Early Germanic Dialects – Let’s get going!

Willkommen zurück, everyone! (I have no idea if you would actually say that in German but we’ll stick to it!)

You might remember that we, three weeks ago, kicked off a new little series by introducing you a little bit to Proto-Germanic? Well, this series is called Early Germanic Dialects (coincidentally, this is also the name of a course on this particular topic that we took during our studies), and in it, we will be introducing you a little bit to – you guessed it – the early Germanic dialects!

Before we study those, though, we need to talk to you a bit about the relationship of these dialects. We’re sure you remember that we’ve talked quite a lot about the concept of ‘families’ of languages (Germanic, Italic, Finno-Ugric, etc.). Today, we’ll look closer at the Germanic language family!

So, of course you know by now that the Germanic languages are languages that comes from Proto-Germanic (which, in turn, hails from Proto-Indo-European). What you may not know (or at least we haven’t outright told you) is that the Germanic language family is also divided into different branches, three in total. These are: West Germanic, North Germanic and East Germanic.

East Germanic, unfortunately, had only one known descendent and that language has gone extinct: Gothic. We know that Gothic once existed and we have a pretty good idea about what it looked like because of a few surviving texts. One of the most recognised of these is the so-called Codex Argenteus, a beautiful 6th century manuscript which contains a 4th century gothic translation of the Bible. Known most commonly as the Silver Bible or the Silver Book, the manuscript is an impressive sight: its thin vellum pages are stained a regal purple, the script and illuminations are made in silver and gold with an ornate jewelled binding. Sorry, I got a bit carried away there, but truly, it’s quite remarkable. If you ever find yourself in Stockholm, Sweden, make a bit of a detour and see it IRL at the University of Uppsala, its current home.

Anyway, back to linguistics. So, Gothic is the only descendent of East Germanic, meaning, of course, that there are currently no living descendents of East Germanic. That is not the case for the other two branches though. Let’s look at North Germanic first.

The North Germanic branch of the tree are the languages that come from Old Norse, meaning, of course, the Viking languages!

Kidding (kind of). The languages that comes from Old Norse are Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish. These languages share a couple of features which are not found in most of the East and West Germanic languages, such as u-umlaut (though you may see u-umlaut in other Germanic languages, such as Old English, too, but it is commonly more limited than the u-umlaut found in Old Norse and not to be confused with the ‘umlauted’ vowel Ü in German).
You’ve heard us talk about umlaut before, quite a bit actually, but we’ve primarily focused on i-umlaut. U-umlaut works in a very similar fashion: when a /u/ or a /w/ followed in the next syllable, stressed vowels were rounded so instead of milk, as in English, you get mjòlk (Icelandic), mjölk (Swedish), for example. Of course, there are important differences within these languages too, but we’ll get there in due time.

Now, the West Germanic branch is a bit bigger than East and North. This branch consists of all languages that comes from Anglo-Frisian, that is Old English and Old Frisian, and the languages that comes from Proto-German (not to be confused with Proto-Germanic), that is Old High German, which eventually produced German and Yiddish, as well as all languages that comes from Old Low German, also known as Old Saxon and Old Dutch, which eventually became Low German, Dutch and Afrikaans.

Let’s put that in a tree for you:

This makes it a bit easier to visualize, of course, but this way of representing things have shown to be somewhat problematic. As you may notice, for example, it gives you no indication of timeline, and of course, all of the language changes that makes West Germanic different from North or East Germanic didn’t happen at the same time. Consider the tree, if you will, an extremely simplified visualization of a very complex relationship.  

This post has aimed to give you some insight into the relationship of the Germanic languages, but we will end on another note of caution: this relationship is far from uncontroversial. For example, there are some features shared by the Anglo-Frisian languages and the North Germanic languages but not by the Proto-German languages, and there are some features shared by Old High German and Gothic that set them apart from the other languages – some have even gone so far as to claim that English is a North Germanic language, not a West Germanic one.  This, of course, indicates a closer relationship than what is readily evident by the traditional tree that you see here.

So, keep this with you, always: don’t accept the tree as the unequivocal truth, because really, it’s not.  

via GIPHY

References

Our primary reference for this post is:

Robinson, Orrin W. 1992. Old English and its closest relatives. London: Routledge.

If you would like to know more about the Silver Bible, check it out at the University of Uppsala

And if you would like to know more about the claim that English is actually a North Germanic language, check out Emonds and Faarlund’s book English: The language of the Vikings, published in 2014. Fair warning though: the hypothesis has been questioned by many voices in the historical linguistic community and we suggest you also check out a couple of reviews on the book to get an understanding of both schools of thought. We will not be discussing our personal thoughts on this topic here, but if you want to know more and discuss it with us, just send us an email or ask us a question on Facebook or Twitter.

There be language change afoot–but why?

