Insights from the ISLE Summer School, 24-28 June 2019
This week, I had the pleasure of attending the International Society for the Linguistics of English (ISLE) Summer School. The summer school is bi-annual, and explores different themes each time – this year, the theme was using the past to explain the present, with the description: “A special focus will be on evidence for past states of English and Scots, with reference to the functioning of writing systems in manuscript and printed contexts.”
With a theme like that, there’s no wonder that this summer school caught the interest of two HLC:ers: Sabina and myself (Lisa)!
The summer school was organised at the University of Glasgow by the ISLE president, Professor Jeremy Smith. On the first day, he held a workshop which led us to think more about how the past can help us explain the present, and he emphasised the importance of considering that the old languages and writing systems we study were produced by people who were as much conditioned by social factors as we are today. In fact, the name of this year’s theme is a scrambled version of a pioneering publication by famous sociolinguist William Labov, On the use of the present to explain the past, which explored the idea that humans are not so different in history and today, and thus we can use our knowledge of today’s languages, and the people who speak them, to make inferences about history. Likewise, through looking at material culture (for example scribal practices, and the look and material of manuscripts), and through exploring the social context in which they operate, we can learn more about what drives language change.
The exploration of manuscripts continued into the workshops in the morning of the second day. Professor Wendy Scase from the University of Birmingham held a workshop about writing systems, and made us aware of the social factors which may condition how we write. The traditional view of spelling is that it follows pronunciation, but it’s not usually that straightforward, and there are often social cues in what spelling systems we adhere to.
One simple example is, of course, the differences between British and American English; the use of colour or color says nothing about pronunciation, but reading one or the other immediately tells you something about the writer. Consider also things like “heavy metal umlaut”, as found in the band names Mötley Crüe and Motörhead; these umlauted letters are pronounced a certain way in the languages who use them in their writing systems, such as Swedish and German, but these bands use them as a form of identity marker. If these social identity markers are used in the present day, we should be aware that this may also be the case in the past. As an example of this, a mediaeval writer may have chosen to use the italic script to advertise to the reader that they are a humanist.
As the second day progressed, we received introductions on how to use historical corpora by Dr Joanna Kopaczyk (University of Glasgow) and Dr Kristin Bech (University of Oslo). While these workshops were more focused on presenting resources for doing research in historical linguistics, the theme of the week still ran like a red thread through them: for example, we were reminded that when looking at historical written text, the scribal practice should not only be taken to be dialectal, but can also be socially conditioned.
On the third day of the summer school, we went on a field trip to Ruthwell Cross, in Dumfriesshire. The runes inscripted on the cross make the earliest evidence we have of Anglo-Saxon in Britain, and it was interesting to learn about some of the unique features of the runic system which are only found on this monument, which again led us to think about what the purpose was behind using these particular symbols.
In the final two days of the summer school, all participants presented their PhD research, and we reflected on the mechanisms behind language change in a discussion led by Jeremy Smith. In this discussion, we looked at different examples of words or expressions which use and meaning had changed in the history of English, and whether social factors may have driven these changes. In the HLC’s weekly etymologies on facebook, we have sometimes demonstrated how social associations may trigger the meaning of a word to become more negative or positive – an example being the word ‘villain’, now a pejorative term, which developed from simply referring to someone living on a farm. This is only one type of language change that can be socially conditioned, and this week we’ve come to learn even more about how identity markers and other socially conditioned factors play a role in how we express ourselves, both in writing and speaking. This is why it’s so important for historical linguists to approach our textual sources with the same sociolinguistic awareness with which we would approach today’s spoken data.
Personally, I found this week to be incredibly inspiring, and in our final discussions you could tell that we had all received plenty of input and inspiration for continuing our research with some more attention to material culture and social practice.
A couple weeks ago, we talked about a process called reduplication, which is when languages double syllables or words to various effect. As with most morphological and phonological processes, there’s a flipside to this coin. (Languages can be a bit like tired, hangry toddlers: indecisive, inconsistent, contrary, and completely beyond being reasoned with.) Sometimes, instead of leaning in to the singsongedness of repeated syllables, languages decide that two syllables are just too similar, and one of them must be eradicated. We call this phenomenon haplology.
