The history of the English language – Middle English syntax

It’s Thursday and that means more of the History of the English Language! Today, we deal with Middle English syntax!

So, remember how we talked about Old English syntax in our last post? Well, a lot happens in the shift from Old English to Middle English.

As you know by now, English morphology changed quite a bit in this “shift” too. Particularly important for Middle English syntax was the weakening inflections on words. In Old English, the function of nouns, for example, was rather clear. If it was a nominative, it was the subject – accusative the object and so on. But, with the loss of these endings, a lot suddenly became rather ambiguous.

Suddenly, word order became quite important!

First, while Old English tended toward using V2 word order in main clauses and VF in sub-clauses, Middle English tends to be very similar to Present-Day English word order.

However, Modern English word order is quite.. rigid. It has to be, really, because the word order is what tells you about the subject and the object in a sentence. There is a world of difference between Jack ate the fish and The fish ate Jack, isn’t there?

But Middle English is a bit.. more flexible.

Typically, the verb is found in second position, preceded by the subject and followed by the object (that is, a typical SVO order). We find the same in Present-Day English (such as in John likes football).

Although the standard word order of Middle English is therefore rather similar to what we find in English today, we do see a few differences.

The V2 constraint (that we saw in Old English) continues to be quite common during the Middle English period. It had a sharp decline in use by 1600 and is today virtually extinct in English.

SOV was also still in use during Middle English, but it now became rather unusual. In the late Middle English period, it appears to have become very rare (though still occasionally occurring).

Except for these two, we also find that Middle English makes use of VSO order in questions and commands:

Gyf ye the chyld any thyng?
Give you the child any thing?
Bring ye the horse
Bring you the horse1

OSV and OVS are still found when emphasising the object:

This boke I haue mad and wretyn
This book I have made and written
Clothis have they none
Clothes have they none2

So there are still a few differences.

The changes in word order actually had a significant effect on the development of the English language. For example, an expressed subject became increasingly obligatory in Middle English and the so-called dummy it came to be used more and more (that is, It seems to me…). But subject-less constructions still occurred quite frequently (which is something to keep in mind when reading Middle English).

Generally, though, we are moving increasingly toward Present-Day English. As a result, it is my personal belief that most speakers of English today can likely read Middle English with some focused attention (syntactically speaking anyway – I won’t make promises about orthography).

Want to see if you can?

Check out this interlinear translation of some of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and test yourself!

(Let me know how it goes, will ya?)

Join me for a look into modern English syntax on February 27!

Until then, enjoy our Fun Etymologies!

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References

Albert C. Baugh & Thomas Cable. 2002. A history of the English language. London: Routledge.

Carol Percy. n.d. ME Syntax. Find it here.

Elly van Gelderen. 2016. Old, Middle, and Early Modern Morphology and Syntax through texts. Find it here.

Olga Fisher. 1992. Syntax. In Norman Blake (ed.). The Cambridge history of the English language. Volume II: 1066-1476. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 207-408.

Olga Fischer. Ans van Kemenade. Willem Koopman. Wim van der Wurff. 2000. The syntax of early English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robert Stanton. Middle English Syntax and Vocabulary – a PPT-presentation “Middle English Syntax and Vocabulary”.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Abacus

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

Today’s word is abacus!

But first, what in the world is an abacus?

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

Image result for abacus meaning

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

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

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

And, if so, you’re absolutely right!

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

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

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

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

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

See you then!

The history of the English language – Middle English phonology

Another Thursday, a new blog post!

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

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

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

But…

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

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

This all changed, of course, once standardisation started.

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

The problem?
The Great Vowel Shift.

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

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

 LabialDentalAlveolarPostalveolarPalatalVelarGlottal
Nasalmn(ŋ)
Stopp bt dt͡ʃ d͡ʒk g
Fricativef vθ ðs zʃ(ç)(x) h
Approximantrjw
Laterall

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

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

The vowels… that’s a different story.

To remind you, these are the Old English vowels:

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

And these… are the Middle English vowels.

 FrontCentralBack
UnroundedRoundedUnroundedRounded
Closei i:(y y:)u u:
Close-mide e:(ø øː)(ə)o o:
Open-midɛː(œː)ɔː
Opena a:

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

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

So, what has this to do with spelling?

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

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

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

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

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References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The history of the English language – Middle English morphology

Welcome back to HEL!
(History of the English Language –
and no, it is not intentionally close to H-E-double-hockey-sticks)

Last week, we did Old English morphology and, boy, that was a complex system! By comparison, Middle English morphology is easy.

The trickier (and perhaps more important) question might be:
why is it so easy?

First things first.

By the time we reach Middle English, we see a significant simplification of the complex Old English system.

