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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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>:
daga (dat. sg.)
Except before nasal consonants, where long and short <a> instead becomes long and short <o>:
Now, something rather interesting before we move on: in Old English, we find evidence of a process known as assibilation. This process, which is shared only with Old Frisian of the Germanic dialects, means that the stops k and g becomes [tʃ] (as in church) and [dʒ] (as in drudge) respectively. This process is also the one responsible for correspondences like skirt/shirt, where shirt is the assibilated Old English form, while skirt is borrowed from Old Norse, which did not undergo this process, and thus retains a hard [k] sound. Interesting, isn’t it?
Now, I’m going to break tradition a bit and not really talk about morphology. Instead, I want to say a few words on syntax, that is, word order. Why? Because the syntax of Old English is not quite the same as the syntax of modern English. In fact, it’s rather markedly different.
Most notably, Old English is significantly more inflected than modern English: it inflected for five grammatical classes, two grammatical numbers and three grammatical genders, much like modern German. While this may be frustrating to students of the language, it did mean that reliance on word order was significantly less than it is today because the morphological form would tell you who was the subject, object, etc. This means that Old English word order was a bit less rigid than in modern English (in which, it is the only thing that shows you that there is a difference between the dog bit the man and the man bit the dog).
Generally speaking, the standard rule for Old English is that it has a verb-second word order, that is, the finite verb takes the second position in the sentence regardless of what comes before it. So it really doesn’t matter if the first element is the subject or the object, the verb holds its second position (in which case, the declension of the words become important for understanding the sentence correctly).
However, this holds true only for main clauses. In subclauses, Old English is (generally speaking) verb-final, that is, the verb winds up at the end of the sentence. Students of modern German (such as myself in fact), may recognise this kind of word order.
On the topic of syntax, I would like to wrap this post up with a cautionary note.
If you’re reading Old English poetry (and sometimes even when you’re reading prose): chuck these ‘rules’ of Old English syntax out the window. They won’t do you any good: in Beowulf, for example, main clauses frequently have verb-initial or verb-final order while verb-second is often found in subordinate clauses. So heads-up!
Right, that’s all I had for today, though, obviously, this is a very small appetizer in a huuuge buffet. If you’d like to learn more, we, as always, refer you to Robinson’s great book but, to be quite honest, the chapter on Old English is quite dense and even I had to refer a couple of times to Wikipedia and other sources just to make things clear. However, it is a good starting point so do enjoy!
As always in our EGD-series, our main source is Robinson’s Old English and its closest relatives (1992).
For this post, we’ve also taken a look at:
The passage of Beowulf, with its translation, is by Benjamin Slade: you’ll find it – and the rest of the translation of Beowulf – here
While on the subject of Scandinavian people who move around a lot, let’s talk Vikings! Actually, we have to look a bit further back first: to the Age of Migrations (the first phase of which is considered to be roughly between the years 300 and 500 CE, and the second between 500 and 700 CE). During the first phase, many Germanic tribes migrated from their homeland in the north (hence the Age of Migration), but the ancestors of the speakers of Old Norse stayed fairly close to home.
That doesn’t mean they didn’t move around quite a bit within that area: the Danes moved out of the south of Sweden, to Zealand and the Jutland peninsula, while the Swedes stayed put and expanded their territory to central Sweden and Götland through… well, somewhat hostile efforts. What eventually became the royal house of Norway came from Sweden to the Oslo region, as reported by the Old Norse genealogical poem Ynglingatal.
However, while a lot was going on in the frozen north of the world, the world went on much as per usual – until around the mid-eighth century when the rest of the world had a… probably somewhat unpleasant surprise. We’ve reached the Viking Age.
I won’t linger too much on the Vikings; most of you probably know quite a bit about them anyway. What you may not know is that the Norwegian, Danish and Swedish Vikings actually focused their attentions quite differently.
