The History of the English Language – Modern English dialects

Our last little installment of dialects! I know that this is a historical linguistics’ blog, but, today, let’s talk about Modern English, shall we?

Before we can do that though, we need to talk about something else: the distinction between a dialect and an accent.

Up until now, I haven’t made this distinction because it hasn’t been truly necessary; you see, when talking about Middle English and Old English, the term dialect holds quite true. When it comes to modern English, however…

Not as much.

Although often used interchangeably, the terms dialect and accent actually refer to two different things in linguistics. So what is an accents and what is a dialect?

Well, an accent is one part of a dialect.

That… didn’t clear things up, did it?

Alright, an accent refers to how people pronounce words, while a dialect is much more all-encompassing and includes pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.

As I have been focusing on the England in this post, I’ll be focusing on the accents (commonly called dialects) in British English, but don’t fret! I’ll come back to other varieties of English (like American English) in a future post.

via GIPHY

Yeah, that was a bit creepy, but hey, what can I say – I am a horror-flick fan.

Anyway, the accents of (British) English!

Trudgill divided the accents of English into ten (!) different accent regions. In no particular order, with their accent name in parenthesis following, these are:

Accent regionAccent nameStrongest center
West MidlandsBrummieBirmingham
SouthwestWest CountryBristol/Plymouth
Northwest MidlandsManchesterManchester/Salford
NortheastGeordieNewcastle/Sunderland
MerseysideScouseLiverpool
Home CountiesLondon/EstuaryGreater London
East, North, and South MidlandsEast MidlandsLincoln
East AngliaEast Anglian (traditional)Norfolk/Suffolk
Central LancashireLancashire (traditional)Rossendale
Central and lower NorthYorkshireLeeds/Bradford

Trudgill divided the accents into these groups based on a simple sentence: very few cars made it up the path of the long hill.

Ignoring the function-words here (that is it, of, and the), Trudgill recorded the pronunciation of these eight words and noted the following:

Accent"y" in "very""ew" in "few""ar" in "cars""a" in "made""u" in "up""a" in "path""n" in "long""hill" in "hill"
Brummie/i//juː/[ɑː][ʌɪ]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋg/[ɪl]
West Country/ɪ//juː/[ɑːɹ][eɪ]/ʌ//æ/ [æ]/ŋ/[ɪl]
Manchester/ɪ//juː/[äː][eɪ]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋg/[ɪl]
Geordie/i//juː/[ɒː][eː]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋ/[hɪl]
Scouse/i//juː/[äː][eɪ]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋg/[ɪl]
London/Estuary/i//juː/[ɑː][eɪ~æɪ]/ʌ//ɑː//ŋ/[ɪo]
East Midlands/i//juː/[ɑː][eɪ]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋ/[ɪl]
East Anglian/i//uː/[aː][æɪ]/ʌ//æ/ [æ]/ŋ/[(h)ɪl]
Lancashire/ɪ//juː/[aːɹ][eː]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋg/[ɪl]
Yorkshire/i//juː/[äː][eː]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋ/[ɪl]

In addition to these features, the absence or presence of the so-called trap-bath split was also recorded (under the feature path). The trap-bath split is a vowel split by which some words come to be pronounced with a long /ɑ:/, mostly in the southern English accents, and short /a/ in the northern ones. If you are unsure of how that would sound, check out the sound examples at the Pronunciation Studio.

Using this fairly simple sentence, it was possible to discern some general patterns of accent “boundaries”, thus creating the accent-boundaries of modern (British) English! Using the results, it was then possible to divide the country into six major dialect areas:

  • Scots (which Lisa talked about here and here)
  • Northern dialects
  • Western Central (Midlands)
  • Eastern Central (Midlands)
  • Southwestern dialects
  • Southeastern dialects

Isn’t that quite amazing? (and, as usual, a bit ridiculously oversimplified)

However, there is one accent that I haven’t mentioned yet:
Received Pronunciation, or RP.

