In many varieties of English, a W is a W. In these varieties, W sounds like [w] like in ‘wise’ and ‘wonderful’ and ‘wowza’ (unless it’s at the end like in ‘draw’ or ‘stow’, in which case it’s quiet as a mouse.)
However, in Scottish, Irish, New Zealand, and certain American dialects, wh-words are pronounced a little different. In words like ‘which’ and ‘whale’, the H makes the W kind of…H-y.
Why is that? Why are those words even spelled with an H to begin with? As with many questions about the bitter rivalry between English pronunciation and English spelling, we have to look to the distant past…
Or, you know, the fairly old past—the Old English-y one. Old English inherited from Indo-European (with a few twists and turns through Grimm’s Law) a sound we linguists like to call a voiceless labiovelar approximant1. In IPA, [ʍ]. That’s fancy language-people talk for a kind of voiceless W. In OE, this sound was spelled ‘hw’. ‘Which’ was ‘hwilc’ and ‘whale’ was ‘hwæl’. Perhaps the real poster child for this phenomenon is the first word of Beowulf: Hwæt! (ModE ‘what’)
During the Middle English period, the spelling of this sound was flipped to our modern ‘wh’, most likely due to the influence of French scribes who came to England with the Normans. It was also sometime during this period that some dialects began to see a merger between the pronunciation of ‘wh’ and plain old ‘w’. For a while, the merger was seen as uncouth, and educated speakers deliberately maintained the [ʍ] pronunciation of ‘wh’. Now, we find more dialects than not where the merger is complete and both spellings are pronounced [w]. But as mentioned before, there are several varieties of English where the original [ʍ] is hanging in there.
English has its share of strange, purely historic spellings, but this isn’t one of them. Your [ʍ] dropping friend isn’t mispronouncing ‘white’ or being pedantic; they’re just kicking it old school.
1This sound is sometimes traditionally/erroneously called a labiovelar fricative.
Now we’re getting back at it, though, and today, we’ll have a look at a little language that was part of the foundation of the Anglo-Saxon community in England: Old Saxon!
Let’s do what we usually do and start with a bit of a general history lesson, shall we?
The Saxons–surprise surprise!–were a somewhat warlike people. So much so, in fact, that their very name is a reference to a sword: a short sword characteristic of the Saxon people, known as the sahs (we still find its derivation in the second part of the German word for ‘knife’ (Messer)).
The Saxons were first mentioned during the middle of the 2nd century A.D. by the Greek geographer Ptolemy in his chapter Magna Germanica (in the book Geographia), in which Ptolemy places the Saxons in the area around the North Sea coast and to the east of the lower Elbe, an area that is now Holstein in the county of Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost state of Germany (just south of Denmark)–and if you’re wondering why all the warlike people seem to be coming from the northernmost areas of the world: it’s the cold. Definitely the cold.
In the following centuries, the Saxons show up prominently in a bunch of bloody battle accounts and struggles; they were fighting with their neighbours, with their allies, with their enemies… with pretty much everyone and anyone. But mostly, they fought with their neighbours, the Franks.
Despite this, they must have had a reasonably amicable relationship with their neighbours to the southwest around the year 531, when they joined together to destroy the kingdom of Thuringia:
However, the new Saxon kings of Thuringia were forced to pay a yearly tribute to the Frankish kingdom, which did not sit well with the Saxons. So, naturally, for about 200 years, there is an on-again-off-again war between the Saxons and the Franks.
Then, in 715, the western Saxons invaded the lower Rhenish areas. They were pushed back by Charles Martel in 718, who had to enter western Saxony twice–and was not happy about it (which he brutally took out on the local population). Yet, the Saxons were nothing if not stubborn and revolted again in 753, with the same expected results. One would think they had enough by now, right? Yeah, not so much. The scenario was repeated again, with the same results, in 758 (have you ever heard that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”2?).
Eventually, we reach the fatal year 772–the beginning of the end for the Saxons as an independent state. In that year, the Imperial council officially declared war on the Saxons. Enter, stage right: Charlemagne.
Charlemagne completed the Frank’s annexation of Saxon territory in 782, but the final battles between the Saxons and the Franks weren’t fought for another 12 years, when finally, we see the end of the Saxons as an independent state.
That isn’t the last we’ll hear about the Saxons, of course, but I’ll deal with their history in England in the chapter on Old English rather than here (it’ll make sense to you soon enough, I promise).
