Early Germanic Dialects – Old High German

Blog day!

Isn’t it just the best day?

Today, we’re looking at Old High German – our last and final Early Germanic Dialect (but see the end of this post for a hint of next week’s topic – it’s a juicy one!).

As usual, let’s start with a history lesson!

So, we really have three EGDs that were instrumental in the formation of the German dialects:

Old Saxon
Old Low Franconian
and
Old High German.

Saxons are associated with Old Saxon, and therefore the later Low German dialects of northern Germany. The Franks, with Old Low Franconian, are associated with the later dialects of Dutch as well as a number of High German dialects of central Germany.

Most of the High German-speaking area, though, is associated with three Germanic (sub)groups: the Alamanni, the Bavarians, and the Thuringians.

These three belong to a subdivision of the West Germanic tribes sometimes known as Elbe Germans, because, during the last few centuries B.C., they were grouped around the lower and middle Elbe.

Eventually, they started to expand from there, primarily towards the south. You see, to the east of them were the East Germanic tribes while the Weser-Rhine tribes, ancestors of the later Franks, occupied the area to their west.

And eventually, again as people tended to do at this point in time, they found themselves quarreling with the Romans. This, naturally (…), led to a war of about 400 years – sometimes quiet but never quite restful. The driving force behind this war was, during the last 200 years anyway, a loose confederation of a large number of people.

They were known as the Alamanni.

The Alamanni were dead set on breaking the frontier barrier of the Roman Empire, which they finally managed around 260 A.D.
For about 70 years, there was relative peace in the area, but then they set their sights a bit too high. Attempting to conquer what is today Alsace, they were defeated in 357 by the Roman emperor Julian.

Of course, the Alamanni were just as tenacious as the other Germanic tribes. So they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and tried again.

This time, they succeeded and conquered most of Alsace. At the same time, they pushed north and west toward the Moselle river and south into present-day Switzerland. Pretty impressive multitasking.

Buuut, they seem to have forgotten something about the northwest. Because there they, of course, encountered another Germanic people.

Unified, strong, and probably pretty scary. Can you guess?

Yep, you’re absolutely right – the Alamanni encountered the Franks. As you might imagine, the huge battle that ensued in 496 did not end well for the Alamanni. It thus marks the beginning of a long and very unhappy relationship (for the Alamanni at least).

In the sixth century, the Alamanni were already recognized as a part of the Merovingian Frankish kingdom. By the mid-eight century, the last illusion of their independence disappeared – they were totally subsumed by the Frankish kingdom.

Their (maybe) buddies, the Bavarians, suffered roughly the same fate.

The Bavarians seem to come out of nowhere in the late fifth century. Their origin is still largely unknown – who were they and where did they come from?

While we actually don’t know, scholars appear to be reasonably sure that they came from an original Elbe-German group. Their name might give us some clue: it is probably derived from a pre-Germanic tribe. Perhaps a Celtic or an Illyrian tribe called the Boii (by the way, I am curious if George R.R. Martin was inspired by the name Illyria – Valyria does seem remarkably similar…)

Anyway, their origin remains argued about but it is not very relevant for our purposes so let’s move on.

Last of the groups, we have the Thuringians. The Thuringians appear to have worked together with the possible ancestors of the Bavarians – a group known as the Marcomanni – for a little while at least. And then, of course, they decided to “compete” with them (which appears to be a fancy word Robinson uses for “making war upon”).

Anyway, they took over parts of Bohemia and extended their area quite significantly for a while…

And then, they encountered the Franks.

Well, actually, they met with a joined force of Franks and Saxons and –poof – gone was the kingdom of Thuringia. By 531, northern Thuringia fell to the Saxons and the rest quickly became integrated into the Frankish kingdom.

And that’s the end of our tale! Let’s look at language.

Obviously, the most distinguishing feature of Old High German and its surviving descendants is that odd little thing they did to some of their consonants. That is, the shift we now know as the High German consonant shift or the second Germanic consonant shift.

There are three phases to this shift:

The first phase, controversially dated to as early as the 4th century, affected the entire High German area.

In this phase, the voiceless plosives /p/, /t/ and /k/ changed when they were found between vowels or in word-initial position.
Here, they changed, becoming long fricatives, like so:

/p/ > /f/ – for example, OE slǣpan > OHG schlafen ‘sleep’
/t/ > /ts/ – (often spelt <z> or <zz>) for example, OE strǣt > OHG strāzza ‘street’
/k/ > /x/ – for example, OE rīce > OHG rīhhi ‘rich’.

