Early Germanic Dialects – A reminder

And we’re back!

Gosh, long time no see!

As I am sure that you are aware, the HLC is undergoing some changes. I do hope you enjoy the ones that I’ve done so far! If not (or if something could be done better), just contact me under “Contact” and tell me!

We’re back on track now though, and I am taking you back to my Early Germanic Dialects series!

However, as you haven’t heard anything about EGDs since this spring, and summer offering all those lovely distractions, a recap might be in order.

During spring, we talked about Gothic, Old Norse, Old English and Old Saxon. We also went through the relationship between the Germanic languages, and that is where I am going to start!

As you might (or might not – I don’t judge) remember, we talked about the Germanic language family. I tried my best to explain that there are three distinct branches of Germanic (and hope I succeeded reasonably well!)

These branches are: East Germanic, North Germanic and West Germanic.

East Germanic had only one known descendant: Gothic.

Gothic, of course, is now extinct, meaning that this particular branch of Germanic is, unfortunately, lost. But not completely, thanks to surviving materials and hard-working historical linguists!

The most famous work written in Gothic is the Codex Argenteus, also known as the Silver Bible. If you find yourself close to Uppsala, Sweden, go by the Exhibition Hall at Carolina Rediviva and check it out. It truly is a marvel (and entrance is free of charge!).

While you’re there, check for some of the unique traits of the Gothic language – like the use of reduplication and the lack of rhotacism! (If you can’t remember what that is, check out our original post here!)

Let’s move on, shall we?

The next branch of Germanic is slightly larger than its sibling: let’s talk about North Germanic.

The surviving daughters of North Germanic are all found in the northern parts of the world (surprise, surprise…). They are Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese. The languages are usually divided into West Scandinavian Languages (Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese) and East Scandinavian Languages(Swedish and Danish).

The sub-division is simply because the languages hail from different dialect groups of Old Norse. They therefore differ a bit from each other.

Among the notable features of Old Norse, we find some assimilatory phenomena that, collectively, are quite unique. I won’t go over them all here, but, as an example, the Gothic consonant cluster [nþ] becomes [nn], as in Gothic finþan ‘find’, which becomes finna in Old Norse.

If you would like to read up more about the Old Norse language, check out our original post here. And don’t forget to check out some of the Icelandic Sagas and Eddas! (Like the Codex Regius, meaning “Royal Book” or “Kings’ Book”. The manuscript has been photographed and is available here.)

And now, we reach the final, and largest, branch of Germanic: West Germanic.

Now, West Germanic, in comparison to what we’ve just looked at, is huge. It consists, at the first level, of the Proto-German and Anglo-Frisian languages.

Let’s take a look at the Proto-German (not to be confused with Proto-Germanic) languages first.

The Proto-German languages are the ancestors of German, Yiddish, Low German, Dutch, and Afrikaans. Here, we also find Old Saxon, which we’ve briefly talked about before.

Our most famous source of the Old Saxon language is the Heliand, an alliterative poem of some 6000 lines. Surviving evidence of Old Saxon indicates several unique, or mostly unique, features, such as the unconditional change of the Proto-Germanic diphthongs /ai/ and /au/ to [e:] and [o:].  For example:

Old Saxonstên
Old Norsesteinn
Old High Germanstein

However, the poem isn’t interesting only for its linguistic features but also for how it was written. The poem itself is, or should have been, a pretty standard retelling of the life of Jesus. But the Heliand actually changes the setting!

Instead of describing some far-off Holy Land, the story is set on the marches and plains of Northern Germany! Worth checking out just for that, isn’t it? Well, if you feel up to the challenge – check out the British Library’s manuscript (Cotton MS Caligula A VII) here.

Finally, the Anglo-Frisian languages.

As I’m sure you’re expecting by now, this is where we find the ancestor of English and Frisian. We haven’t actually talked about Old Frisian yet, but we have covered Old English!

Remember: surviving texts of Old English are mostly written in the West Saxon dialect. What we mean when we say “Old English” is really “Late West Saxon Old English”. You should keep that in mind if you want to study, say, dialectal variation in Old English.

We have many surviving texts of Old English. Beowulf is the typical example (check it out here). But we also find The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Cædmon’s Hymn and many others.

Linguistically, Old English underwent a process, shared among its siblings only by Old Frisian, known as palatalization of the stops k and g – meaning that these become [tʃ] (as in church) and [dʒ] (as in drudge) respectively.  This is the process by which we get corresponding pairs like skirt/shirt, where shirt is the palatalized Old English form, while skirt was borrowed from Old Norse, which didn’t undergo this process and thus retained the hard [k] sound.

Of course, that is not the only thing that is interesting with Old English. To learn more, check out the original post here.

And that’s our recap (with some additional links to some great manuscripts!).
Join me again next week when we continue our trip down memory lane and dive into Old Frisian!
Until then!



You’ll find most references for this post in the links that are provided throughout the post. In addition, I refer you to Robinson’s Old English and its closest relatives (1992).

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Wacky

Boy, the Tuesdays keep coming! That’s great, because what else would I do with all these fun etymologies?!

Today’s word is wacky!

