old english

Stories versus Tales

Short version: Story means “truth” and tale means “to tell a lie”

Elaborate explanation:

The interchangeable usage of story and tale as having the same semantic connotation is relatively new and pertains solely to Present Day English. Within the English vocabulary tale has evolved and progressed natively through Germanic, West Germanic, and Anglo-Frisian which resulted in the Old English tæl. In contrast story/storie is a loanword imposed on the English language post-Norman conquest from the French estoire which developed through the Italic and Latin branch. Within the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction however, the two words came from separate roots and were not used interchangeably (nor should they be now). What becomes apparent in the history of the two words is the ‘truth’ aspect present in a story and that a tale brings forth a lie. For the purpose of understanding how each word was being defined by lexicographers I have examined dictionaries as far back as 1678 and have found that tale has been used to define story and vice versa. At times both were being used in defining history. The concept “narrative” is however at the base of all three within all dictionaries at all historical points thus being the cohesive agent of all three.


Tale evolved naturally into the English language. The Proto-Indo-European *del meaning “to recount/count” developed into the Germanic Talō which then separated into North Germanic and West Germanic talu (“*del”). North Germanic later divided into Old Norse/Old Icelandic which contains in its dictionary Tal as noun meaning “Talk, parley, conversation. 2. Speech, language. Tala 1. Discourse, speech 2. Tale, number and Tala as verb meaning to talk or speak. To record and to tell.” This shows the word had maintained its semantic value throughout this division. Anglo-Frisian tælu developed into the Old English tæl. In Joseph Bosworth’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary tæl appears as noun to be “a tale, number, series” but also “evil speaking, calumny, detraction…attack with blasphemy.” Interestingly enough “tale” as a number system finds its way into Portuguese as tæl coming from the Malay tahil meaning “any of several monetary units equal to the equivalent weight in silver.” This is quite amusing as it develops through a different branch and comes to a semantically-relevant homophonic word which in Old English is tæl. Another homophone of “tale” being “tail” maintains the same semantic value in Old Norse as it is tagl meaning the tail of an animal which at the same time in Old English was taegel also meaning tail. Tælan as a verb meant “to blame, rebuke, reprove, reproach, censure, accuse. To speak evil. To slander, to treat with contempt, scorn, insult, mock.” Throughout this division of language, the word brought along with it the implication that one would “recount” or “speak.” There is however a difference between speaking and telling. Elizabeth Closs Traugott writes in her work Regularity in Semantic Change that “tell primarily introduces a narrative…[and that] the reorganization of the lexicon occurred in Middle English with the introduction of talk (an early Frisian term) and the focusing of tell on verbal action (in OE tellan meant primarily ‘count’ or ‘recount; in sequence, i.e. ‘narrate’). Talk is the only word in English borrowed from Lithuanian, which has talkas for ‘talk’ and tulkot for ‘interpreter.’ Russian tolk meaning ‘sense’ and the verb tolkovant-‘to interpret.’ Thus tale as it became in Middle English, though it remained ‘an account’ it also brought along with it a trace of deceit and evil-speaking.

Story on the other hand, originated from the PIE root *wid-tor meaning “to know” or literally translated “to see.” This became in Latin historia which was a “narrative of past events, an account.” Istō/Istoc (root of historia) meant “to the place where you are, to the point you have reached, to this place.” The Latin equivalent for what we now use the word “story/tale” was narratio or fabulo, which we know to be ‘narrative’ or ‘fable’ (quite a different topic altogether). Historia divided into the Romance languages and in French became estoire which literally meant “a chronicle, a history.” The introduction of stoire/story into the English language occurred post-Norman Conquest in Middle English.

Looking at past lexicographers and how they defined story, tale or even history, it becomes apparent that all definitions contain “narrative” as a key concept of each word’s semantic connotation. Samuel Johnson in 1806, E. Cobham Brewer in 1882, and Rev. Walter W. Skeat in 1910 all use tale when defining story and vice versa. This brings to question why the merging of the two separate words occurred, and why the ‘deceit’ in what was previously known in OE tæl was no longer part of the definition of tale. Though the two separate are being used interchangeable tale did maintain the lie in other tangential words sprung from it up to Present Day English. Looking for instance at Johnson’s definition of storyteller and talebearer the distinction becomes much clearer. Johnson defines storyteller as “[story and tell] One who relates tales in conversation, a historian, in contempt” and yet he defines talebearing as “[tale and bear] The act of informing; officious or malignant intelligence.” Talebearing thus implies a gossip-like nature versus one delivering an informative speech.