When you do think about Vikings, it is quite likely you might be thinking of the Norwegian or Danish Vikings. These are the ones that came to Britain and Ireland, and they must have been an unpleasant surprise indeed.
The first we hear (read) about the Danish Vikings is this:
Her nom Beorhtric cyning Offan dohtor Eadburge ⁊ on his dagum cuomon ærest .iii. scipu ⁊ þa se gerefa þærto rad ⁊ hie wolde drifan to þæs cynginges tune þy he nyste hwæt hie wæron ⁊ hiene mon ofslog þæt wæron þa ærestan scipu Deniscra monna þe Angelcynnes lond gesohton.
Which was translated by J.A. Giles in 1914 as:
This year king Bertric took to wife Eadburga, king Offa’s daughter; and in his days first came three ships of Northmen, out of Hæretha-land [Denmark]. And then the reve [sheriff] rode to the place, and would have driven them to the king’s town, because he knew not who they were: and they there slew him. These were the first ships of Danishmen which sought the land of the English nation. (The bold font here is, of course, our addition.)
This was written in the year 789, and it was but the first of many ‘visits’ that the Scandinavian Vikings paid England. And, of course, it didn’t stop there. In 793, Norwegian Vikings were most likely responsible for sacking the Lindisfarne monastery in northeast of England; this event may be considered to be start of the ‘true’ Viking Age.
While we all enjoy a bit of historic tidbits on the Vikings, I think we might often forget how truly terrifying these people were to those that were attacked. Some may even have believed that the Viking incursion was the fulfilment of Jeremiah 1.14: “The LORD said to me, “From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land”.
To put it short and sweet: the Vikings were terrifying. Of course, they continued to plague England for a long time, and one could even (a bit weakly) argue that the Anglo-Norman Invasion was, at least partly, a Scandinavian one; the duchy of Normandy in France, of which William the Conqueror was the duke, was created by Danish Vikings, and France had actually conceded the region to the Danes in 911. Of course, by the time of the invasion in 1066, the Normans were more French than Danish, but the ancestral relationship was still recognised.
Unlike the Danes and Norwegians, the Swedish Vikings mostly left England alone and instead focused their attentions on establishing profitable trading towns on the Baltic. They seem to have been somewhat less aggressive in their travels – though don’t mistake that to mean that they weren’t aggressive at all – and could perhaps be described as piratical merchants who traded with people as far away as Constantinople and Arabia. Their principal trading routes, however, lay in what is now Russia, and some even claim that the Swedish Vikings, under the name Rus, were the founders of some major cities, such as Novgorod and Kiev (though whether this is true is somewhat unclear).
But let’s also not forget that the Vikings were more than pirates: they were great explorers. They discovered the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and ‘Vinland’ (nowadays, we know – or strongly believe – this to be some part of North America).
Anyway, eventually, the Vikings became christianized and, thanks to the conversion, the excesses of the Viking Age were moderated and eventually came to an end. With Christianity came also something else extremely important: the introduction of the pen.
Old Norse, as Orrin W. Robinson puts it, “is unique among the Germanic languages in the volume and richness of its literature” , which of course also gives us a rich insight into the language itself. I won’t be taking you through the literary genres of Old Norse here but they are certainly worth a look! Instead, I’ll do the same thing as I did with Gothic and take you through some of the features of Old Norse that make it unique (or almost) and distinctive in comparison to the other Germanic languages.
Let’s get going!
First, let’s look at some consonants.
Like Gothic, Old Norse underwent sharpening. There’s a bit of a difference in comparison to Gothic, though. As you may recall, in Gothic, the medial consonant clusters jj and ww in Proto-Germanic became ddj and ggw respectively, while in Old Norse, they both became gg clusters followed by j or v respectively. So, you’ll find consonant clusters like tveggja ‘of two’ and hoggva ‘strike’.
Unlike Gothic, Old Norse underwent rhotacism, meaning that it turned Proto-Germanic z to r, and also underwent a process known as gemination. Gemination means that if the consonants g or k were preceded by a short vowel, they doubled. So, we find Old Norse leggja ‘lay’ but Gothic lagjan.
