Fun Etymology Tuesday – Villain

Hello all! It’s your favourite time of the week again: Fun Ety Time! This week, the word is ‘villain’.

For any francophones out there, the French-looking spelling certainly gives away the origin of this word, no? It’s actually no red herring – ‘villain’ does indeed enter English through Old French and Anglo-Norman (the latter is the variety of Norman French spoken in England after the Norman conquest).

Today, ‘villain’ mostly refers to an antagonist in literature or media, someone criminal or with evil intent, but when we first see ‘villain’ appearing in the early 14th century, its meaning referred more to someone low-born and dishonourable, rather than the more specific meaning it has today.

So how did we get to the low-born dishonorable use in the first place? The Old French word comes from the Latin ‘villanus’, which is a derivation of the word ‘villa’, meaning… well, roughly what you’d expect: a big country house or farm.

In fact, ‘villain’ originally simply referred to someone who lived on a farm. Then, people’s prejudice took the reins and we now only find the pejorative meaning of ‘villain’ in both English and French. This is just one of many examples of a word receiving a more negative or positive meaning due to the social connotations it brings.

That’s it for now, tune in next week for more etymology fun!

Early Germanic Dialects: Old English

And EGD is back! Today, we’re going to be talking about something close to my own heart: English! This is Early Germanic Dialects thought, so, naturally, we won’t be talking about modern English, but, Old English.

Now, before we start, let’s make one thing very clear: Shakespeare is not Old English. Nope, nope, not even close. In fact, some native speakers of English (and I’ve experimented on this with friends), don’t even recognise Old English as English. Let’s compare, just so you can see the differences. These are the first two lines of the epic poem Beowulf:

Old EnglishModern English
Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon
Listen! We of the Spear-Danes in the days of yore
of those clan-kings heard
of their glory

A bit different, wouldn’t you say? And now, of course, you’re wondering how it went from that to this? Well, that’s a different story (but we’ve told it in bits and pieces before).

Let’s today simply focus on Old English, shall we?

Right, so as per usual, let’s start with a bit of a history lesson!

As you might know, while English is today the dominant language of the British Isles, this was certainly not always the case. In fact, the tribes that we eventually consider “English” were all invaders or immigrants: Saxons, Angles and (maybe) Jutes! The native population of the British Isles were, the stories tell us, treated rather horridly – primarily thanks to the Celtic king, Vortigern, who ruled there during the mid-fifth century, who made a really bad call.

You see, Vortigern had a problem: the Picts and Scots kept attacking him and he simply couldn’t deal with these vicious barbarians on his own! So, he called in reinforcements! That means, he invited Saxons to come over to deal with the problem.

And they did. Then, I suppose, they were chatting amongst themselves, and with their buddies who were already living there, and thought “wait… If he can’t deal with these people… How would he possibly be able to deal with all of us?”. After, I imagine, a bit of snickering and laughing, they went off and told Vortigern – pleased with himself after the Picts and Scots had been pushed back – that they weren’t intending to leave. I imagine that left him less pleased.

It is actually from this period in time (or somewhat later), around the year 500, that we get the legendary myth of King Arthur. During this time, a great battle was fought at someplace called Mount Badon (which we can’t really place), and the British people succeeded in stopping the Anglo-Saxon expansion for a little while, and they may (possibly, maybe, we don’t really know) have been led by a king called Arthur (kinda little historical evidence for one of the most widespread myths out there, right?). Despite this success, a great deal of southern Britain was in the hands of the Anglo-Saxons by the year 600, and the areas under British rule had been reduced to distant corners of the west, such as Wales and Cornwall. What we end up with, is a geographical division that looks something like this:

Now, naturally, when people come together in close quarters and multiple leader-types, what follows is about 300 years of squabble about the ‘overlordship’ of this green area. Then… Then, they had other things to worry about – the Vikings had arrived.

But we’re not gonna talk about that today, so check it out here if you want!

So, the Vikings arrived, and this led to a long war. Eventually, King Alfred the Great of Wessex forced the Vikings to peace-talks (mostly because he kept beating them, though he might have been pretty much the only Anglo-Saxon king who could boast about that), and the Danelaw was formed.

The descendents of Alfred managed to keep things pretty smooth for a while. Specifically, until 978, when King Edward was murdered. Enter: Æthelred the Unready (and no, that is not a nickname that history added: his own contemporaries called him unræd, loosely translated as ‘ill counsel’). Basically, he did most things wrong (even attempting to order the death of all Danes in the country). The, probably, largest mistake that Ætheldred did though, was the decision to kill the sister of King Swein of Denmark.

Bildresultat för swein of denmark
King Swein (or Sweyn) Forkbeard from a 13th century miniature (pic from Wikipedia)

Riled Vikings? Really, that’s a bad idea.

