Hwæt you say?

The opening line of Beowulf has always posed a bit of problem for translators:

Hwæt! We Gar-Dena    in geardagum,
þeodcyninga    þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas    ellen fremedon.

The problem is exactly what the word hwæt is doing. Hwæt is the etymological ancestor of the modern what, but the Old English word’s semantic and grammatical functions are not the same as the modern word’s. Most translators have treated it as an exclamation, along the lines “listen!” or “lo!” rendering the line as something along the lines of:

Listen! We have heard of the glory of the folk-kings of the Spear-Danes in days past, how the noble ones performed acts of courage.

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