Kowal Beowulf’d and Chaucer’d: Shades of Milk and Honey

I recently had the chance to hang out for a few days with the incomparable Mary Robinette Kowal, recent (and well-deserved) winner of a Hugo award for one of her excellent short stories. Mary is, if you don’t know, the author of the novel Shades of Milk and Honey, whose pages are wrought of the strangely combustible mix of Regency manners and milieu with magic.

Cover for Shades of Milk and Honey

Shades of Milk and Honey

Anyway, at one point Mary and I were talking about voicing and language patterns, and I told her (not for the first time) that I loved how she’d worked so hard to maintain the “Austen voice.” She thanked me, smiled, then mentioned that more than one reader has complained about how she wrote “Old English.”

We found this no end of amusing. Jane Austen, you see, wrote in the early 19th-century, and people stopped writing Old English around the 12th. The reader’s accusation was thus twice-wrong: (1) I think Mary does an excellent job within the linguistic constraints she set upon herself; and (2) Austen-speak is some 6 or 7 centuries away from Old English. Austen doesn’t sound a whit like Old English. For that matter, Austen doesn’t even sound like Middle English, which predates her by only a few centuries.

To illustrate, let’s look at a couple lines from Mary’s novel and see what they might look like in previous dialects. (I’m working fast here, but I’ll try to explain some of what I’m seeing and doing in the translations … and hope I don’t make an egregious error in my haste!)

As our example, I’m going to pull from page 47 of the novel, in which a young lady named Melody talks to Jane, her elder and more sensible sister (and the protagonist of the novel), about a certain fellow they’d recently met.

Kowal Original

“Captain Livingston! If there is a more handsome, graceful man, I know not where to find him. He is all that is courtesy. And wit! La!”

To be sure, that doesn’t sound like the sort of linguistic gibberish you’ll hear at the mall nowadays. Without a doubt, it sounds “old.” But is it Old English?

Viking Ship

A Viking Ship for Ambiance

Kowal in Old English

“Leofwinestun helm! Gif an guma mare lufigendlic ond hold is, ic nyta hwær hine metan. Se is eall ðæt hoflic be. Ond gleawmod! La!”

Rolls off the tongue, eh? 🙂

There were some difficulties in translating Mary’s “old” English into Old English. One was the fact that my Anglo-Saxon (another word for the language) is pretty raw in terms of “translation-into”: this is a dead language, and I’m accustomed to “translating-out-of,” if you see what I mean.

Another difficulty is the vocabulary. Mary’s book, in proper Regency fashion, is much concerned with a lot of mannered business that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t bother to make words about — a fact that probably tells us something significant, in turn, about the two cultures. The exact words Mary has chosen are often of French origin, entering into our language in the wake of the Norman Conquest and the shift in sense and sensibilities that accompanied it (see what I did there?).

One of our first issues is with the word captain. The word goes back at least as far as the Greeks (kapetanios), but it came into English via Old French around the 14th century. In Greek, the word means “the one at the head,” which I’ve factored into my choice of the Old English word helm in translation. To an Anglo-Saxon the word helm carried a variety of meanings that build out of the general senses of “protection” and “at the top”: thus it could specifically mean “summit,” “the top of trees,” and “helmet” (a sense still in use today). It could also, in certain contexts, mean “lord,” which strikes me as a good approximation of the rank of “captain.” Put it all together and that’s probably about as close to a translation as one can manage.

Map of Livingston

Livingston, Scotland

Interestingly (for me), the name Livingston is a bit of a problem, too. There are two traditional derivations for this family name in America. The less likely of the two (in terms of both statistics and my own family tree) is that it comes from Jewish immigrants with the name Lowenstein. Many of these immigrants, arriving in America, had their name Americanized to match the existing Livingston name. The other traditional derivation, and likely the one for my family, shows the name to have come from a town in West Lothian, Scotland (many of what we think of as “last” names originated in places [Scott], descriptions [Brown], or professions [Carpenter, Smith, and the like]). That town was called Levingstoun in the Middle Ages, and it was itself named for a 12th-century Flemish fellow named Baron de Leving (“Leving’s town”). His name, in turn, appears to have derived from either Levin (a Jewish name, which makes for quite the irony as those Jewish immigrants Americanized to the name) or Anglo-Saxon Leofwine (meaning “dear friend”). Since I’m translating into Anglo-Saxon, I opted for the latter.