While Old English had four distinct noun-endings for different cases (the nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative), Middle English had only two such patterns:

 Old English: SingularOld English: PluralMiddle English: SingularMiddle English: Plural
Nominativeenġelenglasengelengles
Accusative
Genitiveenglesenglaengleengle(n)/englem
Dativeengleenglumenglesengle

The distinctive dative case – ending in -um – was lost during the early Middle English period. The genitive, however, survived, though only the strong ‘s ending was in use (and, like most things Middle English, variously spelt).

The strong (e)s plural form of Old English survived even into Present-Day English, and even the weak form -en is still found in a few words (like children, oxen, brethren).

How about verbs?

Well, again, like most things Middle English, it is really hard to say anything that covers everything. You see, because there was no written standard, Middle English had so much variation that a word might be spelt differently even within one text, written by one author. It’d be like I suddenly started spelling the word “though” as þhou, or why not thawe or thaue. And then went back to though all of a sudden. You see the problem?

With that said, as a general rule, the first person singular of verbs tends to end in –e (ich here “I hear”), the second person in -(e)st (þou spekest “you speak”), and the third person in –or –eth (he comeþ/cometh) or –es (as today).

Again, general rules tend not to work well for Middle English and you should really not consider this a “rule” as such.

It’s more of a… guideline.

Alright, so, these changes may seem like pretty small changes, but it had a pretty massive effect on the language.

The simplification of morphology affected phonology, which affected orthography, which affected grammar, and round and round the wheel goes.

It’s kind of like the butterfly effect.

But why did it happen?

Well, we don’t really know. Perhaps a phonological weakening, causing the distinct forms of Old English to become less distinct, eventually causing a collapse of the system when people could no longer distinguish the forms? (I personally believe this theory)

Or, perhaps, the intense contact with Old Norse and/or Anglo-Norman led to Middle English becoming a creole? (We discuss that in more detail here)

What do you think?

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References

I have double-checked some things in this post to make sure that I remember correctly. This is primarily done using this page to check some morphological patterning as well as getting some examples from Wikipedia.

Additionally, although I haven’t used it for this particular post, I highly recommend An Introduction to Middle English (2002) by Simon Horobin and Jeremy Smith and An Introduction to Middle English (2012) by R.D. Fulk (both of which grace my bookshelf) for those who wish to get a brief, but well-written, introduction to the Middle English language.

Enjoy!

The History of the English language – LAEME and eLALME

Welcome back!

While I would normally move on to modern English dialects at this point, I did promise you a treat. So allow me to introduce you briefly to two marvelous sources in the study of Middle English dialectology: LAEME and eLALME.

The abbreviations stand for A linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English 1150 to 1325 (LAEME) and An electronic version of a linguistic atlas of Late Mediaeval English (eLALME). There is also a LALME, which stands for A linguistic atlas of Late Mediaeval English, and is the print version of eLALME (the latter was created years after the study itself was conducted and LALME printed).

Before I dig into these marvelous things, I can hear you asking “what is a linguistic atlas?”, so let’s start there!

A linguistic atlas is basically what you’d expect: a collection of maps. In this case, it is a collection of linguistic maps, which show the geographic distribution of speakers of a language. It can also show isoglosses, which separate areas that have a particular linguistic feature, of a dialect continuum.

Okay, so, what is a dialect continuum, you ask?

A dialect continuum is a situation in which a dialect spoken in one area differs only slightly from the dialect in the neighboring area. The further away we go though, the more differences we will find. Eventually, the varieties might be so widely separated that they are no longer mutually intelligible.

Both LAEME and eLALME are linguistic atlases, as their titles tell us. Specifically, though, they are linguistic atlases of Middle English, not modern. Their mapping of dialects concerns the dialects of Middle English, which we took a look at in last week’s post.

Now, obviously, when working with historical dialects, you’re in much more troublesome circumstances than when working with modern dialects. Why? Well, the introduction of LALME (reprinted in eLALME, of course) describes it pretty succinctly:

“It is rather as if the compilers of a modern dialect atlas had access to any number of speakers, all willing to be interviewed but very few of whom divulged where they came from”

§2.3.1. from A linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English, Volume 1, General introduction
Can you imagine what that’s like? Sounds hard, right?

Well, I’ll wager that creating these tools was very hard. But they managed! How, you ask?

With the use of so-called anchor texts.

An anchor text is a text that can be localised to a specific place, or near it, on non-linguistic grounds. This may be letters that, for example, were written by a nobleman whom we know lived in East Anglia for all of his life. It could perhaps be records of courts, or manors, or legal instruments, and so on.

Once you’ve done that, you can start looking for linguistic features in those texts. Let’s say that an anchor text in Middle English uses a specific spelling for a word. Okay, so that spelling might then be characteristic of the dialect in that area.

And then, you look at another text from another place. That text shows a different spelling for that same word. And then you look at a third text, from somewhere between those first two areas. That text uses a spelling with some characteristics of both the first spellings.

Brilliant, you have a dialect continuum!

Alright, so that was ridiculously over-simplified, but you get the idea.

