Magic word

Professor Margaret Miles-Cadman’s black academic gown created a soft breeze as she entered the class and addressed students in her Introduction to Old English class in a hypnotizing, sibilant voice. Her page-boy cut hair was grey with brown shadows and her skin as pale as the pages of our textbook, An Anglo-Saxon Primer written by Henry Sweet and first published in 1887. Prof. Miles-Cadman looked like she may have known Mr. Sweet. I took her class in 1977.

She stood behind a wooden podium, scarcely tall enough to rest her arms on it, and spoke to the ceiling chanting words spoken by folks who lived in England roughly 1100 years ago. “Declining” she called it. She offered no explanation of the structure of the language, its origins, or how to approach the study of a long forgotten tongue. Nonetheless, she transported us to the 9th century whispering like a Saxon abbess.

We opened our textbooks and together we chanted noun cases – nominative, accusative, genitive, dative – first in singular, then in plural – like Benedictine monks. The only word I remember was “awyrtwalige” which means “uprooted” in Anglo-Saxon. When Professor Margaret Miles-Cadman said it the wind blew through my roots somewhere between wyrt
say: weert with a soft roll on the r like the arrival of a wave and a stealthy Viking long ship 

and walige  –
say: whaaleejsh, a kind of breathless anticipation as you cower in your thatched hut awaiting a bearded red headed man wearing a two horned hat and a bear cape.

The tail of her black robe dusted the floor as she left the room, gathering dropped vowels and lost consonants for her next class.

Address is Just Jot it January’s prompt today.


16 thoughts on “Magic word

  1. I always wanted to wear my academic gown when I went to teach . . . but it certainly isn’t the done thing here and now! I took a course in Old English in grad school and our teacher read parts of the Canterbury Tales to us, using that strange language that didn’t sound at all like English–captivating! Your description here was captivating, too–just love the image captured in the last line!

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    • Even when I went to University back in the dark ages, it was uncommon for professors to wear their academic gowns. The few who did were ex-pat Brits perhaps longing to be teaching at Oxford or Cambridge.


    • Thank you, Leslie. When I was in that class 40 years ago I wondered what on earth was going on. Now I look back and I’m still not sure but I remember chiefly how the prof responded to words and sounds and l see they were magic to her.

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  2. Ahh, this spurs all sorts of Beowulf recollections and our Old English professor who was the same mother used to have some 25 years earlier. We called him Noni. His Slavic accent was terrible, he made no effort whatsoever to sound more English. Also, he tortured English words when speaking Slovenian, so that “pregnant” became “pregnantna” and “jealous” “želozna”, the words that don’t exist in Slovenian. I wish I still had my notes from those classes. Thank you for tickling my memory lane. Only the best can do that. 🙂

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    • I don’t think anyone in the class failed. I’m not even sure there was a final exam now that I think about it. What could she have tested us on? All you had to do was show up and chant!

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    • There are probably similarities between Old High German and Anglo-Saxon. What I enjoyed about this memory and recalling the class is I have a completely different appreciation for it now than I did at the time. Back then I was incensed at the colossal waste of time and not having a clue what was expected. Now I see she was in love with the language. Sometimes education is wasted on the young.

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    • I can still hear her, too, after 40 years. I’m probably about the same age she was at the time she was teaching. A marvel how I’ve come to appreciate her – and maybe understand her a bit more, too – with the advantage of age and time.

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