Fun Etymology Tuesday – Welsh

Good evening, loyal friends!
It’s Tuesday and, as regular as clockwork, our new Fun Etymology is out!
In our ongoing series about country/language names we’re going to explore another one of the constituents of the United Kingdom: Wales!

We wanted to do Scotland first but sadly nobody knows where the word Scotland (or better, Scot, the name of the
Celtic tribe giving its name to the land) comes from! That would have been a very short Fun Etymology indeed.

The word “Welsh”, by contrast, has a very rich and curious history.
It comes from the Old English word “wielisc” or “wælisc”, meaning “foreigner”.
This word comes from the Proto-Germanic word *walkhiskaz, which was used to signify any non-Germanic foreigner. The result of this is that there have been many “Welshes” along the ages: to the Vikings, the “Valir” were the French, to the old High Germans, the “Walh” were the Romans.
The Proto-Germanic word comes from the name of a Celtic tribe which lived in the Alps in northern Italy, known in Latin as the “Volcae”.

So, the name of a Celtic tribe came to mean “foreigner” in proto-Germanic, and then Old English extended this meaning to become the name of another Celtic tribe only remotely related to the one which originated the word in the first place!

Such is the way of the world.

Standardisation of languages – life or death?

Hello and happy summer! (And happy winter to those of you in the Southern Hemisphere!)

In previous posts we’ve thrown around the term ‘standard’, as in Standard English, but we haven’t really gone into what that means. It may seem intuitive to some, but this is actually quite a technical term that is earned through a lengthy process and, as is often the case, it is not awarded easily or to just any variety of a language. Today, I will briefly describe the process of standardising a variety and give you a few thoughts for discussion1. I want to stress that though we will discuss the question, I don’t necessarily think we need to find an answer to whether standardisation is “good” or “bad” – I don’t think either conclusion would be very productive. Still, it’s always good to tug a little bit at the tight boundaries we often put around the thought space reserved for linguistic concepts.

The language bohemian, at it again.

There are four processes usually involved in the standardisation of a language: selection, elaboration, codification, and acceptance.


It sure doesn’t start easy. Selection is arguably the most controversial of the processes as this is the step that involves choosing which varieties and forms the standard will be based on. Often in history we find a standard being selected from a prestigious variety, such as the one spoken by the nobility. In modern times this is less comme il faut as nobility don’t have monopoly on literacy and wider communication anymore (thankfully). This can make selection even trickier, though: as the choice of a standard variety becomes more open there is a higher need for sensitivity regarding who is represented by that standard and who isn’t. Selection may still favour an elite group of speakers, even if they may no longer be as clear-cut as a noble class. For example, a standard is often based on the variety spoken in the capital, or the cultural centre, of a nation. The selection of standard forms entails non-selection of others, and these forms are then easily perceived as worse, which affects the speakers of these non-standard forms negatively – this particularly becomes an issue when the standard is selected from a prestigious variety.

In my post about Scots , I briefly mentioned the problem of selection we would face in a standardisation of Scots as a variety which has great variation both within individual speakers and among different speakers (e.g. in terms of lects). Battling this same tricky problem, Standard Basque was mostly constructed from three Basque varieties, mixed with features of others. This standard was initially used mainly by the media and in formal writing with no “real” speakers. However, as more and more previously non-Basque-speaking people in the Basque country started to learn the language, they acquired the standard variety, with the result that this group and their children now speak a variety of Basque which is very similar to the standard.


Standardisation isn’t all a prestigious minefield. A quite fun and creative process of standardisation is elaboration, which involves expanding the language to be appropriate for use in all necessary contexts. This can be done by either adapting or adopting words from other varieties (i.e. other languages or nonstandard lects), by constructing new words using tools (like morphology) from within the variety that’s becoming a standard, or by looking into archaic words from the history of the variety and putting them back into use.

When French was losing its prestige in medieval England, influenced no doubt by the Hundred Years’ War, an effort was initiated to elaborate English. During the Norman Conquest, French had become the language used for formal purposes in England, while English survived as spoken by the common people. This elaboration a few hundred years later involved heavy borrowing of words from French (e.g. ‘government’ and ‘royal’) for use in legal, political, and royal contexts (and from Latin, mainly in medical contexts) – the result was that English could now be used in those situations it previously didn’t have appropriate words for (or where such words had not been in use for centuries)2.



Once selection and elaboration have (mostly) taken place, the process of codification cements the selected standard forms, through, for example, the compilation of dictionaries and grammars. This does not always involve pronunciation, although it can, as it famously does in the British Received Pronunciation (usually just called RP), a modern form of which is still encouraged for use by teachers and other public professions. Codification is the process that ultimately establishes what is correct and what isn’t within the standard – this makes codification the sword of the prescriptivist, meaning that codification is used to argue what the right way to use the language is (y’all know by know what the HLC thinks of prescriptivism).

When forms are codified they are not easily changed, which is why we still see some bizarre spellings in English today.  There are of course not only limitations to codification (as with the spelling example)– there is obvious benefit for communication if we all spell certain things the same way or don’t vary our word choices too much for the same thing or concept. Another benefit, and a big one at that, is that codified varieties are perceived more as real, and this is very important for speakers’ sense of value and identity.

Codification does not a standard make – most of you will know that many varieties have dictionaries without having a standard, Scots being one example. Urban Dictionary is another very good example of codification of non-standard forms.