Anyway, my over-simplified explanation (kind of) describes what they did for LALME. They used a questionnaire, consisting of many words, looked in the manuscripts for those words, and voilà! There you are, a dialect continuum of the late Middle English dialects.

Alright, again, that was ridiculously over-simplified.

LAEME took a slightly different approach. It kind of had to as there are so few documents left from early Middle English. So LAEME used a corpus-method instead. They transcribed all early Middle English texts (or long passages from the really long ones) and put them into a database.

This allowed them to elicit all variations from the surviving manuscripts, meaning that they weren’t limited to particular words. Having done so, it is then possible to look for linguistic features that are used in one text and compare them to another, thus seeing dialect variation (see LAEME’s Introduction, Chapter 1, §1.5.5. for more info).

Now, one last amazing thing about these tools: the fit-technique.

Basically, what this means is that you take features of a dialect and, as more linguistic features are added, the area from which the person comes becomes more and more constricted.

Let’s say, for the sake of an example, that you have two Swedish speakers. You ask them to pronounce the word “räka”.

One of them says “räka” with a fairly open mouth, producing [æː]. The other, on the other hand, pronounces it more like “reka”, with a reasonably closed mouth, producing something more like [e:]. Okay, there is something different here, so you ask them some more questions, and hear the same thing. So you go to your “anchor person”, who you know for a fact is from Stockholm. You ask him/her to pronounce “räka” and your other words, and you get “reka” in reply.

Great, one of your participants is probably from Stockholm (obviously, though, one shared feature is not enough). Then you look around, and you find someone who you know is from Gothenburg. You ask the same of him/her and get “räka” in response. And there you are!

That, though again grossly over-simplified, is the fit-technique. You take an un-localised text and compare it to the variations you find in texts that you can place. The more features you add, the more you can constrict the area that text is likely to come from! Isn’t that quite amazing?!

Before I get to the “warnings” of this post, I’d like to encourage all my readers to check these resources out. Truly, they are quite amazing!

You can find LAEME here and eLALME here. Do take a minute, really.

Right, so on to the warnings.

The most important thing first:

While we might be able to say that this text was written in the northern dialect, it does not mean that it was actually written in the north.

For example, the text you are looking at was written in a dialect from southwest Yorkshire according to LAEME or eLALME. That does not mean that it was actually written in southwest Yorkshire.

Neither LAEME or LALME are geographical atlases, they are linguistic ones. Your results simply mean that the person who wrote this text was likely from southwest Yorkshire (or at least wrote in that dialect). The text itself, however, might have been composed in London. Or in Sussex. Or in Worcestershire.

You get the drift. Point is, you cannot conclude with certainty that a text was written in a specific area, only that the person writing the text wrote in the dialect from that area. Obviously, it could have been written there, but you can’t say for sure.

That’s probably the most important thing to remember here but one more little thing: the fit-technique works somewhat better for eLALME than for LAEME. This is simply because we do not have as much data from the early Middle English period as we do for the late period. In the introduction to LAEME, Margaret Laing (LAEME’s compiler) and Roger Lass write:

For much of LAEME, the display of linguistic data in map form at all is a convenient but highly generalised abstraction.

LAEME, Introduction, Chapter 1, §1.5.3.

and this must be kept in mind when using the resource.

Did I get carried away? I did, right?

Well, I’m done now, but again: Check these resources out!

(and while you’re at it, also check out the Corpus of Narrative Etymologies, another fantastic tool for the study of English historical linguistics).

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References

For some more information on these fantastic resources, check them out by following the links in the post (or here: LAEME and eLALME). You can also have a look at the Angus McIntosh Centre for Historical Linguistics introductory remarks (with, in the case of LAEME, a link to Rhona Alcorn’s beginners guide to LAEME) to the resources.

Click here for AMC’s introduction to LAEME
and here for AMC’s introduction to eLALME
(and here for AMC’s introduction to CoNE)

Laing, Margaret. 2013– A Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English, 1150–1325, Version 3.2 [http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/ihd/laeme2/laeme2.html]. Edinburgh: © The University of Edinburgh.

Benskin, Michael. Laing, Margaret. Karaiskos, Vasilis and Williamson, Keith. 2013-. An Electronic Version of A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English [http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/ihd/elalme/elalme.html]
(Edinburgh: © 2013- The Authors and The University of Edinburgh).

McIntosh, Angus. Samuels, M.L. Benskin, Michael. 1986. A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press.

Lass, Roger. Laing, Margaret. Alcorn, Rhona. Williamson, Keith. 2013- 
A Corpus of Narrative Etymologies from Proto-Old English to Early Middle English and accompanying Corpus of Changes, Version 1.1 [http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/ihd/CoNE/CoNE.html]. Edinburgh: © The University of Edinburgh.

Ye Olde Poste of Ye New Year

Welcome one and all to the Historical Linguist Channel – 2019 edition!