This shift did not affect the consonants if they were found in word-final position. This phase also didn’t affect the consonants if they were already geminated or if they occurred following another consonant. So the two p’s in appul ‘apple’ remained unaffected, as did skarp ‘sharp’.

The second phase of the shift was completed by the 8th century. At this point, the same sounds became affricates in three environments: in word-initial positions, when geminated or when following a liquid (/l/ or /r/) or a nasal (/m/ or /n/). And so, we get:

/p/ > /p͡f/ – also written ⟨ph⟩ in OHG
/t/ > /t͡s/ – written ⟨z⟩ or ⟨tz⟩
/k/ > /k͡x/ – written ⟨ch⟩ in OHG

and so, we find:

OE æppel > OHG apful ‘apple’
OE scearp > OHG scarpf ‘sharp’
OE dic > OHG Deich ‘dike’ (trench)

This shift didn’t take place if the plosive was preceded by a fricative. So in the combinations /sp, st, sk, ft, ht/, the plosive remained unchanged. The plosive /t/ also didn’t shift if it was followed by /r/. This stopped the shift of modern German words like bitter or Winter, as these stems had /tr/ in their inflected forms in OHG (so, bittr– and wintr-)

Some of these were simplified in some German dialects. I won’t talk about that other than to note it, though.

We have enough things to go through without it!

And last, the third phase. This phase likely began in the 8th or 9th century, after the first and second phases had stopped. How do we know that, you ask? Well, if not, the voiceless plosives that were the results of the third phase would have continued to shift according to the first and second phases of the shift – which they did not.
You see, during this phase, the voiced plosives become voiceless:

b > p
d > t
g > k

You might be familiar only with the second shift here – the dental shift from /d/ to /t/. This is the only shift that universally finds its way into standard German. So, for example, English day but German Tag.

If you think about it though, you might recognise the other two shifts in some German words.

These are the original geminates, so, for example, Rippe ‘rib’, Brücke ‘bridge’. In single consonants, the shift is restricted to the High Alemannic German in Switzerland, and south Bavarian dialects in Austria.

And that is it for the High German Consonant Shift. Naturally, these aren’t the only changes (and they are, of course, only a very brief overview). These are the three commonly recognised distinct phases of the shift though.

You still with me?

Good – let’s look at some other distinctive features of OHG!

Now, obviously, German today contains numerous umlauted vowels (ä and ö for example). These are often (though not always mind you) evidence of i-umlaut (remember i-umlaut? If not, check it out here).

For example, the Proto-Germanic vowel /ɑ/ became /ɛ/ in numerous Germanic languages, like English, German, Swedish and Icelandic. Yet, we all appear to be spelling it a bit differently.

Let’s look at the word men, for example.

In English, of course, we spell this plural form (from Proto-Germanic *manniz) with <e>. Icelandic also spells it with <e> (menn), while both Swedish and German spell it with <a>, complete with umlaut marks (<¨>) over it – that is, <ä> (German Männer, Swedish män).

Similarly, we find <ä>, <ü> or <ö> in some words where English spells it <ee> or <ea>, for example, Gänse ‘geese’, Füße ‘feet’ or hören ‘hear’.

I think you get the picture.

Obviously, there are many interesting features of Old High German that I haven’t talked about today, but a blog post can only be so long (and I tend to be better at writing books than short stories) so I’ll stop myself there. As always, check out our sources for more information about Old High German and other Germanic languages!

This was our last Early Germanic Dialect! However, it is not over quite yet… Tune in next week when I will tell you my personal (super-secret so hush) cheat-sheet for recognising the different Early Germanic Dialects!

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References

As always, I refer you to Orrin W. Robinson’s (1992) book Old English and its closest relatives.

For this post, though, Robinson’s book was a bit dense, so to clarify some points, I’ve also looked at Wikipedia, this Powerpoint presentation from the Middlebury Blog Network (specifically the first two slides on page 4), and slide 23 and 25 of this slideshow.

Early Germanic Dialects – Old Low Franconian

Blog time!

Today, I am so excited to introduce you to Old Low Franconian! I never had the opportunity to look at this particular Early Germanic Dialect before, so I had some great fun reading up for this post. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as me!

So, off to our history lesson we go!

At the beginning of the Christian era, it seemed as if the Roman Empire was about to take over the heart of the Germanic area.

