Renaissance of the medieval world

Old Germanic languages are back in vogue, but what value are they to a modern-day graduate? Alice Durrans writes

January 26, 2017
people dressed in game of thrones costume
Source: Getty

Game of Thrones is broadcast in 170 countries worldwide, and during the past season had average viewing figures of some 8 million people per episode. With the seventh season to be premiered in the coming months there are no signs of this medieval-style fantasy drama losing its following.

But despite the series – like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – using fictional historical settings and languages, is the huge success of the programme one of the reasons why the study of medieval languages is now flourishing at universities across the world?

Undergraduate and postgraduate courses in Old English and Old Norse can be found at a growing number of universities, and professors seem to be in mutual agreement about the effects of Game of Thrones and similar television series such as Vikings and The Last Kingdom on increasing student enrolment numbers.

“There is a Game of Thrones phenomenon,” said Daniel Anlezark, professor of Old and Middle English language and literature at the University of Sydney.

“People watch it and think, ‘Wow, that’s really cool, I want to know more’. The brutality of Game of Thrones – limbs torn off and bloody fights – mirrors that world of Beowulf. Last year we had 27 people studying Old English, which is an elective course, but in previous years only 18 had enrolled on the course so there is definitely an upward trend.”

In the Americas the trend seems to be the same. What seems to have made the difference, certainly in North America, in increasing the numbers of students taking such courses is the introduction of medieval languages as an option at undergraduate level and not only for postgraduates.

At the University of California, Berkeley, Old English at undergraduate level was introduced in 2010 alongside the already established postgraduate course. The undergraduate course now has an average enrolment of 39 students per year, a large number for a medieval language course.

Carl Edlund Anderson, assistant professor in the department of foreign languages and cultures at the Universidad de la Sabana in Colombia, agreed that medieval TV dramas have been flying the flag for old languages.

“I think there is a correlation between the success of the Game of Thrones series and a renewed interest in medieval languages,” he said.

“People get engaged and want to know if they could find out about real Vikings. I have colleagues outside Colombia like Carolyne Larrington, a tutor in medieval English literature at the University of Oxford, who, while writing academic papers, will also publish a book discussing Game of Thrones and how the medieval mead halls parallel those in the show.”

While the popularity of medieval-themed fiction and TV series has no doubt galvanised interest in dead languages and given the likes of Old English and Old Norse a fresh image, the internet has equally facilitated access to these languages.

Professor Anderson recently began teaching a new online course in Old Norse after the success of an online Old English course launched in 2015.

“It’s not that the audience wasn’t there, but there was a need that wasn’t being fulfilled,” he said.

“This online course means that someone in [a] corner of Britain or North Dakota can learn Old Norse if they couldn’t do it at a local institution.”

But even if Old English and Old Norse are catching the attention of more people thanks to the internet, what is the point of studying ancient languages that arguably, unlike Latin, have less of an obvious connection to modern languages?

David Peterson, the American linguist who constructed the fictional Dothraki language for Game of Thrones, thinks it simply is not necessary for people to approach the study of any language as purely a means to an end.

“Frankly, I have never understood the argument ‘what’s the point’," he said, adding that modern languages are taught in American schools even though many people in the country will never move very far from their home town or city, let alone abroad to a country where English is not the main language. 

“Where I grew up, at high school you had the choice of learning modern languages but I can’t think of anything less useful for where I lived. There was a Hispanic community and then lots of speakers of Korean and Vietnamese. [But] if you’re talking about utility, then why are we learning French and German in Southern California?

“It makes sense to look beyond simple utility because language does more than give you the ability to communicate with somebody – it’s only half the story, because a language is essentially the history of a people encoded in the words that they use and the stories that they told," Mr Peterson said.

“That’s where I think that people really get hung up on the idea that language is simply utilitarian and that is absolutely not the truth.”

Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the UK’s Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), also pointed out that the “reality” is that most employers “don’t mind what you studied at university”.

“The subject of what you studied is not important, it’s the skills and attributes that the degree brings. It’s about how you use your student life and other things you get involved in, doing projects and extracurricular activities,” he said.

But even if Old English and Old Norse are just as valuable as a subject of study as, say, English or history, one circle experts are finding difficult to square is the juxtaposition of the popularity of dead languages and the decline of modern languages.

Reports have been plentiful of university modern language departments closing because of a decrease in applicants. Although the number of people electing to take dead language courses is relatively much smaller, do the opposite trends grate with those teaching modern languages?

Not for Michael Gratzke, chair of the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML), who reiterated that “unless you are going into a profession requiring a second spoken language, employability is the same.

“You know how to learn a language, be it dead or alive, and have become a problem solver and someone engaged with language. You have caught the bug.” 

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Reader's comments (4)

Could 'old English' be 'Anglo-Saxon' but in politically correct terminology? Please advise!
"Anglo-Saxon" was long the general term for everything to do with West-Germanic-speaking Britain before the Norman Conquest, but it was probably anti-German sentiment as much as anything else that encouraged the emergence of "Old English" specifically as the name for the language. (Also, some wanted to emphasize the continuity of the English language from Anglo-Saxon times to the present day, and talking about an "Anglo-Saxon" language made it seem farther away and different than did talking about an older form of the English everyone was already speaking.)
It's in the later 19th century that the term "Old English" for the language gained currency.
As an academic terminology, Old English, with capital O, is defined as a general term for the language of the first period in the history of English that was made use of with a more or less standardised way of writing made around Winchester in Wessex, while Anglo-Saxon originally is the term for the language of the Saxons who immigrated in Great Britain during the first migration period of the Germanic peoples, becoming afterwards the name of a group of variety of the Germanic dialects spoken in the island. In many books on the language, they are used as synonyms, but never 'old English', with small 'o'. If you write 'old English', it will mean that it is a way of English expression which is aged or elderly people use; for instance, Shakespearean English is Modern English, or early Modern English in the history of the language, but you can say, 'English used in Shakespearean plays is old'.

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