This is our very first post of the year! Isn’t that wonderful – a new year of language fun!

Today, we’ll be visiting merry old England and “ye olde” – specifically, we’ll be looking at one little word there: “ye”.

You’ve probably seen it around, right? On pubs, restaurants, mills… The list can go on. But what if we told you, that this “ye” is based on a centuries-old confusion of two letters?

It’s true! The “ye” of “ye olde”, used to suggest a ‘merry, old time, showed up during the late 18th century and  hails from a scribal abbreviation used during Middle English and early Modern English.

However, let us be clear: the scribal abbreviation was not (as far as we know) pronounced “ye”. In fact, it was actually pronounced as…

“the”! Not as much fun as you expected? And now, you’re probably sitting there, wondering how the h*ck that happened, right? Well, during Middle English, and for a little while during early Modern English, English had a letter called thorn. Thorn was originally a rune, pronounced as either a voiceless or voiced dental fricative, that is [θ] or [ð]. Today, you find these sounds in words like “thing” (British English [θɪŋ]) and “the” (British English [ðə]). In writing, though, it looked like this: þ.

Now, for a rather long period of time, in cursive writing, it was common for scribes to write  “the” by using thorn with an <e> placed above it, like this:

Okay, so you know that this is actually a thorn with an <e> above it, so you know that this is a “the”. But see the very thin line at the top of the thorn below the <e>? This line is not always visible in the manuscripts: perhaps it was sometimes not written or perhaps time has taken it from us. Point is: occasionally, it may be exceedingly difficult to determine whether a letter is a thorn or a y. And someone kinda messed up and said that this, this little abbreviation, is spelled “ye” in modern English, and the mistake stuck!

So do like the HLC and smile a bit the next time you pass a “ye olde pub”, knowing that they have decided to print a huge spelling mistake on their wall.

Enjoy the knowledge and welcome back to the HLC!

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter G

It’s time for the HLC with our very special guest, Proto-Germanic! Yaaay!

Ah, English spelling. That prickly, convoluted briar patch that, like an obscure Lewis Carroll poem, often falls just a little too shy of making sense. Or does it?

It wasn’t always like this. English spelling actually used to be pretty phonetic. People would just write down what they heard or said.1 Then, the printing press was introduced. Books and pamphlets began to be mass produced, literacy levels rose, and spelling began to be standardized. At the same time, English continued to move through some fairly dramatic shifts in pronunciation. The language moved on as the spellings froze.

Throughout the years, people have occasionally called for reforms in English spelling. Like that time in the early 20th century when Andrew Carnegie, Melvil Dewey, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, et. al. colluded to “improve” some of the more confusing orthographic practices of English. Personally, this linguist is glad such efforts have by and large failed.

Sure, you could look at English spellings and tear at your hair at the monumental insanity of it all. But I like to think of our spellings more as fossils preserving the dinosaur footprints of earlier pronunciations. Granted, sometimes the footprints are from five different species, all overlapping, and there’s, like, a leaf thrown in.

Where are they all going?!

Let’s take, for example, the letter <g>2 and its many possible pronunciations.

First on the menu is the classic [g], a sturdy stop found in words like grow, good gravy, and GIF. This dish originates in the Proto-Germanic (PGmc) voiced velar fricative /ɣ/3. (Refresh your memory on our phonological mumbo-jumbo here.) This velar fricative had a bit of an identity crisis during Old English (OE)4, spurred on by hanging out with sounds all over the mouth.

“But what we found out is that each one of us is a front vowel…and a back vowel…and a palatal approximant…an affricate…and a voiced velar stop…Does that answer your question?”

Around front vowels (such bad influences—triggering umlaut wasn’t enough for them?), it became [j], as in year, from OE ġēar. Between back vowels (the big bullies), it became [w], as in to draw, from OE dragan5. At the end of words, it lost its voicing and became [x] (the sound in loch), as in our own dear Edinburgh (whose pronunciation has since changed again). Ah, but before back vowels, and when backed up by sonorants like [ɹ], it held its ground a little better and became our trusty [g].

As you may have noticed, a lot of the sounds that came from /ɣ/ are no longer spelled with <g>. Alas. We’ll come back to how Edinburgh wound up with an <h> in a minute.

But first, there was another sound that came from PGmc /ɣ/. Old English had something going on called gemination. Sometimes, it would take a consonant and double its pronunciation. Like the <kk> in bookkeeper. Bookkeeper is just fun to say, but these long consonants were actually important back in OE. The wheretos and whyfors of gemination are another story, but just like how /ɣ/ became [j], the geminate /ɣɣ/ was pulled forward and dressed in new clothes as the affricate [d͡ʒ], like in bridge and edge, from OE bryċg and eċg.