Also known as Received Pronunciation, the Queen’s English, BBC English, Standard British pronunciation or Southern British pronunciation, RP is a highly prestigious “standard” accent in Britain. However, very few British English speakers actually speak RP: Trudgill estimated only about 3% in 1974. This has since been questioned but the highest “guestimates” appear to be 10% – which is really not a very high number any way.

And there you have it – the British English dialects!

I hope you enjoyed that little tidbit, but check out the references if you want to learn more – because, naturally, I can’t go through all of the details here (nor, if I am frank, do I know them) and there is a lot more to learn!

Join me next week when we go back in history again, and take a look at Old English morphology! Until then!

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References

If you want to learn more about the difference between dialects and accents (and dialects generally), check out this OED blog post.

Wikipedia’s entry for the English dialects (*cough* accents *cough*) is quite informative and well-worth a look (and I’ll admit to having largely reproduced the table from theirs, with some adjustments).

On a more formal level, Trudgill’s study was reported by Ossi Ihalainen in The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. 5, where you can read more about the study. Or go straight to the source, which in this case is The dialects of England by Peter Trudgill (1990).

I’ve also had a brief look at Benedikt Szmrecsanyi (2013) Grammatical Variation in British English Dialects.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Buck (but really, its about julbocken)

The first Tuesday of December and Norway is definitely showing its winter-y side! So, today, let’s immerse ourselves in Christmas-related etymology!

Today’s word is buck!

From c. 1300, this word has come to mean male deer in English, but before that, it referred to a male goat. The word comes from Old English bucca, meaning male goat, from Proto-Germanic *bukkon.

The Proto-Germanic word may have come from PIE *bhugo, which is also said to be the source of Avestan buza “buck, goat”, and Armenian buc “lamb”. Some, however, say that it might be from a lost pre-Germanic language.

Fairly straight-forward etymology, really, unless you want to look very closely into the lost pre-Germanic idea. So why am I telling you about a buck as a Christmas-related word?

Well, as you may know by now, I’m from Sweden.

In Sweden, Julbocken (often translated as the Yule Goat as English has mostly lost the word buck in reference to a male goat) has a very long history.

Julbocken goes back to ancient Pagan traditions, potentially connecting with ancient Proto-Slavic beliefs. The god honored in these beliefs was Devac (or Dazbog), who was represented by a white goat. The festivities therefore always included a person dressed as a goat, who demanded offerings in the form of presents.

Eventually, though, julbocken became the giver of gifts rather than the recipient, and this actually remained the case in the Scandinavian countries until as late as the second half of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century, when it was replaced by Father Christmas/Santa Claus.

But, it remains a very popular ornament in Scandinavian countries and in my own native country, a massive julbock called Gävlebocken is built up in the city of Gävle every year.

Image result for Gävlebocken
Gävlebocken

In a traditional prank (that tends to get on people’s nerves), it is usually lit on fire soon after its unveiling.

Image result for Gävlebocken
However sad that is, now, you know the story of buck and julbocken!

I hope that you enjoyed that little piece of Christmas-related history, because every week until Christmas, Fun Etymology will give you one Christmas-related word and tell you about its history!

Is there a Christmas-related word that you’ve always wondered where it came from? Let me know! (One can never have too much inspiration in life!)

Until next time!

Professor M.B. Parkes – Patron Saint of December, 2019

Goodness me, it’s already December!

Welcome to the first weekend of December and the First Sunday of Advent! It’ll be Christmas soon!

via GIPHY

First though: new month = new patron saint!

Today, I’d like to introduce you to someone, whose works I pretty much use every single day: Professor M.B. Parkes.

Now, professor Parkes was not, strictly speaking, a linguist. He was a paleographer with an extraordinary eye for detail. His contributions to the study of medieval manuscripts have been significant in many ways. Today, though, I would like to tell you about Parkes’ contribution to my own field of study: punctuation.

You see, Professor Parkes seems to have decided that punctuation deserved more attention. In 1992, he published a book called Pause and Effect: An introduction to punctuation in the West. This work is of extremely high value for people like myself, who study the history of punctuation.

