Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Short Ode to the Concordance

by Mary Kate Hurley

Before you do anything else, make sure you read the fantastic news about the progress on Postmedieval from Eileen. Then you can read this, if you want.

There may be readers who are wondering just where I've been for the past few months. The long answer will follow, in a kind of summary reflection on teaching the Introduction to the Major course that I was assigned this semester. The short answer:

Yes, you read that title right. It's an Excel Spreadsheet. Of pronoun usage in Beowulf. Every plural pronoun, and believe me, there are a bunch of them. I have been, in short, very much an Anglo-Saxonist this semester. More on that soon, too.

What I want to write about today is the hard-working Anglo-Saxonists who gave us the Concordance to the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records and A Concordance to Beowulf. These amazing -- and hefty -- volumes do for the ASPR and Beowulf what the online Dictionary of the Old English Corpus search function does -- albeit for fewer texts and set words. Essentially, these concordances provide every occurrence of a word in the corpus of Old English poetry or Beowulf, respectively. In short, they are a quick and relatively easy way to see the relative frequencies and usages of specific words in Old English. Although there are other concordances which I may speak of at a later time, I want to focus, just for a moment, on these two texts.

Both texts were compiled by Jess Bessinger, with the programming assistance of Philip H. Smith. What's so fascinating about Concordances is both their limitations and the advantages they give to the careful reader. Highlighted in their pages are the difficulties of Old English language -- the words that are written similarly but have different meanings, or a different word-history, for example. But also highlighted in the nearly 2000 pages of these two concordances is the kind of meticulous work that graduate students like me could not get by without. These aren't the only two concordances to Old English -- they just happen to be the two I'm using at present. Which even in my work-oriented scholarly moments, I find quite awe-inspiring. I suppose that what I mean to say is that sometimes it's the work I could never have the patience for (editing a concordance, compiling statistical data about half-line usages in OE poetry, etc) that makes my work possible, and for that, I'm exceedingly grateful.

cross posted at OENY.


Eileen Joy said...

Mary Kate: thanks for this fantastic post as I [gulp! embarrassment!] did not know about these concordances. What a gift, a blessing, etc.!

meg said...

I have no patience with people who sneer at the heavy spadework that was the hallmark of 19th-century Anglo-Saxon studies. In grad school there was a fair amount of snark directed at anyone who did that sort of work, because it wasn't Cool. But as you observe, cool work can't be good work without the contributions of our predecessors (or peers) with spades.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Eileen: I would never have known about concordances except for a wonderful professor who insisted I learn to use one my first year of grad school, for the course on Beowulf. Amazing the resources out there.

Meg: That is precisely why I wanted to post this. My modernist friends look at me like I'm a little nuts when I talk about collating pronoun usage. But so much of OE is unreadable without the massive work of the crowd of scholars who get in there with spades and turn up all kinds of data that one would never have thought possible. Data that confirms some of the crazy stuff I tend to get into with literature. Which is always simultaneously tremendously exciting and extremely humbling -- we all stand on the shoulders of giants, etc.

Anonymous said...

This is what Occurs to me...(translation experimental, surely needing to be corrected)

Composicion Escrita en un Ejemplar de la Gesta de Beowulf

A veces me pregunto qué razones
At times I ask myself what reasons
Me mueven a estudiar sin esperanza
Moved me to study without hope
De precisíon, mientras mi noche avanza,
Of precision, as my night advanced,
La lengua de los ásperos sajones.
The tongue of the stony Saxons.

Gastada por los años la memoria
Consumed by the years, memory
Deja caer la en vano repetida
Ungrasps the vainly repeated
Palabra y es así como mi vida
Word, and that is how my life
Teje y desteje su cansada historia.
Weaves and unweaves its tired tale.

Será (me digo entonces) que de un modo
It is (I tell myself), that in a way
Secreto y suficiente el alma sabe
Secret and complete, the soul knows
Que es inmortal y que su vasto y grave
That it’s immortal, and that it’s vast, deep
Círculo abarca todo y puede todo.
Circle can bind all and do all.

Más allá de este afán y de este verso
Beyond this struggle and these words
Me aguarda inagotable el universo.
Awaits me inexhaustable, the universe.

Eileen Joy said...

kvond: that has always been one of my favorite poems by Borges; your translation is wonderful.

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear that.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for posting this, MK -- and confirming what a nerd you are. You are in excellent company!!

Karl Steel said...

Que es inmortal

Although I tend to think it is precisely its mortality that demands we become its students. We keep the ball of this language, this way of thought, aloft a little while longer.

Nice post MKH, and thanks for this salutary reminder to me not to turn my nose up at "verb counters," as I've done before. I hope you plan on making your db public.