And in 1013, Æthelred was shown just how much of a bad idea that was, when a pissed-off Viking army landed on his beaches. The army of Danes met little resistance and Æthelred was forced to flee to Normandy. However, Swein died just a couple of months after that, and Æthelred returned to England – only to be re-invaded by Canute the Great, son of Swein, in 1015. Æthelred eventually died in 1016, and his oldest surviving son Edmund died soon after, leaving Canute the ruler of England.  

Canute’s sons, Harald Harefoot and Hardecanute, ruled after his death, until 1042, when the son of Æthelred and Emma of Normandy (Hardecanute’s adoptive heir) Edward took the throne, which he held onto until his death in 1066. And we all know what happened after that… Enter the Norman invasion. Though Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, was acclaimed king after Edward, he held the throne for only nine months before he fell at the Battle of Hastings, thus putting a bloody end to the (fairly bloody) Anglo-Saxon state.

Alright, let’s talk language!

Though we have a number of surviving texts from Old English (a lot more than many other of the EGDs that we’ve been talking about), a lot is, of course, lost to us. What does survive, and what we really mean when we say “Old English”, is the late West Saxon dialect. The reason for that is simple: most surviving texts are written in that dialect. But, when studying Old English, it’s worth keeping this in mind: we’re not (necessarily) talking about a unified language; we’re talking about a dialect that happens to be primary in the surviving materials.

Anyway, first, as per usual, let’s look at some phonology!

Most letters of the Old English alphabet are fairly uncomplicated for a speaker of modern English. Some, however, have surprises in store.

One of those letters is the letter <g>. This letter is pronounced as in modern English ‘good’ only when it follows [ŋ] or when it’s doubled:

cyning ‘king’
frogga ‘frog’

Before the front vowels i and e, after them at the end of a syllable, and also in a few instances where <j> or <i> originally followed but has since disappeared, <g> is pronounced like the first consonant in modern ‘yes’. Before back vowels, though, <g> was pronounced [g].

Elsewhere, <g> is pronounced as a back fricative (remember Rebekah’s phonology lesson on consonants?), unless it is a sequence of <cg>, in which case it is pronounced as the first sound in modern English ‘giant’.

Another sequence that has a surprise in store is the letter sequence <sc>. Although a modern English speaker might expect that <c> here actually corresponds to [sk], it doesn’t. Instead, it would have been pronounced something like [ʃ], that is, the first sound in modern English ‘ship’ (as, indeed, also Old English scip).

Last, in this part, we have the letter <h>. While seemingly simple enough, <h> is pronounced [h] only in initial position and before vowels:

her ‘here’

But before consonants, and when occurring in word-final position, <h> is pronounced as [x], a sound today found in German nacht or Scottish loch:

feohtan ‘fight’, here pronounced with [x].

In the vowels, Old English shows a number of changes that are not found in the languages discussed so far in our little EGD series. For example:

Like most other Germanic languages (except Gothic), Old English originally changed the vowel [æː] into [aː], yet under most circumstances (though especially before w), it changes back to æ:

Old EnglishGothicModern English
frǣtonfrêtun'ate' (pl.)

Similarly, in most cases, the change of short [a] (which usually also changes into [æ]) systematically fails to take place when <a> is followed by a single consonant, plus <a>, <o>, or <u>:

gæt (sg.)butgatu (pl.)'gate'
dæg (sg.)butdaga (dat. sg.)'day'

Except before nasal consonants, where long and short <a> instead becomes long and short <o>:

Old English GothicModern English

Now, something rather interesting before we move on: in Old English, we find evidence of a process known as assibilation. This process, which is shared only with Old Frisian of the Germanic dialects, means that the stops k and g becomes [tʃ] (as in church) and [dʒ] (as in drudge) respectively. This process is also the one responsible for correspondences like skirt/shirt, where shirt is the assibilated Old English form, while skirt is borrowed from Old Norse, which did not undergo this process, and thus retains a hard [k] sound. Interesting, isn’t it?

Now, I’m going to break tradition a bit and not really talk about morphology. Instead, I want to say a few words on syntax, that is, word order. Why? Because the syntax of Old English is not quite the same as the syntax of modern English. In fact, it’s rather markedly different.

Most notably, Old English is significantly more inflected than modern English: it inflected for five grammatical classes, two grammatical numbers and three grammatical genders, much like modern German. While this may be frustrating to students of the language, it did mean that reliance on word order was significantly less than it is today because the morphological form would tell you who was the subject, object, etc. This means that Old English word order was a bit less rigid than in modern English (in which, it is the only thing that shows you that there is a difference between the dog bit the man and the man bit the dog).

Generally speaking, the standard rule for Old English is that it has a verb-second word order, that is, the finite verb takes the second position in the sentence regardless of what comes before it. So it really doesn’t matter if the first element is the subject or the object, the verb holds its second position (in which case, the declension of the words become important for understanding the sentence correctly).