Old Norse also had a number of ‘assimilatory’ phenomena, meaning that one sound becomes like (or identical) to an adjacent sound. These are:
[ht] becomes [tt]: Gothic þûhta ‘seemed’ corresponds Old Norse þotti
[nþ] becomes [nn]: Gothic finpan ‘find’ corresponds Old Norse finna
[ŋk] becomes [kk]: Gothic drincan ‘drink’ corresponds Old Norse drekka
[lþ] becomes [ll]: Gothic gulþ corresponds Old Norse gull
As a group, these are highly distinctive features of Old Norse.
That’s enough of consonants, I think, but let’s also have a brief look at the vowels. As you may recall, Old Norse has undergone umlaut. Actually, Old Norse underwent three varieties of umlaut: a-umlaut, i-umlaut and u-umlaut. I won’t be going through the details of umlaut here, but check out this post if you want to know more!
There are two more particularly interesting features of the Old Norse language that I’ll mention here – I’d keep going, but you’ll get sick of me.
First, the Proto-Germanic ending *-az, which was used for both masculine a-stem nouns and most strong masculine adjectives, has been preserved in Old Norse as –r. In Old Norse, you therefore find forms like armr for ‘arm’ and goðr for ‘good’.
Second, and this is a biggy: the definite article in Old Norse (in English, ‘the’) is regularly added to the end of nouns as a suffix rather than as a separated word before them. In Old High German, you find der hamar but in Old Norse, it’s expressed like this: hamarinn.
Of course, the Vikings (and their predecessors) also made use of runes, but I won’t get into that here. If you’re interested in that sort of thing, check out our previous post on runes.
Gosh, that was quite a bit, wasn’t it? I hope you didn’t get too sick of me, but it is the historic stage of my own native language after all, so I suppose I was bound to keep talking too long.
Until we meet again, dear friends, I hope you enjoyed this post on Old Norse and please join us next week as we welcome guest blogger Sarah van Eyndhoven, PhD student in Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh, here at the HLC!
As before, our source for this post is Orrin W. Robinson’s (1992) book Old English and its closest relatives – a really excellent resource if you’re looking for an excellent overview of the Early Germanic Dialects. His quote above is taken from page 61 of this book.
The Old English text quoted here is from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. We’ve taken the quote from here and the translation from here. (While it is from 789, the listing will tell you 787.)
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote And bathed every veyne in swich licour Of which vertu engendred is the flour…
(The opening lines of The Canterbury Tales)
Welcome to April, dear readers!
Today, on this first day of April, we here at the HLC celebrate #WhanThatAprilleDay19, a day intended to celebrate all languages that has come before us or, as the creator of this lovely day says: “Ower mission ys to remynde folk of the beautye and grete lovelinesse of studyinge the wordes of the past.”
In honour of this mission, we have something special for you today: we have written a little something on one of our own favourite historical texts that may, for some reason, have been placed a bit in the shadows of history – so no Canterbury Tales for you today (though Sabina will tell you a bit about another Chaucerian work). Check out what makes us smile!
Aelfric’s Colloquoy of the Occupations Lisa
An Old English text which always makes me smile is Aelfric’s Colloquoy of the Occupations. This text is written as a conversation (or, colloquoy) between a teacher and his pupils, where the pupils take on the roles of workers and craftsmen of different professions, such as hunter, fisher, baker, tanner, etc., and answer questions from the teacher. It was written as a teaching aid for the pupils to learn Latin, but another, unknown, teacher kindly provided an Old English gloss for it (with Old English word order). Thanks to that teacher, this text is now often used to teach students Old English – how neat is that!
What makes me smile about this text is partly the actual content of it: it’s fun to read about these different Anglo-Saxon professions, what materials people used, what purpose they had, and all of that. I also love the idea of language teaching being so similar back in the Anglo-Saxon times: Aelfric needed an aid to make Latin teaching more fun, so he created a little dialogue/role play exercise!