Our knowledge about the Saxon language comes from two major surviving texts: the epic poem Heliand and a copy of Genesis which runs to just 330 lines, so it’s quite short–though it is argued that the original was likely quite long. The Heliand is quite interesting for a multitude of reasons: an alliterative poem of some 6000 long lines, it recounts the story of Jesus in a way that combines the contributions of all four Gospels in a single narrative. The poem not only translates the story into a Germanic verse form, but changes the setting of the story–the tale of Jesus is told not in some far-away Holy Land but on the plains and marshes of northern Germany, and the shepherds who are told of Jesus’s birth are not tending sheep, but horses.
Now that we’ve looked quite a bit at the history of the Saxons and their surviving texts, let’s have a look at the language that they spoke! It is why we are here after all.
Most of the time, the letters used in Old Saxon texts correspond quite well to what one, as an English-speaker, would expect–p, t, k, for example, are pronounced just as in modern English–but there are a couple of surprises:
In word-final position, the letter g corresponds to [x] (the sound in Scots loch or German nacht), so a word like dag ‘day’ would be pronounced something like dach, except if it was preceded by n. In these cases, g was pronounced like [k], so g in words like lang ‘long’ would be pronounced [k], i.e. lank.
Another surprise concerns the letters b and d. In general, these are pronounced as in Modern English, but in word-final position and before voiceless consonants (like t or s), they were probably pronounced [p] and [t]. So:
[b] > [b]
[d] > [d]
[b] > [p]
[d] > [t]
Another difference is found in the voiceless fricative /f/: when between vowels, it becomes voiced, /v/, as does /θ/ and /s/ which become [ð] and [z] respectively. The difference between /f/ and the other letters that get voiced, is that the change in /f/ is faithfully reflected in writing! When /f/ became [v], it was consistently spelt ⟨ƀ⟩ and ⟨u⟩, so if you see those letters in between vowels, you can start to suspect that you’re looking at Old Saxon.
Let’s look at some other indicators that you’re looking at Old Saxon.
Unlike Gothic and Old Norse, Old Saxon shows a development of the older diphthongs /ai/ and /au/ to the monophthongs [e:] and [o:]. Other early Germanic dialects do this, too, but it is a conditional change, meaning that certain conditions must be fulfilled before the change can happen. In Old Saxon, though, we would call it an unconditional change, meaning that this change occurs virtually without exception–let’s look at stone as an example:
Old High German
So if you’re seeing <e> where in comparable texts you see a diphthong, you might suspect that you’re looking at Old Saxon–like we said, though, this is not bulletproof evidence, so let’s look at some more stuff that Old Saxon does!
When we were talking about Old Norse, we briefly touched upon a process called gemination. What this means is that the consonants g and k doubled to gg and kk after a short vowel and before j (and sometimes w). This process has far greater scope in Old Saxon than in Old Norse; in Old Saxon, all consonants can be doubled except r and the doubling takes place before not just j and w but also quite frequently before r and l, and sometimes before m and n. Another unique feature of Old Saxon among the West Germanic languages (remember our tree?) is that it usually still shows the conditioning <j>:
Two more things before we wrap up:
In Old Saxon, as in all the languages that we will look at following this post (but not the ones that precede it), we find that the verbal infinitive has developed into something approaching a true noun, what we would today call the gerund. The gerund may function as the subject of a sentence:
Eating people is wrong
or the object of a verb:
The hardest thing about learning English is understanding the gerund.
Unlike in Gothic and Old Norse, the masculine nominative singular ending of Proto-Germanic, *-az, has disappeared completely in Old Saxon. In Old Norse, we find -r in its place, e.g. dagr ‘day’, while in Gothic, we find –s, e.g. gôþs ‘good’. In Old Saxon, though, we find dag and gôd for these words – the ending has completely disappeared!
So, there you have it, features to look for in Old Saxon. Let’s wrap this up with a bit of an example, from the Eucharist, with a translation from Murphy3:
tho sagda he that her scoldi cumin en wiscuning
mari endi mahtig an thesan middelgard
bezton giburdies; quad that it scoldi wesan barn godes,
quad that he thesero weroldes waldan scoldi
gio te ewandaga, erdun endi himiles.
