More often than I should admit, when people talk about wh-words, I hear a sharp rush-clack of hwæt! That’s where what comes from but it’s not just the inversion of w and h. The Anglo-Saxons seemed to use it in some ways that we don’t often hold on to today. I’ll be focused (briefly) on its discourse functions where it’s like well/so/still/hey you.
Here’s how this post works: (1) Old English corpora you can use, (2) a quick survey of hwæt in Beowulf.
If you’re interested in Beowulf, check out Epstein (2011) on distal demonstratives as marking importance, topic continuity, and chapter boundaries. In terms of not-modern-English + affective demonstratives, see my post on “Who is the Sarah Palin of the Canterbury Tales“.
And if you’re interested in modern what, see my post exploring the what a __! construction. (If what interests you, also check out the Oxford English Dictionary, though the entry is looooong.)
Old English corpora
The main one to know about is “YCOE”, which is the York-Toronto-Helsinki Parsed Corpus of Old English. (If you’re here at Stanford, we have it ready for easy-access online, you just need to show me that you’ve been granted access by the administrators, here’s where you apply for access.)
The folks at Toronto actually put together a dictionary and a packaging of *every* Old English text we know to exist (there are about 3,000).
And check out this link for projects out of Helsinki, including parsed OE poetry and links to stuff on Middle English, too. The goal is to have parsed, diachronic info for every stage of English.
You’ll sometimes encounter the Brooklyn corpus of OE (or rather the “Brooklyn-Geneva-Amsterdam-Helsinki Parsed Corpus of Old English), but the creators of it actually just recommend YCOE.
Hwæt in Beowulf
Let me first say that some of the oldest uses of hwæt are in subordinate clauses, where it isn’t necessarily used like an interrogative (for example, the modern English I couldn’t understand what he felt or it was what she said imply only the most indirect of questions).
In fact, in Beowulf, there’s not much of an interrogative feel at all with perhaps one exception, which is really a rhetorical question: ” Hwæt syndon ge searohæbbendra, byrnum werede? (~’What kind of men are you…’). I’ll show all the subordinate clause-type examples at the bottom of this post, but I’d like to turn to something I find more interesting.
Of the 14 uses of hwæt in Beowulf, six are very discourse marker-y. That’s pretty high considering our modern day uses. In fact, here’s how the long poem starts:
Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
For Seamus Heaney this is translated as:
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.
Or in John Porter’s more literal translation:
What! We Spear-Danes’ in yore-days,
tribe-kings’ glory heard,
how the leaders courage accomplished.
While Porter goes for the literal “What!” here, most of the time both he and Heaney often opt for something more like well, so, or still. Note that there is either some kind of naturalness associated with hwæt or it does some fancy rhetorical footwork. Three instances of hwæt occur in dialog:
From line 530:
“Hwæt! þu worn fela, wine min Unferð,
beore druncen ymb Brecan spræce,
sægdest from his siðe…”
Heaney: “Well, friend Unferth, you have had your say…”
Porter: “What! you very much, friend my Unferth…”
“Hwæt! we þe þas sælac, sunu Healfdenes,
leod Scyldinga, lustum brohton
tires to tacne, þe þu her to locast…”
Heaney: “So, son of Halfdane…”
Porter: “Well, we you these sea-loots, son of Halfdane”
And line 2248:
“Heald þu nu, hruse, nu hæleð ne moston,
eorla æhte! Hwæt, hyt ær on ðe
Heaney: “And heroes can no more; it was mined from you first…”
Porter: “Earls’ possessions! Well, it formerly from you…”
Two more examples—from line 942:
þurh drihtnes miht dæd gefremede
ðe we ealle ær ne meahton
snyttrum besyrwan. Hwæt, þæt secgan mæg
efne swa hwylc mægþa swa ðone magan cende
æfter gumcynnum, gyf heo gyt lyfað,
Heaney: who brought forth this flower of manhood
Porter: by schemes contrive. What! that may say
(In this case, Heaney has opted not to translate hwæt at all.)
And line 1774:
Hwæt, me þæs on eþle edwenden cwom,
gyrn æfter gomene, seoþðan Grendel wearð,
ealdgewinna, ingenga min;
ic þære socne singales wæg
modceare micle. þæs sig metode þanc,
Heaney: Still, what happened was a hard reversal
Porter: Well, me for that in homeland setback came
These last ones are interesting because they stand in such contrast to the shouted exclamation that begins the poem–these are more reflective. Probably what we want to say is that hwæt is doing some sort of topic-shift marking and/or attention direction.
Here for completeness, are the rest of the hwæt‘s:
modes brecða. Monig oft gesæt
rice to rune; ræd eahtedon
hwæt swiðferhðum selest wære
wið færgryrum to gefremmanne.
Heaney: plotting how best the bold defenders
Porter: what for bold-hearts best would be
fyrdsearu fuslicu; hine fyrwyt bræc
modgehygdum, hwæt þa men wæron.
Gewat him þa to waroðe wicge ridan
Heaney: he had to find out who and what the arrivals were
Porter: in mind-thoughts what these men were
Line 237 (cited above)–I think this example is intriguing, note that it’s also in dialog:
þegn Hroðgares, þrymmum cwehte
mægenwudu mundum, meþelwordum frægn:
“Hwæt syndon ge searohæbbendra,
byrnum werede, þe þus brontne ceol
ofer lagustræte lædan cwomon,
Heaney: “What kind of men are you who arrive…”
Porter: “What are you armour-wearers”
orh is me to secganne on sefan minum
gumena ængum hwæt me Grendel hafað
hynðo on Heorote mid his heteþancum,
færniða gefremed. Is min fletwerod,
Heaney: with all the grief Grendal has caused
Porter: to man any what me Grendal has
þonne he swulces hwæt secgan wolde,
eam his nefan, swa hie a wæron
Heaney: the urge to speak of them: always they had been
Porter: when he such matters say would,
uncran eaferan, gif he þæt eal gemon,
hwæt wit to willan ond to worðmyndum
umborwesendum ær arna gefremedon.”
Heaney: the favour and respect he found in his childhood
Porter: what we for his happiness and for his honour
snottra fengel, nu ic eom siðes fus,
goldwine gumena, hwæt wit geo spræcon,
gif ic æt þearfe þinre scolde
Heaney: what we said earlier: that you, son of Halfdane
Porter: gold-friend of man, what we earlier said
ond þone gebringan, þe us beagas geaf,
on adfære. Ne scel anes hwæt
meltan mid þam modigan, ac þær is maðma hord,
Heaney: on the funeral road. His royal pyre
Porter: on pyre-journey. not shall mere pittance
Swa wæs Biowulfe, þa he biorges weard
sohte, searoniðas; seolfa ne cuðe
þurh hwæt his worulde gedal weorð
Heaney: of how his departure from the world would happen.
Porter: through what his world’s departing caused should be