An adjective meaning crazy or eccentric, originally comes from the adjective whack, meaning something like a heavy blow. Whack, in turn, comes from the noun thwack, which comes from the verb thwack, meaning to beat or strike vigorously.

While I would like to keep talking about Proto-Germanic origins and so on, I though we’d change things up today. You see, all of these previous stages of wacky are likely echoic (or onomatopoeic) words. This means that the sound alone is the basis of the word. Other examples are bang, splash, cuckoo.

But what about wacky? Clearly, it is not an echoic word?

You’re right, it’s not. It can actually be divided into two parts: wack and -y. Here, –y is a suffix with several functions. Here, it is pretty much telling us: “Look, this word has the same qualities as whack“.

So what are those shared qualities? Well, wacky likely comes from the notion of being whacked on the head one too many times. Imagine the sound of whacking someone on the head – there are your shared qualities!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Silly

Yet another Tuesday, and, as always, here is your Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is silly!

Originally a variant of seely, this West Germanic word began its journey in English as Old English *sǽlig. Reminder: the asterisk before the word indicates that this word has not actually been found in Old English. However, we can find the word gesǽlig and the adverb séliglíce, which indicates the existence of *sǽlig.

Old English *sǽlig appears to come from Germanic *sǣligo-, from *sǣli-z, meaning luck or happiness. The English word finds cognates in Frisian (salig/sillich), Dutch (zalig), German (selig). Interestingly, though, they don’t mean at all the same thing as silly does in English.

In each of the languages that we find cognates, the word actually means something like blessed or blissful. This meaning that actually used to be quite common for English silly as well.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, English silly commonly referred to someone or something good or holy; a semantic shift has definitely occurred here and its current meaning starts popping up in texts from the mid-16th century. But that is not the only shift that has occurred for silly.

How exactly did we get from seely to silly?

Well, we had a shortening of the vowel. But there was a separate change here: long /e/ had already started (or perhaps was well underway) to change to something approaching /i:/ through the Great Vowel Shift – and, in the end, we got /ˈsɪli/ from (something like) /ˈse:li/.

And that’s our Tuesday fun!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Like

Another Tuesday comes our way, and so does another FunEty! Before that, I hope that you’ll like that all our FunEty and our Patron Saints are now also available on the blog!

And speaking of like, that is our word for today!

This little word is extremely versatile and has multiple uses, for example as an adjective, a preposition, a noun, etc.

I suppose then that it is only appropriate that it is also of multiple origins.

Partly, like is a variant or alteration of another lexical item, ylike, from Old English gelic, meaning similar or identical. The Old English word can, however, be divided into two parts: the prefix ge- and the base líc.

The former could be used to denote quality or condition in words where the associative sense recognises something that makes the connection appropriate, convenient or based on similarity (like gecynd – gecynde, meaning nature – natural.

The latter, from Proto-Germanic *lîkom , meaning form or shape, likely referred to the body. Cognate developments might, however, suggest that it had some specific feature that denoted the dead body specifically! You see, in most other Germanic languages, the Proto-Germanic word has come to denote just that (for example Dutch lijk, German leiche, Danish lig, all meaning corpsecadaver or dead body).

Isn’t that interesting?

Now, let’s add a twist:

This word developed differently in the north and the south of England!

In the south, the normal development was lich(e), but in the north, the development was like. One hypothesis is that this might be due to a partial borrowing from Old Norse glikr. As I am sure that you remember, there were plenty of Vikings around in the north of England during the later Old English period, which could explain the differences in the development of this Old English word.

So there you have it – the somewhat convoluted development of the modern-day adjective (and plenty of other things) like!

(As a final note, this does not represent the development of the verb like, which, though undoubtedly related, comes to us from the Old English word lician.)

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Heresy

We’re back – and we’re even on time this week!

Today’s word: heresy!

From Old French heresie, eresie, this word came to English during the early 13th century and was once described by Samuel Johnson as “an opinion of private men different from that of the catholick and orthodox church”. But that’s not what it used to mean!

From Latin hæresis, meaning school of though or philosophical sect, the word came to Latin from Greek hairesis, meaning a taking or choosing for oneself, a choice, a deliberate plan, purpose, philosophical sect or school. This, in turn, care from haireisthai, meaning take or seize, middle voice of hairein, meaning to choose.

Here’s the fun part: did you know that this word may be a cognate of Hittite šaru and Welsh herw, meaning booty? We sure didn’t!

Now that you’ve got your Tuesday fun – a bit of important information for you: the HLC goes on vacation! Don’t worry – FunEty and Patron Saint will keep popping up in your feed but the blog will ease back a bit and you will get your linguistic treats once a month during July and August instead of every week! We’re sorry, but even linguists need vacation (actually, it’s because we all have an absolutely insane summer filled with work)!

Next post will appear next week, on Thursday 11th! Join us then for more linguistic facts!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Tide

Another Tuesday means a new FunEty!

Today’s word is “tide”, referring to the rise and fall of the sea.

