We here at the Historical Linguist Channel would like to wish you happy holidays. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, or nothing at all this time of year, whether your New Year comes with 1 January or the first new moon, we hope the rest of December treats you right.
We’re going to pause the semi-serious linguistics for a few weeks to spend time with our loved ones. We’ll be back 4 January with Phonology 101 and more, and in the meantime, Fun Etymology Tuesdays will continue uninterrupted over on our Facebook page.
As our gift to you, here’s a topical story from the history of English:
Once upon a time (let’s call it 1536), a poor guy named William Tyndale was executed for heresy after a merry chase across Europe that abruptly came to an end when he was betrayed in Belgium. His crime? Translating the Bible into English.
The charge of heresy was completely silly and unfair for several reasons:
- The Bible was already available in most of the other major languages of Europe.
- Two years later, King Henry VIII, the very same who had so adamantly insisted that Tyndale be apprehended, authorized an official English translation of the Bible; it drew heavily from Tyndale’s translation, as did the famous translation later commissioned by King James I.
- The Bible had been translated into English before, some of it probably translated by King Alfred himself. (That would be Alfred the Great. And he was. Great. At least, I think so (Hi, this is Rebekah).) Of course, this was before-before—before William and his Norman-French clerics and his Norman-French nobles and their beardless Norman culture.1 (I don’t actually have any beef with William the Conqueror. The dude was a beast, and honestly? England was kind of a mess when he showed up. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that the Anglo-Saxons were having a grand old time running around translating the Bible and handing it out to everybody long before Henry VIII got all snippy and execution-y just because William Tyndale called him out on the fact that annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon wasn’t exactly copacetic vis-a-vis scripture.)
Old English glosses and translations of the Bible were mostly based on the Vulgate Latin Bible. Many of the translations were incomplete, but one translated passage tells a little story you may have heard before:
Soþlice2 on þam dagum wæs geworden gebod fram þam Casere Augusto
Truly3 in those days happened a command from that Caesar Augustus
þæt eall ymbehwyrft wære tomearcod.
that all the circle of the world was to be described.
Þeos tomearcodnes wæs æryst geworden fram þam deman Syrige Cirino
This census first happened by that governor of Syria Cirinus
and ealle hig eoden and syndrie ferdon on hyra ceastre.
and they all went and separately traveled into their city.
Ða ferde Iosep fram Galilea of þære ceastre Nazareth
Then traveled Joseph from Galilee out of that city Nazareth
on Iudeisce ceastre Dauides seo is genemned Bethleem
into the Judean city of David which is named Bethlehem
forþam þe he wæs of Dauides huse and hirede.
because he was of David’s house and family.
He ferde mid Marian þe him beweddod wæs and wæs geeacnod.
He traveled with Mary who was married to him and was pregnant.
It’s Luke 2, the account of Christ’s birth, in the language of the Anglo-Saxons. A translation of a translation, from Ancient Greek to Latin to Old English. The language tells as much of a story as the words do. For example, they call the world a circle because that’s what they thought it was: a flat disk. In some ways, it’s impossible to separate our language from our culture, or our culture from our language. Our languages convey things that, like music or art, are sometimes a little bit untranslatable (which is how your friendly neighborhood linguists got into a discussion the other day about whether certain Disney songs are better in English or Swedish).
Do you have any Christmas or Hanukkah or Saturnalia (or whatever) stories you’d like to share with us? Any stories or songs that just don’t sound right if you try to translate them? We’d love to hear from you! Comment or send us an email or message in the language of your choice (even if you suspect we don’t speak it).
See you in January!
1There’s a fantastic lecture series available on audiobook called 1066: The Year That Changed Everything if you’re interested in learning more about the Norman Conquest.
2Modern transcriptions of Old English texts usually include diacritics to indicate vowel length and certain consonant pronunciations. I’m going to ask you to cut me a break on leaving these out here because a. It’s Christmas, b. This isn’t a formal publication, and c. The diacritics are, generally, a modern convention not found in the original manuscripts anyway.
3This is my own translation into ModE. Some of the phrasing may sound a little funny because I’ve gone for something between a gloss and a full translation to give you a sense of the original.