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Picture of ancient language

The Not-So-Alien Language

Today we’re taking a break from science activities and doing a language activity! Rosalyn Eves, a talented writer and an English professor, is here to teach us why the alien language in What Came From the Stars might not be as alien as you think…

One of first things I notice about Gary Schmidt’s novel What Came From the Stars is the detailed alien culture. Not only does the book start with a fierce battle in the world of the Ethelim, but throughout the book, Tommy finds himself spouting more and more alien words the longer he wears the peculiar necklace that landed in his lunch box.

But how alien (as in foreign or strange) is this alien culture? When I first read the book, I kept thinking the alien world seemed sort of familiar. If you’ve read (or seen) any of the Lord of the Rings books, the alien culture may have seemed familiar to you, too.

That’s because Schmidt modeled this culture on Tolkien and on Anglo-Saxon culture (which has some definite similarities with the Old Norse culture that Tolkien modeled Middle Earth after).
And that alien language? Old English—that is, what English looked like until about 1000 years ago. The root of the word “Ethelim” (Ethel), in fact, means native country or homeland. So more than just a group of people, the Ethelim are the people of one’s homeland.
Some of the words that Schmidt uses–especially words for weapons, like Gyldn, Limnae, words for enemies like the O’Mondim, and certain descriptive words (illil, ykrat)—appear to be Schmidt’s creations (they don’t show up in my Old English dictionaries!).

Other words are Old English, but Schmidt seems to use them for different purposes. For instance, “maeglia” in the end glossary means “weak, helpless, or useless.” In Old English, “maegleas” actually means to be without relatives. Given the importance of friendship and kinship ties in Anglo-Saxon culture, it’s significant that someone as unpleasant as Jeremy Hereford would also be friendless and kinless.

Schmidt, who teaches Old English (among other things) at Calvin College, has said this about borrowing Old English for his story:

“What we know about our world—and ourselves—is mediated through language, so when I decided to try a fantasy, it seemed right to enter that alternate world through a fitting medium. And since I wanted a high, noble, epic world for some chapters, I turned to Old English, which, as C. S. Lewis rightly noted, sounds like castles coming out of your mouth—an apt contrast to Tommy’s everyday life. The two languages’representations of their worlds create the conflict—which is echoed in the story’s events.” (link)

Ironically, although our present day English and American culture stem in part from the language and the culture in the book, it looks so different from our present day that it feels alien! But Anglo-Saxon culture makes a nice contrast for Tommy’s world partly because it was a culture that celebrated loyalty and friendship, even in the face of violent death. (In fact, many of the writings that survive from this period are stories about war—for the Anglo Saxons, it didn’t matter so much if you died, as long as your death was heroic. This same feeling shows up in the Ethelim world too).


Towards the end of the novel, Tommy and other characters use entire strings of “alien” (Old English) words, and no translation is given.

If you haven’t already, try using the glossary at the end of the book to translate these passages (some are listed below). You can use this link to search for words, or this dictionary of common terms for words that don’t show up in the glossary.

  • P. 256 “gumena weardas”
  • P. 257 “Nu schulon habbe heardre earmas, heale cenre, mod bealda”
  • P. 260 “Ne cynna se weoruld. Na se weoruld.”
  • P. 296 “Mod gethrief. Ethelim gethanc ond se gethanc. Mod strang, heort strang, mod strang.”

How does your translation change your understanding of what was going on?

Why do you think Schmidt didn’t include translations for all the words?

What words can you still see in their modern English versions (i.e., “strang” for “strong”)? Why do you think the language looks so different today?

Thanks, Rosalyn! Highlight below for answers to activity:

Gumena weardas: literally, “good warriors” (notice that “gumena”is a plural adjective. Thank goodness we don’t have to remember to make adjectives plural today!)
Nu schulon habbe heardre earmas, heale cenre, mod bealda: now should I have strong arms, healthy, brave, (mod=heart, mind, spirit) courage
Ne cynna se weoruld. Na se weoruld. No field in this world. Not this world.
Mod gethrief. Ethelim gethanc ond se gethanc. Mod strang, heort strang, mod strang (Schmidt translates “mod” as “gut” in the glossary—it’s also used for heart, mind, spirit. As with German, the prefix “ge-” indicates the past participle of the verb, so you have to ignore the “ge” to find the word in a dictionary): Spirit (I’m not sure what “gethrief” is—I think it’s some variation on three). The Ethelim thank you and this (meaning himself) thanks you. Spirit strong, heart strong, spirit strong.

(A battle scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, circa 1070)

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