Hungarian Beowulf

Let’s talk about Beowulf again. Recent blogs have wandered rather far afield.

Beowulf, as everyone knows, was written in Old English and there are no Old English citizens still around to tell us how they pronounced it. I have listened to tapes by recognized experts and have noticed that they disagree remarkably about the proper pronunciation of Old English.

This creates a particular problem for me in relation to the word “Geats.” Beowulf’s tribe was the Geats and the word comes up often in Beyond Beowulf as well. I have heard a range of pronunciation from “Geets” to “Yahtz” and many stops in between.

Thus it was a great relief recently to come across some remarks by John Gardner on the proper pronunciation of Middle English. Gardner writes (in The Life and Times of Chaucer):

“…when one listens to the records made by great Chaucerians past and present, one discovers surprising differences of opinion about how things ought to be pronounced. For instance, some specialists make consonants sound much like consonants in modern English, except clearer, more precise, while other specialists speak consonants as they would in Danish or, God help us, German. For the beginner there’s a valuable lesson in this: Chaucer’s Middle English is relatively easy to fake. What follows here are some notes on how to fake it convincingly, so that one gets pretty clearly the sound of Chaucer’s verse, making people who know the correct pronunciation believe momentarily that perhaps they’ve learned it wrong.
1. Read aloud or recite with authority, exactly as when speaking Hungarian—if you know no Hungarian—you speak with conviction and easy familiarity. (This, I’m told by Hungarians, is what Hungarians themselves do.) This easy authority, however fake, gets the tone of the language, its warmth and, loosely, outgoing character—not pushy, like low-class German, not jaundiced or intimate-but-weary, like modem French, and not, above all, slurred to a mumble, like modern American. Make Middle English open-hearted, like Mark Twain’s jokes.”

I have, all unbeknownst, been following Gardner’s advice and pronouncing Geats with complete and confident authority as “Gates.” That, as a matter of fact, is also the Hungarian pronunciation!


LisaAugust 30th, 2006 at 5:34 pm

Interesting about naturally lapsing into saying “gates” for geats. I was recently in a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream as one of the Rude Mechanicals, Snug the joiner to be precise. Several times I had to say the word “master (or masters)” and I found my voice falling into the back of my throat; slowly, lazily I was saying “maastairs” and the rest of my speech pattern followed. It seemed very natural. I was the only color I could find for the role besides a pair of my husband’s work shorts and a denim shirt. The language put it back in the 16th c.

Michael YatesNovember 13th, 2011 at 7:53 pm

The correct pronunciation for Geats is yayats (yates).

ChrisNovember 14th, 2011 at 12:42 am

Are you disagreeing with John Gardner?

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