I may jest about languages arbitrarily adding or removing syllables, but haplology is actually an elegant remedy for words that may otherwise be cumbersome to pronounce. Consider a few homespun English adverbs: The most common way to form an adverb in English is to add -ly to the end of an adjective. In most cases, this is nothing to bat an eye at. ‘Warm’ becomes ‘warmly’, ‘happy’ becomes ‘happily’, ‘treacherous’ becomes ‘treacherously’. But what about words that already end in [l]? ‘Gentle’ and ‘humble’ become…’gentlely’ and ‘humblely’? Naw. Maybe back in Middle English, but for modern speakers, these adverbs have been streamlined to ‘gently’ and ‘humbly’. They’ve undergone haplology.
There are just some sounds that don’t roll gently off the tongue in quick succession. Another example from English is the pronunciation of ‘February’. Some dialects still carefully pronounce each written sound as in /ˈfɛb.ɹuˌɛɹi/, but that’s a lot of [ɹ]s all piled together. Some dialects have solved the crisis by dissimilation, producing something more akin to /ˈfɛb.juˌɛ(ə)ɹi/. Some UK dialects, though, have solved the problem with haplology instead, resulting in a pronunciation of /ˈfɛb.ɹi/.
A Basque example also shows the elimination of excessive Rs. The word for ‘cider’ comes from ‘sagar’ (apple) + ‘ardo’ (wine). Instead of the compound becoming ‘sagarrardo’, the syllables are simplified, and the result is ‘sagardo’.
Lest you begin to think haplology only happens to liquids like [l] and [ɹ], look at Latin ‘nutrix’ (nurse). It comes from ‘nutrio’ (suckle, predecessor of English ‘nourish’ and ‘nutrition’) + ‘-trix’ (a suffix that formed a female agent noun, like how Amelia Earhart was an aviatrix). The resulting ‘nutritrix’ lost one of its <tri>s—thus, ‘nutrix’.
It has always been a source of great amusement to me (and other linguists—we’re a whimsical lot) that the term ‘haplology’ itself has the potential to undergo haplology, thereby becoming ‘haplogy’. Although this has not actually occurred, haplology is out there, watching over our languages, making some tricky words just a little easier to pronounce.
And EGD is back! Today, we’re going to be talking about something close to my own heart: English! This is Early Germanic Dialects thought, so, naturally, we won’t be talking about modern English, but, Old English.
Now, before we start, let’s make one thing very clear: Shakespeare is not Old English. Nope, nope, not even close. In fact, some native speakers of English (and I’ve experimented on this with friends), don’t even recognise Old English as English. Let’s compare, just so you can see the differences. These are the first two lines of the epic poem Beowulf:
Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon
Listen! We of the Spear-Danes in the days of yore
of those clan-kings heard
of their glory
A bit different, wouldn’t you say? And now, of course, you’re wondering how it went from that to this? Well, that’s a different story (but we’ve told it in bits and pieces before).
Let’s today simply focus on Old English, shall we?
Right, so as per usual, let’s start with a bit of a history lesson!
As you might know, while English is today the dominant language of the British Isles, this was certainly not always the case. In fact, the tribes that we eventually consider “English” were all invaders or immigrants: Saxons, Angles and (maybe) Jutes! The native population of the British Isles were, the stories tell us, treated rather horridly – primarily thanks to the Celtic king, Vortigern, who ruled there during the mid-fifth century, who made a really bad call.
You see, Vortigern had a problem: the Picts and Scots kept attacking him and he simply couldn’t deal with these vicious barbarians on his own! So, he called in reinforcements! That means, he invited Saxons to come over to deal with the problem.
And they did. Then, I suppose, they were chatting amongst themselves, and with their buddies who were already living there, and thought “wait… If he can’t deal with these people… How would he possibly be able to deal with all of us?”. After, I imagine, a bit of snickering and laughing, they went off and told Vortigern – pleased with himself after the Picts and Scots had been pushed back – that they weren’t intending to leave. I imagine that left him less pleased.
It is actually from this period in time (or somewhat later), around the year 500, that we get the legendary myth of King Arthur. During this time, a great battle was fought at someplace called Mount Badon (which we can’t really place), and the British people succeeded in stopping the Anglo-Saxon expansion for a little while, and they may (possibly, maybe, we don’t really know) have been led by a king called Arthur (kinda little historical evidence for one of the most widespread myths out there, right?). Despite this success, a great deal of southern Britain was in the hands of the Anglo-Saxons by the year 600, and the areas under British rule had been reduced to distant corners of the west, such as Wales and Cornwall. What we end up with, is a geographical division that looks something like this:
Now, naturally, when people come together in close quarters and multiple leader-types, what follows is about 300 years of squabble about the ‘overlordship’ of this green area. Then… Then, they had other things to worry about – the Vikings had arrived.