He quad that an them selbon daga, the ina salingna
an thesan middilgard modar gidrogi
so quad he that ostana en scoldi skinan
huit, sulic so wi her ne habdin er
undartuisc erda endi himil odar huerigin
ne sulic barn ne sulic bocan
Then he spoke and said
there would come a wise king,
magnificent and mighty,
to this middle realm;
he would be of the best birth;
he said that he would
be the Son of God,
he said that he would rule this world, earth and sky, always and forevermore.
he said that on the same day on which the mother gave
birth to the Blessed One in this middle
realm, in the East,
he said, there would
shine forth a brilliant light in the sky, one
such as we never had before between
heaven and earth nor anywhere
else, never such a baby and never such a beacon.
As always in our EGD-series, our main source is Robinson’s Old English and its closest relatives (1992).
For this post, we have also taken a look at:
Robert Flierman. 2017. Saxon Identities, AD 150-900. London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic.
Tuesdays! Isn’t it just a great day? I mean, yes, it’s a long way until the weekend, but there’s a new FunEty!
Let’s take a look at something one should never do: today’s word is “ostracise”!
This word shows up in English in the late 16th century, originally coming from Middle French “ostracisme”. The French word came from either Latin “ostracismus” or directly from Greek “ostrakismos”, which in turn cake from the Greek word “ostrakon”, meaning a tile or potsherd. The PIE-root, *ost-, meant bone, which is also the source of Modern German’s “Estrich”, meaning pavement.
Now to the good stuff: how did a Greek word, referring to a tile or potsherd, come to mean something like excluding someone?
Well, the word itself was actually a name of a particular public practice in Ancient Athens! People would gather around and write the name of a person that they thought was dangerous to the state on a potsherd or a tile. If someone’s name showed up one too many times, that person was banished from Athens for a period of 10 years! A couple of centuries later, we thus find the word “ostracise”, with its current meaning, in English!
However, we could have gotten a word more like “petalise” (or something), if the word had been borrowed from the people of Ancient Syracuse instead as a similar practice, though somewhat more lenient with a banishment of only 5 years, was performed there. Instead of writing on tiles or potsherds, though, the people of Syracuse wrote on olive leaves, and the practice was thus called “petalismos”.
We usually kind of hammer into you readers that languages change, and in my last post I described situations in the history of English when the contact with other languages was so intense that it drastically changed the language. Language contact is one factor which triggers language change, but change can also come from within the language itself, through e.g. innovation by speakers or speech communities (remember Rebekah’s post a while ago about some of the mechanisms in sound change?).
However, despite all of this, some languages tend to be particularly reluctant to change. To give you an example, here is an extract from the Færeyinga saga1, written around the year 1200 in the western dialect of Old Norse, Old West Norse, which was used in Iceland and Norway:
Nv litlu sidar kemr Sigurdr j budina til brodur sins ok mællti. tak þu nu silfrit nu er samit kaupit. Hann suarar. ek fek þer silfrit skommu. Nei segir Sigurdr ek hefui ekki a þui tekit. Nu þræta þeir vm þetta. eftir þat segia þeir konungi til. konungr skilr nu ok adrir menn at þeir eru stolnir fenu. Nu leggr konungr farbann sua at æingi skip skulu sigla burt sua buit. þetta þotti morgum manni vanhagr mikill sem var at sitia vm þat fram er markadrinn stod.
Now, here is the modern Icelandic translation of the same extract:
Nú litlu síðar kemur Sigurður í búðina til bróður síns og mælti: “Tak þú nú silfrið; nú er samið kaupið.” Hann svarar: “Eg fékk þér silfrið skömmu.” “Nei,” segir Sigurður; “eg hefi ekki á því tekið.” Nú þræta þeir um þetta. Eftir það segja þeir konungi til. Konungur skilur nú, og aðrir menn, að þeir eru stolnir fénu. Nú leggur konungur farbann, svo að engi skip skulu sigla burt svo búið. Þetta þótti mörgum manni vanhagur mikill, sem var, að sitja um það fram, er markaðurinn stóð.
So this is quite similar; there are some differences in spelling (and punctuation), some of which give evidence of phonological change, such as the addition of <-u-> in e.g. konungr > konungur. The vocabulary, however, is pretty much identical.
