Happy Holidays from the HLC

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:

  1. The Bible was already available in most of the other major languages of Europe.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Written “language”?

Hi everyone, Sabina here! As the resident nerd of orthography and writing systems, I am here today to talk to you about language. Shocking, I know!

When I say “language”, you might be thinking of spoken language but also, perhaps, of written language. But is “written language” actually language?

Well, yes and no. Written “language”, while sharing a lot with spoken language, is a medium through which we might use language to express ideas, thoughts and emotions, but it is not the language.

The distinction between spoken language and the written medium may sound simple enough, but the two are easily confused simply because they are very closely related. Haven’t you ever heard someone saying, with a frustrated tone, that the English language is soooo weird on the basis of spelling? Well, that’s the orthography, i.e. the rules that govern spelling, punctuation and such things, not the language.

Or perhaps that Chinese is an ideographic1 language? Well, that describes the writing system of the language, not the language (also, Chinese is logographic, but it’s a common misconception according to our resident Chinese expert, Riccardo).

Now, a writing system is a form of communication represented in a visual way. This may be through a system like the Latin alphabet (like I’m using) or the Cyrillic alphabet (like that used in Russia, e.g. алфавит ‘alphabet’) where the symbols represent sounds, or through a logographic system (like that used in Chinese, in which a written character represents a word or a phrase, e.g. 这是一个示例 ‘this is an example’). Basically, it is any way we use letters, shapes, accents and so on to convey meaning on… well, any material really, as long as it is graphically represented.

You with me so far? Great, let’s move into the tricky stuff.

Now, the writing system and the orthography of a language are derivative mediums of spoken language, usually reflecting the spoken language fairly well. However, writing may also go entirely its own way (or at least, it might seem like it).

Consider the English spelling of the word “tough”. Pronounced (in British English) as as [tʌf], it is nevertheless spelt with -gh, not f. (I’ll leave the vowels for now. We’ll offer more insight on vowels later.). So, if a written language is merely a way to express the spoken language: what’s up with that??

Well, this is the Historical Linguist Channel, after all (thought you could sneak by the history, did ya?). Such discrepancies (of which English has plenty) are often possible to explain by studying the history of the language. You see, orthography (especially spelling) is slow to change (like, really slow) and the standardisation of English was done during late Middle English/Early Modern English. English has, of course, changed quite a bit since then, but the written form of English actually still corresponds quite well (we think, at least) to the pronunciation of earlier stages of the spoken language.

While it would be convenient to have an orthography that reproduces the spoken language as exactly as possible, it would be quite difficult to create such a system. For instance, most letters pull a double (or triple or quadruple and so on) act and their pronunciation in a particular word is very dependent on the reader.

Let’s use another Swedish example here: In Swedish, the word for shrimp is ‘räka’. Now, in Gothenburg, where I’m from, this is pronounced something like ‘rää-ka’ with an open vowel ([æ:]), a vowel that, in Swedish, is traditionally associated with the letter <ä> .

However, my husband, who is from Stockholm, would pronounce the same word as ‘ree-ka’ with a much more closed vowel, perhaps something like [e:]. Yet, using the letter <e> to denote the vowel [æ:] may become an issue because the pronunciation “ree-ka” might actually be nonsensical to a lot of Swedish speakers (there’s actually a really old joke about it, talking about  a person wanting shrimp and the other person doesn’t understand what the first is asking for).

Add to that that there already is a word spelt ‘reka’ in Swedish, a clipped form of ‘rekognosera’ meaning “to explore or investigate”, and you’ll see how spelling shrimp as ‘reka’ might be an issue (especially since the pronunciation is highly dialectal and does not correspond to the pronunciation of other dialects).

There are, of course, a bunch of words that could (and perhaps should) be updated to a more ‘modern’ spelling, but the point of all this is that, while spoken and written language are closely related, we cannot expect the written form to be an exact replica of the spoken language. That being said, it would be naive of us to claim that spoken and written language are completely separate. Of course they’re not. But, at the same time, when we talk about “written language”, we must be aware that that “language” is not actually a language at all, merely a really slow-to-change expression of the spoken language. This does not mean that the study of writing systems and/or orthography is not worthwhile. Quite the opposite, especially for historical linguists whose only resource is written texts.

We cannot, and should not, expect writing to be a trustworthy representative of spoken language, and that’s okay.


1Ideographs are symbols that manage to convey their meaning independent of any particular language, like a big red circle with a line through it to mean “no”.