But we’re not gonna talk about that today, so check it out here if you want!
So, the Vikings arrived, and this led to a long war. Eventually, King Alfred the Great of Wessex forced the Vikings to peace-talks (mostly because he kept beating them, though he might have been pretty much the only Anglo-Saxon king who could boast about that), and the Danelaw was formed.
The descendents of Alfred managed to keep things pretty smooth for a while. Specifically, until 978, when King Edward was murdered. Enter: Æthelred the Unready (and no, that is not a nickname that history added: his own contemporaries called him unræd, loosely translated as ‘ill counsel’). Basically, he did most things wrong (even attempting to order the death of all Danes in the country). The, probably, largest mistake that Ætheldred did though, was the decision to kill the sister of King Swein of Denmark.
Riled Vikings? Really, that’s a bad idea.
And in 1013, Æthelred was shown just how much of a bad idea that was, when a pissed-off Viking army landed on his beaches. The army of Danes met little resistance and Æthelred was forced to flee to Normandy. However, Swein died just a couple of months after that, and Æthelred returned to England – only to be re-invaded by Canute the Great, son of Swein, in 1015. Æthelred eventually died in 1016, and his oldest surviving son Edmund died soon after, leaving Canute the ruler of England.
Canute’s sons, Harald Harefoot and Hardecanute, ruled after his death, until 1042, when the son of Æthelred and Emma of Normandy (Hardecanute’s adoptive heir) Edward took the throne, which he held onto until his death in 1066. And we all know what happened after that… Enter the Norman invasion. Though Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, was acclaimed king after Edward, he held the throne for only nine months before he fell at the Battle of Hastings, thus putting a bloody end to the (fairly bloody) Anglo-Saxon state.
Alright, let’s talk language!
Though we have a number of surviving texts from Old English (a lot more than many other of the EGDs that we’ve been talking about), a lot is, of course, lost to us. What does survive, and what we really mean when we say “Old English”, is the late West Saxon dialect. The reason for that is simple: most surviving texts are written in that dialect. But, when studying Old English, it’s worth keeping this in mind: we’re not (necessarily) talking about a unified language; we’re talking about a dialect that happens to be primary in the surviving materials.
Anyway, first, as per usual, let’s look at some phonology!
Most letters of the Old English alphabet are fairly uncomplicated for a speaker of modern English. Some, however, have surprises in store.
One of those letters is the letter <g>. This letter is pronounced as in modern English ‘good’ only when it follows [ŋ] or when it’s doubled:
cyning ‘king’ frogga ‘frog’
Before the front vowels i and e, after them at the end of a syllable, and also in a few instances where <j> or <i> originally followed but has since disappeared, <g> is pronounced like the first consonant in modern ‘yes’. Before back vowels, though, <g> was pronounced [g].
Elsewhere, <g> is pronounced as a back fricative (remember Rebekah’s phonology lesson on consonants?), unless it is a sequence of <cg>, in which case it is pronounced as the first sound in modern English ‘giant’.
Another sequence that has a surprise in store is the letter sequence <sc>. Although a modern English speaker might expect that <c> here actually corresponds to [sk], it doesn’t. Instead, it would have been pronounced something like [ʃ], that is, the first sound in modern English ‘ship’ (as, indeed, also Old English scip).
Last, in this part, we have the letter <h>. While seemingly simple enough, <h> is pronounced [h] only in initial position and before vowels:
But before consonants, and when occurring in word-final position, <h> is pronounced as [x], a sound today found in German nacht or Scottish loch:
feohtan ‘fight’, here pronounced with [x].
In the vowels, Old English shows a number of changes that are not found in the languages discussed so far in our little EGD series. For example:
Like most other Germanic languages (except Gothic), Old English originally changed the vowel [æː] into [aː], yet under most circumstances (though especially before w), it changes back to æ:
Similarly, in most cases, the change of short [a] (which usually also changes into [æ]) systematically fails to take place when <a> is followed by a single consonant, plus <a>, <o>, or <u>:
daga (dat. sg.)
Except before nasal consonants, where long and short <a> instead becomes long and short <o>:
Now, something rather interesting before we move on: in Old English, we find evidence of a process known as assibilation. This process, which is shared only with Old Frisian of the Germanic dialects, means that the stops k and g becomes [tʃ] (as in church) and [dʒ] (as in drudge) respectively. This process is also the one responsible for correspondences like skirt/shirt, where shirt is the assibilated Old English form, while skirt is borrowed from Old Norse, which did not undergo this process, and thus retains a hard [k] sound. Interesting, isn’t it?