To contrast this, let’s give the modern translation in Norwegian, which, like Icelandic, is another descendant of Old West Norse:
Lidt efter kom Sigurd ind i boden til sin bror og sagde: «Kom nu med pengene, for nu er handelen sluttet.» Men Haarek svared: «Jeg gav dig jo sølvet for en liden stund siden.» «Nei,» sagde Sigurd, «jeg har ikke tat imod det.» De trætted nu en stund om dette; derpaa gik de til kongen og fortalte ham om sagen. Han og de andre folk skjønte nu, at pengene var stjaalet fra dem. Kongen lagde da farbann paa skibene, saa at intet af dem fik lov til at seile bort, før denne sag var klaret. Dette tyktes mange stor skade, som venteligt var, at skulle ligge der, efterat markedet var slut.
While we can still see the family relation, this translation is quite different from the Old West Norse. This tells us that relatively little has happened to Icelandic since the year 1200. In fact, when it comes to the grammar, Icelandic is usually considered the most “conservative” of the Germanic languages, as it retains a system of case and gender on nouns, and a system of inflection on verbs, that has changed very little from the time of the early Germanic dialects.
Furthermore, remember how I said that the basic vocabulary is the most reluctant to change, and this is why the borrowing of basic vocabulary from Old Norse and French into English is evidence of some particularly intense contact? It is estimated that English has retained 67.8% of its basic vocabulary, meaning that 67.8% of basic vocabulary is inherited: from Germanic to Old English to its present day form (often with some phonological and morphological change). As a contrast, Icelandic has retained 97.3% of its basic vocabulary2. Quite the difference!
Why is this?
One reason is that Icelandic has been relatively isolated geographically, so it has not been as exposed to intense language contact as the other Germanic languages, which (save from Faroese and Afrikaans) are spoken on the mainland of the European continent and therefore have been exposed to plenty of input from their neighbouring languages, as well as having been more vulnerable to conquest and migration.
When it comes to the reluctance to borrow foreign vocabulary, this is partly due to an active effort to preserve Icelandic as a means to preserve the native Icelandic culture. This has led to, rather than adopting new vocabulary, Old Norse terms often being revived when a word is needed for a new concept or item. Alternatively, compounds of existing vocabulary are used: The Icelandic word for ambulance is ‘sjúkrabíll’, which literally translates to ‘sickness-car’ (whereas the other modern North Germanic languages uses forms of ‘ambulans(e)’).
Furthermore, in the process of borrowing words, we usually talk about adoption vs. adaptation. In the first process, a word is borrowed, adopted, with its foreign phonology and morphology; in Swedish, for example, new English loan words tend to use the English plural -s rather than the native Swedish -ar/or plural. In the process of adaptation, however, we borrow a word but adapt it to our own phonology and morphology (we’ve seen plenty of examples of this in our weekly etymologies on the HLC facebook page). According to April McMahon3, not only does Icelandic tend to revive Old Norse words for new purposes, but any new loan that does make it into Icelandic tends to be adapted rather than adopted.
So, just as we can make conscious efforts to introduce new concepts in a language, as in the case of the Swedish gender-neutral pronoun, we can also (to some extent, at least) make conscious efforts to not change a language, if enough people are on board with this. However, it’s not like Icelandic hasn’t changed at all – I wouldn’t recommend going to Iceland relying solely on your Old Norse proficiency in communications with the locals. So, in the end, we didn’t exactly lie when we said all languages change, but the degree to which they change is not always as dramatic as in the history of English.
Tune in next week for more early Germanic dialects with Sabina!
It’s (one of) our favourite day(s) again – time for some FunEty!
Today’s word is “genuine”!
As you may have guessed, this word comes to English from the Latin word “genuinus”, meaning native, natural or innate. This Latin form comes from the root “gignere”, meaning to beget or produce, which in turn comes from the PIE root *gene-, meaning to give birth or beget. It may, perhaps, have been influenced by the contrasting form “adulterinus”, meaning spurious.
Coming to English in the sense of natural or not acquired in the 1590s, it isn’t recorded with the meaning of “really proceeding from its reputed source” until the 1660s.
Here’s the twist to today’s FunEty, though: rather than the origin outlined above, an alternative etymology has been suggested! In this origin-story, it is suggested that the Latin root is actually “genu”, meaning knee, from a supposed ancient custom of acknowledging paternity of a babe by the father placing the child on his knee!
or how I tried to teach myself hieroglyphs and failed hilariously
Once upon a time when I was still wee and less annoying (<- lie) than today, I tried to teach myself how to read hieroglyphs, the ancient Egyptian writing system, because I was way into all things to do with Ancient Egypt.