Pause and Effect is essentially a descriptive account of the history of punctuation from antiquity to the invent of the printing press and beyond. Most importantly, it is not yet another prescriptive account of punctuation throughout the ages.

Parkes masterfully managed to condense 2000 years of history into roughly 300 pages. The book is filled with illustrative imagery and a good glossary – the work, basically, is invaluable. (Though I would say that, I have consulted the book almost daily for about a year now).

Why is this so remarkable, you might wonder?

Well, you see, punctuation is often neglected in the study of historical texts. This means that we don’t really have a firm grasp on how it was used. Professor Parkes’ book was an enormous step forward in the study of historical punctuation (though it is, occasionally, somewhat dense – it is 2000 years after all).

In addition to his most excellent account of historical punctuation, Professor Parkes also extensively studied the Canterbury Tales. He eventually produced a highly influential article on the production of the copies of the tales.

But his work was primarily focused on paleography, of course. And at this, too, he excelled: his 1969 book English Cursive Book Hands, 1250-1500 remains authoritative even today.

He was also an entertaining lecturer – basically, most of what he took on, he mastered.

His work earned him an appointment to the Comité international de paléographie latine in 1986. In 1992, he also became a corresponding fellow of the Medieval Academy of America.

Professor Parkes sadly passed away in 2013, but his works certainly live on and his many contributions to the study of medieval manuscripts, and to the study of English historical linguistics, is what makes him December’s Patron Saint of the HLC!

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References

Most of the general information we have here is from Wikipedia. However, much is also my personal impression of the scholar’s work.

The History of the English language – LAEME and eLALME

Welcome back!

While I would normally move on to modern English dialects at this point, I did promise you a treat. So allow me to introduce you briefly to two marvelous sources in the study of Middle English dialectology: LAEME and eLALME.

The abbreviations stand for A linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English 1150 to 1325 (LAEME) and An electronic version of a linguistic atlas of Late Mediaeval English (eLALME). There is also a LALME, which stands for A linguistic atlas of Late Mediaeval English, and is the print version of eLALME (the latter was created years after the study itself was conducted and LALME printed).

Before I dig into these marvelous things, I can hear you asking “what is a linguistic atlas?”, so let’s start there!

A linguistic atlas is basically what you’d expect: a collection of maps. In this case, it is a collection of linguistic maps, which show the geographic distribution of speakers of a language. It can also show isoglosses, which separate areas that have a particular linguistic feature, of a dialect continuum.

Okay, so, what is a dialect continuum, you ask?

A dialect continuum is a situation in which a dialect spoken in one area differs only slightly from the dialect in the neighboring area. The further away we go though, the more differences we will find. Eventually, the varieties might be so widely separated that they are no longer mutually intelligible.

Both LAEME and eLALME are linguistic atlases, as their titles tell us. Specifically, though, they are linguistic atlases of Middle English, not modern. Their mapping of dialects concerns the dialects of Middle English, which we took a look at in last week’s post.

Now, obviously, when working with historical dialects, you’re in much more troublesome circumstances than when working with modern dialects. Why? Well, the introduction of LALME (reprinted in eLALME, of course) describes it pretty succinctly:

“It is rather as if the compilers of a modern dialect atlas had access to any number of speakers, all willing to be interviewed but very few of whom divulged where they came from”

§2.3.1. from A linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English, Volume 1, General introduction
Can you imagine what that’s like? Sounds hard, right?

Well, I’ll wager that creating these tools was very hard. But they managed! How, you ask?

With the use of so-called anchor texts.

An anchor text is a text that can be localised to a specific place, or near it, on non-linguistic grounds. This may be letters that, for example, were written by a nobleman whom we know lived in East Anglia for all of his life. It could perhaps be records of courts, or manors, or legal instruments, and so on.

Once you’ve done that, you can start looking for linguistic features in those texts. Let’s say that an anchor text in Middle English uses a specific spelling for a word. Okay, so that spelling might then be characteristic of the dialect in that area.

