Is it me? Or is it him?
I find an interesting link on Making Light http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/016593.html, follow it, immediately find that the introduction annoys me—gets my back up—and then I notice that it is by John McWhorter. Other people like McWhorter a lot: http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/016593.html#4335396.
But I read:
John McWhorter: English is not normal https://aeon.co/essays/why-is-english-so-weirdly-different-from-other-languages: "Hwæt, we gardena in geardagum þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon...
...does that really mean ‘So, we Spear-Danes have heard of the tribe-kings’ glory in days of yore’? Icelanders can still read similar stories written in the Old Norse ancestor of their language 1,000 years ago, and yet, to the untrained eye, Beowulf might as well be in Turkish...
And my immediate response is: the cards have been dealt from the bottom of the deck here.
Let me note three ways: the word breaks are wrong, the þ-th thing, and the c-k thing.
So let's try the opening of Beowulf again, slightly differently:
Hwæt! We gar-Dena in gear-dagum theod-kyninga thrym gefrunon.
What! We war-Danes in yore-days tribe-kings glory heard.
So, we Spear-Danes have heard of the tribe-kings’ glory in days of yore.
Hwæt, we gardena in geardagum þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon is unintelligible to a modern English reader. But—once you replace their "þ" with our "th", put the word breaks where they really are, and if you know that the initial c in "cyninga", kings, is hard—it is not true that "to the untrained eye, Beowulf might as well be... Turkish". Beowulf is just over but on the edge of intelligibility, in a way that:
Yani! Biz Mızrak-Danimarkalılar Eskiden günlerinde kabile-kral şan duymuş
which is Turkish—to the untrained and trained eye—Turkish, is not.
You might say: that is why McWhorter said "to the untrained eye". And I say: cards dealt from the bottom of the deck. Here is the end of McWhorter's article:
Here is Old Norse from the 900s CE, the first lines of a tale in the Poetic Edda called "The Lay of Thrym". The lines mean ‘Angry was Ving-Thor/he woke up,’ as in: he was mad when he woke up. In Old Norse it was:
Vreiðr vas Ving-Þórr / es vaknaði.
The same two lines in Old Norse as spoken in modern Icelandic today are:
Reiður var þá Vingþórr / er hann vaknaði.
You don’t need to know Icelandic to see that the language hasn’t changed much. ‘Angry’ was once vreiðr; today’s reiður is the same word with the initial v worn off and a slightly different way of spelling the end. In Old Norse you said vas for was; today you say var–small potatoes.
In Old English, however, ‘Ving-Thor was mad when he woke up’ would have been Wraþmod wæs Ving-Þórr/he áwæcnede. We can just about wrap our heads around this as ‘English’, but we’re clearly a lot further from Beowulf than today’s Reykjavikers are from Ving-Thor.
We are a lot further from Beowulf than Icelandic is fromm Old Norse. But let's not deal from the bottom of the deck. As Doug, one of Making Light's commenters, well, comments:
And from near the end:
In Old English, however, ‘Ving-Thor was mad when he woke up’ would have been Wraþmod wæs Ving-Þórr/he áwæcnede. We can just about wrap our heads around this as ‘English’, but we’re clearly a lot further from Beowulf than today’s Reykjavikers are from Ving-Thor...
On the other hand, "Wrathful was Ving-Thor/When he awakened."
Not a great example for McWhorter to pick, no? And if your hand-picked examples aren't great, should you really be saying you have a strong point?