However, this holds true only for main clauses. In subclauses, Old English is (generally speaking) verb-final, that is, the verb winds up at the end of the sentence. Students of modern German (such as myself in fact), may recognise this kind of word order.

On the topic of syntax, I would like to wrap this post up with a cautionary note.

If you’re reading Old English poetry (and sometimes even when you’re reading prose): chuck these ‘rules’ of Old English syntax out the window. They won’t do you any good: in Beowulf, for example, main clauses frequently have verb-initial or verb-final order while verb-second is often found in subordinate clauses. So heads-up!

Right, that’s all I had for today, though, obviously, this is a very small appetizer in a huuuge buffet. If you’d like to learn more, we, as always, refer you to Robinson’s great book but, to be quite honest, the chapter on Old English is quite dense and even I had to refer a couple of times to Wikipedia and other sources just to make things clear. However, it is a good starting point so do enjoy!


As always in our EGD-series, our main source is Robinson’s Old English and its closest relatives (1992).

For this post, we’ve also taken a look at:

The passage of Beowulf, with its translation, is by Benjamin Slade: you’ll find it – and the rest of the translation of Beowulf – here



Etymologiæ (where you can find the original version of the map we’ve used here)

For the last picture, we’ve used the one found here

Our thanks to Kristin Bech for valuable comments on Old English syntax and the pronunciation of <g> on our Facebook-page. The HLC always welcome comments and we have updated the post accordingly.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Disaster

A late Tuesday FunEty for you, friends! Today’s word is “disaster”!

This word can refer to any unfortunate or ruinous event, and it’s origins is a bit all over the map (not really, but it does have multiple origins).

Partly, it’s a borrowing from French “desastre”, from Italian “disastro”, which in turn is modelled on an Occitan lexical item. For those of you who are, like i was before this post, somewhat unfamiliar with the Occitan language, it is a Romance language, spoken in southern France, Italy’s Occitan Valleys, Monaco and Spain’s Val d’Aran. Some also consider Catalan to be included. However, the unity of the Occitan language is a bit disputed, and some consider it a macrolanguage, that is, a language with widely varying dialects.

Anyway, back to “disaster”. So, Italian “disastro” can here be split into two: the prefix “dis-“, equivalent to English “mis-“ meaning ill, and “astro” from Latin “astrum”, meaning star. So, disaster could be translated, literally, to “ill-star(red)”.

So what about Occitan? Well, in Old Occitan, we find “desastre”, which is probably from Old Occitan “dezastruc”, which also meant “ill-starred” from late 12th century.

I hope you enjoyed that little trip, I know I did! Now, excuse me while I go read up some more on the Occitan language!

Easy-peasy morphology: Reduplication

Sometimes, we’re just so excited to share the world of languages with you that we get caught up in our own linguistic jibber-jabber. What starts as chit-chat turns into the ol’ razzle-dazzle. Before we know it, we’re zig-zagging through some convoluted flimflammery, and soon enough, kookookachoo, everyone’s head hurts and they all just want to go night-night.

Okay, that sentence was a bit much. But it showcases an interesting morphological phenomenon: reduplication.

In reduplication, all or part of a word is repeated. As you can see, the repetition can be exact or can include slight changes. The repeated part or reduplicant can be morphologically significant, like a root, or phonological, like a syllable. It can also occur anywhere in the word.

Most of the examples above are more expressive than anything else, but reduplication can also be meaningful. In English, we might repeat a word to stress the realness of what we’re trying to convey1:

“Do you like him, or do you LIKE-like him?”

In some of the many other languages that employ reduplication, its uses can be even more significant. In Malay, reduplication forms the plural of nouns: You may have one rumah (house), but your rich neighbor has two rumah-rumah (houses)2. In Latin, some verbs used reduplication to show the perfect form of the past tense: Today, the produce man vēndit (is selling) pears, but yesterday, he vēndidit (sold) me a pineapple.

There’s also a special time in life when all of us, regardless of which language we speak, are prone to extensive reduplication. During language acquisition, children go through a phase somewhere around eight to twelve months of age where their chatter is full of repetition. This developmental stage is called reduplicated or canonical babbling. Through their repetition, children experiment with their voice and figure out some things about the native language they’re acquiring (heck, I was known to babble to myself the first time I took a phonology class—occupational hazard). This is the stage where we get the famous assumption that every child’s first word is “dada”. I once knew a child who referred to water as “wawa”.

Reduplication is found in languages all over the world, though its productivity varies from language to language. Still, it’s a clever trick, this doubling of things. So clever, one has to wonder: if you can repeat morphological and phonological elements, can you un-repeat them, too? More on that next week. Until then, bye-bye!


1 This is called contrastive focus reduplication.
2 Does that mean one wug, but two wug-wug?

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Mortage

Tuesday! Let’s go, shall we?

