Middle English as the Impenetrable Other in “Sleepy Hollow”

I’m not much of one for watching new TV shows, for a variety of reasons, but something about the hype among my friends surrounding Sleepy Hollow caught my attention and now, I have to admit, I am completely hooked. It doesn’t seem to strike most people as the type of show that could actually be really enjoyable—the best description of it that I’ve seen says “It’s like if Supernatural and Hannibal met and had a baby, and then Sherlock and Fringe met and had a baby then those two babies had a baby then that baby had a baby with Once Upon a Time,” to which I would add  “And then THAT baby had a baby with National Treasure,” and between all those babies it seems like Sleepy Hollow should be a poorly written hot mess.

But it isn’t! Surprisingly!

The basic premise is about the adventures of Ichabod Crane and Lt. Abbie Mills. Ichabod is a Professor of History from Merton College, Oxford (awesome!) who fought for George Washington (wait what) and had a spell cast on him in 1781, only to awaken in 2013 and be completely dumbfounded at the sales tax on donut holes. Lt. Mills works for the Sleepy Hollow Sheriff’s office and has been derailed from her intended course towards Quantico to become an FBI profiler by the events of the series’ pilot episode. Somewhere along that interesting new spin on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, though, the show took a sharp left turn away from “amusing alternative to clearing my Netflix queue of a Monday evening” towards “… wait a minute, they’re speaking Middle English?!??!?”

There will be SPOILERS for Episode 5, “John Doe,” below this picture! Do not proceed if you do not want to read SPOILERS!

“I’m sorry, did you say Middle English?”

I’ve lifted this comprehensive, SPOILER-FUL (hey, don’t say I didn’t warn you) synopsis of the plot of the episode from Wikipedia:

A sickly boy suffering from an unknown disease is discovered in the woods and immediately put under CDC quarantine. Because the boy can only speak Middle English, Irving asks Ichabod to question the boy. The boy, Thomas, says that he is from Roanoke, which Ichabod realizes is the Roanoke Colony that mysteriously disappeared in the sixteenth century. Ichabod and Abbie track the boy’s journey from where he was found, and discover a hidden village where the Roanoke colonists show symptoms of the same disease but are still alive. From the colonists’ story they figure out that the disease originated from the horseman Pestilence/Conqueror, who wished to spread a plague through the land in preparation for the Apocalypse. The colonists were protected by the ghost of Virginia, the first girl to die of the disease, who lead them to the hidden village where the disease is contained. When Thomas left the village he took the disease with him. Abbie and Ichabod return to town to fetch the boy, but Ichabod starts showing symptoms and has to be quarantined. Abbie persuades Irving to let her take Ichabod and Thomas back to the woods. They are successful in returning Thomas to his village, only to realize that the colonists were dead the entire time. Thomas was lured back out into the land of the living in hopes of spreading the disease, but once he is returned all the infected people in Sleepy Hollow, including Ichabod, are cured.
—Wikipedia: Sleepy Hollow (TV Series)

It is, of course, absurd for anyone to suggest that the colonists who sailed to America and founded Roanoke in the 1580s spoke Middle English, which largely gave way to Early Modern English by around 1500. But I actually think I can understand why it was done, and think it’s quite clever, historical accuracy aside. I would argue that the show’s writers are using Middle English intentionally to push Thomas and Roanoke further into the realm of the monstrous other from which all of the strange and threatening things are appearing in Sleepy Hollow, because Early Modern English would be too like modern English and not create enough tension between “modern, safe, understandable” and “strange, threatening, other.”

I know I have an entire graduate degree that dealt with Middle English and that 98% of the 7.59 million viewers who tuned in to “John Doe” would not understand Ichabod and Thomas’ conversation without the subtitles, as I did, but I believe they intentionally used obscure words and a non-received pronunciation dialect. As I discussed with Brandon Hawk on Twitter, it would have been perfectly easy for the show to have had Ichabod and Thomas speaking Early Modern English or a Middle English that was almost entirely comprehensible to modern audiences, and YET they chose not to. They chose to use archaic lexical choices and an intentionally obscure dialect because they wanted to make the language spoken by Thomas as difficult for modern audiences as they could. Hence, also, the use of subtitles to highlight the foreignness, the mysteriousness of the dialogue. In addition, I found Crane’s side of the dialogue infinitely easier to understand than Thomas’, yet again showing that the writers went out of their way to other Thomas and his village.