Gemination didn’t get around much. It was pretty much restricted to the middle of words. When mushy, unstressed endings began to fall off, the leftovers of gemination found themselves at the end of words, but a little nudge was needed before [d͡ʒ] found its way to the prime word-initial position. Later on in Middle English, the language ran around borrowing far more than a cup of sugar from its neighbor across the Channel. As English stuffed its pockets with French vocabulary, it found a few French sounds slipped down in among the lint. One of those was Old French’s own [d͡ʒ], which on the Continent was simplifying to [ʒ]6 (the <s> sound in measure). This [ʒ] sound didn’t exist in English yet. Our forefathers looked at it, said “nope,” and went on pronouncing it [d͡ʒ]. Thus we get words like juice, paving the way for later words like giraffe and GIF.

This is a GIF. Or is it a GIF? I mock you with my scholarly neutrality.

It was only later, after the end of Middle English, that /ʒ/ was added to the English phoneme inventory, retaining its identity in loanwords like garage and prestige. It’s worth noting, however, that these words also have accepted pronunciations with [d͡ʒ].

Alright, so what about the <gh> in Edinburgh? It turns out there’s another sound responsible for the unpaid overtime of the letter <g>. Meet the sound /h/. In Middle English, Anglo-Norman scribes from France introduced a lot of new spellings, including <gh> for /h/. The <h> part of the <gh> digraph was probably a diacritic meant to indicate a fricative sound. Remember that by this time, the old <g> didn’t really represent a fricative anymore. In words like Edinburgh, the [x] from /ɣ/ had merged with the [x] version of /h/, so it is from /h/ that we get our <gh> spellings. Over time, these [h] and [x] pronunciations weakened and disappeared completely, bequeathing us their spelling to baffle future spelling bee contestants. We have them to thank for bright starry nights, the wind blowing in the high boughs of the trees. But before these sounds went, they left us one last piece to complete our <g> puzzle: after back vowels, sometimes [x] was reanalyzed as [f]. We’ve all been there, right? Your parents say something one way, but you completely mishear them and spend the rest of your life pronouncing it a different way. I mean, did you know the line in the Christmas song is actually colly7 birds, not calling birds? Now imagine that on a language-wide scale. I’m glad for the [f]s. They make laughing more fun, although sometimes convincing your phone not to mis-autocorrect these words can be rough. Had enough? Okay, I’ll stop.

The point of all this isn’t really about the spellings. Just look at all these beautiful sound changes! And this barely scratches the surface. A lot of the big sound changes that warrant fancy names seem to be all about vowels, but as <g> can attest, consonants have fun, too.8 Speaking of big, fancy vowel changes, get your tickets now because next week, Sabina’s going to talk about one of the most famous and most dramatically named: the Great English Vowel Shift.

Notes

1 It wasn’t a perfect system, though. Sometimes, a single scribe would spell the same word several different ways in the same document. Was this reflecting variations in utterances? An inability to decide which letter represented which sound? Transmission errors through copying down someone else’s writing? Who knows.
2 As far as the letter itself goes, the Anglo-Saxons actually used a slightly different symbol known as the insular g. The letter we use today was borrowed from the French during Middle English and is known as the Carolingian g.
3 It’s the voiced version of the sound at the end of Scottish loch. It can be heard today in the Dutch pronunciation of wagon.
4 Refresh yourself on the periods of English here.
5 Actually, draw, drag, and draught/draft are cognates. Knowledge, am I right?
6 This is actually one of my favorite phones. I’m a linguist. I’m allowed to have favorite phones.
7 Because they’re black like coal. And my heart.
8 Admittedly debatable and unnecessarily anthropomorphizing, but we’re already in this thing pretty deep.

Is English a creole?

Hi all!

By now, I figure most of you have noticed that when a post shows up at the HLC about the development of the English language in particular, I show up. Today is no exception to the rule (though there will be some in the future)!

Anyway, it’s safe to say that England has been invaded a lot during the last couple of… well, centuries. All this invading and being invaded by non-native people had a tremendous effect on most things English, the English language among them.

This is, of course, nothing new. I’ve previously discussed the question of whether English is a Romance language, but today, we’re going to jump into something different, namely, the question of whether English is a creole.

In order to do that, I’ll first need to say a few words about what a creole actually is, and we’re going to do the basic definition here: a creole is a pidgin with native speakers.

That… didn’t clear things up, did it?

Right, so a pidgin is a form of language that develops between two groups of people who don’t speak the same language but still needed to understand each other for one reason or another.

Typically, in the formation of a pidgin, you have a substrate language and a superstrate language. The substrate is the ‘source’ language. This language is, usually for political reasons, abandoned for the more prestigious superstrate language.

But not completely. Instead, the pidgin becomes a sort of mix, taking characteristics of both the substrate and the superstrate to create a ‘new’ language. A rather distinct characteristic of this new language is that it is typically less grammatically complex than both the sub- and the superstrate language. Another distinct characteristic is that it has no native speakers since it’s in the process of being created by native speakers of two different languages.