And perhaps they would have succeeded if it hadn’t been for the Franks.

As I am sure you’ve gathered by now, the Franks (like basically all the Germanic people) were aggressors in the ancient world. Though the Romans, bless their little hearts, really tried, they never quite managed to subjugate this Germanic people.

With the decay of Roman power in the third and fourth centuries, the previous border along the Rhine got some pressure from a newly formed Frankish federation. This was really just a loose agreement between a large number of tribes, consisting of three major subdivisions: the Salians, the Ripurians and the Hessians.

Rome did a reasonably decent job in holding this newly formed alliance at bay – until the end of the reign of Constantine I.

Then, in the mid-fourth century, Cologne fell to the Ripurians. And then the Salians took the Batavian islands and most of present-day North Brabant. Rome did manage to take back Cologne, but they didn’t push back the Salians. They were instead left to manage the lands they had taken, under their own rule (though officially a part of the Roman Empire, of course). The Salians, in exchange for this, were supposed to defend the area from other Germanic attacks.

You noticed the “supposed to” there, didn’t you? Yeah, turns out, the Salians pretty much sucked at defending, but they were very good at attacking. So, they soon broke across the Scheldt River into modern Brabant and continued south.

Must have been an ugly shock for the Romans, don’t you think?

In the fifth century, the Franks were steadily advancing in most areas. However, they clearly weren’t on bad terms with the Roman Empire because they stood with them in the legendary battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451. (The battle was against the Huns, check out more about it here).

It is possible that the leader of the Franks at this point was a man named Merovech – whom we actually know little about. However, we do know that he was a figure of legend to the Merovingian kings. His grandson Clovis (Chlodwig) is often recognised as the greatest of the Merovingians.

Why?

Well, he killed all the leaders of all the subtribes of the Salians and Ripurians. By doing so, he made himself the undisputed king of all the Franks.

And then, he expanded his territory.

Under Clovis, the Franks controlled present-day France down to the Loire and other Germanic groups soon learned to respect his power. When he died, he thus left behind a strong, united country.

Eeeexcept…

An ancient custom among the Franks was that the country had to be divided equally among the king’s sons, of which Clovis had four. Not exactly the best way to get a nice family dinner going. So, after some murder and treason (because, you know, talking about it never solved anything), the remaining son, Chlotar I, ascended the throne as the undisputed king.

Despite this little family feud, the Franks had continued to spread and had managed to conquer the Burgundians, Thuringians, and Bavarians.

And then he died in 561, leaving behind four sons, and it all started over again.

This time, though, it took such a long time to work it out that no king ascended the throne until 613. At this point, the Frankish nobles were quite disenchanted with the family and left their “kings” to play at country estates, far beyond the reach of actual power.

The administrators of the three (semi-)autonomous districts of Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy, the so-called “Mayors of the Palace”, now had most of the real power. During the 7th century, the line of Pippin I, the mayor of Austrasia, came to preeminence.

Pippin I was succeeded by Pippin II who was succeeded by his illegitimate son Charles Martel.

Martel, perhaps the greatest of the mayors, strengthened the internal borders, put an end to the Muslim expansion northward into Europe and expanded the Frankish sphere into Frisia (as well as exacted a tribute from the Saxons).

Eventually, though, Martel died as well and his son, Pippin the Short, came to power. He wasn’t quite satisfied with being just a mayor and quickly deposed the last of the Merovingian kings. Then, he had himself anointed king of the Franks.

Impressive as that is, though, what we really care about is what came after Pippin…

On Christmas Day in the year 800, Pippin’s son was crowned Holy Roman Emperor.

Enter… Charlemagne.

Charlemagne did many things during his ruling years and I won’t take up too much time here – the history lesson has already gone on long enough. However, while I might talk about all of Charlemagne’s military triumphs, I will instead send a note of thank you to the man.

You see, it is partly thanks to Charlemagne that we have so much information on the Early Germanic Dialects. Charlemagne was a man of culture and an avid encourager of textual prowess. As such, it is (partly) thanks to him that our literary culture developed the way it did.

I’ll stop my history lesson there and, instead, go over on a language-related topic.

But I won’t go directly onto our usual listing of features in Old Low Franconian. First, I must warn you about a certain bit of trickiness when it comes to this particular language: it might occasionally seem to be different languages.

Yeah, I know, that’s a bit confusing.