And while, yes, it is totally wrong to suggest that Early Modern people would have spoken Middle English, I ask two questions:

  1. From a practical stand point, would more than an extremely small minority of highly educated viewers really understand the distinction between the Early Modern and the medieval versions of our language? How many would know the exact date of the founding of Roanoke (I had to look it up!) or that Middle English had largely morphed and its vowels had shifted sometime in the 150 years prior?
  2. Does it really matter? The anachronistic Middle English actually works within the context of the story to underscore the strangeness and threat presented by Thomas/Roanoke and Crane’s role as the only person who can distinguish and speak Middle English1 further strengthens the appearance of Thomas and the plague to the trials he and Lt. Mills will face as the story moves towards its apocalyptic conclusion, in spite of Lt. Mills’ attempts throughout the episode to rationalize the boy’s sudden appearance, clothing, and language in the terms of modern kidnapping investigations.

I spent some time last week going over and over the dialogue in Middle English between Ichabod Crane and Thomas. There isn’t a helpful video on YouTube of the entire dialogue, but this sneak preview from FOX features the two words that spark Crane’s realization that Thomas is speaking Middle English. I think those two words are “oule thern” (although I could easily be wrong and would welcome anyone else’s insight or opinion2), based on the way Ichabod pronounces and precisely translates them as “evil girl.”3

While “oule” has a first definition of “owl,” it’s second definition is recorded by the Middle English Dictionary as:

(a) A name for Satan; ~ of helle; (b) as a term of abuse and a type of ugliness; (c) as a type of spiritual blindness; (d) in proverbs, sayings, and comparisons.

It’s certainly not a common Middle English translation for “evil”—in fact, it doesn’t even show up in a Boolean search for “evil” in the Middle English Dictionary. If this was the word they intended, then they really had to look for it, probably because of the (a) meaning of “a name for Satan.” Given the presence of demons and the Four Horsemen in the series, it is reasonable to assume they’d want a word that equated the mysterious girl with the evil figures lurking at the edges of the show’s plot.

On the other hand, the second meaning is also very apt: “as a type of spiritual blindness.” This is very interesting to me, since a major theme in the episode was Lt. Mills’ movement from skeptic to believer. In fact, in the second scene of the episode, she and Crane have this exchange:

Ichabod: “An act of faith? That’s unusual coming from you.”

Abbie: “I’ve never been a big believer of what I can’t see.”

As the episode reaches its conclusion, Lt. Mills enters a hospital chapel and asks God for a sign to show her the correct course of action to take to save Crane, Thomas, and the other infected people. A woman enters the chapel as Lt. Mills leaves and dips her fingers in the holy water, giving Lt. Mills an insight into the mysterious attribute about Roanoke that is keeping the people trapped in time there immune to the plague. She has moved from spiritual blindness at the episode’s beginning to someone who is willing to take inspiration and make a leap of faith.

All things considered, I went from being sincerely amused by the presence of Middle English in Sleepy Hollow to being intrigued. Unlike some other medievalist viewers who have expressed their outrage (and about whose blog posts I have very strong feelings that I will, perhaps, express at another time or in another venue), I think the inclusion of Middle English, even as an anachronism, is thematically appropriate and shows some (potentially) clever thought processes on the part of the writers. Or maybe they just really didn’t know that Middle English wouldn’t have been spoken at Roanoke and I’ve over-thought the entire episode. Either way, I liked hearing Middle English spoken on a major network show, and I’ve enjoyed spending the week thinking and talking and writing about it, so I find it very hard to be upset with the anachronism and am very much looking forward to enjoying the rest of the season. And as with everything I post, I welcome the thoughts and comments of anyone who cares to give their perspective!