But, it can get native speakers. When a new generation is born to pidgin-speaking parents, and the new generation acquires the pidgin as their native tongue, the pidgin ceases to be a pidgin and becomes a creole. So, a creole is a pidgin with native speakers. Typically, a creole becomes more grammatically complex, developing into a new language that is a mix of the two languages that created the pidgin.

But enough of that. Question is: is English a creole?

Well, there are reasons to assume so:

There is a distinct difference between Old English and Middle English, the primary one being a dramatic discrepancy in grammatical complexity, with Middle English being far simpler. As we now know, this is one of the primary features of a pidgin.

There were also politically stronger languages at play during the relevant time periods that just might have affected Old English so much that it was largely abandoned in favour of the other language.

First came the Vikings…

*1

One often thinks about murder and plunder when thinking about the Vikings, but a bunch of them settled in Britain around the 9th century (see Danelaw) and likely had almost daily contact with Old English speakers. This created the perfect environment for borrowing between the two languages.

But see, Old Norse, at least in the Danelaw area, was the politically stronger language. Some people claim that this is the cause of the extreme differences we see when Old English transitions into Middle English.

One of the main arguments for Old Norse as the superstrate is a particular borrowing that stands out. Though English borrowed plenty of words from Old Norse, for example common words like egg, knife, sky, sick, wrong, etc., it also borrowed the third person plural pronouns: they, them, their (compare Swedish de, dem, deras).

This is odd. Why, you ask? Well, pronouns are typically at what we might call the ‘core’ of a language. They are rarely borrowed because they are so ingrained in the language that there is no need to take them from another.

The borrowing of the pronouns from Old Norse implies a deep influence on the English language. Combined with all other things that English borrowed from Old Norse and the grammatical simplification of Middle English, this has led some linguists to claim that English is actually an Old Norse/Old English-based creole.  

We’ll discuss that a bit more in a sec.

After the Vikings, the Brits thought they could, you know, relax, take a deep breath, enjoy a lazy Sunday speaking English…

And then came the French…

*2

Now, here, there’s no doubt that French was the dominant language in Britain for quite some time. The enormous amounts of lexical items that were borrowed from French indicate a period of prolonged, intense contact between the two languages and, again, the grammatical simplification of Middle English in comparison to Old English might be reason enough to claim that Middle English is a creole of Old English and Old French.

And a good number of linguists2 have, indeed, said exactly that. This is known as the Middle English creole hypothesis and it remains a debated topic (though less so than it has been historically).

‘But, Sabina,’ you might ask, ‘I thought you were going to tell me if English is a creole?!’

Well, sorry, but the fact is that I can’t. This one is every linguist (or enthusiast) for themselves. I can’t say that English is not a creole, nor can I say that it is one. What I can say is that I, personally, don’t believe it to be a creole.

And now, I’ll try to tell you why.

It is true that Middle English, and subsequently modern English, is significantly less grammatically complex than Old English. That’s a well-evidenced fact. However, that simplification was already happening before French came into the picture, and even before Old Norse.

In fact, the simplification is often attributed to a reduction of unstressed vowels to schwa (good thing Rebekah covered all of this, isn’t it?) which led to the previously complex paradigms becoming less distinct from each other. Might not have anything to do with language contact at all. Or it might.

The borrowing of Old Norse pronouns is, indeed, unusual, but not unheard of, and studies have shown that the effect of Old Norse on English may not be as significant and widespread as it was believed.

When it comes to French, while an intriguing hypothesis which is well-worth pursuing for leisurely interests, extensive borrowing is not sufficient evidence to claim that a creole has been created. Extensive borrowing occurs all the time among languages in long, intense contact.

*3

Combined with the fact that we have evidence of grammatical simplification before both Old Norse and French came to play a significant role in English, and the trouble we stumble onto when considering the question of when English was ever a pidgin, I personally find both creolization hypotheses unlikely.

However, I encourage you to send us a message and tell us what you think: is English a creole?

Tune in next week when the marvellous Rebekah will dive into the Transatlantic accent!

Sources and references

Most famously Patricia Poussa’s work ‘The evolution of early Standard English: the creolization hypothesis’ (1982).

Most famously Charles-James N. Bailey and Karl Maroldt “The French lineage of English” (1977). The interested reader may also wish to take a look at Dalton-Puffer’s (1995) interesting discussion on the phenomenon in the chapter ‘Middle English is a creole and its opposite: On the value of plausible speculation’ of Fisiak’s (1995) book Linguistic Change Under Contact Conditions

Credits to the creators of the pictures herein used. They have been found on the following pages:

*1: https://quotesgram.com/img/funny-viking-quotes/1373665/

*2 https://i.pinimg.com/originals/f7/6d/3d/f76d3dad4183d34f8d0669a433684df5.jpg

*3 Credits to James Nicoll, no URL offered since the domain has since expired.