We’ve written about several big, historic sound changes, like umlaut and Grimm’s Law. But why does pronunciation have to change at all? Why can’t it just stay the same forever? Surely, that would be easier for everyone (especially us historical linguists trying to reconstruct speech from a time before sound recording).

Without diving in too deep today, let’s look at two of the big forces playing tug-o’-war with our phonemes (and the rest of our language): good, old-fashioned laziness and the need to be understood.

I called the first force laziness, but perhaps a kinder appellation would be “conservation of energy.” Unless you live by yourself in a cottage deep in some leafy forest somewhere, you probably regularly do a fair amount of communication (yes, even you introverts). Speech1 is a repetitive motion, and like other repetitive motions (e.g. signing your name), we unconsciously streamline it as it sinks deeper and deeper into our muscle memory. ‘Cannot’ in most instances becomes ‘can’t’; the <tt> in ‘button’ becomes [ʔ] instead of [t].2

This tendency to expend the least amount of effort in language production is called ease of articulation. This is what leads to phenomena like umlaut: it’s easier to pronounce consecutive vowels in the same area of the mouth, so back vowels are pulled forward after front vowels (e.g. Proto-Germanic *mūsiz “mice” becomes OE *mȳs). Similarly, vowels in unstressed syllables tend to relax into schwa. Why enunciate every sound when you don’t really have to? (Except sometimes you do have to.)

Ease of articulation is one thing, but on the other hand, language can’t allow itself to devolve into a mushy, mumbly mess. That would be self-defeating. When your whole purpose in life is to communicate messages, by gum! you’ve got to make sure you can effectively communicate a message. If things become too similar, a language finds ways to self correct, to dissimilate. Dissimilation is a process whereby two linguistic elements that are confusingly alike are pulled back apart to a reasonable, comprehensible distance. Take, for example, the OE pronouns “he” and hēo “she”. Linguists aren’t exactly sure which specific sound change stepped in to shift  hēo to she, but I think we can all agree that it’s easier to tell who’s who with more distinct pronouns. Or in another case, we find the word pilgrim ultimately comes from Latin peregrinus “foreigner, traveler”. In Latin words with far too many /r/s, one of them commonly became an /l/ over time to unmuddy the waters.

Though they seem almost like an uptight, mothering older sister (dissimilation) and her carefree, lackadaisical little brother (ease of articulation), these two processes work in tandem as much as they work against each other. You could almost say they bring balance to the Force. (But you could also say that languages are wild, organic things that refuse to be tied down. It’s not you, it’s them. And as you may have guessed, ease of articulation and dissimilation aren’t the only suspects complicating this situation. We’ll get there.)

Notes

1 It’s something we haven’t brought to the forefront in a while, but I’d like to remind you that when we talk about “speech,” we could just as well be talking about signing. Sign languages function much like spoken languages.
2 Depending on your dialect.

Did the Southern Hemisphere Englishes develop from Cockney?

Remember two weeks ago, when I said that I’d get back to you about Southern Hemisphere Englishes? Well, I’m following through with this post!1

So, what do I mean by Southern Hemisphere (SH) Englishes? Well, it can be defined more broadly or more narrowly, but for this post I mean varieties of English that are spoken as a first language in the Southern Hemisphere, such as in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, St Helena, and the Falkland Islands. Today, I will focus on the first three varieties on that list: Australian English, New Zealand English, and South African English.

Public domain map from https://ian.macky.net/pat/index.html

If you, like me, enjoy listening to accents, imitating them, and trying to figure out their characteristics, you may have noticed that these three SH varieties often sound very similar2. With Australian and New Zealand English, them being geographical neighbours could partly explain this, but this does not work as an explanation for South African English. Also, there is not great dialectal variation within these varieties, relative to, for example, the UK, where you get distinct accents and dialects between two places only a commuter’s distance apart. How can this be?

In my post about American English I went a little bit into how the development of that variety is affected by the linguistic diversity of the input (that is, what English accents and dialects were spoken by settlers), challenging the claim that American English would be a preserved Shakespearean English. The story of the formation of SH Englishes is, unsurprisingly, not so different from this. Once again I want to investigate the idea that a language develops in a straight line from one single older language, and the question of the week is therefore: Is Cockney to blame for the similarities between SH Englishes?

The SH countries in question were colonised by Britain much later than North America was, but in the same century as each other; the 19th century. The nature of their settlement differed slightly, however: Australia was at first a penal colony, New Zealand was initially settled by craftsmen, labourers, and farmers, and in South Africa, which was previously colonised by the Dutch, a deliberate action was made to start British farming communities by sending out 5000 British settlers to start this up (this did not work very well, and the British settlers soon moved into the cities to take on other professions).