1 – There’s no way Ichabod Crane, who studied at Oxford in the 1760s-1770s (ish) and “died” in 1781 could have studied Middle English or even have known that phrase existed since the earnest study of medieval English did not start until at least the latest part of the 18th century or early 19th century and the term “Middle English” itself wasn’t used until 1830.

2 – There’s particularly an argument to be made about whether Ichabod misinterpreted what Thomas said—I am of the opinion that Thomas is speaking with an intentionally non-London accent to his ME—and that Ichabod turned “ill(e)” or even a very Prince Ludwig-esque pronunciation of “ivel” into “oule,” but I digress.

3 – The distinction between Thomas’ pronunciation and Crane’s pronunciation was probably a conscious choice on the part of the production staff, since they hired a professional voice coach from UNC-Wilmington [VIDEO].


15 thoughts on “Middle English as the Impenetrable Other in “Sleepy Hollow”

  1. I mean, I think you know that my reaction to the whole Middle English thing was basically “what the what,” but I found it particularly frustrating or jarring because they *did* go out of their way to link Roanoke to a more appropriate time period in other ways: I’m pretty sure they placed the colony’s establishment in the 1580s, and Abbie definitely says that the boy looked like he just stepped off the Mayflower. So then it becomes a noticeable issue that people just didn’t sound like that during the period, regardless of how Middle English works to make the threat alien. (I wouldn’t expect the majority of the audience to know when Roanoke was established or when Middle English stopped being spoken, but once the show links the colony with the Mayflower, I feel like that will ring bells for people who’ve taken basic US History in high school.) I think the anachronism does do interesting work, but I think it also tears little holes in the fabric of the narrative idea that Ichabod is “really” from the 18th century (and could therefore know George Washington) and these colonists are “really” from the 16th.

    Although maybe I’m just mad because it could have been a good excuse to get some Early Modern pronunciation on screen. That could have been pretty impenetrable too. :)

    • You’re right, I’d totally forgotten about the Mayflower comment. Still, I think even people with a basic grounding in US history might struggle to remember when the Mayflower landed (I know I do) and the relationship between that time and the development of the English language, and I also think we should not forget that Crane shouldn’t really know to call it anything because he really shouldn’t be fluent in the language anyway! ;)

      So if you want to get technical, the whole episode is grounded in an absurd trajectory where they spoke Middle English in Roanoke and the antiquarian movement that led to the earnest study of Middle English happened like, a century early. But also at the end of the day this is a show in which they’re fighting the Four Horsemen, so anything’s possible, I guess.

      • Oh, sure – I didn’t mean that people would necessarily be able to pinpoint the date of the Mayflower or anything, just that alarm bells might start ringing for people that the Pilgrims didn’t speak like the colonists on Sleepy Hollow! And yes, the whole premise is totally out there to begin with. :)

      • I have to admit, I’ve also gotten completely hooked on Sleepy Hollow, but I do find the accuracies and inaccuracies a bit bewildering (like the overarching one that Death is the *FOURTH* Horseman of the Apocalypse, and that the first is Conquest, which makes me think the Headless Horseman is going to retrieve his head, slam it back in place, and indignantly announce “CONQUEST! I’m CONQUEST. God, don’t you people even read!?”). It feels a bit like the show’s writers are spending a great deal of time fact-checking specific things, and then realize they have no time left over for anything else.

        But it is weird that, like in the ME case, it seems to be something very conscious, that they did research and chose to do this way. I want to believe that they’re artistic license, but I’m not sure I entirely accept that argument (is it so much worse to have the Headless Horseman identified as Conquest instead of Death?). I guess it’s working, because I am sticking with the show, but it does seem like a really strange artistic license.

        … At least they seem to have heard the collective groan from all Christians and Biblical scholars and have stopped saying “Revelations” when they mean “Revelation.”

      • See, and I need to go back and re-watch some of the last episode because I’m like, 98% sure at one point Crane said something equating Pestilence with Conquest and for about two seconds my mind went “isn’t that??? not right???” before I went back to thinking about why I couldn’t understand Thomas’ Middle English as well as Crane’s (or my own personal amusement at Capt. Irving’s “So, did the boy go to Oxford?”, because obvs. all of us who go there automagically learn Middle English (that is actually something people have assumed when I tell them I went to Oxford and learned Middle English, incidentally)).

