Fun Etymology Tuesday – Baa

It’s Tuesday and time for another Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is a little bit different from our normal words as it doesn’t have an etymology as such.

Today’s word is baa!

Okay, perhaps we could discuss the term word here, but let’s not get into that discussion. Baa is an onomatopoeic word, meaning that it is a word that mimics the sound that it describes – in this case, the sound that a sheep makes.

It is attested from around 1580 as both a verb and a noun, but it is likely even older than that. Prior to its description of how a sheep sounds, it is recorded to have been the name for a child’s toy sheep!

Similar words are found in other languages, of course, though slightly different (in Swedish, for example, it is ), depending on how that language (or, rather, its speakers) perceives the sound itself.

And that is really all we can say about baa (though I do find it quite intriguing that a toy sheep was common enough for there to have been a dedicated name for it)!

Karl Luick – Patron Saint of February 2020

It’s a new month! Time for yet another of our monumental people in the linguistic field! Today, I want to introduce you to Karl Luick!

Luick was born on the 27th of January, 1865, in a town called Floridsdorf, which is now the 21st district of Vienna. Although later moving around quite a bit, he got all of his degrees from the University of Vienna, specialising in English.

Luick was, and remains to this day, a monumental name in the field of historical phonology. His Historische Grammatik der englischen Sprache was published in two volumes and remains, in its 1964 edition, a key text in historical phonology.

Another key text of Luick’s is the earlier publication Untersuchungen zur englischen Lautgeschichte, which was published as early as 1896. In this publication, Luick focused on the Great Vowel Shift and developed a tentative hypothesis, now called the push chain hypothesis.

Some background first.

Middle English /u:/ diphthongised, eventually becoming modern /au/, in large portions of England. However, it had not done so in Scotland and parts of the north.

Noticing this, Luick suggested that there must be some kind of causal relationship between the non-diphthongisation of /u:/ in those northern areas and the fronting of /o:/, which had previously occurred in the northern dialects.

As a result, the push-chain hypothesis suggests that lower vowels basically raised and push the higher vowels out of their place – thus forcing the highest vowels to lower and diphthongise. 1 As the northern dialects no longer had /o:/ in its original place, it couldn’t raise and push /u:/ to diphthongise!

Although Luick never pursued this idea further, 2, it became quite famous and a discussion about whether the Great Vowel Shift was indeed a push chain or a drag chain3.

Regardless of whether you believe in the push or drag chain (or have no preference), I believe we can all agree with Bauer, who once stated that:

Luick always had fresh insights, some of them of almost revolutionary potential[.]

Gero Bauer (1985: 10)

and as a brief acknowledgment of the amazing work done by this linguist, he is the HLC’s Patron Saint of February 2020!

Want to learn more about Luick? Check out my references and footnotes below!



As my German, unfortunately, is not good enough to read Luick’s own works (don’t worry – I’m working on it!), I have relied on:

Dieter Kastovsky/Gero Bauer. (eds.). 1985. Luick revisited. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag Tübingen (particularly the introduction for this post).

If your German is better than mine though, you can find volume 1 of Historische Grammatik der englischen Sprache here and volume 2 here. You can also find Untersuchungen zur englischen Lautgeschichte here.

I’ve also had a look at Wikipedia’s page on Karl Luick.


The history of the English language – Old English syntax

Okay! We’ve done Old English morphology. We’ve done a bit of a syntactic primer.

Let’s get down to business and discuss Old English syntax!

Now, a word of warning: Old English syntax is rather complex. I won’t go into too much detail in my post, because this is not what this blog aims to do. However, I will, as always, provide you with my references and some further reading for those who are interested at the end of this post. I am also always open to questions, comments, queries and anything of the like – just give me a shout, either here on the blog, on Facebook, on Twitter @histlingchannel, or why not send me an email?

Right, that’s all I have to say on that topic, except… Enjoy!

Old English differs from the English that we are nowadays using in many ways. One of these things is in its syntax.

Being a significantly more morphologically inflected language than modern English, Old English syntax was more flexible than what we find today.