And then, you look at another text from another place. That text shows a different spelling for that same word. And then you look at a third text, from somewhere between those first two areas. That text uses a spelling with some characteristics of both the first spellings.

Brilliant, you have a dialect continuum!

Alright, so that was ridiculously over-simplified, but you get the idea.

Anyway, my over-simplified explanation (kind of) describes what they did for LALME. They used a questionnaire, consisting of many words, looked in the manuscripts for those words, and voilà! There you are, a dialect continuum of the late Middle English dialects.

Alright, again, that was ridiculously over-simplified.

LAEME took a slightly different approach. It kind of had to as there are so few documents left from early Middle English. So LAEME used a corpus-method instead. They transcribed all early Middle English texts (or long passages from the really long ones) and put them into a database.

This allowed them to elicit all variations from the surviving manuscripts, meaning that they weren’t limited to particular words. Having done so, it is then possible to look for linguistic features that are used in one text and compare them to another, thus seeing dialect variation (see LAEME’s Introduction, Chapter 1, §1.5.5. for more info).

Now, one last amazing thing about these tools: the fit-technique.

Basically, what this means is that you take features of a dialect and, as more linguistic features are added, the area from which the person comes becomes more and more constricted.

Let’s say, for the sake of an example, that you have two Swedish speakers. You ask them to pronounce the word “räka”.

One of them says “räka” with a fairly open mouth, producing [æː]. The other, on the other hand, pronounces it more like “reka”, with a reasonably closed mouth, producing something more like [e:]. Okay, there is something different here, so you ask them some more questions, and hear the same thing. So you go to your “anchor person”, who you know for a fact is from Stockholm. You ask him/her to pronounce “räka” and your other words, and you get “reka” in reply.

Great, one of your participants is probably from Stockholm (obviously, though, one shared feature is not enough). Then you look around, and you find someone who you know is from Gothenburg. You ask the same of him/her and get “räka” in response. And there you are!

That, though again grossly over-simplified, is the fit-technique. You take an un-localised text and compare it to the variations you find in texts that you can place. The more features you add, the more you can constrict the area that text is likely to come from! Isn’t that quite amazing?!

Before I get to the “warnings” of this post, I’d like to encourage all my readers to check these resources out. Truly, they are quite amazing!

You can find LAEME here and eLALME here. Do take a minute, really.

Right, so on to the warnings.

The most important thing first:

While we might be able to say that this text was written in the northern dialect, it does not mean that it was actually written in the north.

For example, the text you are looking at was written in a dialect from southwest Yorkshire according to LAEME or eLALME. That does not mean that it was actually written in southwest Yorkshire.

Neither LAEME or LALME are geographical atlases, they are linguistic ones. Your results simply mean that the person who wrote this text was likely from southwest Yorkshire (or at least wrote in that dialect). The text itself, however, might have been composed in London. Or in Sussex. Or in Worcestershire.

You get the drift. Point is, you cannot conclude with certainty that a text was written in a specific area, only that the person writing the text wrote in the dialect from that area. Obviously, it could have been written there, but you can’t say for sure.

That’s probably the most important thing to remember here but one more little thing: the fit-technique works somewhat better for eLALME than for LAEME. This is simply because we do not have as much data from the early Middle English period as we do for the late period. In the introduction to LAEME, Margaret Laing (LAEME’s compiler) and Roger Lass write:

For much of LAEME, the display of linguistic data in map form at all is a convenient but highly generalised abstraction.

LAEME, Introduction, Chapter 1, §1.5.3.

and this must be kept in mind when using the resource.

Did I get carried away? I did, right?

Well, I’m done now, but again: Check these resources out!

(and while you’re at it, also check out the Corpus of Narrative Etymologies, another fantastic tool for the study of English historical linguistics).

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References

For some more information on these fantastic resources, check them out by following the links in the post (or here: LAEME and eLALME). You can also have a look at the Angus McIntosh Centre for Historical Linguistics introductory remarks (with, in the case of LAEME, a link to Rhona Alcorn’s beginners guide to LAEME) to the resources.

