Colin Morgan as Merlin (or is it Moses?) performing spectacular lightning spells and even more spectacular linguistic feats. Click on the still to take you to YouTube.
Sorry to have to disabuse all you Colin Morgan fans, but Merlin needed a little help with his magic spells ... from a 21st-century linguist!
A few weeks ago I posted something on medieval dragons, with an intro on Colin Morgan's Merlin ... well I have to be creative, you know, in my attempts to incentivise my blessed readers.
As it happened, it triggered a little bit of Twitter excitement (yes, of course the Anglo-Saxon Monk is on Twitter), which led to me finding out who was behind Merlin's magic spells, linguistically speaking.
I wanted to know how this blessed one got to put words into Merlin's mouth (not a hint of jealousy, here), but also what he gets up to in his real job.
So enjoy the interview below.
By the way, it's really not fair! No one ever asks the Anglo-Saxon Monk to perform any medieval magic. I know I've read a few Anglo-Saxon laws and penitentials in my time ... but it would've been nice to have done a bit of magic, and meet Merlin ... well, Colin Morgan. OK, I'm a Colin Morgan fan. I admit it! Get over it!
ASM: How did you come to be involved as a language consultant for BBC’s Merlin?
MF: One of my friends on my MA course (a late medievalist) had worked on the first series of Big Brother, and still retained a number of media contacts. She was asked if she could provide Old English translations for Merlin, and referred this inquiry on to me. It went from there.
ASM: Did the producer/writers say what it was they were aiming for in the programme, particularly with Merlin’s link to the ‘old ways’ and the ancient language of magic?Did they want to give an air of authenticity, perhaps?
MF: There was never any explicit guidance about the affect the producer and writers were seeking. I was simply sent the phrases from the script that the script writers had decided should be in Old English.
That said, I learned a certain amount about the programme makers’ aims from the feedback I received about particular translations.
For example, several of the spells that I was asked to translate used words that could essentially be transliterated into Old English (e. g. by supplying eorð for ‘earth’). This technique did not find favour, because the Old English did not sound appropriately alien, old or strange.
ASM: There were lots of magic spells cast by Merlin.Often, it sounded like he was speaking something akin to Old English – lots of imperatives concerning fire, if my memory serves me right.Can you enlighten us?
MF: Most of the spells were indeed imperatives to do with fire. Their sounding ‘something akin to Old English’ is probably a consequence of the procedure adopted for relaying the spells to the actors.
This involved me transliterating the Old English phonetically, not into IPA [International Phonetic Alphabet] but into a phonetic spelling based on RP [Received Pronunciation], this phonetic spelling being read into a dictaphone by my contact on the production team, and this recording eventually making its way to the actors in rehearsal.
ASM: Similarly, when Merlin called out the dragon, he also used an ‘ancient’ tongue, appearing to command the dragon with a Latinized word of sorts, not quite draco, but something similar, perhaps dracon.Do you remember anything about this?
MF: I don’t remember this particular instance, but Latin draco was borrowed into Old English (and quite widely used there, both in prose and poetry, for example, in Beowulf at line 2085) as a weak masculine noun, with dracan as its oblique form.
ASM: I guess wyrm wouldn’t have cut it?
Again, I can’t recollect the precise instance, but given the concern with otherness, perhaps wyrm (> WORM) would have been judged bathetic.
ASM: What languages have you engaged with in your academic research?
MF: I routinely work with texts in Old and Middle English, Old French and Latin. In comparativist work, I also touch on other Germanic languages like Gothic, Old Saxon, and Old Norse.
ASM: Have you been/are you involved in any other ‘non-academic’ ventures other than Merlin?
MF: I’ve been involved with several public engagement projects, including (as part of the Mapping Medieval Chester project) reading a Latin encomium to the city on its shopper-filled High Street, and more recently a couple of events at the University of Sheffield designed to bring medieval manuscripts and research archives to a wider public.
ASM: More broadly, is it important for you to take your research to a wider than academic audience?
MF: Medieval texts require a particularly high knowledge threshold to appreciate them: a reader needs to be able to read what is effectively a foreign language, and to have an understanding of a culture very different from our own.
This means it’s more difficult to communicate research about medieval texts, than research about, say, films from the 1960s.
For this reason, I do worry about whether the impact and public engagement agenda will lead to more abstruse kinds of research being disadvantaged because they are not as easily communicable to the public.
That said, I think medievalists do have a role as public intellectuals. For me, the compelling reason to teach and research the Middle Ages is that, by virtue of what Chris Jones has called its ‘strange likeness’, they are an unparalleled mirror for the present.
The first step to allowing it to claim this place will be to unpick the Renaissance rhetoric of the barbarous Middle Ages which underpins, for example, David Cameron’s recent description of Islamic State as ‘literally medieval’.
ASM: What is your main area of academic research?
MF: I work on the twelfth century. This is a period of dramatic change in both literature and language. In linguistic terms, it is the period that Old English ends and Middle English begins.
In literary histories, it has until recently been described as a vacuum, a period in which no original texts were produced, and which therefore serves to insulate the Old English tradition from the rest of English literary history.
In crude terms, my work is thus about explaining how we got from Beowulf to Chaucer. The main output of this work will be a book, hopefully out in 2017.
I’m simultaneously working on a number of articles looking at how far processes of linguistic change of interest to scholars working on contemporary languages can be traced in medieval texts.
The one I’m working on at the moment concerns language attrition (how speakers who relocate to a new country gradually lose mastery of their native tongue), using the twelfth-century historian Orderic Vitalis, who moved from England to Normandy aged ten, as a case study.
I’m also preparing a study of destandardisation in twelfth-century English.
Go on! You know you want to leave a comment below.
Dr Mark Faulkner, The University of Sheffield
My technique didn't always find favour, because the Old English didn't always sound appropriately alien, old or strange.
Young Merlin does his first bit of dragon calling. The person posting this on YouTube (click the still) reckoned Morgan looked 'really, really stupid'. Well, no one ever said shouting out Old English to an imaginary dragon was cool, did they!
I've been involved with several public engagement projects, including reading a Latin encomium on the shopper-filled High Street of Chester!
I worry that the more abstruse kinds of research, like medieval literature, will become disadvantaged because they are not easily communicable to the public.
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