U of T scholars have spent 47 years painstakingly trying to preserve Old English

Scholars at the University of Toronto's Centre for Medieval Studies have painstakingly scoured through Old English texts in a bid to create a comprehensive Dictionary of Old English.

'It's not everyday you get to discover an entirely new word'

Creating a comprehensive Dictionary of Old English is a hefty task. (University of Toronto)

To English-speakers today, the language in its earliest form — spoken over a millennium ago — seems like straight-up gibberish. 

But scholars at the University of Toronto's Centre for Medieval Studies have painstakingly scoured through Old English texts in a bid to create a comprehensive Dictionary of Old English.

The late Angus Cameron, a U of T medieval studies professor, started the project in 1970 with the goal of defining every Old English word used throughout the years 600 and 1150, the first six centuries of the English language. 

The late Angus Cameron started the Dictionary of Old English project in 1970. (In Memory of Angus Cameron/Facebook)

Nearly half a century after the project began, U of T scholars are halfway through the Old English alphabet. They recently completed the "H" entry after 10 years. Stephen Pelle, co-drafting editor, said they have started work on the "I" entry and expect it to take a year to a year and a half.

By the time the dictionary is done in entirety, the team will have identified and defined between 33,000 and 35,000 Old English words, according to the university.

"​What we're trying to do in our dictionary that will supersede other dictionaries is to really look at all the records and all the evidence comprehensively," said drafting editor Robert Getz. 

The Dictionary of Old English is built upon a corpus that contains Old English texts and works including those carved in stone and jewelry. Old English is rooted in Germanic languages, including modern German, modern Dutch, as well as Scandinavian languages like Swedish.

The goal is to document the earliest period of the English language, Getz said, and in the process, to uncover words never identified before.

Take for instance, the word "hellwyrgen," a favourite of Getz.

He defines it as a "female monster that lives in hell."

"What I love about this is, first off, it's so strange and exotic. Second of all, it wasn't in any dictionaries before. So in a way, I am proud to have discovered it."

"It's not everyday you get to discover an entirely new word."

Boost your Old English vocab

"Heoloþ-helm" is not your average helmet, it seems. In Old English, the term translates to "a concealing helmet" or "a helmet of invisibility." The final letter before the dash is a thorn, a letter indicating the 'th' sound.

(University of Toronto/YouTube)

"Wite-hus" translates to "a house of punishment."

(University of Toronto/YouTube)

The "H" used in Old English is dropped in modern English for everyone's favourite pastime: the nap.

(University of Toronto/YouTube)

If you want to further explore the Dictionary of Old English, it is accessible online with an annual fee.

With files from Julia Whalen