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The Independent Culture
Hwaet! I need hardly remind you that this exclamation is how Beowulf begins, but how should it be rendered in Modern English? Cathy Ball, of Georgetown University in Washington DC, notes that various translators have rendered it as "Lo!", "Listen!", "Hear me!", or plain "Yes!". It's a style of address too full-throated for modern standard English, though contemporary forms offer ready equivalents, such as "Yo!" or "Word!"

Ball's point is that such foreign words can only be appreciated in context. Her Hwaet! Web pages ( are the results of an attempt to encourage the learning of Old English by inference, like reading a newspaper in a language you don't understand. She admits that the method proved too slow for classroom purposes, but her pages are ideal for anybody who just wants to pick up a smattering of tourist Old English.

They are also a treat for connoisseurs of Web craft. Like many other scholars whom the unwired world might dismiss as dusty anachronisms, Cathy Ball has used the tools of the Internet to place her discipline at the forefront of technology, not to mention fashion. Her lessons, covering basic categories such as numbers, greetings, nature, beasts and parts of the body, are set out with chapter and bibliographic verse, and hypertext links to references and further Internet sources. The fun comes with her audiovisual accessories. Click on the loudspeaker icons, and you can hear Old English as she is spoke. Click on the words themselves, and you are presented with a little drawing, or an audio clue. "Sceap", for example, activates a clip of a sheep bleating.

A basic requirement Ball had to meet was for a type font that works on all Web software. As well as sources for downloading fonts such as "Beowulf- 1", "Aelfric" and the runic "futhorc", she offers a link to the home page for Apple Computers' dealers in Iceland, where the language maintains the "thorn" and "eth" of Old English, and one to the University of Oregon, where her own adaptation of the Times font is stored. It seems apt that, like an Anglo-Saxon scribe, she had to craft her own letters.

The affinities between Web pages and Dark Age manuscripts are played up to the full in a kindred Old English site, based in this country (www.kami. Its name approximately transliterates as Tha Engliscan Gesithas, and translates as The English Companions, a society "formed in 1966 as a reaction against the public celebration of the Norman victory at Hastings". Thankfully, the Companions refrain from expressing views on the single European currency, or any other political questions.

Their iconography is suitably archaic, but it is implemented as flashily as any teenage Webmaster's home page. The masthead looks as if it belongs to a fantasy game featuring orcs; the pages are carpeted with Saxon knotwork motifs. To appreciate the site's features fully, you need not only a font with thorns and eths, but RealPlayer, a program that allows you to hear readings of the verses (themes: battles, woe) in the poetry section. You click the illuminated capitals to activate the RealAudio facility - if your computer is sufficiently advanced, unlike mine, that RealPlayer deigns to install itself.

I contented myself with one of the showpiece files, The Ornithology of Anglo-Saxon England, festooned with exquisite illuminations depicting birds and flowers. Though rarely as explicit as this, there is often an echo of medieval illumination in Web design, as there is an echo of "Hwaet!" in "Yo!"