It’s that time of year again when night encroaches on day and winter looms. Time for a tribute to our linguistic ancestors, the Angles and Saxons and Jutes who brought “Angle-ish” to Britain some 1,500 years ago. Without the consolation of central heating or sunlamps, they knew night and winter.
The Old English language they spoke differs from the English of today like night and day. In fact, the difference is night and day. And winter.
In these northerly regions, long nights in the midst of long winters made such an impression on them that they often reckoned by nights and winters rather than by days and years.
It came from their Germanic linguistic heritage, stretching back to times before their language was written down. Nearly two millennia ago the Roman historian Tacitus noted of the Germanic tribes, who spoke a language that was the ancestor of present-day English: “Instead of reckoning by days as we do, they reckon by nights, and in this manner fix both their ordinary and their legal appointments. Night they regard as bringing on day.”
By the time English began to be written, some 600 years after Tacitus, the English counted by years and days too. Nevertheless, they loved gloomy literature, perhaps especially at the time of year when long nights kept them indoors. Their remedy for Seasonal Affective Disorder was poems, read aloud. Poems like “The Wanderer,” declaring (in modern translation of truly Old English): “A man cannot become wise before he has had a deal of winters in this world.”
Beowulf the Geat, hero of the Old English epic, boasts of his victory in a swimming contest: “We two together were at sea five nights, till the flood drove us apart.” (He was wearing armor and holding a sword to fight off sea monsters, by the way.)
And winters! Beowulf announces himself as son of a well-known warrior who “outlasted many winters” before he passed away. Beowulf came to rescue a kingdom the monster Grendel had terrorized for “12 winters” of woes and sorrow.
In the second part of the poem, we are told that Beowulf became king back in his homeland and ruled for 50 winters. Then he had to fight a dragon that had slept for 300 winters. The dragon, in turn, was protecting a treasure hoard that had been buried for 1,000 winters.
Written a little later, around the year 1000, an English translation of the Gospel of John states: “This temple was built in 46 winters.” The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 1137 says, “That lasted 19 winters while Stephen was king.” You can even find counting by winters in Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale: “Fully 20 winters year by year/He had of Israel the governance.”
By Shakespeare’s time, winters marked years only when the emphasis was on wintry. Near the beginning of his Richard II, for example, the poetic king speaks of summers and winters, as well as years, as he sends his cousin Henry, Duke of Hereford (later King Henry IV) into exile:
Therefore we banish you our territories:
You, cousin Hereford, upon pain of life,
Till twice five summers have enrich’d our fields
Shall not regreet our fair dominions. . . .
Uncle, even in the glasses of thine eyes
I see thy grieved heart: thy sad aspect
Hath from the number of his banish’d years
Pluck’d four away. Six frozen winter spent,
Return with welcome home from banishment.
[Henry] How long a time lies in one little word!
Four lagging winters and four wanton springs
End in a word: such is the breath of kings.
[John of Gaunt] I thank my liege, that in regard of me
He shortens four years of my son’s exile.
Nights also yielded long ago to days in measuring time. But two linguistic fossils remain that remind us of the old way. There is the archaic sennight for a period of seven nights, commonly known even to the Old English as a week. And lacking a modern term for a period twice as long, we sometimes still speak of a fortnight.
About two fortnights hence, the darkness of winter will reach its apogee. We can then begin to watch the days grow longer, till at last we can celebrate with the happy 12th-century poet who wrote the loud lyrics for the endless (because it’s sung as a round) song, “Sumer is icumen in.”
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