Today’s word is “mortgage”. Few of us wish to have one, a non-wish reflected in its etymology!

Coming to English during the 14th century, this word comes from Old French “morgage”, a compound from “mort gage”, ultimately from post-classical Latin mortuum vadium, literally meaning “dead pledge”!

The term stems from the fact that a deal dies when the debt is paid (or, in worst case scenario, when payment fails). In English, it was actually borrowed straight off as “morgage”, the <t> being restored in modern English on the basis of Latin mortuum.

So let those debts die (in the good way, that is), ladies and gents, and see you next week for more Fun Etymology!

Paul Grice – Patron Saint of June, 2019

It being the first weekend of a new month, time for another lovely little introduction to an influential linguist, whose work has had great impact on meaning.

Ladies and gents, let us introduce you to Paul Grice!

Professor Grice was born in Harborne, nowadays a suburb of Birmingham, in the UK. First attending school at Clifton College, he later attended Corpus Christ College, Oxford, and a bit later still, went back to Oxford, this time to St. John’s College, where he imparted his knowledge to students until 1967. After that, he moved to the States to take up a professorship at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught until his passing in 1988.

In the field of linguistics, Grice’s work greatly impacted the field of semantics (that is, meaning). What most budding linguists may think about when they think of Grice is his famous “Maxims”. Generally known simply as “Grice’s Maxims”, these belong to a broader principle that Grice named “the Cooperative principle”, which Grice meant that all speakers in a conversation generally follow.

But what does that mean?? Let’s quote the author: “Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.” (Grice 1989: 26). To this principle, Grice added his Maxims that basically say:
1. The Maxim of information – make your contribution to the conversation as informative as possible but not more than what is necessary.
2. The Maxim of Quality – Basically: don’t lie. To be more specific: don’t say things you believe to be false, or things for which you lack adequate evidence.
3. The Maxim of relation – Be relevant, won’t you?
4. Maxim of Manner – avoid being unclear, ambiguous, overly chatty (be brief) and be orderly.

Obviously, these aren’t the only Maxims used in conversations, but they are the ones traditionally recognised as Grice’s Maxims. Also, obviously, not everyone plays by these rules – people lie, they say stuff that’s completely irrelevant to the conversation, and so on. BUT, according to Grice, conversational implicatures (that is, an implicit speech act: what is meant by the speaker rather than what is explicitly said) are possible because we all assume that the person we are talking to is actually obeying these Maxims: we assume that they’re telling the truth (mostly) and that what they’re saying is informative, relevant and clear (again, mostly). And when they don’t, like when they purposely say untrue things (think “Yeah, and I’m a monkey’s uncle”)? Well, you, and they, rely on these Maxims to reach an appropriate conclusion: you’re ignoring what the speaker is actually saying and instead infer the speaker’s meaning!

Isn’t that fun? If you want to know more about Professor Grice’s amazing work (‘cause obviously, there is so much more that it’s ridiculous), check it out by following this link. In the meantime, next time you have a conversation, try to think of what Maxim you’re relying on and send a thankful thought to Professor Grice for his long hard work that helped us understand so much more about what’s going on in every single conversation.

Have fun!

What’s with WH?

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.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Obsess

I’m obsessed with looking up etymologies, you know, that’s why I’m here every Tuesday! So, I figured it was appropriate that today’s word should be “obsess”!

From Latin “obsessus”, the past participle of “obsidere”, meaning to watch closely, besiege, occupy; stay, remain or abide.

The Latin word can actually be split in two: “ob”, meaning against, and “sedere”, meaning to sit, so the Latin word literally means “sit opposite to”.

When it came to English, around the year 1500, it had come to mean something like “to besiege”, and from around 1530, we get the “ghost” sense of being obsessed by an evil spirit.

The most common meaning today, though, may be the psychological one, that is “I am obsessed with FunEty!”, but that is a late sense of the word that didn’t develop until the 20th century.

Early Germanic Dialects: Old Saxon

Well, you’ve certainly have had fun without me, haven’t you? It’s been four weeks since you heard anything new about the Early Germanic dialects, but I can see that Lisa has had a word with you about contact situations and language influence (and exposed the HLC’s horrifying lies about language change!), and our great guest posts, by Sarah and Claire, must have kept you plenty entertained!

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:

bi'by'[b] > [b]
dôan ‘do’[d] > [d]
lamb‘lamb’[b] > [p]
flôd‘flood’[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 Saxonstên
Old Norsesteinn
Old High Germanstein

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>:

Old SaxonOld EnglishModern English
biddian biddan‘ask’

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.

And finally:  

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.  þs ‘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.

1 The map is an edited version from this map

2This famous quote is, of course, attributed to Albert Einstein

3And finally, this text comes from Wikipedia

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Ostracise

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”.

The more you know…

See you next week!