If we were to simplify matters, we could say that the general tendency in Old English main clauses is to show V2 order. As you might remember from last week, this means that the verb follows one constituent, regardless of what that constituent is. However, Old English word order appears quite free even from that restraint, which led some scholars to think that it was a free word order language1.

This may or may not be true – I won’t get into that debate here.

What I can say is that Old English often tended towards a V2 order in main clauses.

When I was reading up on things for this post, a lot of sources (usually in the framing of a class) from various universities ended up discussing Old English as an SVO-language. However, according to Kroch, while the subject-tensed.verb-object order was the most common word order in Old English, they were not SVO-sentences. They were merely V2-sentences, where the first element happened to be the subject.

At the same time, although this might have been a general tendency and the most common word order, it is not always consistent2, which of course leads to more discussion on the word order of main clauses in Old English.

Clearly, there are some things still to be worked out…
But, hey, what about subordinate clauses?

Well, here, the VF (Verb-Final) word order is the norm. This means that the finite verb comes at the very end of the sentence – like what you see in Dutch and German today.

Okay, great! We know something about Old English word order! Yay!


Yeah… except….

Old English consistently breaks these conventions. It allows, unlike modern German and Dutch, for V2 order in embedded clauses starting with a complementiser and, in the epic poem Beowulf, for example, subordinate clauses employing a V2 order can be found, as can main clauses with VF order. And, for that matter, V3 and V4 order!

So, what am I saying here? That we really know nothing about Old English word order?
Not quite.

We know that SVO is the most common order in Old English main clauses. We also know that subordinate clauses in Old English tend to be VF.

We also know that this topic requires more study before we can say anything “for sure” (or, at least, as sure as one ever is in studying historical linguistics).

But, for you, I hope that this little brief glance into Old English syntax was enlightening! I know I enjoyed reading through the accounts that I used for this post and I hope that you will too!

Join me again next week as we take a look at the continued development of English syntax in Middle English!



Anthony Kroch & Ann Taylor. 1996. Verb movement in Old and Middle English: Dialect variation and language contact. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania. Check it out here! (I’ve looked primarily at Chapter 3)

Benjamin Bruening. 2016. Old English Verb-Second-ish in a Typology of Verb-Second. Draft, Nov. 9. Check it out here.

Bettelou Los. 2015. A historical syntax of English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Graeme Davis. 2006. Comparative syntax of Old English and Old Icelandic. Bern: Peter Lang.

Kristin Bech. 2012. Word Order, Information Structure, and Discourse Relations. In Anneli Meurman-Solin, Maria Jose Lopez-Couso, and Bettelou Los (eds.). Information Structure and Syntactic Change in the History of English. Oxford Scholarship Online. DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199860210.003.0004, or check it out here.

Linda van Bergen. 2015. Pronouns and word order in Old English. 2nd ed. New York & London: Routledge.

Old English grammar

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Abaft

Another Tuesday = another Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is abaft!

Slightly unusual in modern English (estimated by the OED to occur between 0.1 to 1.0 times per million words, nowadays mostly used in nautical terminology), this word, in its current form, is recorded from the late 16th century.

However, before that, we still see it in slightly different forms.

A native Germanic word, abaft comes from Middle English on baft, meaning “back, behind, to the rear”, from Old English on bæftan. Today, it refers to something toward the back of a ship (or at least something farther back than you currently are).

As I am sure you remember, I’ve previously talked about the element a- when it occurs in words such as these, to mean something like “on, in, into”, which indeed also appears to be true here1.

But what about baft?

Well, baft is actually a compound of two other words: be, meaning ‘by’, and æftan, meaning ‘aft’.

Old English be is Germanic too. From Proto-Germanic *bi and PIE *bhi, it came to be used as an adverb during Middle English, meaning “near” or “close at hand”.

Old English æftan is slightly more tricky. Although all the Germanic languages appear to have a similar word, the ultimate origin remains disputed.

We know that æftan shows a derivative form with a Germanic adverbial suffix. We also know that it is from the Germanic base of Gothic afta, but then… Things kinda stop.

