Death Song, one riddle, the glosses on the Lindisfarne Gospels, and scraps of Dream of the Rood written in runes on the Ruthwell Cross.
So most of what I read was West Saxon. I listened to it, too. (I can recommend Michael Drout’s readings.) It’s round and rich — drumming like apples poured from a tub onto an elm table — and stirring: heroic, alliterative, elegiac. But I’m not sure how representative it is of Hild’s era. Apart from being the wrong dialect, it’s written rather than being oral, which means it came to us through the double filter of form and Latinized/Christian scribes.
I also attempted Old Welsh (there’s very little) and Middle Welsh. These are difficult to read in the original — at least for me — so after a couple of tries I stuck to translations. The poem I kept coming back to was Y Gododdin, which is essentially a string of elegies for those killed in battle. Scholars argue about the real date of that poetry — originally written in Hild’s time by Aneirin, or by others centuries later? — but it, too, is stirring and heroic, proud in a slightly different register. And (assuming I’m pronouncing it properly) it lifts and flicks, splashes and plays, like otters in a stream.
In Hild’s time she might have encountered a bewildering variety of Latin. So although I studied Classical Latin in school, I mostly ignored the specifics for this novel except to take note of the sound, which I imagined as the cool clicking of game tiles. As for Old Irish, it’s an entirely impossible language. I didn’t even try beyond imagining its hot-tempered glow and exaggerated periphrasis.
I took all this — the rich-as-apples Anglisc, otter-splash British, Latin tiles and smoldering Irish — stuffed it into the black box that is my writing brain, and slammed the lid.
While it fermented I pondered vocabulary and metaphor.
Words drag their history behind them, so in order for prose to have power, the meaning of each word has to align both with itself — the connation and denotation can’t clash — and with everything around it.
In order to improve the odds, I chose to stick with words originating as close to Hild’s time as I could get. Aconitum, for example, is a flower often known today as monkshood. ‘Hood’ is fine, a good strong Anglo-Saxon word, but ‘monk’ is obviously problematic. However, as the flower is often referred to as ‘wolf’s bane’ the solution was easy.
Other words or phrases were not as obliging. Imagine an arrogant, war-hardened warrior, a gesith, who pulls a sword in the middle of a feast. If I say he has ‘blushed’ at another’s insult, the reader will blink and, just for a moment, revise their image of the man in question. This is because today ‘blush’ is more often associated with shy, somewhat demure young people than those who are older and assured. So in this instance, ‘flush’ looks like a much better choice. ‘Blush,’ though, comes from Old English blyscan and ‘flush’ from a variety of Middle English, including some French. In the end, of course, I privileged story alignment over etymology. My gesiths flush — unless they’re very young.
Metaphor was key to my determination not to contravene what was known to be known. For example, for the first few years of Hild’s life, I couldn’t use anything that referenced writing and its tools or ways of thinking. Hild doesn’t take note of anything; night sky is not inky. But I could use a lot of weaving metaphors; by some estimates, women of that time spent more time producing textiles — planting, harvesting, processing, spinning, weaving, sewing — than in handling food and childcare. Hild would think in those terms, men too: textiles were life or death technology for the community.
These thoughts also went into the black box. But the writer’s black box isn’t like an airliner’s. The information doesn’t stay in neat caches. It fights, breeds and mutates. Strange things happen.
Hild speaks four languages, in a variety of registers, to slaves and kings, farmers and thegns, warriors and bishops. She’s constantly on the move with her uncle and his court, from rich wolds in summer, to grassy uplands in spring, and a tide-thrashed stone fastness in winter. The voice of the novel has to reflect these changes in people, places, and politics. I had to learn to think in different modes. For example, when Hild is on the moor, thinking in British, the Celtic tongue of a subjugated people, her language becomes that of high places, of wild and wary things — a language of resistance and elliptical thoughts. When she wears the king’s token and speaks Anglisc, her thoughts and words are arrow-straight.
In addition, women and men in high-status households probably occupied radically different worlds. I suspect that communication was gendered — much as it is today, though many of us aren’t fully aware of it.
However, in addition to not wanting to contravene what was known to be known, I was determined to avoid the claustrophobia of gender constraint. (This is a personal preference: domesticity make me feel trapped.) So I kept the gendering of communication as subtle as I could. My aim was for Hild to act less as a woman or man than as a person.
This could be…challenging. Especially when one considers that she is in every single scene, and her understanding of the world is limited by her age and experience.
All this also went into the box.
When I first began reading for Hild, I learned that although the majority of the population prior to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons spoke British, the elite — after centuries of Roman administration — would have been more at home with some variety of Latin. However, once the Anglo-Saxons arrived, Anglisc replaced British in relatively short order.
It’s possible that the speed of this change could be the result of population replacement, but (given DNA evidence) unlikely. I suspect — but it’s not my area of expertise, so what follows is pure speculation — that Anglisc was adopted so fast by the British elite for two reasons. One, that the two elites needed to be able to communicate clearly. Two, this would have been easier than it seems because both Anglisc and Latin followed many of the same rules. Nouns are similarly declined and gendered (using grammatical — as opposed to natural — genders; for example, a woman in Old English is neutral rather than feminine). Both use subject-object-verb (SOV) syntax. (Hild the bread ate, rather than, say, modern English’s SVO: Hild ate the bread.) Ancient Celtic languages, however, use VSO (like Welsh today: Ate Hild the bread).
If ones cuts a language core through West Yorkshire — where both Hild and I grew up, though in her day it was called Elmet — you will find a bedrock of Old English with the occasional gleam of Brythonic Celt heaved up from an earlier age, the pale glint of Norse, even strangely evolved fossils of Latin and Norman French. (Slightly to the east, in Hull, where I was living when I first stumbled over the existence of Hild, there’s more Danish than Norse.)
But today’s English also sometimes uses a kind of periphrasis (“You don’t want to be doing that”) that, in my opinion, can have come only from direct interaction with Celtic languages.
That went in the box, too.
Our language is our culture. It’s our history. It’s us. It shapes how we think, which I believe shapes who we are and how we feel. To paraphrase Weber, language is one of our iron cages of constraint. But as poets have known for centuries, constraint can sometimes set us free.
By now my writer’s black box was bulging and writhing, waking me up at night. Was it full of monsters or magic?
There was only one way to find out. I opened it. And out snaked long Celtic sentences built of sturdy Anglo-Saxon words: Hild’s voice.
Nicola Griffith is the award-winning author of five novels and a memoir. A native of Yorkshire, England—now a dual U.S./U.K. citizen—she is a onetime self-defense instructor who turned to writing full-time upon being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1993. She lives with her partner, the writer Kelley Eskridge, in Seattle. Find Nicola online at nicolagriffith.com and @nicolaz.