Click here for AMC’s introduction to LAEME
and here for AMC’s introduction to eLALME
(and here for AMC’s introduction to CoNE)

Laing, Margaret. 2013– A Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English, 1150–1325, Version 3.2 [http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/ihd/laeme2/laeme2.html]. Edinburgh: © The University of Edinburgh.

Benskin, Michael. Laing, Margaret. Karaiskos, Vasilis and Williamson, Keith. 2013-. An Electronic Version of A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English [http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/ihd/elalme/elalme.html]
(Edinburgh: © 2013- The Authors and The University of Edinburgh).

McIntosh, Angus. Samuels, M.L. Benskin, Michael. 1986. A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press.

Lass, Roger. Laing, Margaret. Alcorn, Rhona. Williamson, Keith. 2013- 
A Corpus of Narrative Etymologies from Proto-Old English to Early Middle English and accompanying Corpus of Changes, Version 1.1 [http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/ihd/CoNE/CoNE.html]. Edinburgh: © The University of Edinburgh.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Cat

Yet another Tuesday – yet another animal-related word!

Last week, we talked about dog, so it really only makes sense to talk about its ancient enemy (though not always) the cat this week!

Cat comes from Old English cat, from Proto-Germanic *kattuz, from Late Latin cattus. So far so good.

Then, it gets tricky.

The word for this domesticated animal is now nearly universal in the European languages, first appearing in Europe as the Latin word catta. Later, we also find the Byzantine Greek word katta (from around 350) and by c. 700, it was in general use on the continent.

So, what’s the problem, you ask?

Well, though almost all European languages have it and we know that it came to these languages through Latin and/or Greek… then we hit a wall.

We don’t know where it came from originally! We do know that Latin and Greek have it by the 1st century and that most modern languages which have it have had it for as long back as their records go.

The likely source is often pointed out as Egypt. It makes sense: the cat was first domesticated in Egypt (as early as 2000 B.C.), so guessing that the name comes from there is not unreasonable. Yet, early mentions of the word also indicate that it might be Slavonic or even Germanic in origin.

So, like with dog, we simply don’t really know! But here, have a picture of a cat as a treat!

shallow focus photography of white and brown cat

(I know you got my supercute dog last week, but, sorry, I don’t have any cats. Hope the picture will do anyway!)

The History of the English Language – Middle English dialects

Alright, Middle English time (my favourite time)!

Today, I’ve promised you the Middle English dialects and that’s what you’ll get!

First, a bit of a recap, though.

When I say Middle English (or ME, which is the usual abbreviation), I am talking about English as it was between (roughly) 1066 – the Norman invasion – and 1500. Now, obviously, there is no exact date: people didn’t talk Old English one day and woke up the next speaking Middle English. But it is a convenient way of dividing the history of the English language into manageable chunks.

We must also remember that we can divide Middle English into two parts: Early Middle English (c. 1066-1300) and Late Middle English (1300-1500). The closer we get to our own age, the more recognisable the language will be.

So, now we know that. Let’s look at the dialects!

The Middle English dialects are commonly divided into five distinct dialects: Kentish, Southern, Northern, West Midlands, and East Midlands.
The Middle English Dialects, as presented on Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Website

The Kentish dialect is also found in Old English but during Middle English, the area in which the dialect was spoken diminished. By late Middle English, it was spoken only in Kent and Sussex.

The Southern dialect was also spoken in (west) Sussex as well as south and southwest of the Thames. This dialect is a descendant of the West Saxon dialect in Old English and was quite conservative. It didn’t show a lot of influence from other languages which makes it an interesting topic of study!

The Northern dialect is an interesting one too. It is in this dialect that we find very rapid developments in morphology and syntax. This may be due to intense contact with Old Norse, but that’s simply a hypothesis – it is quite possible that these changes would have happened regardless.

Last, the East and West Midlands dialects. These dialects are a bit of an intermediate between the conservative dialects of the south and the fast-moving ones in the north.