The most interesting form in which the two words have appeared within a text together as “tale-story” was within Thomas Fuller’s The History of the Worthies of England. It is the only text identified by the OED to have used the words together (hyphened). It is worth glancing at how Fuller used this hyphenated word and within what context (Fuller is speaking about Sutton of Salsbury and how he became wealthy based on an old pamphlet –advertising):

“Thus these mongrel pamphlets (part true, part false) do most mischief. Snakes are less dangerous than lampreys, seeing none will feed on what is known to be poison. But these books are most pernicious, where truth and falsehoods are blended tougher, and such a medley-cloth is the tale-story of this clothier.”

Mongrel, medley-cloth, and tale-story are used interchangeably by Fuller containing the same semantic implication. Mongrel he himself emphasizes to be “part true, part false” and medley-cloth was “a type of cloth woven with wool of different colours or shades mixed in the thread.” Thus, tale-story within this context is the mixture of a truth and a falsehood which means story remained a more reliable account and tale still brought along with it the ‘calumny’ and deceit encountered in the Old English even mid-17th century. Thomas Fuller wrote the book in the late 1650s and passed away in 1661. The book was published posthumously in 1662.

Joint words like tall-tale and fairy-tale emphasize the different aspects of a lie a tale contains. For instance the word tall is a figurative word within the English language which stands for something being exaggerated and has been widely used. Yet one rarely encounters “tall-stories” or “fairy-stories” because the implication would be that one had been there and the content of the account is based in a truth or a biographical occurrence that had once happened and simply been retold. Should one recount a truth with exaggeration it would no longer be a story, rather it would become a “tall-tale” and he/she would be Johnson’s talebearer rather than his storyteller.

living_to_tell_the_talealcie muThis semantic property of ‘truth’ to story remains in Present Day English yet within narrower contexts. Authors like Alice Munro who publish a collection of short narrative accounts are not summed up by publishers as ‘short tales’ nor do they write that on the cover or on the title page. Rather, due to the mature content and the respect attributed to the content, the collected works would be referred to as Short Stories thus implying that parts of these narratives are true and have been appropriated for publication. Tales on the other hand are encountered within texts intended for children (beyond fairy tales) or within contexts where the lie is known to be there. For instance, Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote his autobiography Living To Tell the Tale, with clear hindsight of what has been professed about his art. Magical Realism has been treated as “the truth of a five-year-old” or “telling a lie with a brick face” (as my English professor, Nick Mount, used to say). Evidently, even in present day narrative content with a more deceitful tone or intended for children is more likely to be labelled as a tale rather than a story.

Thus, by looking at the two words individually and tracing them to their reconstructed Indo-European root in addition to examining how they have been defined by lexicographers at various historical points it becomes evident that story and tale cannot always be used interchangeably (or at least they shouldn’t). The two are not only different but they are contradictory in meaning for one means “truth/to know” while the other means “a lie/to deceive.” The credibility attached to stories has remained through to Present Day English and the exaggerated (somewhat derogatory) connotation remains attached to tales. The possibility that idioms within the English language have contributed to the semantic property of a tale leaves much room for exploration on this topic.

Works Cited: Fuller, Thomas D.D. The History of the Worthies of England (1840), “*del” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English LanguageDerocquigny, Jules. A Contribution to the Study of the French Element in English (1904),“Isto/Istoc” Oxford Latin Desk Dictionary (2005), “Medley-cloth” The OED OnlineNick, Mount “Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Magical Realism” (Lecture, 2011), Lemon, Rev. George William. English Etymology or A derivative dictionary of the English language: in two alphabets (1783), Murray, James A.H. “Oxford English Dictionary.” X, XI. (1969-70), Philips, Edward. The New World of Words (1684), Skeat, Rev. Walter W. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (1910), “storyteller” n.f. Def 1. Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1806), “tael” Def.1. Joseph Bosworth’s An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1954), “taelan” Def.1. Joseph Bosworth’s An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1954), “talebearing”n.f. Def.1. Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1806), Traugott, Elizabeth Closs. Regularity in Semantic Change (2005), Tulloch, Alexander R. Word Routes: Journeys Through Etymology (2005), “*wid-tor” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2013), Zoega, Geir T. A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic (1926)

Beowulf: Grendel’s Mother


Incipit page for Beowulf section in MS Cotton Vitellius A XV

After watching a few adaptations of Beowulf, I couldn’t help but wonder if it made sense for Angelina Jolie to play Grendel’s mother in the latest interpretation. It didn’t seem right. I went back to the Old English text to see if it makes any sense. Turns out I was wrong.

