Ohthere

Today, through a passing reference in Melville’s Moby-Dick, I became aware of a Norse explorer from the 9th century AD. This was a chap who had mainly commercial interests – killing whales and walruses – but who decided to go see what he could see.

Not that he sailed around the world or anything. You have to remember the time and its limitations. The boats they had were not large. One normally sailed following a coastline, and anchored (or even camped ashore) at night.

But this chap lived in Hålogaland, pretty far north on the Scandinavian coast – so far north that, as he told King Alfred of England, no one lived any farther north, except for occasional Finns; it was all wasteland. Well, one day he decided to see just how far north the land went. So he sailed up along the coast for six days – in three days he was as far as the whale-hunters went, and in another three the land turned eastward. After that he followed it down again and into the White Sea as far as where Arkhangelsk now is. Then, seeing that there were people there (Sámi, as it happens), he turned around and went back home.

So I wonder if, when he passed the northernmost point, he said, “Oh, there!”

If he had, one is tempted to say he could have named it after himself.

This is not actually true. It is true that we call him Ohthere (not pronounced like “oh, there”; stress is on second syllable, there are three syllables, and the th is voiceless), but he spoke Old Norse, in which the expression would have been different, and in which his name was Ottar (which probably means something along the line of “fearsome”). But it sounds nice, doesn’t it?

You could also come up with some other version of his name. Melville actually calls him Other, in fact. Imagine if he had named the northernmost point after himself, and his wife asked him where he was going, and he said, “Oh, somewhere or Other…”

But that’s just silliness. Still, his name pleaseth. I don’t mean Ottar; that’s like Otto and otter and Ottokar and attar and all that, a little brittle. Better the soft cloth of the Alfredian version – it’s a touch more, oh, therapeutic. But note that in the Old English original text, that th is actually written th – not with the thorn (þ) or eth (ð) used to signify dental fricatives. One may surmise that it was thus actually a stop, perhaps with aspiration after it (and – as the preceding h will tell you – even before it, as is the practice in modern Icelandic with double voiceless stops).

Oh, there we go again. Take it as it comes. And take him as he comes. He came to England at some point; after all, he told King Alfred about his voyage north (his recounting was recounted by another; Ohthere was not the author), and about another one south to the bottom of the Jutland peninsula. Where? The south end of Denmark. Oh, there. Yes, there.

Well, he may not quite have been Franklin, reaching for the Northwest Passage, but on the other hand he came back. The gesture of saying his name reminds me of that – it starts at the back of the mouth, with that back vowel /o/, but the lips rounding, as looking forward; and then the tongue darts forward, touches the tip at the teeth, and then at last pulls back into the middle again. There and back again.

If you would like to read the account of Ohthere’s voyages found (as an addition) in Alfred’s version of Orosius, stop by www.oldenglishaerobics.net/ohthere.html. If you would like to read it in Modern English, I recommend dl1.yukoncollege.yk.ca/agraham/ohthere. It won’t take you long.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s