What is particularly interesting about Middle English is, of course, its spelling. You see, during the Middle English period, there was no standardised spelling, meaning that people spelled according to their own dialect – which gives rise to some interesting variations.

Which is actually what we’ll look at next week! You see, this was primarily just a little primer so that you’ll know a bit about the Middle English dialects; next week, we’ll get to the really interesting stuff: a brief introduction to two amazing resources when it comes to studying Middle English dialectology!

I won’t tell you which though (though I’m sure some of you are already quite familiar with them) – consider this a teaser.

Until next week!

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References

For this post I have used the Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Website’s entry on the Middle English dialects as well as this entry (which appears to be by Randall (2000), although the link itself gives no author).

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Dog

It’s Tuesday! Let’s keep going with one of my favourite animals: dogs!

The word dog is a bit of an etymological mystery. From Old English docga, it’s origin is unknown and.. odd.

It is quite rare in Old English, appearing only in glossaries or in so-called onomastic evidence (that is, in the study of proper names such as Dogbury Hill, an ancient hill fort). That, the OED notes, might be because it was considered informal as there is a more commonly attested synonym: hound.

So, what’s so odd about this word?

Well, despite trying, no likely cognates have been found so far and the word’s phonological form is… problematic. You see, we have a stem-final geminate <g> (that is, a doubled <g> – looking at Middle English forms, the word is often spelt dogg). But the geminate <g> is not due to West Germanic consonant gemination*.

We do know that it eventually replaced Old English hund, which came from the PIE root *kwon- and is still in evidence in Swedish hund, by the 16th century.

We do find words that we might first interpret as cognates: French dogue, for example. Yet, upon further study, all of the so-far investigated words have eventually been shown to be a direct or indirect borrowing from English.

We do know, though, that English has a number of these words that appeared to form both a morphological and semantic group. Aside from dog, we also have hog, frog, pig, stag in this odd little group.

So, in the end, we really don’t know where this word comes from! But, to console you for not getting a straight answer, here’s a picture of Kyra, my own goofy hund! Enjoy your week!

Image may contain: dog, snow, outdoor and nature
Kyra, enjoying a walk in the snow!

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*West Germanic gemination was a sound change that took place in all West Germanic languages around the 3rd or 4th century AD. While I’d love to tell you all about it, FunEty is not the place for such discussions. Check out Wikipedia’s article on it in the meantime!

The History of the English Language – Old English dialects

Welcome to a new series at the HLC!

I know that we’ve talked quite a bit about English and its history. (You’ll have to excuse me, but the topic is what I’ve studied for years after all.)

I also know that it’s been a bit disjointed. One week, we’ve been talking about English and the next week about something else entirely. That’s what happens when you’re several people working on the same thing (and it’s a good thing too!).

However, now, it’s just little old me. So, I’d thought we’d run through a standard little “course” on the topic and go through it a bit more systematically (don’t worry, we’ll do something similar with other languages following this one).

Originally, we were supposed to start with Old English phonology today, but, I went back and had a look at our previous posts of Old English. Doing so, I suddenly realised that we never really talked specifically about the Old English dialects.

So let’s do that! But first…

I think I need to give you a very brief reminder about what Old English actually is. As you know, English is usually divided into time periods (and if you want all of them at once, take a look at Rebekah’s earlier post here. Otherwise, get back to me next week when I’ll talk about Middle English).

Old English is the English language as it looked until roughly 1066. This is not from the very beginning of the world, so to speak, but from roughly the time that we start getting written records of English (ca. 450 AD – before that, we usually talk about “Proto-English”).

That’s it (for now).

Now, next step: when I say Old English, what I am actually saying is the West Saxon dialect of Old English.

But it was not the only Old English dialect.

I’ve shown you this map before in my Early Germanic Dialects series:

But, while I warned you about how Old English tends to equal the dialects of West Saxon, I didn’t actually say anything about the other dialects.

Let me fix that!

