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Language Confusion in Vinland June 13, 2010

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

 

 

 

 

Most people, when they think of Vikings, think of men with rakish pointy hats and anger management issues. Beachcombing thinks, instead, of rare manuscripts being burnt, ‘drowned’ or thrown down monkly toilets – he detests the northern philistines.  However, one aspect of Viking life has long interested Beachcombing and that is their habit of going far from home. Beachcombing is especially interested in their tenth-century trips to North America and one episode from the sagas has haunted him ever since he first read it twenty years ago.

‘At the outset of the following winter the Skraelings [Viking name for the Greenland/American natives] came to [the Viking settlement on the Canadian coast] again, many more of them than before, with wares of the same kind as before. Karlsefni told the women, ‘now you shall carry out food of the same kind as was most eagerly sought after the last time, and nothing else’. And when they saw this they threw their bundles in over the palisade. But Guðiðr sat inside in the doorway by the cradle of her son Snorri; then a shadow fell across the doorway and in walked a woman dressed in a tight black mantle, with a headband across her chestnut-coloured hair; she was pale and had eyes of such a size as had never been seen in a human head. She walked up to where Guðiðr  was sitting and spoke: ‘What is your name?’ she said. ‘My name is Guðiðr’, says she. Guðiðr, the mistress of the house, then signed to her with her hand to be seated beside her, but at that very moment Guðiðr heard a mighty crash and the woman vanished in the same instant as a Skraeling was killed by one of Karlsefni’s men for trying to steal weapons from them. Then they fled as quickly as possible, and their clothing and wares were left behind. Nobody but Guðiðr saw the woman.’ [trans. Bo Almqvist]

This passage is superb. In it there is a vivid encounter between sub-arctic North Americans and Scandinavians five centuries before Columbus. There is also  the estimable Guðiðr and her son, Snorri, the first ‘European’ infant to be born in the New World. But there is a mystery as well. The passage seems to suggest, in its densest part – italicised above - that the American Indian is, like the Viking mother, called Guðiðr. Now there were various attempts to sort out this mess, none of them convincing, until in 2001 Bo Almqvist wrote an article on the question entitled ‘My name is Guðiðr’ (Approaches to Vinland, ed. Wawn, Reykjavik 2003).

BA suggested that there is typical cross-cultural confusion here: he also made a very slight and convincing emendation to the text. Guðiðr introduces herself by saying ‘My name is Guðiðr’. But the American visitor instead of giving her name, repeats the words she has heard – she is parroting. It is a moment familiar to those who have tried speaking to someone with whom they share no language and perhaps a crude saga attempt at humour. In any case, Beachcombing would have wiped every piece of data from his hard drive to have had even a one in ten chance of seeing this unlikely encounter between worlds. Viva Vinland!

Any other solutions to the Guðiðr problem? [drbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom]

24 May 2011: Oren writes in with two corrections, one philological and one chronological. ‘First, her name is Guðriðr and while you’re at it, the i ought to be long, as well: Guðríðr) Second, FYI: Almqvist’s lovely (and to my mind, too, persuasive) hypothesis was anticipated a 1/4 century earlier by Elizabeth Boyer, an historical novelist (Canadian, IINM), in her novel Freddis and Gudrid (1976). But the pt is: the novelist trumped the scholar. Maybe worth opening another folder on how often that has happened?’ Thanks Oren!!