Moving on, I have to say I stumbled for a bit over the word handsome. The word appears to have originated in the 15th century, where it means something like “easy to work with the hands.” From there it gets a sense of “seemliness,” which eventually mixes with notions of propriety to convey “proper beauty.” Only very recently has it begun to serve as a mark of gender (that is, men are “handsome”; women are “beautiful”). Regardless, it was hard for me to think of an Anglo-Saxon word that might possibly convey the sense of morally proper beauty that Melody is using here. I’ve opted for the Old English lufigendlic, meaning “beautiful,” though I suspect that an Anglo-Saxon helm would be a bit perplexed at the description. Still, I could see the character Melody talking about such a man this way.

The word courtesy was a bit of an issue, too. It’s a clear loan from Old French (first attested in the 13th century), and it also reeks of the Anglo-Norman court in a way that would turn the stomach of an Anglo-Saxon. In lieu of anything more fitting coming to mind, I’ve gone with hoflic here. The word means “pertaining to the hof” in Old English, where hof has meanings that range from a mere dwelling to a hall, court, or even sanctuary. My feeling, then, is that it might be a good proximity to the word courtly, which has a hint of the contextualized propriety embedded in courtesy.

Then there’s wit. Here the problem is that while the word does actually exist in Old English, the nuance isn’t quite the same. When Melody talks of Captain Livingston having “wit,” she means both a kind of intellectual superiority and an agility, a certain cleverness at the verbal joust. That meaning really isn’t current until the 16th century. In Old English, wit simply meant “conscious knowledge,” and it was more apt to be used as a verb (witan). I’ve opted, therefore, to use instead the word gleawmod, which indicates sagacious wisdom. I’m not terribly pleased with it, though, as I don’t think it quite conveys the sense of verbal interplay that Melody is describing. Perhaps something better will occur to me eventually.

Last but not least, there’s Melody’s interjection “La!” I’ve frowned over this quite a bit, as I’m not really seeing a Saxon maid saying “La!” On the other hand, I’m well aware that I have no reason to think that such a girl would not do so: I’m making a biased assumption of speech patterns based upon the flimsy backing of my personal imagining of a culture that largely disappeared almost 1000 years ago. Despite my frowning, then, I’ve left it alone.

So Mary’s Regency-speak isn’t Old English. Not even close. For that matter, it isn’t even Middle English.

Kowal in Middle English

“Capteyn Livingston! If ther is a mor handsom man, that is so ful of grace, I ne knowe not wher him to fynde. He is ful of courtesie. And wit! La!”

It’s closer, to be sure, but I hope you can see (and hear, if you dare read it aloud) some key differences between this passage as Chaucer would have written it (in Middle English) and the way Jane Austen would have written it (which is pretty much exactly how Mary has written it).

I hope all this gives readers not only a sense of the tremendously interesting development of our language, but also a sense of how much work went into Shades of Milk and Honey. Mary jumped through a lot of linguistic hoops in order to produce an accurate impression of Regency-speak, and best of all she managed to do it without calling attention to the effort.

And that effortless achievement, not to put too fine a point on it, is the kind of thing that wins a person Hugo awards.

Now, anybody want to check my translations? Got any better suggestions for wit in Old English?


  1. As always, Captain Livingston, you are utterly fascinating.

  2. Brilliant. I love it, Helm Leofwinestun. 🙂

  3. I believe I have found an error:

    > and it also wreaks of the Anglo-Norman court in a
    > way that would turn the stomach of an Anglo-Saxon.

    Shouldn’t that be “reeks”?

    Other than that, it’s a brilliant, fascinating post.

  4. Don’t know what you’re talking about, Eric. 🙂

    (Seriously, thanks. ‘Tis changed. I knew I should’ve proofread it!)

  5. If’ you’re going to Beowulf it, doesn’t it need to be alliterative verse:

    Leofwinestune hlaf-weard!
    Gif an gune mare
    handliga hold, hwaer nyta ic
    hine metan……etc.

  6. True enough, Jason!

    As it was, I just wanted to keep as close to Mary’s original as possible for comparative purposes, which meant a fairly rudimentary word-for-word prose translation.

    Well, that and I’m too lazy to put it into proper OE alliterative scansion, whatever pattern one chooses (though if pressed I’d probably go for the form presented in an essay in the Battle of Brunanburh Casebook). 🙂

  7. Article très attrayant !!

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