The final process is surely the lengthiest and perhaps the most difficult to achieve: acceptance. It is crucial that a standard variety receives recognition as such, more especially by officials or other influential speakers but also by the general public. Speakers need to see that there is a use for the standard and that there is a benefit to using it (such as benefiting in social standing or in a career). Generally though, people don’t respond very well to being prescribed language norms, which we have discussed previously, so when standard forms have been selected and codified it does not necessarily lead to people using these forms in their speech (as was initially the case with Standard Basque). Further, if the selection process is done without sensitivity, some groups may feel they have no connection to the standard, sometimes for social or political reasons, and may actively choose to not use it. Again, we find that a sense of identity is significant to us when it comes to language; it is important for us to feel represented by our standard variety.

What’s the use?

Ideally, a standard language could be seen as a way to promote communication within a nation or across several nations. Despite the different varieties of Arabic, for example, Arabic speakers are able to switch to a standard when communicating with each other even if they are from different countries far apart. Likewise, a Scottish person can use Standard English when talking to someone from Australia, while if the same speakers switched back to their local English (or Scots) varieties, they wouldn’t necessarily understand each other. Standardisation certainly eases communication within a country also, and a shared standard variety can provide a sense of shared nationality and culture. There is definitely a point in having a written standard used for our laws, education, politics, and other official purposes which is accessible for everyone. On the other side of this, however, we find a counterforce with speaker communities wanting to preserve their lects and actively opposing using a standard if they can’t identify with it.

So, a thought for discussion I want to leave with you today: Do you think the process of standardisation essentially kills language, or does it it keep it alive? An argument for the first point is that standardisation limits variation3 – this means that when a standard has been established and accepted, the varieties of that standard will naturally start pulling towards the standard as its prestige and use increases. However, standardising is also a way to officially recognise minority varieties, which gives speakers an incentive to keep their language alive. It is also a way to ease understanding between speakers (as explained earlier), and in some cases (like Basque), standardisation gives birth to a new variety acquired as a first language. As I said from the start, maybe we won’t find an answer to this, and maybe we shouldn’t, but it’s worth thinking about these matters in a more critical way.


1 I’ve used the contents of several courses, lectures, and literatures as sources for this post. The four processes of standardisation are credited to Haugen (1996): ‘Dialect, language, nation’.

2 In fact, a large bulk of French borrowings into English comes from this elaboration, rather than from language contact during the Norman Conquest.

On a very HLC note, historical standardisation makes research into dialectal variation and language change quite difficult. The standard written form of Old English is based on the West Saxon variety, and there are far fewer documents to be found written in Northumbrian, which was a quite different variety and has played a huge part in the development of the English we know today.


Fun Etymology Tuesday – English

Hello hello hello, good friends!
It’s Tuesday, and long tradition dictates a new Fun Etymology is waiting for you, fresh and crispy!

Today’s word is the first in a mini-series we’ll be doing in the following weeks about country and language names, and where else to begin if not with our own lovely English?

The word “English” comes from Old English “Englisc”, the adjectival form of the noun “Engle”, which is the name the Angles, one of the Germanic tribes who came to Great Britain and colonised it in the fifth century AD, called themselves.

Now you might think the word Angle sounds suspiciously the same as the word “angle”, i.e. what you get when two lines intersect, but they couldn’t possibly be related, could they?

Well, it turns out that they are! The Angles named themselves after their original homeland Angul, located on the Jutland peninsula in what is now the German state of Schleswig-Holstein (how cool are German state names, by the way?). The name Angul comes from Proto-Germanic *angul, “hook”, which itself comes from the PIE root *ank- “to bend”, which gave us the words “angle” and “ankle” (the part of the foot that bends), amongst others. They called their land that way because it sort of looks like a fish hook.

Another interesting aspect of this word is that by all accounts it should be pronounced “Anglish”, not at all how it is pronounced today. The explanation for this irregularity is that by the 14th century, the sound “e” before “ng” had become very rare, and the influence of the far more common “ing” combination resulted in the pronunciation shifting that way.
In some Middle English and Scots texts, the spelling “Inglis”, which reflects the modern pronunciation, can be found relatively frequently, but over time the archaic spelling prevailed, and here we are.

So, my dear Fish Hook People and other Fish Hook Language speakers, let me wish you a very nice week while you wait for our next foray into the history of words.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Book

Friends and followers, welcome one and all to a brand new Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is one of my favourite things in the world: “book”.

Books are the closest thing we humans have to actual magic, as Carl Sagan once said. We have found a way to encode our thoughts into shapes we can draw and thereby preserve them for millennia.
Think about it: when you read Plato or Confucius or Caesar, you’re listening to the thoughts of someone who’s been dead for thousands of years, exactly as he expressed them. If that’s not sorcery I don’t know what is.

The word “book” comes from Old English “boc”, itself from Proto-Germanic *bokiz, meaning “beech” (from which the word “beech” also comes, predictably). This refers to the ancient custom amongst Germanic peoples of carving runes on the bark of beech trees, particularly suited to writing due to their white colour.
This is not unique of Germanic. The Latin word “librum”, from which come Italian “libro” and French “livre”, amongst others, itself originally meant “inner bark of a tree”.

So thank a tree on your way to the park today, for they give us not only the oxygen we breathe, but the means of preserving our thought and our wisdom through the centuries.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Magazine

What do the magazines you find in the supermarket, full of gossip or specialist information, have to do with old buildings storing grain and dates in ancient Arabia?

Well, the word “magazine” ultimately comes from the Quranic Arabic word “makhzan”, meaning “storehouse, depot”, a form of the verb “khazana”, “to store”.
This was borrowed into Italian as “magazzino”, where it still has its original meaning of “storehouse”. Later, French brought the word to English, where its meaning of “storehouse” was metaphorically transferred to paper with the publication of the “Gentleman’s Magazine” in 1730, with the intended meaning of “storehouse of information”.

This metaphorical meaning supplanted the original and is now the primary one, the old meaning having survived only in military jargon, referring to the capsules storing ammunition for firearms.