So. Old English had four commonly recognised dialects: West Saxon, Kentish, Mercian, and Northumbrian. Each of these dialects* was associated with an independent kingdom in the British Isles.

Of these dialects, we know most about West Saxon. However, the earliest surviving Old English materials are actually written in Northumbrian.

Spoken from the Humber (now in England) to the Firth of Forth (now in Scotland), the Northumbrian dialect is recorded in texts like Cædmon’s Hymn, a short poem composed between 658 and 680. It is the oldest surviving Old English poem and one of the oldest surviving samples of Germanic alliterative verse. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that it was, supposedly, composed by an illiterate cow-herder.

We also find surviving examples of Northumbrian in Bede’s Deathsong (a five-line poem that supposedly is the final words of the Venerable Bede), the runes on the Ruthwell Cross from the Dream of the Rood, the Leiden Riddle, and the famous mid-10th-century gloss of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Northumbria was, however, overrun by the Vikings during the 9th century. As a result, most of the written records of the dialect have been lost.

The same is the case for Mercian.

The Mercian dialect was spoken as far east as the border of East Anglia, as far west as Offa’s Dyke (bordering Wales), as far north as Staffordshire and as far south as South Oxfordshire or Gloucestershire – basically, it was a pretty huge dialect.

But then came those pesky Vikings… And Mercian goes the same way as its sister dialect, Northumbrian. (The two dialects together are often talked about as Anglian.)

As with Northumbrian, we do have some surviving textual records of Mercian, but very few. These include the Old English martyrology, which contains 230 stories about the lives of saints and was probably compiled in Mercia – or by someone who wrote in the Mercian dialect anyway. We also have six hymns in the Vespasian Psalter that are written in Mercian, but that’s really pretty much it.

And then, we have Kentish.

Now, Kentish didn’t quite suffer the same fate as Mercian and Northumbrian. Despite that, according to Baugh and Cable, even less material from Kentish survives than from the other two dialects. We could speculate as to why, but that is an exercise in futility – it happens sometimes, unfortunately.

Kentish, as the name tells us, was spoken in the county of Kent. It was eventually submerged in the West Saxon dialect. Most of our surviving textual records are early law texts, for example from the Kentish kings Hlothere and Eadric. However, the surviving materials were late 12th century copies and studies have shown that they have been altered and “modernised”. That means, unfortunately, that little of what survives of the dialect is truly representative of the dialect itself.

And thus, we are left with West Saxon.

Originally spoken in the kingdom of Wessex, West Saxon is typically divided into two: Early West Saxon and Late West Saxon.

Now, Early West Saxon is the language used by Alfred the Great. Aside from keeping the Vikings at bay, Alfred avidly encouraged education. He even translated some things himself. However, this is not the dialect we mean when we say Old English.

What we mean is the Late West Saxon dialect – yes, I know this is getting confusing. But, following the Athewoldian language reform, started by Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester, Late West Saxon emerged. Some even argue that Late West Saxon is not a direct descendant of early West Saxon! This is the dialect we talk about when we say Old English.

We have quite a bit of surviving evidence from Late West Saxon – if I were to try to count them up, we’d probably be here ’til New Years. So I won’t. But I will say that this was the first standardised written language in England, sometimes referred to as the “Winchester standard” (as it was primarily used in and around the monastery at Winchester). This is the language that you find in evidence in the Old English poem Beowulf (though it is worth mentioning that you also find some Anglian features in the poem).

And those are our four Old English dialects!

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Next week, we’ll continue with something else tricky: the Middle English dialects. Join me then (if you dare)!

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*This post actually triggered a very interesting discussion – are the Old English dialects really dialects or languages? As you know by now, the separation between language and dialect is a tricky one (linguistically) (and if you can’t remember why, check out Lisa’s post on this topic here), but play with the thought for a bit: should the language/dialect of an independent kingdom be considered a dialect in this instance – or is it a language, regardless of the close similarity to another nearby kingdom’s language?

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References

On the dialect of Beowulf

On the Old English dialects (and links therein for each dialect) and this book by Ishtla Singh (primarily page 75).