It might be a suffixed form of the Indo-European base of an ancient Greek word (ἐπί), and might thus be the only non-Germanic element of abaft, but that remains disputed.

And that is our Fun Etymology for today!

The history of the English language – A syntactic primer

Okay, so the plan was to continue with Old English syntax today. Then I started writing and realised that there were so many things that I should explain before looking closer at Old English syntax.

So, today, we’re doing a syntactic primer!

I’ll use this post to introduce you to the topic of syntax, which is basically the order of words and phrases used to create a well-formed sentence in any given language.

By doing so, I hope that you’ll be prepared for next week when we’ll look at Old English syntax!

Okay, let’s get started.

There are many kinds of word-order arrangements. In modern English, you use SVO-order in your sentences, meaning that you put your subject first, your verb next and last your object. So, for example, “I like you“. Simple enough. This is a very common structure (estimated to be used by approximately one-third of the world’s current languages).

Ever seen Star Wars? Even if you haven’t, you probably know that Yoda tends to use a different kind of order to structure his sentences. This order is usually showing a preference for OSV – meaning that the object comes first, then the subject, and lastly, the verb: You I like. Unlike SVO, this is a very uncommon structure and is actually the rarest of all word orders by a significant margin. In a recent study by Hammarström (2016), in which 5252 languages were studied, only 0,3% had OSV-order, while 40,3% had SVO.

There are others too :
 OrderExampleExample of language
Subject-object-verbI you likeJapanese
Verb-subject-objectLike I youClassic Arabic
Verb-object-subjectLike you IMalagasy
Object-verb-subjectYou like IHixkaryana

Alright, so we’ve done a very basic overview of different word orders. There are two more things that we have to talk about: V2 and VF.

That is, Verb second and Verb final.

V2 is quite common in Germanic languages and works like this: a finite verb of a clause or sentence is placed in second position, with one single constituent preceding it. This constituent functions as the clause topic.

Please note that this does not necessarily mean that there is only one word preceding the verb, but one constituent (that is, a word or a group of words that function as a unit in a hierarchical structure). Anyway, V2 is still alive and well in many Germanic languages, for example in my native Swedish:

  1. Jag vet inte. I do not know
  2. Inte vet jag. Do not know I

Yeah, I know, the second example becomes extremely awkward in English but works just fine in Swedish1 . The point is, the verb vet (know) here does not change position, even though everything else does. Clearly, as you can see, that doesn’t work very well in English.

But it used to!

I just won’t tell you about how until next week.

Because we still have one more thing to deal with: VF.

Honestly, this pretty much means what you would expect it to: the verbs in a verb-final language almost always fall in final position. In German, for example, we see this happening in embedded clauses that follow a complementiser:

dass du so klug bist
that you so smart are
“that you are so smart”

Again, awkward in English.

But, again, it didn’t use to be! But we’ll get back to that too.

So, you know that Yoda’s language might not be all that odd (though rare)2 , that modern English generally use SVO word order3 , and that this wasn’t always the case.

I think that that is enough for us to dig into Old English next week. And, so, I leave you to mull things over until then. As always, if you want to know more, check out my references!



Harald Hammarström. 2016. Linguistic diversity and language evolution. Journal of Language Evolution. 1: 1. pp. 19-29. DOI:

Adrienne Lafrance. 2015. An unusual way of speaking, Yoda has. Hmmm? The Atlantic. Find it here.

Geoffrey K. Pullum. 2018. Yoda’s syntax the Tribune analyzes; supply more details I will! Language Log. Find it here.

Beatrice Santorini & Anthony Kroch. 2007-. The syntax of natural language: An online introduction using the Trees program. Find it here. (I’ve primarily looked at Chapter 14 for this post).

Wikipedia. V2 word order. Find it here.

Wikipedia. Word order. Find it here.

If you’d like a more comprehensive primer to syntax, I personally like:

Andrew Carnie. 2013. Syntax: A generative introduction. 2nd ed. Malden; Oxford; Victoria: Blackwell Publishin Ltd.

