Monday, 19 May 2014

Hard Words Break No Bones

I am currently reading Erik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas translated by Gwyn Jones. In fact, I just finished 'Hen-Throrir', the first saga in the book, and one line in particular jumped out at me:

Hard words break no bones.

Mostly the line struck me because of its inherent poetry. I don’t really know anything about Icelandic poetry, though I have studied a bit about Anglo-Saxon verse, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the two shared a lot of similarities. Most lines of Anglo-Saxon verses are divided in half, with each half containing some form of alliteration. Such an arrangement can be seen in this line.

In the first half of the line, both words end in ‘rd’ (poetic alliteration doesn’t demand that the consonantal repetition be in the first letter). The second half, of course, contains the double ‘b’ as well as picking up some nice assonance with the repeated long ‘o’ sound from ‘no’ and ‘bones’.

These elements caused this little five word phrase to bounce around in my head for days after reading it.

The other notable thing about the line, and perhaps the more immediately obvious to most people, is that it is a much more compact form of the children’s taunt ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’. This little taunt also features a lot of alliteration, although its meter is probably a bit more modern.

I don’t know how much of the line is the responsibility of the translator and how much came from the original writer, but either way, it’s a fantastic bit of phrasing, that just seems perfect for harsh and often cruel world of the Icelandic sagas.


  1. Nice review of your current reading; I'm impressed with your literary background.

  2. One of the real benefits of a liberal arts degree at UNC is that it demanded a real wide range of studies!