Emphasis on ‘tried’. Here is how I screwed up:
1) I assumed each of those little pictures is either a word or a letter. Well, good guess for a 12 year old, not completely wrong, but also not how hieroglyphs work. Hieroglyphs are both logographic (meaning each picture is a word, actually a morpheme), alphabetic (each picture is a letter) and syllabic (each picture is a syllable).
Wait, what?! Okay, let’s back up a bit:
What is the origin of written language?
If you have no writing system whatsoever but you want to “write”, the most natural thing to do is: you draw a picture. How do we know that? Because every single writing system started off that way, and it still happens: What do you get if you leave a kid alone with crayons (I mean aside from the need to buy new wallpaper)? The first love letters they write don’t have letters in them, they have the mum and a heart as pictures. It’s the obvious thing to do if you want to put your idea on paper and don’t know a writing system: you draw the thing. In fact, if you go to foreign places and want to communicate, you can buy dictionaries without words even today, looking something like this:
Back to ancient writing systems. So, you have your wee sun symbol for “sun”. You soon figure out that you can also use that symbol for ‘bright’, ‘day’ and ‘light’. So, now your sun symbols stands in for many words, and context will tell you which one is right. Boom! Congratulations, you now have a logographic writing system. Nice. But soon you realise that you need words you can’t find a symbol for, like the name of that new foreign merchant in town. You have a bright idea: let’s just use the symbol for a word that starts with the same sound I need for that word.
Like “fish”. You can use your ‘fish’ symbol for /f/, /fɪ/ or maybe /fɪʃ/. So, the symbol becomes either alphabetic /f/ (like in Latin, Greek, English), or syllabic /fɪ/ (open syllable (i.e. ending in the core vowel only) like Japanese kana or Indian devanagari), or syllabic (closed syllable (i.e. a consonant follows the core vowel, also known as a coda), like in Babylonian and Hittite cuneiform)
Well, guess what the people in Ancient Egypt did:
Yeah… so, each wee picture could be a word, a letter, or a full syllable. But, most of the time, the wee pictures are letters. So that should have meant I could get most of the words, right? Nooope.
Mistake #2 I made: I boldly assumed every sound would be written down. But I ended up with a salad of consonants. Bscll lk ths. Smbd frgt t b vwl.
Either the Ancient Egyptians were really bad at Wheel of Fortune or I made a mistake, unlikely as the latter is.
So, here is the problem: Turns out Egyptian Hieroglyphs are something we call an ‘Abjad’, meaning the consonants were written out, but the vowels were actively put in by the speaker and not written. Arabic and Hebrew still use systems like that. Why? It makes sense for them because their vowels change to provide the morphology (<- yes, I oversimplified that a lot): Imagine that sing, sang, sung were all spelled sng. You’d know which one is which from context; “Today I sng”, “Yesterday I sng.” That, of course, doesn’t work for English across the board, but it’s the closest you can get to seeing how it works if you don’t speak Arabic or Hebrew.
Okay, actually all three systems, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Arabic script, and Hebrew script, are “impure Abjads”. They sometimes spell out the vowels, or put a wee marker on a letter to give you a hint which vowel it is, but most vowels are still missing and you just have to know.
And, on top of that, you have to know which of the symbols are meant to be pronounced, and which are not.
This is point 3 I screwed up back then: Determiners. I thought every wee picture is meant to be pronounced. Nope. A determiner is a symbol that tells you which of the possible meanings of the next symbol to use.
For example, “Robin” could be a personal name or a bird. If you don’t want to wait for context to tell you, you could do this:
Sorted. And that is what Egyptian Hieroglyphs expanded into a full system. You would put a wee lad at the end of male names and a wee lass at the end of female names. Like this:
That’s Bibi and Bob. Yeah, not the most common female first name, give me a break. Oh, by the way, hieroglyphs are usually read from right to left, sometimes from left to right, and sometimes they are a bit mixed up. But the determiners give you a good hint: the wee people and animals always look towards the beginning of the word.
Now guess what ‘family’ (Middle Egyptian: mhw.t) looks like?
Yep, the entire thing in the red circle is the determiner; a mum and a dad and the plural symbol. I guess that’s an Ancient Egyptian family: first parents, and then you make a few more humans.
You can easily see how such a system developed: Let’s pretend English was an Abjad once more. So, only consonants are written down. What could str be?
Getting that it is straw, star, satire, stray and stir is a lot easier with determiners, right?