  2. Yeah, at some point I got grumbly and looked up all of the citations they were using… In his first description of the Horseman, Ichabod actually stitches together bits from Conquest and Famine – Conquest is first and carries a bow, but it’s Famine (or actually ‘The One that Carries Scales’) who says “Come and see.” It’s also Conquest that rides a white horse – Death rides “a pale horse,” meaning either a sickly horse (which would make sense, if he’s sucking the life out of it) or a yellow/sallow-colored horse.

    The section about the Witnesses is actually really badass – Ichie and Abbie should acquire the ability to breathe fire and control the weather, but they will also be ignored by the people, and then eventually killed, and their bodies left to rot on the streets of Jerusalem (not sure how they’re going to get there, but whatever).

    I do appreciate that someone else was bothered that Ichie *couldn’t* have studied ME at Oxford – I know everyone assumes we’re the home of all things old and useless, but still!

    • Reasons why we are friends #18736543: this.

      And yet in spite of all this, I really like this show and especially it’s seemingly incredibly intellectual and expressive fandom. I mean, I will forgive a LOT in a show that has actual women characters who are dynamic and badass and also John Cho.

      • I know, right? I think Sarah’s happy to be back in Florida for most of the rest of the season, cuz I spend every episode talking to the screen, but at the same time, I’m totally hooked and can’t wait for the next episode!

      • Yeah, I had a Halloween rewatch party last night and I alternated between giggling and kicking my feet in delight and SHOUTING AT THE SCREEN. Also, the whole conversation between Moreales and “Merton College.” I WANT TO KNOW HOW THAT’S GONNA PLAY OUT. It REALLY sounded like Katrina’s voice to me on the phone, and I mean, who better than a witch trapped in purgatory to tap a phone line and pretend to vouch for her until-recently-dead husband? (And also: “tenured at Oxford” I DID NOT THINK THEY REALLY USED THAT TERM LIKE WE DO IN AMERICA, and Merton History Department… what?? Sleepy Hollow should hire one of us to stand around tell them all the things about Oxford they’re getting wrong.)

  3. Hey there! For what it’s worth, when we watched this in my household, I had the mixed “ooh, Middle English!…wait, *what*? in Roanoke? no, that’s ridiculous!…but omg, that’s really Middle English!” reaction, while my spouse, a sci-fi loving political science whose knowledge of medieval lit and language comes from me, basically made your argument, Lydia! So you are not alone!

    And thanks for figuring out what “oule” might mean/be. (That was a head scratcher for me.) I like that it might also refer to the themes of Mills’ move from skeptic to believer. (And btw, there’s the influence of the X-Files, too!)

    Glad you’re back to blogging, btw!

    • Thank you! It feels really good to be using those medievalist brain muscles again. ;)

      I definitely think I went through a 12 step process from being bewildered to irritated to curious to amused to accepting. What really threw me, honestly, was how different the boy’s language sounded from Crane’s, and I’m not un-convinced that the writers and their voice coach didn’t intentionally try to set up a binary of “London received pronunciation” vs “NME (or similarly provincial) dialect and accent,” but I haven’t had time to dig into the rest of the dialogue yet and the Sleepy Hollow writers on twitter haven’t answered my request for a copy of that part of the script. ;)

  4. Dear Lydia, could you please post or send me the exact translations of all the Middle English lines from this episode. Thanks Bill Huber

    • Hi Bill! Sadly, I don’t have a transcript of the episode and although I tried asking for one by tweeting the show’s writers and trying a contact form on the FOX website, I never heard back. I don’t know if TV show scripts get released the way movie scripts sometimes are. Perhaps try looking up and contact the voice coach they hired from UNC-Wilmington?

  5. I’m rewatching this episode right now and we were a little confused because surely they didn’t speak Middle English in Roanoke. Found this blog post, have enjoyed all the comments. I learned stuff! Thanks! :)

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