Hwæt You Say? (Redux)

Back in November, George Walkden published a paper on the Old English word hwæt and how it is used in in Old English poetry, most famously in the opening lines of Beowulf:

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

My previous post summarizing Walkden’s article is here. But in a nutshell, Walkden says that instead of translating hwæt as an independent interjection “Listen!” “Lo!”, as is usually done, that it is part of a larger exclamative phrase, “How have we heard the glory...” Walkden uses statistical analysis of the word’s use in four works, three Old English and one Old Saxon, to make his case.

In his blog, Phenomenal Anglo Saxons, Peter Buchanan has challenged Walkden’s statistics, saying that his results are insufficient to draw a general conclusion about how the word is used in Old English. For anyone interested in the topic, I highly recommend Peter’s blog post. And if you’re not especially interested in the Old English, but want to know what the heck a p-value is, you should also give it a read. It’s one of the clearest explanations of statistical significance that I’ve seen. Not only does Peter walk through the mathematical process for determining p-value, but he explains exactly how the measure should and shouldn’t be used.

[Full disclosure: Peter is a friend of mine, who finished up his PhD here at Toronto last year. We share the same dissertation advisor.]

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