If you know any other Germanic languages, you’ll probably recognise the Old English word “tid”, from which “tide” hails. OE “tid” actually referred to a point in time (and could also refer to a period in time, a season, feast day or canonical hour), and, indeed the Scandinavian cognate “tid” for example still means “time”. From Proto-Germanic *tīdi-, from PIE *di-ti-, meaning meaning “division of time”, a suffixed form of *da-, meaning “to divide”.

The current meaning of the word, which surfaced around the 14th century, is likely from the notion of a fixed time, in this particular case the time of high water. This might be a native evolution or from Middle Low German “getide”. Interestingly, Old English appears to not have had a specific word for “tide”, using instead “flod” and “ebba” to refer to the rise and fall of the sea – a usage that strikes me as very likely cognates to modern-day Swedish “flod och ebb”, meaning much the same thing.

Peter Nielsen Ladefoged – Patron Saint of September, 2019

September is upon us, dear friends, and this being the first (full) weekend of that month, allow me to introduce you to Professor Peter Nielsen Ladefoged!

Born on the 17th of September, 1925, Professor Ladefoged was a British linguist and phonetician, whose works on phonetics is highly valued in the linguistic community. His most famous work is perhaps that which he performed at the phonetics laboratory at UCLA, which he established in 1962. His work closely revolved around the massive task of listening to, and describing, every sound used in spoken human language, which he estimated at 900 consonants and 200 vowels (!!!). This research eventually became the basis of much of the volume “The Sounds of the World’s Languages”, co-authored with Professor Ian Maddieson, and published in 1996. This book is based on data from about 400 (!) languages and describes the contrasting phonetic categories, meaning the ways in which phonemic sounds may differ in human languages.

His book “A course in phonetics” is a common introductory text to phonetics (you might even have read it – I know I’ve used it on occasion), and with his great emphasis on the importance of considering the full diversity of human speech sounds, there can be no doubt calling Professor Ladefoged “the father of the field of linguistic phonetics” is an accurate description and a well-deserved title.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Giddy

Tuesday! And you know, this particular Tuesday is a little bit better than other Tuesdays (if that’s possible), because today, this writer gets to go home from a long work trip (which has been lovely, but not quite as lovely as being with my husband back home). Anyway, that’s nice for you, but what’s your point, you ask? Well, I’m feeling rather giddy and figured that that would be a good word for today! So “giddy” it is!

From Old English “gidig”, a variant of “gydig”, from Germanic “gudo(m)”, this little word originally meant literally “possessed by a god” (I wonder which one I got!), which according to the OED was likely its primary sense. In Old English, it had developed to referring to the insane, mad, or stupid (starting to feel like I insulted myself) while, in Early Modern English (ca. 1560), we find the meaning “having a confused, swimming sensation”, perhaps comparable with what we mean when we say “dizzy” today. The meaning “elated” came about during the 1540s, so you can clearly see that there’s been a significant semantic change throughout the centuries for this Germanic word!

And that’s our Tuesday fun! I’ll be back on Thursday with a bit of an announcement for you all! (Aren’t you curious? Well, you’ll simply have to wait!)
Until then: have a lovely day, everybody!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Tattoo

Tuesday! Boy, time flies.

Today’s word is “tattoo”!

From a Polynesian noun, like Tahitian and Samoan “tatau”, Marquesan “tatu”, meaning puncture or mark made on skin. The Tahitian word might be the most likely direct origin of the English word, as it was first attested in English in the writings of Captain James Cook in 1769, around the time when he was on a journey to watch Venus transit over the sun, a journey that took him from Great Britain to, you guessed it, Tahiti!

While tattoos are certainly quite popular today (even some of us here at the HLC boast a few), attitudes to them used to be totally different: in 1902, Century Dictionary described them as found on “uncivilised” people or as a sentence of punishment, but that’s a very different understanding than the one we find during the late 17th century, when the term “Jerusalem cross” could be used to indicate tattoos (specifically those on the arms of pilgrims to the Holy land).

That’s it for our Tuesday fun!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Loophole

Tuesday! Isn’t it a marvellous day?
Have you ever been told to always read the fine print of a contract before signing it? Yes? Good! Because it is in that small text that you might find any loopholes in the deal you’re making, right? But where does that word come from? Let’s explore!

A compound from Middle English, this word consists of two parts: loop + hole. Let’s start with the latter.

Present-Day English “hole”, meaning something like a hollow place in an otherwise solid surface, is a Germanic word, found in Old English as “hol” with much the same meaning (it also has cognates in most Germanic languages: in Swedish, for example, you find “hål”), from Proto-Germanic *hulan, from PIE *kel, meaning to cover, conceal or save. Quite a long history there, but what about the first part of our word for today?

Well, “loop-“ comes from Middle English “loup(e)”, which actually referred to a narrow window or slit opening in a wall. You’ve probably seen these, in movies if nothing else, when there’s a massive battle going on, because these small windows were primarily for the protection of archers when shooting (though also for light and ventilation when there were no battles going on). This little word came to English around the beginning of the 14th century, probably from a continental Germanic source, like Middle Dutch “lupen”, meaning to lie in wait, watch or peer.

As is often the case, the modern meaning of the word is a later development, being recorded from around the 1660s.

And that’s our Tuesday fun!