Now, I’m going to break tradition a bit and not really talk about morphology. Instead, I want to say a few words on syntax, that is, word order. Why? Because the syntax of Old English is not quite the same as the syntax of modern English. In fact, it’s rather markedly different.
Most notably, Old English is significantly more inflected than modern English: it inflected for five grammatical classes, two grammatical numbers and three grammatical genders, much like modern German. While this may be frustrating to students of the language, it did mean that reliance on word order was significantly less than it is today because the morphological form would tell you who was the subject, object, etc. This means that Old English word order was a bit less rigid than in modern English (in which, it is the only thing that shows you that there is a difference between the dog bit the man and the man bit the dog).
Generally speaking, the standard rule for Old English is that it has a verb-second word order, that is, the finite verb takes the second position in the sentence regardless of what comes before it. So it really doesn’t matter if the first element is the subject or the object, the verb holds its second position (in which case, the declension of the words become important for understanding the sentence correctly).
However, this holds true only for main clauses. In subclauses, Old English is (generally speaking) verb-final, that is, the verb winds up at the end of the sentence. Students of modern German (such as myself in fact), may recognise this kind of word order.
On the topic of syntax, I would like to wrap this post up with a cautionary note.
If you’re reading Old English poetry (and sometimes even when you’re reading prose): chuck these ‘rules’ of Old English syntax out the window. They won’t do you any good: in Beowulf, for example, main clauses frequently have verb-initial or verb-final order while verb-second is often found in subordinate clauses. So heads-up!
Right, that’s all I had for today, though, obviously, this is a very small appetizer in a huuuge buffet. If you’d like to learn more, we, as always, refer you to Robinson’s great book but, to be quite honest, the chapter on Old English is quite dense and even I had to refer a couple of times to Wikipedia and other sources just to make things clear. However, it is a good starting point so do enjoy!
As always in our EGD-series, our main source is Robinson’s Old English and its closest relatives (1992).
For this post, we’ve also taken a look at:
The passage of Beowulf, with its translation, is by Benjamin Slade: you’ll find it – and the rest of the translation of Beowulf – here
Sometimes, we’re just so excited to share the world of languages with you that we get caught up in our own linguistic jibber-jabber. What starts as chit-chat turns into the ol’ razzle-dazzle. Before we know it, we’re zig-zagging through some convoluted flimflammery, and soon enough, kookookachoo, everyone’s head hurts and they all just want to go night-night.
Okay, that sentence was a bit much. But it showcases an interesting morphological phenomenon: reduplication.
In reduplication, all or part of a word is repeated. As you can see, the repetition can be exact or can include slight changes. The repeated part or reduplicant can be morphologically significant, like a root, or phonological, like a syllable. It can also occur anywhere in the word.
Most of the examples above are more expressive than anything else, but reduplication can also be meaningful. In English, we might repeat a word to stress the realness of what we’re trying to convey1:
“Do you like him, or do you LIKE-like him?”
In some of the many other languages that employ reduplication, its uses can be even more significant. In Malay, reduplication forms the plural of nouns: You may have one rumah (house), but your rich neighbor has two rumah-rumah (houses)2. In Latin, some verbs used reduplication to show the perfect form of the past tense: Today, the produce man vēndit (is selling) pears, but yesterday, he vēndidit (sold) me a pineapple.
There’s also a special time in life when all of us, regardless of which language we speak, are prone to extensive reduplication. During language acquisition, children go through a phase somewhere around eight to twelve months of age where their chatter is full of repetition. This developmental stage is called reduplicated or canonical babbling. Through their repetition, children experiment with their voice and figure out some things about the native language they’re acquiring (heck, I was known to babble to myself the first time I took a phonology class—occupational hazard). This is the stage where we get the famous assumption that every child’s first word is “dada”. I once knew a child who referred to water as “wawa”.
Reduplication is found in languages all over the world, though its productivity varies from language to language. Still, it’s a clever trick, this doubling of things. So clever, one has to wonder: if you can repeat morphological and phonological elements, can you un-repeat them, too? More on that next week. Until then, bye-bye!
1 This is called contrastive focus reduplication. 2 Does that mean one wug, but two wug-wug?