Beowulf has been fully translated by sixty-five (and counting) translators, has been adapted into four films (including an animated and a post-apocalyptic version), two shorter animated films, a rock-opera with music by Dave Malloy, it has been incorporated in various comic books and graphic novels and has made its way into smaller independent short clips on YouTube (and children’s shows) in addition to being referenced and parodied within contemporary comedy. With all the representations and adaptations, despite some characters being omitted (such as Wiglaf in Gunnarsson’s 2005 film) Beowulf has remained portrayed as a strong, muscular male, Grendel as a hideous monster and King Hrothgar and his wife as a middle aged couple worn by time and troubles. Grendel’s mother however, differs from the rest due to her shape-shifting portrayal throughout the adaptations. Her monstrosity and destructive powers are bent; yet from a demonic beast, to an Amazon-like figure, to a sexually appealing seductress, Grendel’s mother remains successful in destroying Hrothgar’s peace and bringing Beowulf to her cave. In the original text we are told that:


Grendel’s mother in online depiction

“widcuþ werum   þætte wreccend þa gyt

Lifde æfter laþum       lange þrage

Æfter guðceare    Grendles modor

Ides aglaecwif   yrmþe gemunde

se þe wæteregesan   wunian scolde”

[widely known by men / that an avenger still / lived after the misfortunes, for a long time / after the hostile one, Grendel’s mother / lad troll-wife, remembered misery / she who had to inhabit the dreadful water] (Beowulf, 1253-1261a)


Second online depiction

The word “wrecend” resonates as a masculine quality, one highly valued by the Anglo-Saxons, yet pertaining to male warriors thus making Grendel’s mother an Amazon-like figure. The idea of avenging the murder of a dead one is a recurrent theme in Anglo-Saxon literature, but the poet of Beowulf adds a few lines emphasizing the “troll’s” motherly role:

“…ond his modor þa gyt

Gifre ond galgmond   gegan wolde

Sorhfulne sið      sunnu deað wrecan”

[and his mother even now / greedy and gloomy-hearted / wished to go forth / on a sorrowful journey to avenge her son’s death] (Beowulf 1276-8)

Burton Raffel adds more sensitivity in his translation of this passage translating it as “His mother’s sad heart, and her greed, drove her from her den on the dangerous pathway of revenge” creating a dynamic to this character. A monster who first appears repulsive and masculine in her heroic return to avenge her son (the act of avenge as one commendable by Anglo-Saxon standards) is now presented to us in feminine form, as a mother. This alone makes her action of kidnapping and killing Hrothgar’s kinsman Æschere completely justified. Though as readers we may not be on her side, we understand her actions.

Grendel’s mother is perhaps one of the first females in Anglo-Saxon literature with feminist qualities. She is not only like an Amazon in her warrior nature, but also like the Greek Goddess Athena, seeker of justice (in her quest to settle an equal ransom for her son’s death by taking only one victim) and strong in battle searing for equality based on merit in a man-dominated society. The poet writes:

“                            waes se gryre laessaraffel

Efne swa micle      swa bið mæg þa cræft

Wiggryre wifes      bewaepned men

Þonne heoru bunden    hamere geþuren

Sweord swate fah   swin over helme

Ecgum dyhttig      andweard scireð”

[The horror was less / by even so much as is maid’s strength / the war-violence of woman from an armed man / when adorned blade by hammer forged / sword stained with blood the boar-crest / by edges firm the opposing is sheared] (Beowulf, 1282-5)

Interestingly enough, in Seamus Heaney’s translation of this same passage he writes “her onslaught was less only by as much as an Amazon warrior’s strength.” The key word being “Amazon” since it is absent in the Old English text, yet Heaney too detects that Grendel’s mother’s characteristics resonate with previously encountered female warriors in Greek epic poetry.

What sets Grendel’s mother apart from an Amazon-figure in a somewhat strange way is the fact that she has a son. Between lines 1354 and 1356 Hrothgar says “if he [Grendel] had a father no one knew him” suggesting Grendel’s mother could have been sexually involved with a man, since Grendel resembles men in his physical characteristics (only with more strength). This raises the question of Grendel’s mother’s appearance and it is with this detail that her portrayal becomes diverse as one may wonder if a man was attracted to this woman or if she truly is an anthropomorphic beast. When it comes to description this monster is left to the mercy of the translators and adapters.51cofDOKunL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

For instance, when describing her kidnapping to Æschere in line 1295 which in Old English appears to be “fæste befangen,” Burton Raffel uses words like “dripping claws” where Heaney simply writes “tight hold” with no mention of “claw.” “Claw” implies a hideous beast with animal features whereas “tight hold” simply emphasizes strength.