On Kentish and its surviving texts (page 69)

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Lemur

Another Tuesday = another Fun Etymology!

As I’ve done some nature-related words lately, I thought that we’d also take a look at some animal-words! So, today’s word is lemur!

Today, this word refers to this cute little guy/girl:
White and Black Animal Sitting on a Branch

A nocturnal mammal from Madagascar, the animal was first referred to as lemur by Carl Linnaeus (Carl von Linné), a Swedish botanist, zoologist, and physician, in his catalogue of the Museum of King Adolf Frederick of Sweden.

Before that, though, the word meant something quite different…

From lemures, the Latin plural of *lemur, this word actually referred to the “evil spirits of the dead”.

Other than the Latin word, the origin of this word is unknown. It is possible that the word was borrowed into Latin from a non-Indo-European language (perhaps Anatolian or Etruscan). It is also possible that it is cognate with the Greek word lamia, meaning “female vampire” or “man-eating monster”.

But that’s really speculative. We really don’t know, which is not uncommon in historical linguistics.

But, the real question here is:

What was it about these cute little fellows that made Linné think that a Latin word for malevolent spirits was an appropriate name?

Book review – Eats, shoots and leaves

Today, we’re doing a book review!

I know, I know, that’s a bit different from what I usually do, but I thought I’d try something new and as I recently read this book, I thought it was a good place to start.

I will be doing some more book reviews in the future so if you have any books to suggest, do speak up!

Today, we’re taking a look at Eats, shoots and leaves!

A non-fiction book by Lynne Truss, it was first released in 2003 and quickly became quite popular. Its focus is on the decaying state of modern punctuation and the title itself is a clever syntactic ambiguity derived from a joke.

The joke goes like this:

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.

“Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“Well, I’m a panda,” he says. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.

– Truss (2009)
It’s actually quite clever.

Anyway, the book has seven chapters (including the introduction). By the end of the book, you’ll have read about apostrophes, commas, semicolons, colons, exclamation marks, question marks, quotation marks, dashes, brackets, ellipses, emoticons and, finally, hyphens.

Now, I study punctuation myself – it is what I spend all of my days doing (no, I am not kidding) and there are a number of things that I thought were good about this little book.

First, punctuation has a (really) long history. I was impressed to discover that Truss actually discusses the history of many of her included punctuation marks. Why was that impressive, you ask? Well, most reference guides, style guides, etc. simply do not bother.

Second, the book itself often has a dry wit to it. I did occasionally find myself actually laughing – which is not something I associate with reading about punctuation, although it does hold a special place in my heart nonetheless.

Third, the easy and accessible way in which the text was written made it appeal to the general public. I cannot stress this enough: massive kudos to Truss for taking a topic that most people find utterly boring and turning it into a top-selling book!

On the other hand, there were a few things that I did not find personally appealing about Eats, shoots and leaves...

The views expressed in the book struck me as rather prescriptive. As a linguist, in whose field prescriptivism is almost a profanity, I simply could not approve of that particular message.

Punctuation, like everything else in language, is never static. It is always changing, always making slight shifts in meaning, always being used by some in a way that, for others, would be considered “wrong”. That’s just the way language, and punctuation, works.

Secondly, while the book often made me smile, it, unfortunately, also sometimes struck me as a bit mean-spirited. The descriptions of previous scholars on the topic were occasionally… less than kind, at one memorable point stating:

“Are you beginning to suspect – as I am – that there was something wrong at home?”

Truss (2009: 144)

on the topic of Gertrud Stein’s opinions of the question mark. That strikes me as somewhat less entertaining.

However, although I wouldn’t, perhaps, recommend you to buy this book, it did get a lot of positive reviews. If you’re interested in seeing what Truss had to say on punctuation – which, again, was often quite funny – check it out.

That’s all for this week! Next week, I’ll be starting you on a new topic – isn’t that mysterious?

Check it out then!

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References

Today, I only have one reference to give you:

Truss, Lynne. 2009. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. London: Fourth Estate.