With the expanding Frankish empire, you may come across references to Old West Low Franconian (also called Old Dutch) and Old East Low Franconian. But that’s not all: there are several dialects in modern-day Germany that are called “Franconian”.

It is easy to think that the Franks actually spoke two different languages but this, to quote Robinson, “is faulty reasoning”.

First, the two dialects were likely no more different than dialects in Old English or Old High German and their similarities are such that it often is troublesome to separate between them. As a result, many don’t make the distinction anymore, simply calls them Old Dutch and move on with their lives.

Next, the Franconian dialects in the German area. These are spoken along the Rhine between Cologne and the border between Germany and the Netherlands. During the 19th and 20th centuries, these dialects have gradually been replaced by Standard German. The Franconian dialects are occasionally grouped together with Low German.

But, there are a couple of things missing for us to be able to do so.

The trick, you see, to check which dialect belongs to which language: Check if it underwent the High German Consonant Shift (which we’ll talk more about next week)!

On that note, off to language we go!

Let’s start with consonants, as per usual.

Most are unsurprising in comparison to what we might expect.

A couple of things that I should mention though…
  • The letter sequence <sc> is occasionally replaced by <sch> which might indicate that it was pronounced as [sx].

  • The combination <th> likely represented the voiced fricative [ð], tending toward the direction of [d]. We, therefore, find spellings like ward and warth, both meaning became.

  • The letter h is similar to those found in other languages: syllable-finally and before consonants, it was pronounced [x]; otherwise, it was pronounced [h]

    and finally:

  • The letter <g> was probably pronounced as the stop [g] after a nasal or when geminated (doubled). Otherwise, it was most likely the fricative [x] or possibly [ɣ].
Let’s move on to vowels, shall we?

Again, there are very few surprises in store here.

Old Low Franconian has the vowels i, e, a, o, u, both long and short. So far, no surprises.

But they also had a number of diphthongs: ei, ou, ie, uo and io, the last sometimes alternating with ia.

However, something you must remember when you’re studying old languages is that, as Angus McIntosh wrote:

.

Whatever we may claim to know is derived indirectly ; by
making a study of written material and drawing certain conclusions from it

– Angus McIntosh, (1956)
The analysis of written Middle English, page 27

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Although McIntosh spoke specifically about English, the statement, I believe, holds true for any language that does not survive in modern-day.

And so, linguists have looked at the evidence in the form of surviving texts and have reached the conclusion that, although we do have six spellings that appear to indicate diphthongs, only in the first two would be pronounced as the individual vowel components would indicate.

In the others, there is some evidence to suggest that the second component had weakened to [ə], or tended in that general direction. This means, linguists have concluded, that the last four spellings actually only indicated two diphthongs: [iə] and [uə].

A few more short notes and then, I think, it’s time to call it quits.

  • Unlike Old English and Old Frisian, Old Low Franconian kept West Germanic [a:] (from Proto-Germanic [æ:]) as [a:]. We therefore get:

    Old Low FranconianGothicEnglish translation
    gāuongēbun'they gave'
    jārjēr'year'

  • In Old Low Franconian, the original Germanic diphthongs ai and au developed in two ways:

    – The diphthong ai becomes the monophthong [e:] before r and w (and possibly also before h and in final position). In other positions, it is reflected as ei (e.g. Old Low Franconian stein opposite Gothic stains or Old English stān.
    – Similarly, the diphthong au becomes [o:] before h, r, any dental consonant, or in final position. Elsewhere, it becomes ou.

  • There is no evidence of sharpening in Old Low Franconian.

  • But it has undergone rhotacism.

Aaand, I’ll stop there.

Gosh, I had a lot to say about Old Low Franconian in the end, didn’t I?!

I do hope that you found it as interesting as I did, and if you did, do tune in again next week, when we take a look at our final Early Germanic Dialect: Old High German!

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References

As always, I refer you to my primary source: Robinson, Orrin W. Old English and its closest relatives from 1992.

For this post, I have also taken a look at:

McIntosh, Angus. 1956. The analysis of written Middle English. Transactions of the Philological Society. Volume 55. Issue 1.
Pages 26-55.

The SciHi Blog’s entry on the battle of the Catalaunian Plains.

and

Wikipedia’s entry on Low Franconian languages.