Jim Miller. 2008. Introduction to English syntax. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Abacus

Welcome back to HLC! Another Tuesday, and, as always, here I am with a new Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is abacus!

But first, what in the world is an abacus?

Well, an abacus is a simple device for calculating something. It consists of a frame with wires attached to each side and several beads that you can slide back and forth. You’ll probably recognise it when you see it, so here it is:

Image result for abacus meaning

However, originally, it referred to a type of drawing board, which was covered with dust or sand. On this board, mathematical equations or calculations could be traced and then erased. The word abacus didn’t actually refer to the kind of beaded frame you see above until around the seventeenth century (or potentially even later) in English.

But what about the word itself? Where does that come from?

As we’ve been on this trip for a while now, I am guessing that you can probably tell that abacus is not likely to be a native English word.

And, if so, you’re absolutely right!

The word abacus came to English around the late fourteenth century (then referring to the sand/dust board mentioned above). It was derived directly from the Latin word abacus. This, in turn, came from Greek abax (which in genitive form became abakos).

The Greek word, though, is of uncertain etymology. It might be derived from a Semitic source, such as Phoenician or Hebrew abaq, which literally means dust.

This might be derived from the Semitic root a-b-q, meaning to fly off. However, its origin has been questioned by some etymologists.

So, in the end, as many times before, we know it came to English from Latin and to Latin from Greek and there… the trail turns rather chilly.

But that is the life of a historical linguist! Join me on Thursday when we take a closer look at Old English syntax (or, if you prefer, next week when we look at the origins of the word abaft)!

See you then!

The history of the English language – Modern English phonology

We’ve seen Old English. We’ve seen Middle English.

Our last installment of this little series is
Modern English phonology!

For ease of reference, let me remind you – in a slightly easier form than our previous tables – the Old and Middle English consonant inventories:

Old English
Middle English

There are quite a few changes, just between Old English and Middle English.

This is Modern English
Stopp bt d tʃ dʒk g
Fricativef vθ ðs z ʃ ʒ(x)h

There is a bit of a difference here – most noticeably, the addition of two consonants /ʒ/ and /w/, but the biggest difference between historical stages of the English language and the modern version is found in the vowels.

Let’s do a brief reminder.

So, in Old English, we have eight vowels: /i, e, æ, y, ø, ɑ, u, o/ and their long equivalents. In addition, we have three diphthongs: /iu̯, eo̯, æɑ̯/ and their long equivalents.

In Middle English, we still have eight short vowels: /i, e, a, y, ø, ə, u, o/ and their long equivalents (except for /ə/ which doesn’t have a long equivalent). However, in addition to these, we also find three new vowels that only exist as long vowels: /ɛː, œː, ɔː/. When it comes to diphthongs, Middle English had added another four by around the year 1400, giving a total of seven diphthongs: /ɛi, ɔi, ʊi, ɪu, ɛu, ɑu, ɔu/.

Okay, so there is a number of changes.

But what about Modern English?


In Modern English, we have fourteen vowels and eight diphthongs 1.


The Modern English vowels are: /ɪ, i:, e, e:, ɛ:, æ, ʊ, u:, ə, ʌ, ɜː, ɒ, ɔː, ɑː/. And its diphthongs are: /eɪ, əʊ, aɪ, aʊ, ɔɪ, ɪə, eə, ʊə/. Additionally, Modern English also has some so-called triphthongs. Although minor in comparison to the monophthongs (single vowels) and diphthongs, they do exist and are: /eɪə, aɪə, ɔɪə, aʊə, əʊə/.

Wow, that’s a lot of vowels.

And I think that might be enough for you for one blog post. If you are intrigued to learn how we got from Middle English to Modern English, though, check out my notes below!

If not (no judgment here), I hope this was enlightening for you. Check back next week, when we’ll once again back up and look at Old English syntax!


Notes and references

Want to learn more?

Start by checking out our previous blog post on the Great (English) Vowel Shift.

Already know all that?

Alright. In that case, here is what I would suggest:

Donka Minkova. 2014. A historical phonology of English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (I referenced this for both Old and Middle English, but it spans basically all of the phonological history of English and is a great book to have a look at if you’re interested in the phonological development of English).

