Sound, voice, and articulation in the Exeter Book riddles
in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
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The Exeter Book riddles present a symphony of acoustic effects, deploying a multitude of linguistic resources to reflect aesthetically on the metaphysical relationship, long examined by philosophers and grammarians, between sounds, speech, concepts, and subjects and objects both animate and inanimate. This chapter discusses the different ways that sounds signify in these riddles, especially the sensory, cognitive, and culturally formed categories through which sound effects evoke the rhythms and textures of natural phenomena, human artefacts, and human and animal experience. Like all Old English poetry but especially vividly, the riddles pleasurably combine received fields of knowledge and familiar poetic forms with the surprising, sometimes unsettling aural effects produced by specific lines. The chapter teases out connections between the concepts of sound, noise, and voice as early English writers inherited them from the classical and early medieval philosophical and grammatical traditions, and the achievable performative effects of sound via the techniques of English enigmatic poetry. Finally, following the lead of Maurizio Bettini, the chapter gestures toward the possibilities of a ‘sound anthropology’ of early medieval England.

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