Haplololololology

A couple weeks ago, we talked about a process called reduplication, which is when languages double syllables or words to various effect. As with most morphological and phonological processes, there’s a flipside to this coin. (Languages can be a bit like tired, hangry toddlers: indecisive, inconsistent, contrary, and completely beyond being reasoned with.) Sometimes, instead of leaning in to the singsongedness of repeated syllables, languages decide that two syllables are just too similar, and one of them must be eradicated. We call this phenomenon haplology.

I may jest about languages arbitrarily adding or removing syllables, but haplology is actually an elegant remedy for words that may otherwise be cumbersome to pronounce. Consider a few homespun English adverbs: The most common way to form an adverb in English is to add -ly to the end of an adjective. In most cases, this is nothing to bat an eye at. ‘Warm’ becomes ‘warmly’, ‘happy’ becomes ‘happily’, ‘treacherous’ becomes ‘treacherously’. But what about words that already end in [l]? ‘Gentle’ and ‘humble’ become…’gentlely’ and ‘humblely’? Naw. Maybe back in Middle English, but for modern speakers, these adverbs have been streamlined to ‘gently’ and ‘humbly’. They’ve undergone haplology.

There are just some sounds that don’t roll gently off the tongue in quick succession. Another example from English is the pronunciation of ‘February’. Some dialects still carefully pronounce each written sound as in /ˈfɛb.ɹuˌɛɹi/, but that’s a lot of [ɹ]s all piled together. Some dialects have solved the crisis by dissimilation, producing something more akin to /ˈfɛb.juˌɛ(ə)ɹi/. Some UK dialects, though, have solved the problem with haplology instead, resulting in a pronunciation of /ˈfɛb.ɹi/.

A Basque example also shows the elimination of excessive Rs. The word for ‘cider’ comes from ‘sagar’ (apple) + ‘ardo’ (wine). Instead of the compound becoming ‘sagarrardo’, the syllables are simplified, and the result is ‘sagardo’.

Lest you begin to think haplology only happens to liquids like [l] and [ɹ], look at Latin ‘nutrix’ (nurse). It comes from ‘nutrio’ (suckle, predecessor of English ‘nourish’ and ‘nutrition’) + ‘-trix’ (a suffix that formed a female agent noun, like how Amelia Earhart was an aviatrix). The resulting ‘nutritrix’ lost one of its <tri>s—thus, ‘nutrix’.

It has always been a source of great amusement to me (and other linguists—we’re a whimsical lot) that the term ‘haplology’ itself has the potential to undergo haplology, thereby becoming ‘haplogy’. Although this has not actually occurred, haplology is out there, watching over our languages, making some tricky words just a little easier to pronounce.

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
sāvensaian'sow'
sǣdsêþs'seed'
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
monbutmanna'man'
mōnaðbutmênoþ'month'

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!

References

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

Wikipedia

and

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.

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!

Notes

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

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:

1

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
Gothicstains
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’
huggianhycgan‘think’

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:

EucharistTranslation
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.

Sources

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


Early Germanic Dialects: The Gothic language

friaþwa usbeisneiga ist, sels ist:
friaþwa ni aljanoþ;
friaþwa ni flauteiþ, ni ufblesada,

Recognise that? No? What if I told you that a (somewhat modified) version of this exact thing is very popular to quote during wedding ceremonies (in fact, my husband and I had it read during ours). Still nothing? How about this:

Charity suffereth long, and is kind;
charity envieth not;
charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

Yes? Marvellous! This is 1 Corinthians 13:4, though nowadays, we usually say ‘love’ rather than ‘charity’ (yes, even the Bible changes throughout the centuries). But what is that weird little language we started out with? Well, that’s Gothic, our topic of the week!

Being the only East Germanic language (that we know of), it differs a bit from the rest of the Germanic languages, and in this post, I hope to highlight some of these differences and tell you a bit about the history of the language and the people who spoke it.

Let’s start there actually. Sit back, have a nice cup of tea, and let me tell you the story of the Goths.

Though less famous than the Vikings, the Goths also hailed from a Scandinavian country, the native country of half the HLC actually: Sweden! We see their influence in the names of two mainland counties: Västergötland, Östergötland, and the island Gotland! The mainland appears to be the most likely point of origin, though by the time we are first told something about the Goths, Roman and Greek sources place them along the Vistula River during the first and second century. The sixth-century historian Jordanes says that they originally came from across the sea, though, which would point to the Swedish mainland.

Why, exactly, they decided to move away from Sweden is a bit unclear, but it is sometimes suggested that it was due to population pressure. Regardless, we know that around the year A.D. 170, the Goths settled between the Don and Dniester Rivers (an area north of the Black Sea).