Philip Carr. 2013. English phonetics and phonology. (2nd ed.). John Wiley & Sons. (A pretty standard textbook that works well as an introduction to modern English phonology)

Heinz J. Giegerich. 1992. English Phonology: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press (Another, very informative, phonology textbook)

Want to go more deeply into phonological theory and haven’t read The sound patterns of English (Chomsky & Halle, 1968) yet? Start there – it’s a classic (but not for someone to read for leisure as it gets reasonably complex rather quickly).

For this post, I’ll admit to having taken the overview photos from Wikipedia. This is simply because they provide a slightly more condensed view than my previous tables.

For Modern English, I have taken a look at Wiki‘s condensed info but also at this article.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Aback

It’s time for another Fun Etymology!

This week’s word is aback!

A contraction of Old English on bæc, meaning “backward, behind, at or on the back”, this word can be divided into two: a- and –back.

As is clear from its origins, a-, in this context a prefix, originated as a separate preposition: on. This is quite a common change, from Old English on to a, actually. Other words that share this origin are, for example, aloud, along and abroad. In this form, it is a word inherited from Germanic.

However, it might be easily confused with some words with Latin origin, such as accursed or afford. This a-, however, is a shortened version of Latin ad, meaning “to, toward”. In some other words, like abound, it might be easy to think that it should be divided as a- + bound, but it is actually from Latin ab- + undare.

Clearly, one needs to be slightly careful when determining where the a- in a specific construction comes from.

When it comes to back, it comes from Proto-Germanic *bako-(m), which has no known connections outside of the Germanic languages. It might come from a word related to spine or shoulder 1 though.

The word aback, in its current form, appears around the early 13th century, then meaning “toward the rear”. Nowadays, it mainly survives in the construction taken aback. This construction originally referred to something very specific: when a sea-going vessel’s square sails are flattened against the masts and stops the forward motion of the vessel due to a sudden change in wind.

Today, it is mostly used in its figurative sense: “suddenly or unexpectedly checked or disappointed”. This is a relatively late innovation and showed up for the first time around 1792.

And there you have it – the story of aback!

Join me again next week, as we take a closer look at abacus! See you then!

The history of the English language – Middle English phonology

Another Thursday, a new blog post!

Today, we keep working on HEL – the History of the English Language – and we have reached my favourite time period: Middle English! Today, we’re looking closer at specifically Middle English phonology, so, although it is my favourite time period, it is not necessarily my favourite topic – I am not a phonologist after all.

However, something interesting about Middle English is its spelling (hold your horses, I know we’re talking about phonology here, we’ll get there!).

You see, unlike modern English, where its current spelling system has given rise to memes such as this one:


That’s right! English didn’t use to be like that at all! However, you might find the alternative way rather disappointing (and confusing… and hair-pulling lie-awake-at-night frustrating). But, hey, that’s all in a day’s work!

So, during most of the Middle English period, words were generally spelled according to how the writer would have pronounced them – or how they sounded to the writer if someone else said them, perhaps.

This all changed, of course, once standardisation started.

Standardisation followed rather naturally after printing became a thing, though things had been moving in that direction for a while.

The problem?
The Great Vowel Shift.

You see, the phonology of Middle English was, like most things Middle English, in a transitional period. A lot changed during a reasonably short amount of time (you’ll find that historical linguists have a very odd idea of what is “short” or “recent” – for me, 600 years (as in this case) is a reasonably short time, while “recently” may be anything from yesterday to thirty years ago. When you study really old things, your perception gets a bit skewed.)

Anyway, things were changing. Generally speaking, the Middle English consonant sound inventory isn’t all that different from Old English (which we saw last week):

Stopp bt dt͡ʃ d͡ʒk g
Fricativef vθ ðs zʃ(ç)(x) h

There are some differences, of course, but generally speaking, they look quite similar, don’t they? Here is the Old English one for comparison:

Nasalm(n̥) n(ŋ)
Stopp bt dk g
Affricatetʃ (dʒ)
Fricativef (v)θ (ð)s (z)ʃ(ç)(x ɣ)h
Approximant(l̥) lj(ʍ) w
Trill(r̥) r

The vowels… that’s a different story.