This system was used so extensively that the Egyptians even came up with a marker that tells you when they mean the actual thing and not the symbol’s determiner function: a wee vertical line under the symbol would tell you it’s not a determiner:
No, I mean it this time, it’s star proper, a star star.
I wish I had known all this back then. But you know better than me now.
Want more hieroglyphs? Read this: Zauzich, Karl-Theodor (1992). Discovering Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Practical Guide
Today’s word is “palace”. From Old French “palais”, meaning a palace or court, this word entered the English language around the early 13th century and used to refer to the official residence of an emperor, king, archbishop, and so on. Eventually, around the late 14th century, it had undergone semantic broadening and had come to mean something like a splendid dwelling place.
The Old French word, though, hails from Medieval Latin “palacium”, also meaning simply a palace, a word which is also the ancestor of Spanish “palacio” and Italian “palazzo”. However, the Latin word also comes from somewhere, in this case from the Latin word “palatium”, also “Mons Palatinus”, meaning the Palatine hill!
Why this specific hill, you wonder? Well, you see, the Palatine Hill was one of the seven hills of Ancient Rome, upon which we, if we were to travel back in time, would find the residence of one Augustus Caesar! A bit later in time, we might instead find the splendid residence of emperor Nero so this hill has certainly had some splendid palaces in its time!
And it doesn’t even end there! The name of the Palatine Hill may be traced back to the word “palus”, meaning something like stake but likely on the notion of enclosure. Another guess, though, is that it derives from Etruscan and is connected with the name Pales, an italic goddess of shepherds and cattle.
Our patron saint of linguistics for May is Ferdinand de Saussure (b. 1857, d. 1913), a Swiss linguist considered one of the fathers of modern linguistics.
As a student, Saussure studied Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, and even Celtic. In 1878, at the age of 21, he published a Dissertation on the Primitive Vowel System in Indo-European Languages. In his work on Proto Indo-European, he proposed the existence of missing phonemes in PIE not accounted for by reconstructions through the comparative method. He was proven right 50 years later when Hittite was deciphered.
As impressive as his work as a student was, and as much as he himself focused on historical linguistics (which in most senses was the focus of the whole field at the time), Saussure’s legacy lies in ideas he presented through his later lectures. Throughout his career, he lectured on IE, Sanskrit, and even some of the Germanic languages. Then, in 1907, he offered his first Course of General Linguistics, a class he offered only three times between 1907 and 1911. After Saussure’s death, some of his students published a book based on notes from his lectures.
This book, entitled Course in General Linguistics, contains the theories that became the foundation for structural linguistics, wherein language is collected and its elements classified at different levels. Saussure distinguished between an abstract level of language and actual speech. He proposed that the relationship between a signifier (like a word) and what it signified was arbitrary. His ideas on the relationships between the elements of language opened up the fields of phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. He put forth theories about dialects and language change based on geography. What’s more, he said it was just as important to study language synchronically, ie as a complete system at a point in time, as it was to look at diachronic, or historic, developments. (His analogy here was that it’s one thing to look at the history of chess and another to understand the rules at a given time.)
Pardon the wall of text. In essence, Saussure revolutionarily encouraged the synchronic study of languages and paved the way for some of the most fundamental disciplines within the field—no linguist escapes undergrad without studying such basic subjects as phonology and syntax.
In the past hundred years, there have been many strides within linguistics. New theories and schools of thought have arisen, and Saussure’s status has diminished, but his influence is never gone. Just try to find an introductory text today that doesn’t mention the arbitrary relation between sign and meaning!
Historical linguistics is often synonymous with the study of language change over time, and investigating what the reasons for that change are; are the changes being triggered by processes internal to the language, or did they come about through influence from another language? We know that English has changed significantly in its history – I recommend going back to Rebekah’s post about the English periods for a recap. Exactly what mechanisms are behind some of these changes are still under debate, but we do know that English has been greatly influenced by the languages it has been in contact with throughout history and in particular the contact with Old Norse and French. (Read also Sabina’s post about the creolization hypothesis for more about these contact situations)
Looking at these two contact situations, they had quite different effects. This can partly be explained by the different relationships these language had with English during the time of contact. Let’s investigate:
Remember the Vikings and their language, which Sabina taught us about two weeks ago? This language first became introduced to Britain through Viking raids in the 8th-9th centuries. The very earliest evidence of influence from Old Norse is from this period, and it shows up through loan words which have to do with seafaring and similar themes. The Norsemen eventually started settling in the British Isles, however, and in England, this meant some drastic political changes: wars between the Danes and Anglo-Saxons led to the establishment of the Danelaw, an area covering most of the East and North-East of England, which was under Danish rule for some time (although, the power shifted between Anglo-Saxon and Danish for the duration of the Danelaw). The relationship between Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon English (Old English) thus changed in the Danelaw, in that Old Norse became the language of the rulers. In this period we see many Old Norse words to do with law and government entering English.