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Scandinavian people who moved around a lot, the Goths were a warlike people and, now, they were at the borders of the Roman Empire. Don’t think they didn’t do anything about that—in fact, they managed to force the Romans to abandon the province of Dacia, in present-day Romania, around the year 270.

From around the time of Dacia, the Goths split into two groups, the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, and they pretty much became separate, independent groups thereafter. The Ostrogoths continued to consolidate power, while the Visigoths were moving around on the edges of the Roman Empire, sometimes fighting together with their Roman allies, and sometimes fighting against them.

The Visigoths eventually became Christianized, largely thanks to the Gothic bishop Wulfila, one of the most famous Goths in history thanks to his tireless efforts to convert the Goths and also for one of the results of those efforts: the Gothic Bible. I actually talked about this in my post on Proto-Germanic as well, but what I didn’t say is that the Gothic Bible is a marvellous witness to a very different language. In fact, it is one of the major sources of our knowledge of the Gothic language and it was written primarily by Wulfila—or at least it is attributed to him. In order to translate the Bible into Gothic, though, Wulfila first had to pretty much invent a Gothic alphabet! Until this point, the Goths had written primarily in runes, like many other of the Germanic tribes, but Wulfila’s alphabet was based on the Greek one, though some Latin and Runic symbols can be seen as well:

(From Omniglot)

The two letters without any information under them were adopted for their numeric value only  and supposedly borrowed from the Greek alphabet, according to Ancient Scripts (though, I’ll admit I’m somewhat confounded myself about ᛏ, as it closely resembles the rune Tyr or Tiwaz, and so I’m more inclined to see a runic origin for this letter. That’s just a personal opinion though, and I’m not familiar enough with the ancient Greek, or the Gothic, alphabet to say anything further on the subject).

Anyway, the Gothic Bible—or the Wulfila Bible as it is sometimes called—became a primary source for our knowledge of the Gothic language. On that note, let’s look at some of the features that distinguish Gothic from the other Germanic languages!

First, let’s look at a rather characteristic feature: a large number of words in Gothic show  long [eː] where most other Germanic languages show an [aː] or [oː]. The Gothic vowel is assumed to come from Proto-Germanic, probably with the phonetic value [æː]. For example:

Old High GermanGothic
manodmenoþ

So if you’re looking at a text and you keep seeing <e>, where you would expect an <a> or <o>, you might be looking at Gothic. But that’s hardly enough to be sure, so let’s look at some other features!

Gothic also underwent a change called sharpening. While this change is also found in Old Norse, it is otherwise fairly unique to Gothic. What it means is that some instances of <gg> represent a long [gg] sound, rather than [ŋg], which we would expect in English. These sharpened sounds always show up before the consonant <w> and represent a development from Proto-Germanic <ww>. The sharpening also happens in the Proto-Germanic sequence <jj>, which becomes <ddj> in Gothic. For example:

Old High GermanGothicEnglish
(gi)triuwitriggws 'true'
zweiiotwaddje'of two'

The last of the distinctive phonological features we’ll look at is a process called rhotacism. Rhotacism is a change, which affected all the Germanic languages except Gothic, in which the Proto-Germanic z became r. What this means is that if you find a <z> where you would otherwise expect an <r>, it is starting to become very likely that you’re looking at Gothic.

Aside from phonological features, Gothic also has a couple of other distinctive features. Specifically, I want to say a little something about the verbs of Gothic, as Gothic makes use of a process that is not used in the other Germanic languages. Traditionally, the strong verb conjugation in Germanic languages is said to have seven subclasses. I won’t go through this in detail because it quickly gets a bit complicated, but the first six use some kind of vowel alternation to show tense (e.g. PDE sing-sang-sung). This is also true for the seventh subclass in most Germanic languages. But not in Gothic.

Instead, Gothic uses something known as reduplication. What this means is that the past tense of the verbs in the seventh subclass is formed by repeating the first consonant, or consonant cluster, and adding <ai> after it – that is,  háit- (meaning to call, name, order, command, invite) becomes, in its past tense, haihait!

So, if you were to study a text without knowing what language you’re looking at and you keep seeing these features—well, then, you can be quite sure that you’re looking at Gothic (also, if you were to happen to stumble across something, please tell us because we can really never have enough textual evidence… Please?).

That’s just a little bit about Gothic! I hope you enjoyed this little trip, and do check in with us again next week when we’ll continue our journey through the early Germanic dialects by taking a look at Old Norse!

