What Planet is This?

11 Aug 2005

Gægogæ Mægæ Medu

A gold bracteate was found in 1981 by a farmer near Undley, Suffolk. On the bracteate, a kind of medallion, were inscribed the words "gægogæ mægæ medu". This is the oldest known sentence in the English language.

The Undley Bracteate, as it's now known, dates from c.475 AD, around the time when the Angles were invading Britain from their Schleswig-Holstein homelands. All of the gold bracteates made between the 5th and 7th centuries were amulets, fashioned with eyelets so that they could be worn around the neck, and created by Germanic migrants.

The Undley Bracteate is a type A, which means that as well as the inscription it shows the face of a human and is modelled after an antique Roman coin. In particular, it's modelled after the Urbs Roma coin issued under Constantine the Great in 330–335 AD. It also depicts a wolf, which the inscription possibly refers to. The inscription is in Anglo-Frisian futhark runes, written from right to left, which is not unusual for the time. The second and third words are comparatively easy to interpret, but the first has caused a great deal of difficulty. Here's what the runes look like, followed by a Unicode transcription:

[Undley Text] gaegogae maegae medu


Dr. Jantina Helena Looijenga says in her thesis, repeating the belief of Alistair Campbell, that mægæ means "of the kinsmen", as in the common OE mǣg , and that medu means "reward", evolving into OE meord. Prof. Bengt Odenstedt, noted authority on Old English, agrees with this in his 2000 paper on the Undley Bracteate, except to say that mægæ is the dative singular, a case that modern English doesn't have but that basically denotes a recipient. If so, then this word would mean "to the kinsman", or since bracteates were made in parallel it's more likely "to a kinsman". The second and third words therefore probably say "reward to a kinsman" (but back to front).

The first two words are pronounced as is obvious, and medu is pronounced to rhyme with redo, having a long 'e' sound. Note that due to a process called Anglo-Frisian brightening, fronting of the 'a' vowel sound occured changing it to 'æ' just around the time that the bracteate was manufactured. Were it not for this, the sentence would read "gagoga maga medu."

As for the first word, each translator seems to have a different opinion. The most prevalent view is that of Prof. Odenstedt, but it may be that this rests more upon his reputation than his original exposition. The three most notable theories are:

  • It means "password". This theory was suggested by Dr. Looijenga, from a coincidence noted by Eichner in 1990. The words māga gemēdu appear in Beowulf pertaining to a password. In this case, medu would actually mean consent. It seems unwise, however, to translate words based on the context of a two word phrase bearing little resemblance to the original in a work written centuries later. Dr. Looijenga acknowledges the riskiness of the theory, especially since Eichner didn't draw the connection himself, and suggests other possibilities as well.

  • It means "howling female wolf". This is the theory espoused by Prof. Odenstadt. He takes it to be a "fem. agent noun prefixed with OE ge-, pre-OE *gæ- (<*ga-), i.e. a noun of the type found in OE gefera, masc. 'companion' [...]. The root I take to be *go, in OE goian 'lament'. However, as pointed out by Jordan (1906:29 ff.), this is not the original sense, which was 'bark', 'howl' (about dogs, wolves, etc.). [...] I also assume that gægogæ meant 'howling female', 'she-wolf', referring to the picture of a she-wolf on the bracteate." The skip from discussing the agentive variant of howl or lament to the she-wolf assumption is as it appears in the original. The assumption has no antecedent, and there is no attempt to justify the femininity, explain the -gæ suffix, or offer any analogous forms of the word to denote she-wolf in pre-OE or OE.

  • It's a magical formula. The Anglo-Saxon culture was rife with ritual, and thirty of the inscriptions that Dr. Looijenga studied in her thesis contained magical words. These sequences were often very repetitious, and one of them, "gagaga" on the Kragehul spear-shaft (which she also notes may possible be a battle-cry), is extraordinarily close to that of the Undley Bracteate being made out of three ga bindrunes. The word following "gagaga" on the Kragehul spear-shaft has been interpreted as either "effective magic" (Kodratoff, via probably Moltke), or "many times" (Looijenga). This is a dangerous theory because of its succeptibility to be used as a catch-all for unexplainable transcriptions, but it seems to me the most likely.

So is it really the oldest English sentence? It may be pre-OE or proto-OE, but the British Museum says that it contains the "oldest Anglo-Saxon runes", Bill Bryson calls it the "first recorded sentence in English", and even Dr. Odenstedt calls it "one of the oldest texts in English so far found (if not the oldest)", so that's good enough for me. The bracteate may be based on an earlier design, but on archaeological grounds this one has been dated by John Hines to between 450 and 480 AD.

But no, we don't quite know what the first sentence in English really means. Prof. Odenstadt says it might be "this she-wolf is a reward to a kinsman", with the wolf being a metonym for the whole bracteate. Using an ordering closer to the original that would be "this she-wolf to a kinsman is a reward". Or it may be of a construction more like "abracadabra: to a kinsman this reward", only with the first word being really an untranslatable magic formula. I actually rather like the ambiguity, which is just as well since it may only be cleared up through further finds of the same period.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Gægogæ Mægæ Medu", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/undley


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