Shadow Tongue: A Pseudo-Language [The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth]

The Wake should be in every classroom in America, not read in every classroom in America, but at least sitting on the shelf. Then, when kids complain about having to read “Old English” with a copy of Othello open before them, the teacher can be all sly and grab The Wake and be like, “I’ll make you a deal.” As they waggle the book in their pupil’s face, “You can either read Shakespeare’s ‘Old English,’” air quotes are necessary at this point, “Or you can read this book that blends Old English and Modern English.” And when the unsuspecting student inevitably chooses what they believe to be an easier option they will learn a valuable life lesson (Shakespeare is not Old English) AND read a terrific book. Then the students will stand on their desks and say, “Oh Captain, My Captain,” as the teacher leaves the room (This is how classrooms work right?).

 As Kingsnorth put it in “A Note on Language” in the appendix to The Wake, rather than being written in Old English, which is unreadable, “[The book] is written instead in what might be called a shadow tongue- a pseudo-language intended to convey the feeling of the old language by combining some of its vocabulary and syntax with the English we speak today.” Now you can begin to see the cunning of the aforementioned teacher’s tricks. Even with the blending of the two periods of English, the first page of The Wake was almost unreadable to me. I felt like I was in Middle School once again, called on to read a history text full of unfamiliar words and nonsensical combinations of letters, 

songs yes here is songs from a land forheawan folded under by a great slege a folc harried beatan a world brocen apart. all is open like a wound unhealan and grene the world open and grene all men apart from the heorte.

Okay… not too bad… But as the pages went on and the unfamiliar words and pronunciations piled up, my brain started to hurt. And I began to suspect that all the quotes about beauty and immersion on the book jacket were from people who had nothing better to do than sit and decipher strange linguistics patterns rather than read coherent English. 

But, as to be expected, the ‘shadow tongue’ got easier and easier to decipher. I read that a few people were having no trouble with the shadow tongue by page thirty. I must be a slow learner because I would argue I wasn’t ‘fluent’ until around 100 pages into the novel. 

The process of learning this new tongue was engaging if not frustrating. The language made me feel foreign and unwelcome- which is fitting per the plot of ‘ingengas’ (foreigners) invading England, and the subsequent backlash by the anglisc natives (from the perspective of the self-aggrandizing and delusional buccmaster of holland, who has already bucked social change when Christianity replaced the old gods). 

But after becoming fluent in this shadow tongue, a strange effect took hole of me, one which anyone who has read a book written in an effective slang or blend of languages has experienced. There is eventually what can only be described as a ‘welcoming.’ No longer do you just open a book, but you open a world that is revealed through the language. If the language used is true to the world in which it is being used, the reader will inevitably gain an insight into that world that the story alone could never provide. 

Language is humans’ strongest connecting point to each other, and what is a book if not an expert manipulation of that magic?

The Wake is the perfect book to utilize this manipulation of language because it is not inventing a language from a mythic past or imagining language that could possibly be used in the future but taking a world that exists, though as foreign as any post-apocalyptic wasteland or magical realm. 

The past does not seem like the place to go for apocalyptic scenes, and our ancestors do not seem like they should be the character’s in a book about unimaginable worldviews and experiences. But Kingsnorth is able to take us so far back in the past, to people that are so vastly different from us, that the story holds both these attributes. And he makes interesting a time period that is so entirely devoid of stories that The Wake is the first fiction book I had even heard about during this period and in this setting.

He accomplishes this paradoxical task largely by use of the shadow tongue. The rhythm and pronunciation and lack of punctuation all shape the reader’s internal narrator into a new voice that is uniquely buccmaster. And his strange views on land and ownership and self are easier to understand when the reader is fighting to understand the basic words he is using to communicate those views. Kingsnorth says, “The early English did not see the world as we do, and their language reflects this. they spoke their truth, as we speak ours. I wanted to be able to convey, not only in my descriptions of events and oplaces but through the words of the characters, the sheer alienness of Old English” (A note on language).

When the reader is forced to think about every word, they inevitably think about every idea.

The Guardian maybe says it best, “We are linguistically belted in for the entire ride.” And when the words and ideas stop being so foreign, the beauty of a landscape and time that is less touched by the hand of man creates a yearning for a time long gone, and the subsequent marring of that land through government and war, as the hand of man descends on that which was better left alone, our heart’s break for buccmaster, who The Guardian appraises as, “a man of limited intelligence faced with a monstrous change against which sheer bravado, driven by the earth gods though it is, can only shatter.”

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5 thoughts on “Shadow Tongue: A Pseudo-Language [The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth]

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