To remind you, these are the Old English vowels:

Closei i:y y:u u:
Mide e:(ø ø:)o o:
Openæ æ:ɑ ɑ:

And these… are the Middle English vowels.

Closei i:(y y:)u u:
Close-mide e:(ø øː)(ə)o o:
Opena a:

Quite a different set, wouldn’t you say? First, we have a new distinction in the mid-vowels. Where Old English only had the distinction mid, Middle English had yet another: close-mid and open-mid. Note, however, that this affected only the long vowels – not the short ones.

Additionally, we see the addition of several “new” vowels – such as /ɛː/ and /ɔː/ – and the loss of /æ/. So, it’s different.

So, what has this to do with spelling?

Well, when the Great Vowel Shift (which I talk more about in an earlier post) came along (technically, it likely started beforehand, but writing takes a long time to catch up to changing pronunciation), spelling had already started to standardise.

But, the spelling became standardise words as they sounded before the vowel shift. As a result of this “disconnect” between orthography and pronunciation, we have a rather odd spelling system in English.

And it would come to change even more in Modern English, but that is the topic for next week! Join me then, and in the meantime:

(Have you checked out Steve the vagabond and silly linguist on Facebook? If not, you really should – the page is great!)



For this particular post, I’ve really just checked out Wikipedia, which I used to model the tables.

For the rest, I’ve picked up a few things over the years of studying Middle English, some of it from these resources (which I highly recommend and, as last week, come with a small comment from me):

J.A. Burrow. Thorlac Turville-Petre. 2013. A book of Middle English. (3rd ed.) (I keep returning to this book, it gives a very interesting account of Middle English)

R.D. Fulk. 2012. An introduction to Middle English. (An easy overview, which currently graces my shelf as it provides easy access to some basic information that one occasionally needs to remind oneself of).

Simon Horobin. Jeremy J. Smith. 2002. An introduction to Middle English. (A thin volume that I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve used. Really, it gives a very easily-read and understood introduction for those who are unfamiliar with the Middle English language)

Roger Lass. 1999. Phonology and morphology. In Roger Lass (ed.). The Cambridge History of the English language. Vol. III. 1476-1776. (This chapter gives an excellent overview of some of the more dramatic changes in phonology that occurred during the Middle English period. It is really worth a read if you want to get more information).

Fernand Mossé. 2000. Handbook of Middle English. (A tad bit more complex but, as all of these resources, one that I keep returning to).

Donka Minkova. 2014. A historical phonology of English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (I referenced this for Old English last week, but it spans basically all of the phonological history of English and gives just as a wonderful account of Middle English as it does for Old English)

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Aardvark

Ah, the very first Fun Etymology of the new year – like new-car smell, it never gets old.

Today’s word is aardvark!
Image result for aardvark

This cute little animal is actually a South African groundhog!

Looking a bit more like a pig (sporting some donkey- or rabbit-like ears and a kangaroo-like tail), it is clear that our ancestors thought so too as the word aardvark comes from Afrikaans Dutch aardvark, literally meaning “earth pig”.

The name can be divided in two: aard, meaning “earth”, and vark, meaning “pig”.

Aard- comes from Proto-Germanic *ertho-, potentially an extended form of the PIE root *er-, meaning “earth, ground”.

-vark comes from Middle Dutch varken, meaning “small pig”, which comes from Proto-Germanic *farhaz, meaning “young pig, sucking pig”. This comes from the PIE root *porko-, meaning “young pig”.

However, the aardvark is actually not related to pigs at all (or donkeys, rabbits or kangaroos for that matter).
It is actually the only living species of the order Tubulidentata (or Orycteropodidae), a family of afrotherian mammals!

So, despite that its looks and its name’s etymology might appear to suggest otherwise, the aardvark is actually quite unique in the current animal kingdom!



aardvark (n.) with related entries in the Online Etymology Dictionary

The Aardvark in the National Geographic