Now, let me tell you a little bit about Cockney:

Famous fictional Cockney speaker: Eliza Doolittle, in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (perhaps more known from the stage musical adaption My Fair Lady)

Famous non-fictional Cockney speaker: Michael Caine (an actor who, depending on your age, you either know from the movie Alfie, or as Alfred in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy)

Famously bad attempts at Cockney: America’s Next Top Model season 4 acting challenge

Cockney is the accent traditionally spoken in London’s West End, which, in the 19th and early 20th century, was one of the more impoverished areas of London. The Southern English accent spoken in the West End developed in a quite distinct way, influenced in part by the culturally diverse population which resided there. If you’re not from Britain, you may recognise Cockney as the accent often used to make fun of/imitate the British. Some notable Cockney features are, for example: pronouncing the diphthong in words like ‘mate’ so that it sounds like the diphthong in ‘might’, dropping word-initial /h/ so that  ‘hello’ becomes ‘ello’, vocalising (= turning into a vowel) the /l/ in certain environments so that ‘milk’ sounds like ‘miwk’, and glottalising the /t/-sound between vowels so that words like ‘glottal’ become something like ‘glo-al’. The cockney accent also had more general South-Eastern English features (and indeed, some of the already mentioned features are also found elsewhere), such as not being rhotic (so that ‘far’ is pronounced ‘fah’), and raising of the ‘e’-vowels to sound more like ‘i’, making ‘better’ sound more like ‘bitter’.

During the 20th century, the rise of the prestigious Received Pronounciation (RP)3 meant that Cockney became more and more seen as vulgar and overall unprestigious. However, Cockney speakers were large in numbers, and, as is often the case in language change, features from Cockney have successively found their way into wider South-Eastern British English and even RP – so much so that the traditional RP known as the Queen’s English sounds much more “common” these days, even when spoken by the Queen herself.

From a British perspective, Cockney and monocles don’t exactly go hand in hand

Cockney is frequently given credit for the Australian English accent, and this is not an entirely bonkers idea. In a situation such as the settlement of Australia and New Zealand, the number of speakers of a certain variety, i.e. the frequency of certain accent features, has been said to play a greater role than the social prestige of a variety, and the majority of convicts arriving in Australia were Cockney speakers. The interaction between the convicts, and thus the numerical influence of Cockney features over other accents, started already on the ships taking them to Australia, and once there, the speech of the convicts even affected the speech of the penal officers. Thus, Cockney speech features became numerically dominant in Australia and shaped the way English was spoken there.

We know already that the type of settlement was different in New Zealand, so what role did Cockney play there? Well, Cockney speakers in New Zealand were not as many as in Australia, but there were significant numbers of speakers from the South-East of England (about half of the settlers). There were also many settlers from Scotland, and a smaller but relevant number of settlers from Australia (7%)4, in the early days of New Zealand settlement. So, even though Cockney specifically wasn’t spoken by great numbers in New Zealand, those features of Cockney which were also found in other Southern English and (Cockney-influenced) Australian accents spoken in New Zealand had numerical strength among the settlers there. Therefore, these features, such as the high ‘e’ in better, non-rhoticity, and the distinct diphthong in mate, eventually became features of New Zealand English.

Likewise, the British settlers in South Africa were largely from the South-East of England. While the number of settlers was quite small in South Africa, they formed a tight-knit community of English-speakers in a region where many other languages were spoken, Dutch/Afrikaans being only one of them, and largely resisted influence from these other languages. Thus, even though the group of English-speakers in South Africa was small in numbers compared to the rest of the South African population, it was the majority accent within the English-speaking community, i.e. South-Eastern British English, which came to influence the development of South African English.

The numerical strength of individual features, rather than the “whole accent”, is important to understand why some notable cockney characteristics, such as h-dropping and t-glottaling, are missing from all of these SH accents. New Zealand, for example, had plenty of input from other British accents than South-Eastern ones, so pronouncing  /h/ and /t/ was more common among speakers than not doing so. Australia was also subsequently settled by speakers of different English varieties, which we can assume swamped out some of the features more specific to Cockney.

So, can we blame Cockney entirely for the similarities between the different SH varieties? Of course, which I hope to have shown in this post, it is never that simple.

Footnotes
1 The content of this post is again largely credited to material by Dr. Claire Cowie at the University of Edinburgh. I also recommend this video for a general (albeit slightly dated) overview of Cockney and Australian English.
2 Of course, a more trained ear than mine will hear clear differences between them. If you’re not very  familiar with these accents, listen to some samples from the International Dialects of English Archives (IDEA):Australian English, New Zealand English, South African English.
I picked three samples that were similar in that they were all by men in their 20s. There are more samples to listen to on the IDEA site (and many many more accents!).
3 We’ve mentioned RP before, for example here in the context of standardisation.
4 As a reminder, I’m getting these numbers from material put together by Dr. Claire Cowie for the course LEL2C: English in Time and Space at the University of Edinburgh.