Old English ain’t Shakespeare (feat. Dinosaurs)

Yes, hello. Rebekah, 26, American. I can hardly contain myself, so let’s just get straight to it:

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite things was the part of the dictionary where it tells you the history of the word. “And Latin bos begat Old French boef, and Old French boef begat English beef.”1 (Okay, that’s not how they phrase it. Also, this area of study is called etymology.) Then, my senior year in high school, while I was applying to colleges, I learned you could actually major in that. Somehow, I had never heard of linguistics before.

Of course, there’s a whole lot more to linguistics than just where words come from. There’s how the words fit together to form sentences, and there’s the 7,000+ languages in the world and how they’re alike and how they’re not, and there’s all these crazy sounds our mouths can make to combine in a billion different ways and become human speech.

I was taking a class on the history of English when I had my eyes-meeting-across-a-crowded-room, have-we-met-before, do-you-think-this-is-destiny moment. I was doing the assigned reading on Old English, and it was all about Saxons and the Danelaw and Alfred the Great and scops, and something about it all reverberated in the marrow of my bones. It was like hearing a song I’d forgotten a long time ago. A thousand-odd years of history collapsed in on itself, and I could feel the blood of my Anglo-Saxon forebears humming through me. (Too much? Too much. Moving on.)

It was only when I went to share this indescribable feeling with everyone I met that I realized I had a problem. The conversation went like this:

Me: I love Old English! *heart eyes, preparing to gush*
Them: Oh, that’s cool. So you like Shakespeare?
Me: *wilting and dying inside*

Don’t get me wrong, I do love Shakespeare. But here’s a super cool linguistic fun fact: Shakespeare’s language, and the language of the King James Bible, and the language of all those other historic sources inspiring your friendly local Renaissance festival players, that’s a little something we linguists like to call “Early Modern English.”

The periods of English

Let’s talk about dinosaurs. Everybody loves dinosaurs, right? Between the chicken nuggets, the tee shirts, and movies like The Land Before Time and Jurassic Park, most people know the names of at least two or three, and they probably have a favorite. (Mine’s triceratops, if you’re wondering.)

Dinosaurs lived during the Mesozoic Era, a 186-million-year period of geological time further subdivided into the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods.2 I’m about to painfully rewrite your childhood, so sorry in advance. Littlefoot, lovable hero of The Land Before Time, was either a brontosaurus or an apatosaurus. These titanic, long-necked herbivores lived in the Late Jurassic. Cera, Littlefoot’s triceratops best friend, would have lived during the Late Cretaceous—some 77 million years later. As long-distance, time-traveling romances go, it’s arguably a little more problematic than The Lake House. Not least because dinosaurs didn’t have mailboxes.

I know what you’re thinking: “Great, Rebekah. That’s just great. Friendship over. Before I delete your number, what does this have to do with linguistics? Are you trying to tell me dinosaurs spoke English?”

As appealing as it is to imagine all our favorite dinosaurs living together as one big happy family, 186 million years is a long time for everything to stay the same. Likewise, as easy as it is to think that English is English, always has been and always will be, languages grow and evolve, too. (Sabina talked about this a little last week.) No matter how different they became, though, from the time they emerged in the Late Triassic until they disappeared at the end of the Cretaceous, dinosaurs were still dinosaurs. It’s kind of the same with languages.

A lot of the dinosaur species people are most familiar with—triceratops, hadrosaurs, velociraptors, and Tyrannosaurus rex, to name a few—lived during the last period, the Cretaceous (yep, Jurassic Park is a bit of a misnomer). This was the period of greatest dinosaur diversity. The latest period of English is called Modern English, and it’s the one you’re probably most familiar with. It started in roughly the late 1400s and runs up to the present. This, too, is a period of impressive diversity, with distinct varieties of English spoken around the world, from Australia to Canada, from India to England, and everywhere in between. As far as literature goes, a lot of the famous English-language works considered part of the Western canon were written during this time, including the works of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and many others. There are also contemporary works like those of Stephen King, Nicholas Sparks, and Dr. Seuss—all those books, magazines, and newspapers filling up your local library (if you happen to live in an English-speaking country).

Of course, no matter how awesome it would be to see a rap battle between Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss, even the casual reader will flag their writing as seeming like not quite the same language. As mentioned earlier, Modern English can be separated into Early and Late, with the divide being marked at about 1800. Period distinctions like this are the result of shifts in grammar, pronunciation, and word stock throughout the language, though the specific dates often coincide with historical events that had a widespread impact on culture. (Like the mass extinction events that separate the different periods of the Mesozoic Era. But somewhat less catastrophic.) In the case of Modern English, the starting point is often cited as 1476, the year William Caxton introduced the printing press to England. The ability to mass produce written materials would have a profound effect on literacy and the dissemination of linguistic features. In 1776, the American colonies declared independence from England. Some consider the American Revolution the start of Late Modern English and a period of globalization for the language, as over the following decades the British continued to spread their language, colonizing places like Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and India.

