Way Back Wednesday: Week 1

Manuscript page featured portrait of ginger man with long, curled beard.

Woden: Allfather of the Anglo-Saxon Kings, from Symeon of Durham’s Libellus de Primo Saxonum vel Normannorum adventu (The Book About the First Arrival of the Saxons or Normans). Cotton Caligula A.viii f. 29r at the British Library.

First of all, why on earth is Wednesday spelled that way? Why do we pronounce it that way too?

For that you can thank the Anglo-Saxons and some little linguistic phenomena. The pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons worshipped the god Woden, among others. If you think “Woden” sounds a bit like Odin (Norse: Oðinn), you’d be right, as there is a bit of cultural continuity for the peoples descended from north Germanic communities, and in addition to archaeology, we can find that correlation in folklore and linguistics. We don’t have very thorough accounts of Woden’s adventures in the Anglo-Saxon corpus, but Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English people names the mythical founders of the Anglo-Saxons, Hengist and Horsa, as the great-great-grandsons of Woden. Later Christian Anglo-Saxon kings refute Woden’s divinity but consider him an early chieftain whose line of descent bestows legitimacy on their rule.

If you’ve studied a language in school, you may have called encountered different cases that have different spellings often at the end of the word to tell you whether a word is the subject, direct object, indirect object, etc. One common case is the possessive, which in English is denoted with an apostrophe and the letter s. In Old English, however, the word Woden has to morph a little when changing to the possessive case, and thus becomes “Wodnes.” Here the –es signifying the genitive (possessive) case so that we can talk about Woden’s day…Wōdnesdæg. So that solves question 1.

There are two linguistic phenomena that are most important to this weirdly spelled word. The first is that vowel pronunciation has gone through a shift called i-mutation. It’s when a vowel is articulated (formed and expressed by any combination of one’s throat, mouth, tongue, palate, and teeth) differently because of its place in the word.

The o-for-e switch seems less dramatic than two unrelated consonants doing a little do-si-do. The d and n are a consonantal shift called metathesis. A common example in some English dialects is when people pronounce “ask” as “aks,” though in Old English “acsian” has been attested as well as “ascian” with both meaning “to ask.”

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Now that we’ve covered the Wednesday part, let’s take a trip into the archive and look at one of our older finds:

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An environmental sample from 2013 produced this worked bone from roughly the 10th century. It fits comfortably in an adult’s hand, and its size suggests it was a single tine from a red deer. We believe it was either a practice piece for an apprentice or an unfinished decorative knife handle. The carving is not particularly skilled, as some of the lines to encircle the antler don’t actually meet up, and the circles were made with a pump drill.

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