We’re not so different, you know?

Insights from the ISLE Summer School, 24-28 June 2019

This week, I had the pleasure of attending the International Society for the Linguistics of English (ISLE) Summer School. The summer school is bi-annual, and explores different themes each time – this year, the theme was using the past to explain the present, with the description: “A special focus will be on evidence for past states of English and Scots, with reference to the functioning of writing systems in manuscript and printed contexts.”

With a theme like that, there’s no wonder that this summer school caught the interest of two HLC:ers: Sabina and myself (Lisa)!

The summer school was organised at the University of Glasgow by the ISLE president, Professor Jeremy Smith. On the first day, he held a workshop which led us to think more about how the past can help us explain the present, and he emphasised the importance of considering that the old languages and writing systems we study were produced by people who were as much conditioned by social factors as we are today. In fact, the name of this year’s theme is a scrambled version of a pioneering publication by famous sociolinguist William Labov, On the use of the present to explain the past, which explored the idea that humans are not so different in history and today, and thus we can use our knowledge of today’s languages, and the people who speak them, to make inferences about history. Likewise, through looking at material culture (for example scribal practices, and the look and material of manuscripts), and through exploring the social context in which they operate, we can learn more about what drives language change. 

The exploration of manuscripts continued into the workshops in the morning of the second day. Professor Wendy Scase from the University of Birmingham held a workshop about writing systems, and made us aware of the social factors which may condition how we write. The traditional view of spelling is that it follows pronunciation, but it’s not usually that straightforward, and there are often social cues in what spelling systems we adhere to. 

One simple example is, of course, the differences between British and American English; the use of colour or color says nothing about pronunciation, but reading one or the other immediately tells you something about the writer. Consider also things like “heavy metal umlaut”, as found in the band names Mötley Crüe and Motörhead; these umlauted letters are pronounced a certain way in the languages who use them in their writing systems, such as Swedish and German, but these bands use them as a form of identity marker. If these social identity markers are used in the present day, we should be aware that this may also be the case in the past. As an example of this, a mediaeval writer may have chosen to use the italic script to advertise to the reader that they are a humanist. 

Italic script. The image is taken from this article, where you can also read more about the history of Italic script.

As the second day progressed, we received introductions on how to use historical corpora by Dr Joanna Kopaczyk (University of Glasgow) and Dr Kristin Bech (University of Oslo). While these workshops were more focused on presenting resources for doing research in historical linguistics, the theme of the week still ran like a red thread through them: for example, we were reminded that when looking at historical written text, the scribal practice should not only be taken to be dialectal, but can also be socially conditioned. 

On the third day of the summer school, we went on a field trip to Ruthwell Cross, in Dumfriesshire. The runes inscripted on the cross make the earliest evidence we have of Anglo-Saxon in Britain, and it was interesting to learn about some of the unique features of the runic system which are only found on this monument, which again led us to think about what the purpose was behind using these particular symbols.

The Ruthwell Cross, photo by Lisa Gotthard

In the final two days of the summer school, all participants presented their PhD research, and we reflected on the mechanisms behind language change in a discussion led by Jeremy Smith. In this discussion, we looked at different examples of words or expressions which use and meaning had changed in the history of English, and whether social factors may have driven these changes. In the HLC’s weekly etymologies on facebook, we have sometimes demonstrated how social associations may trigger the meaning of a word to become more negative or positive – an example being the word ‘villain’, now a pejorative term, which developed from simply referring to someone living on a farm. This is only one type of language change that can be socially conditioned, and this week we’ve come to learn even more about how identity markers and other socially conditioned factors play a role in how we express ourselves, both in writing and speaking. This is why it’s so important for historical linguists to approach our textual sources with the same sociolinguistic awareness with which we would approach today’s spoken data.

Personally, I found this week to be incredibly inspiring, and in our final discussions you could tell that we had all received plenty of input and inspiration for continuing our research with some more attention to material culture and social practice. 

Lies the HLC told you: All languages change.

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?

The Nordic countries – all but Finland has a North Germanic language as their national language. (Copyright: Alphathon, 2015. Wikimedia Commons.)

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!


1This extract and translations are taken from http://heimskringla.no – a kind of data bank of Nordic texts.

2These numbers are taken from Lyle Campbell’s Historical Linguistics, p. 456.

3 In her book Understanding Language Change, p. 205.

Let’s get together and talk about languages getting together

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:

Old Norse

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.

In conclusion…

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.

There be language change afoot–but why?

We’ve written about several big, historic sound changes, like umlaut and Grimm’s Law. But why does pronunciation have to change at all? Why can’t it just stay the same forever? Surely, that would be easier for everyone (especially us historical linguists trying to reconstruct speech from a time before sound recording).

Without diving in too deep today, let’s look at two of the big forces playing tug-o’-war with our phonemes (and the rest of our language): good, old-fashioned laziness and the need to be understood.

I called the first force laziness, but perhaps a kinder appellation would be “conservation of energy.” Unless you live by yourself in a cottage deep in some leafy forest somewhere, you probably regularly do a fair amount of communication (yes, even you introverts). Speech1 is a repetitive motion, and like other repetitive motions (e.g. signing your name), we unconsciously streamline it as it sinks deeper and deeper into our muscle memory. ‘Cannot’ in most instances becomes ‘can’t’; the <tt> in ‘button’ becomes [ʔ] instead of [t].2

This tendency to expend the least amount of effort in language production is called ease of articulation. This is what leads to phenomena like umlaut: it’s easier to pronounce consecutive vowels in the same area of the mouth, so back vowels are pulled forward after front vowels (e.g. Proto-Germanic *mūsiz “mice” becomes OE *mȳs). Similarly, vowels in unstressed syllables tend to relax into schwa. Why enunciate every sound when you don’t really have to? (Except sometimes you do have to.)

Ease of articulation is one thing, but on the other hand, language can’t allow itself to devolve into a mushy, mumbly mess. That would be self-defeating. When your whole purpose in life is to communicate messages, by gum! you’ve got to make sure you can effectively communicate a message. If things become too similar, a language finds ways to self correct, to dissimilate. Dissimilation is a process whereby two linguistic elements that are confusingly alike are pulled back apart to a reasonable, comprehensible distance. Take, for example, the OE pronouns “he” and hēo “she”. Linguists aren’t exactly sure which specific sound change stepped in to shift  hēo to she, but I think we can all agree that it’s easier to tell who’s who with more distinct pronouns. Or in another case, we find the word pilgrim ultimately comes from Latin peregrinus “foreigner, traveler”. In Latin words with far too many /r/s, one of them commonly became an /l/ over time to unmuddy the waters.

Though they seem almost like an uptight, mothering older sister (dissimilation) and her carefree, lackadaisical little brother (ease of articulation), these two processes work in tandem as much as they work against each other. You could almost say they bring balance to the Force. (But you could also say that languages are wild, organic things that refuse to be tied down. It’s not you, it’s them. And as you may have guessed, ease of articulation and dissimilation aren’t the only suspects complicating this situation. We’ll get there.)


1 It’s something we haven’t brought to the forefront in a while, but I’d like to remind you that when we talk about “speech,” we could just as well be talking about signing. Sign languages function much like spoken languages.
2 Depending on your dialect.