As useful as dates like these can be for roughly marking linguistic time, languages unfortunately don’t work like that. The line between one stage of English and another isn’t as clear cut as turning over a page of your Gregorian calendar on January 1st and magically finding yourself in a new year. Linguistic shockwaves and subtle nudges take time to spread. A great example of this is Middle English.

On our timeline, Middle English is our Jurassic period. During the Jurassic, dinosaurs began to flourish. They hadn’t yet reached the height of diversity of the Cretaceous, but there are still some Jurassic species everybody recognizes, like the stegosaurus or aforementioned sauropods like the brontosaurus. There’s at least one big Middle English name you’ll recognize, too: Geoffrey Chaucer. If you’ve read just one work that predates the Modern English period, I’d bet good money it was some portion of Chaucer’s seminal Canterbury Tales. See? You knew there was English older than Shakespeare’s, even if you didn’t know you knew it. The Canterbury Tales begins:

WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;3

It might look a little odd and incomprehensible, but with just a little elbow grease, most people can puzzle Chaucer out. (It helps to read it out loud.)

Chaucer died in 1400, and his language was that of the latter end of Middle English. Works from Early Middle English are rare, but one very important one is the Peterborough Chronicle, a historical record periodically updated with the important events of each year up to 1154. It only takes a little squinting to recognize Chaucer’s language as an earlier form of English, but the Peterborough Chronicle starts to look like it was written in a different language entirely. If Chaucer was writing in a kind of pre-Shakespeare, the Peterborough Chronicle was written in a kind of post-Anglo-Saxon, two ends of a transitionary continuum. Due to the nature of the Peterborough Chronicle itself, we can watch the language gradually change in the time between entries.

And so, we come at last to true Old English. The Triassic period, I guess? (Look, I can only push this metaphor so far.) The transition from Old to Middle English is traditionally marked by the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. William the Conqueror became William I, and he repopulated the court and the clergy with French-speaking Normans. The sovereignty of French men, French culture, and the French language had a profound effect on English, explaining the rather Romance sound of the language today. Strip that influence away, go back to England between AD 500 and AD 1000, and you’ll find the very Germanic origins of the language we call English. The most famous of all the surviving Old English works is the epic poem Beowulf. It begins like this:

Hwæt we Gar-Dene     in geardagum,
þeodcyninga     þrym gefrunon,
hu þa æþelingas     ellen fremedon.4

It reads something along the lines of:

Lo, we of the Spear-Danes in days of yore,
learned by inquiry of the kings of the people,
how those princes did valor.

This was the language of the Germanic tribes who migrated to Britain and displaced the Celts, the peoples who would become the Anglo-Saxons. The Beowulf poem began as part of an oral tradition and was later written down. In style and content, it’s somewhat like the Norse Eddas, which perhaps isn’t surprising considering the Anglo-Saxons shared a Germanic heritage with the Vikings and continued to have contact with them after settling Britain (both friendly and not so friendly). Old English manuscripts show a people transitioning from paganism to Christianity, a warlike people with an awful lot of synonyms for “sword” and “kill,” but also a cultured people with a sophisticated poetic meter and a penchant for alliteration. Shakespeare was a long way down the road.

Back to the future

The story of English is far from over. It’s still being written all around us. As I said, language is in constant flux, and it can be hard to know when to say, “Hang on a second. I think we’ve stumbled into a new stage of English!” Linguists today are even starting to distinguish the most current English, the one we’re speaking right now (and tweeting at each other and scribbling down on post-it notes and dropping in beats in epic rap battles), with the appellation Present Day English, leaving Shakespeare and Dickens and all the rest a little farther in the past.

Don’t think this phenomenon is unique to English. Other languages have gone through some incredible changes, too. Old French boef eventually became French boeuf, and really, French is just grown up Latin, just like Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and all the other Romance languages. (Language families are a subject for another day.) And language, all language, is going to go right on changing as our cultures and our communication needs go right on changing. To paraphrase Jurassic Park, “Language finds a way.”

Next week with Lisa: As hard as it is to say when a language has entered a new stage of its evolution, one of the most complicated questions facing linguists is the problem of where to draw the distinction between a language and a dialect. What makes something a separate language rather than just a variety of another? When do we say a dialect has diverged enough from its parent language to be considered a language in its own right?

Bibliography

There are many wonderful works covering the history of English. For specific dates and details mentioned here, I referenced:
Algeo, John & Thomas Pyles. 2005. The origins and development of the English language, 5th edn. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth.

1Oxford English Dictionary Online

2General information about dinosaurs was found on Wikipedia & from the article “Learn about the different dinosaur periods” at ThoughtCo.

3The prologue to The Canterbury Tales at Bartleby.com

4Mitchell, Bruce & Fred C. Robinson. 2012. A guide to Old English, 8th edn. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.