Even upon explaining the mother and son Raffel only says that “one of the devils was a female creature…they named the huge one Grendel: if he had a father no one knew him” whereas Heaney writes “one…looks like a woman; the other…an unnatural birth called Grendel…they are fatherless creatures…and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past of demons and ghosts.” The difference between the two is huge as one implies Grendel was from his mother’s womb and may have had a father, whereas the other implies they are demonic, fatherless creatures.

In his book Beowulf and Grendel, John Grigsby writes:

“since the poet makes it clear that Grendel and his mother are amongst such fiends [descendants of Cain] it can be deduced that this pair of monsters were originally divinities too—namely the fertility God and his lover/mother of ancient Denmark. She’s referred to as ‘cursed spirits,’ ‘demons,’ ‘monster of the deep,’ and ‘water-witch.’”

Simply by working with text and translation, Grendel’s mother obtains a dynamic through her actions as feminist, warrior, avenger, and mother. In description we do not know if she is as hideous as Grendel or not. Stepping aside from the text for a moment we can observe how modern artists have envisioned Grendel’s mother.

In Graham Baker’s post-apocalyptic film in 1999, various comic books, and Gareth Hinds’s graphic novel, she takes the form of an alien-like figure. Face and body, she does not resemble humans in any characteristics and her role is miniscule, having no impact on the rest of the plot. Her interference is minor as the main focus is on the Dragon and Grendel, thus diminishing the female warrior presence.

51TCWCPKJFL._SY445_       In Sturla Gunnarsson’s 2005 film, some choices were made in this regard, though not plot-altering. We first see Grendel’s mother as an arm grabbing for the warriors on a boat from beneath the waters, where she becomes a mysterious faceless figure, until she finally has her revenge where she has a human body (though bluish in colour) and a beast-like face with sharp teeth. What makes this portrayal interesting is that, at the beginning of the film the audience sees Grendel’s “father” who we do not encounter in the original text. Though in the fil he appears a strong, tall man, he is a man nonetheless and Grendel then becomes a product of the copulation between the tall nameless man and the monstrous nameless woman. In this movie, Grendel himself is avenging his father’s death (which as the director interprets he was killed by Hrothgar) giving him the role his mother has in the text (that of the avenger).

Lastly, and perhaps the boldest interpretation of Grendel’s mother was carried out by Robert Zemeckis in 2007 (written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery). Using the motion-capture process, Zemeckis models Grendel’s mother after Angelina Jolie, famous for her beauty (the simulation replicating the actress’s looks onto the animation panel). This adaptation makes Grendel’s mother a main character and Grendel a mere pawn in her larger game. Her power is not warrior-like; rather she use her sexuality as a weapon—a female weapon. The movie implies that Grendel’s mother seduced Hrothgar years before, and Grendel was not only his son, but the curse she set upon Hrothgar for being weak and giving in to her seductive powers. This, putting a strain on Hrothgar’s marriage, made him want to rid of Grendel and ultimately Grendel’s mother. She is in fact portrayed as Hrothgar’s burden. When Beowulf descends to her lair, Zemeckis’s film implies that Beowulf too gives in to the siren’s seductive powers and the moment he does so, the burden is no longer on Hrothgar but it is transferred to Beowulf. Hrothgar’s ‘freedom’ is portrayed by him committing suicide and Beowulf replacing him on the throne.p-beowulf-grendels-mother

What is interesting of this sexual siren representation of Grendel’s mother, is that the original text allows it to exist. Her description in the text, as previously examined, allows for her looks to be charming and only her character to be beastly and vengeful, as Zemeckis showed her in his film. Interestingly enough, after Beowulf’s burial, the ending of the film is Grendel’s mother waking up from the waters looking in the eyes of her next victim. Although in the original text Beowulf successfully kills her, this film makes Grendel’s mother appear immortal. Her cyclical seducing, torturous and murderous activity can perhaps symbolize the way Beowulf as a text has charmed audiences in Anglo-Saxon England and continues to do so each generation, making us all its slaves, unable to resist the charm that lies in the Old English poetry.



I still have to read Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf — recently published by his son, and I’m a bit hesitant because Tolkien himself didn’t release it in his lifetime which makes me believe it wasn’t a finished product, or something he was comfortable publishing. We do owe Tolkien a lot for bringing Beowulf out of the darkness. Perhaps I will write a post sometime soon on the history of the Beowulf portion of the MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, and how its popularity increased after Tolkien’s 1936 lecture “Beowulf the Monsters and the Critics” which I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet.