Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 9316
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Davidson , Mary Catherine.
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: Speech, Gender, and Linguistic Change in "Beowulf"
  • Source: Old English Newsletter 29, 3 (Spring 1996):
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Conference Paper Abstract
  • Subject (See Also): Beowulf, Old English Epic Gender in Literature Literature- Verse Speech Wealhtheow (Literary Figure)
  • Award Note:
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 8-9
  • Primary Evidence:
  • Illustrations:
  • Table:
  • Abstract: Robert E. Bjork proposes in "Speech as Gift in 'Beowulf'" ("Speculum" 69 [1994J: 993-1022) that the exchange of words or speech in "Beowulf" defines and maintains the warrior society in the poem. The social disintegration of the poem's second half, therefore, is reflected by a decrease in the frequency of speeches and in their lack of rhetorical merit. This approach, however, necessarily excludes speech which is "bad" or not classically delivered and omits the source of linguistic change which, according to sociolinguistic models, could be found in a marginal individual such as Wealhtheow. Using sociolinguistic models of language change and treating classically "good" as well as classically "bad" speeches, I address how three characters in "Beowulf" - Hrothgar, Wealhtheow, and Beowulf - attempt to maintain social stability or promote change by the way they speak. Supplementing this approach is an examination of the extent to which a given speaker values other items of exchange such as swords. This two-sided approach exposes how much confidence speakers have in what Gillian Overing calls their "linguistic project" ("Language, Sign and Gender in Beowulf" [Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1990]) and whether they speak to maintain or change this project. Poetic diction serves as a marker of register within speeches and in turn reveals a speaker's sociolinguistic status, that is, how their social rank may reflect their attitude towards diachronic development. By examining how speakers manipulate the "high" register of poetic diction, I demonstrate that Hrothgar is linguistically conservative: he remains within the classical parameters of poetic diction. On the other hand, Wealhtheow's words and style of delivery exploit innovations which implicitly criticize her society's "linguistic project." Her lexical innovations and unidiomatic collocations deliberately foreground the semantic inconsistencies which Hrothgar had endeavored to suppress. These innovations - which can potentially undermine or alter the dominant "linguistic project" - are reacted against and unsuccessfully resisted by Beowulf, as revealed in his final words to Wiglaf. Thus, according to the social dynamics of language change studied by James Milroy in "Linguistic Variation and Change" (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992). Wealhtheow plays an active and significant role by speech alone. For feminist ends, this kind of self-conscious speech presents an accessible means for promoting social change even though it is delivered within the network of a dominant discourse [Reproduced by permission of Robert Schicler, the “Abstracts of Papers in Anglo-Saxon Studies” editor, and the editors of the “Old English Newsletter.”].
  • Author's Affiliation: University of Toronto
  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 1996.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00301973