Another effect of this time is that speakers of Old Norse and Old English lived side-by-side and dealt with everyday communication. If you’ve paid attention during Sabina’s Early Germanic Dialects series, you will know that Old Norse and Old English are quite closely related languages, both being descendants of Proto-Germanic. In fact, these two languages had not been developing separately for very long before they came into contact in England again (only about 4-500 years or so, quite a short time in the grand scheme of things). This fact, along with some evidence in records from the time, suggests to us that speakers of these languages could understand each other, with help from some accommodation from each side. I imagine this to be something like when I, as a Swedish speaker, am talking to a Norwegian speaker and end up speaking something we jokingly call ‘Svorska’, a combination of Svenska (=Swedish) and Norska (=Norwegian).
It is through this close relationship between the languages in the Danelaw that we see some of the deeper effects of Old Norse influence in English. First of all, the type of loan words that enter English in this period is the type of words that are most reluctant to change or influence, such as the verb take, or the noun sister; words that are used so frequently and are so fundamental to the language that they rarely get replaced by innovations. There are also some grammatical changes that have been suggested to be triggered by contact with Old Norse, such as changes in word order and simplification of the case and gender system on nouns. While some suggest that these grammatical changes were directly influenced by Old Norse, others argue that the changes were already underway before the contact, but that the contact triggered them to happen quicker.
How does contact with another language affect the grammar, if it’s not a direct transfer? Well, this can partly be due to grammar becoming compromised when people accommodate to a closely related language – people taking “shortcuts” to make themselves understood, kind of. It can also be due to that children learning their first language become presented with a mixed-but-similar-enough input that the grammar they learn as a first language is slightly different from what came before.
This Danelaw way of speaking came to influence the other English dialects, and Scots as well, through large enough numbers of people bringing their dialect with them from the Danelaw to other parts of Britain, even after the Norman conquest (immigration from the North to London is of particular importance for the Northern dialect forms entering standard English).
So what about that Norman conquest?
Well, in short: the Norman army conquered England in 1066. English nobles were replaced by French ones, and Norman French as well as Parisian French became the language of rulers across England. This contact situation was in some respects similar to the situation in the Danelaw, in that French, like Old Norse, became a language of invading rulers, but the situations differ in one very important way: French never became the language of the people. The French-speaking nobility were always in a position of power, and often had to speak English in order for their subordinates to understand them. Furthermore, the French-speakers were much fewer in numbers than the Old Norse-speakers were. After French loses its influence over England, the nobility starts to shift to English altogether, and English successively regains its position as the national language of England and the process of standardisation begins.
What English gets from this period is a whole lot of vocabulary. We especially see a huge influx of French vocabulary items entering English when the nobles shifted from French to English.. These words are often relating to “higher” contexts, such as art, music, religion and government, but there are also everyday words, such as joy, entering the language as a result of this contact. The legal and “governmentary” words largely came to replace the similar words that were previously borrowed from Old Norse, but mostly the French vocabulary expanded the language so that there were more word choices (compare the French borrowing joyous to the Old Norse borrowing happy).
The influence was not only in form of individual word transfers, however. The sheer number of words that entered English caused some alteration to the grammar: for example, the French suffixes -ment and -able became productive suffixes, meaning they can now combine with any word stem, whether Germanic or French (or other), and the sounds /f/ and /v/ became “upgraded” from allophones to phonemes.
Most languages do not develop in a straight line from their origin to the present day, and English is certainly no exception – it is usually estimated that 70% of the English vocabulary is loan words! Not all of these are from Old Norse and French of course, but they certainly make out the largest chunks of the borrowed vocabulary.
Is English uniquely mixed, though? A lot of people would like to think so, but there are plenty of other languages in this melting-pot continent of Europe which have experienced intense contact during long periods of time – for example, 40% of the Swedish vocabulary is estimated to be from German. However, there is no doubt that English has been greatly affected by these conquests, which sets it apart at least from its Germanic sisters in terms of its vocabulary and grammar.