See you then!

References

This post relies primarily on Orrin W. Robinson’s (1992) book Old English and its closest relatives. The examples used here come from this excellent resource, as well as a lot of the information.

Other resources we’ve used for this post are:

The Wulfila Project – where you can find the Gothic text of Corinthians quoted above.
The Oxford English Dictionary
The English-Old Norse Dictionary, compiled by Ross G. Arthur (2002)
Ancient Scripts – an online resource, used here for the Gothic alphabet
Glossary from Joseph Wright’s Grammar of the Gothic Language
Omniglot – where you can find some more information on the Gothic alphabet

Der, das, die….. I give up!

Welcome back to the HLC!

Did you enjoy last week’s book review? We sure did, so we understand that you’re now occupied with your very own copy of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, but just in case you do find some time: remember that we promised you a discussion on grammatical and natural gender systems in our post on gender-neutral pronouns two weeks ago? Well, we always keep our promises! Before getting deep into that particular discussion though, let’s first establish something about what we mean when we say gender.

When talking about gender in linguistic study, we’re often talking about a category of inflection. Inflection, in turn, is the modification of a word to express grammatical categories – like gender (but also tense, case, voice, aspect, person, number, and mood – let’s not go there right now). The grammatical category gender includes three subcategories (or classes), typically described as masculine, feminine and neuter. A language that uses grammatical gender doesn’t necessarily need to use all three however: in Swedish, for example, you find only two: common (which includes both masculine and feminine, which have merged together to become one) and neuter. Anyway, in a language which inflects for gender, i.e. a language that uses a grammatical gender system, every single noun must belong to one of the gender classes of that language (though a few, a very few, may belong to more than one class). The grammatical category is thus reflected in the behaviour of the words that belong to the subcategory, or the article which belongs to that subcategory. Easy, right?

Okay, maybe not.

Let’s use an example. In German, there are three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Each noun in the German language belongs to one of these genders but it is not necessarily the same as the expected gender of the referent. For example, ‘Mädchen’, meaning ‘girl’ in German, is a grammatically neuter, not feminine. While you can’t see that on the noun itself, when taking definite form Mädchen always occurs with the article das, which is the neuter definite article in German, while ‘Junge’, meaning ‘boy’, always occurs with the masculine article der (but then, so does ‘table’).

In a grammatical gender system, the gender of the noun itself is thus not always readily evident. This has often lead people, even those whose job it is to study language, to assume that the gender is arbitrarily assigned and native speakers simply remember it, noun by noun. However, do you know how many nouns the, for example, German language has? We don’t, but we bet you that it’s quite a lot. Yet, native speakers rarely make a mistake when it comes to using the right gender. Is it probable, or even the least bit likely, that a native speaker simply ‘remembers’ the correct gender of all these nouns?

Nah, not really. But how does it work then? Well, like many other things, we don’t know exactly! Corbett has suggested a number of factors that play in when it comes to gender assignment. Among these, we find meaning and form to be the most important ones. Form can further be divided into two types: morphological and phonological. If a language doesn’t assign gender on the basis of these criteria, the gender of a noun might also be based on mythological association, concept association, or marking of important property.

Woof, that got complicated real fast, right? Let’s sum it up by saying that there are really three main ways by which a noun gets its gender: based on (1) semantic criteria – the meaning of the noun decides its gender; (2) morphological criteria – the form of the noun decides its gender; and (3) so-called lexical criteria – the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender, sometimes due to historical reasons.

Now that we know that, we can move on to natural gender systems.

In a natural gender system, a noun is ascribed to the gender that would be expected based on the word itself. That is, a woman is female, a man is male. On the basis of that, you might expect one of the languages to use natural gender to be English, which of course is true. Unlike most of the Germanic languages, English has shrugged off the yoke of grammatical gender (which is just one of the ‘oddities’ of the English language), but it certainly isn’t the only one! As we’ve already said: in Swedish, for example, you’ll find only two genders: common and neuter; in Dutch, there can be either three or two genders depending on geographical area and speaker!

It might be easy to think that a language that uses grammatical gender cannot have natural gender, or the other way around if you prefer. That, however, is not quite true: the two aren’t mutually exclusive! Spanish, for example, uses a grammatical gender system, yet adjectives and nouns are sometimes inflected for natural gender, that is: el pequeño niño the little boy’ but la pequeña niña ‘the little girl’!  

