Published August 5, 2021
Up in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming, a pickup truck pulls over and out steps a pair of cowboy boots. A man saunters toward the camera and, tipping his brimmed hat, begins to lecture about historical language change and umlaut mutation.
Far from a graduate school-fuelled Lynchian fever dream, this is the work of Dr. Jackson Crawford, a man who has quietly become a minor internet celebrity by teaching Old Norse on YouTube. Incidentally, he also wears a cowboy hat.
From academia to YouTube
“There just wasn’t a lot of good accessible information about it,” Jackson explains. While he was teaching at the University of California Berkeley, Dr. Crawford had a revelation: although he was teaching one of the most popular undergraduate offerings, there was very little reliable information about it online. Also, like many graduate students, he was broke.
“It’s like what they say about restaurants, you can get it cheap and fast, but it won’t be good. You can get it fast and good, but it won’t be cheap,” he explains. “And then the information that was easy to get was often these gurus online shouting at you about how Thor wants you to get buff. So I thought, well, there’s a niche here for someone who knows this stuff well, and isn’t so personally wrapped up in some narrative about it.”
He began uploading short videos to YouTube on topics like Old Norse grammar, pronunciation and misconceptions surrounding Norse mythology. He quickly developed an audience, becoming one of the most popular online sources for mythology, language and history.
A budding interest
Dr. Crawford’s intellectual pursuits began, like many children, with dinosaurs.
When his middle school offered Latin class, he jumped at the chance to learn, he thought, about their names. However, Latin quickly proved to be a gateway to a broader interest in languages and their origins. “From studying Latin, I realized that languages evolved,” he recalls. “And because I could see that Spanish was a later continuation of the same language, I thought, well, what did English come from?”
These early questions led him to delve deeper and, like many a budding scholar, Dr. Crawford fondly remembers digging through piles of books in his younger years.
“There was this huge bookstore in Denver called Tattered Cover and my grandma took me down there,” he says. “One day, I’m just picking through stacks of used books and I found a grammar of Old English. And because I had enough grammar from Latin to understand the grammar, I decided that language evolution was just the most fascinating thing in the world.”
From there, he taught himself Old Norse in college and a lifelong love of words and the rules that govern them was born.
“Something I always think about is þú ert,” he says. “Because it looks so alien on the surface. You learn how to say ég er, þú ert, and don’t necessarily realize that it’s English: thou art. These languages are so closely related that they have the exact same irregularities in the be verb. To me, that’s just such a telling piece of deep connection.”
One of Dr. Crawford’s favourite etymological coincidences concerns the English words do and gear.
The English verb, do, and German tun, surface quite consistently throughout the Germanic languages, but this root is conspicuously absent from Scandinavia, which instead use derivations of gera. Throughout history, this verb did eventually find a place in English, although as Dr. Crawford describes it, it is a neglected corner of our language, the word gear. So when we gear up and get ready, we are quite simply “doing.”
Interestingly, the do and tun words may be responsible for the past-tense of regular verbs throughout the Germanic languages, as one of the leading theories why Germanic languages end their past tense verbs with -d and -t is that these early Proto-Germanic speakers may have had constructions analogous to “walk-did,” which eventually shortened to “walked” with time.
Picking up the sagas
Of course, Dr. Crawford doesn’t just teach about language. One subject that most attracts people to both Iceland and Dr. Crawford’s channel is the Icelandic family sagas, a literary genre that is half history, half artistic invention. For many people, this medieval literature can seem inaccessible, and Dr. Crawford has made it his mission to open this world to those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access it.
“One tip that I would have is don’t be afraid to reread. You know, these stories were made by and for a culture where people’s family ties were clearly very prominent in everyone’s mind, you could keep track of these genealogies really easily. A saga will mention someone as an eighth cousin in Chapter 1, and when that person comes up again in Chapter 44, you’re just supposed to remember this. There’s no guardian angel of sagas who’s hovering over you while you read it, but sometimes we have weird pride and reading, like I can’t go back and check this.”
Not a viking, not a cowboy
Finally, one must ask—what’s with the hat?
“I wanted people to see that you don’t have to decide to be a Viking to be interested in this stuff. I’m really just being myself.”
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