As you can clearly see, grammatical and natural gender is not an easy thing to explain!

via GIPHY

We’ve made an honest attempt at trying to explain these two topics in a way that (hopefully) makes sense to you! If you want to read more about this, though, we suggest our primary source for this post:

Corbett, Greville G. 2012 [1991]. Gender. Online ed. Cambridge University Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139166119

If you want to check out other accounts, you might enjoy Jenny Audring’s section on Gender in Oxford Research Encyclopedias, found here.

Questions, thoughts, amazingly inspired outbursts? Let us know!

Lies your English teacher told you: “Long” and “short” vowels

I remember, long ago in elementary school, learning how to spell. “There are five vowels,” our teachers told us, “A, E, I, O, U. And sometimes Y.” (“That’s six!” we saucily retorted. (We were seven.))

“When a vowel is by itself,” our teachers continued,”it’s short, like in pat. When there’s a silent e at the end, the vowel is long, like in pate1.” Then there were a dozen exceptions and addenda (including the fact that A could be five different sounds), but the long and the short of it was, there are long vowels and there are short vowels.

And you know something? There are long and short vowels in English. We actually briefly discussed this before, many moons ago during our introduction to vowels, but I wanted to add a little more detail today.

The first important thing to remember is that writing is not equivalent to the language itself.2 Our spellings are generally standardized now, but they are only representations of words, and they do not dictate how a word actually sounds. Furthermore, English orthography uses five or six symbols to represent more than a dozen different vowel sounds (not exactly an efficient system). In our example above of pat and pate, these words actually contain two distinct vowels pronounced in two different places in the mouth. The same is true of the other “long” and “short” vowel pairings. It’s almost like these sounds ([æ] and [eɪ], in IPA) aren’t really related, they just timeshare a spelling.

In another sense, though, it’s not so incorrect to say that pat has a short A and pate has a long A. To illuminate this claim, we’ll need two ingredients: an understanding of vowel tenseness in English, and an important sound change from the language’s past.

For scholars of English, a more important distinction than vowel length is vowel tenseness. Like the long/short vowel spelling distinction, linguists have identified pairs of vowels that are separated by no more than a little difference in quality. The difference, though, is not a matter of length, but whether the vowel is tense or lax, i.e. whether the muscles in the mouth are more tensed or relaxed in the production of the sound. These pairings are based on the sounds’ locations in the mouth and are therefore a little different than those traditionally associated with the letters. Pate and pet demonstrate a tense-lax pairing, as do peek and pick. The sounds in these pairs are very close together in the mouth, pulled apart by the tenseness, or lack thereof, of their pronunciation.

In some dialects of English, like RP or General American, tense vowels (and diphthongs) naturally acquire a longer duration of pronunciation than lax vowels. In short, the tense vowels are long. Therefore, it wouldn’t actually be false to say that pate has a long A and pat has a short A, but the length of the vowels is an incidental feature of English’s phonology and isn’t really the important distinction between the sounds (not for linguists, anyway).

It isn’t always that way in a language, and in fact, it wasn’t always that way in English. We’ve mentioned this before, but it’s pertinent, so I’ll cover it again: in some languages, you can take a single vowel (pronounced exactly the same way, in the same place in the mouth), and whether you hold the vowel for a little length of time or for a longer length of time will give you two completely different words. This is when it become important and appropriate to talk about long and short vowels. Indeed, farther back in English, this was important. In Old English, the difference between god (God) and gōd (good) was that the second had a long vowel ([o:] as opposed to [o], for the IPA fluent). In all other respects, the vowel was the same, what many English speakers today would think of as the long O sound.

In a way, these Old English long/short vowel pairings are really what we’re referring to when we talk about long and short vowels in English today (even if we don’t realize it). The historic long vowels were the ones affected by the Great English Vowel Shift, and the results are today’s colloquially “long” vowels. The short vowels have largely remained the same over the years. Maybe in this sense, as well, it’s not so bad to keep on thinking of our modern vowels as long and short. So many other quirky aspects of English are historic relics; why not this, too?

In the end, maybe the modern elementary school myth of long and short vowels isn’t entirely untrue, but there’s certainly a lot more to the story.

Notes

1 This is a delightful, if somewhat archaic, word for the crown of the head. I love language.
2 I imagine some of our longtime readers are fondly shaking their heads at our stubborn insistence on getting this message across. Maybe it’s time we made tee shirts.

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.