I’ve attached an extract below, with an approximate translation, hoping that this will make you smile as well, from the conversation with the fisher:
[Teacher:] Forhwi ne fixast þu on sæ? Why do you not fish at sea?
[Pupil:] Hwilum ic do, ac seldon, forþam micel rewyt me ys to sæ. Sometimes I do, but rarely, because it’s very far from me to the sea.
[Teacher:] Hwæt fehst þu on sæ? What do you catch at sea?
[Pupil:] Hærincgas ond leaxas, mereswyn ond stirian, ostran ond crabban, muslan, winewinclan, sæcoccas, fagc ond floc ond lopystran ond fela swylces. Herring and salmon, dolphins and sturgeon, oysters and crabs, mussels, winkles, cockles, plaice, soles and lobsters, and the like.
[Teacher:] Wilt þu fon sumne hwæl? Do you want to catch a whale?
[Pupil:] Nic. No.
[Teacher:] Forhwi? Why?
[Pupil:] Forþam plyhtlic þingc hit ys gefon hwæl. Gebeorhlicre ys me faran to ea mid scype mynum, þænne faran mid manegum scypum on huntunge hranes. Because catching whale is a dangerous thing. It is safer for me to go to the river with my spear, than to go whale hunting with many ships.
[Teacher:] Forhwi swa? Why so?
[Pupil:] Forþam leofre ys me gefon fisc þæne ic mæg ofslean, þonne fisc , þe na þæt an me ac eac swylce mine geferan mid anum slege he mæg besencean oþþe gecwylman. Because it is better for me to catch fish that I can kill, than this fish [the whale], as it could drown and kill with one blow, not only me but my companions as well.
[Teacher:] Ond þeah mænige gefoþ hwælas, ond ætberstaþ frecnysse, ond micelne sceat þanon begytaþ. But there are many who catch whales, and escape danger, and make great gain by it.
[Pupil:] Soþ þu segst, ac ic ne geþristge for modes mines nytenyssæ. You speak the truth, but I don’t dare because of my mind’s ignorance.
Seven Books of History Against the Pagans (Ohthere) Rebekah
In the extant corpus of Old English (that means the works we still have—I just wanted to sound fancy for a second), there’s a curious little excerpt that recounts the voyage of a man named Ohthere. It dates to Alfred the Great’s Wessex and appears in a text called Seven Books of History Against the Pagans (how’s that for a title?). The Old English version of the text is something of a world history.
In the excerpt about Ohthere, the Norwegian tells King Alfred about his journeys through Scandinavia. Some of it reads like a dry, medieval travelogue—a lot of sailing north for three days then east for two and that sort of thing. But he also talks about the Sami and Denmark and the geography of Norway and all sorts of things that are fascinating even on Wikipedia; go back to the quirky phrasing of a thousand-year-old document, and now you’ve really got some fun going on. In the part most beloved by my first Old English class, Ohthere talks about walrus teeth, and he describes himself as having “600 unsold tame reindeer” (including several decoys). Ultimately, it was one of our favorite reads that semester (we often joked about the reindeer). There are some interesting accounts hidden away in the old manuscripts of the world!
Legend of Good Women Sabina
Hey everyone and happy #WhanThatAprilleDay19! As you know by now, I work mostly with Middle English, which is of course the language in which “the father of English poetry” wrote in (for those who are unfamiliar with this honorary title, I’m talking about Geoffrey Chaucer).
In honour of that, I will tell you something about a Chaucerian text but not the one you are most likely to have heard about (that is, the Canterbury Tales). Instead, I will tell you a bit about one of my own favourite pieces of Chaucerian poetry: The Legend of Good Women.
The Legend is sometimes considered to be inferior to many of Chaucer’s other works, primarily perhaps because it rarely transcends the conventions of its time (which Chaucer is otherwise rather famous for doing). In fact, some even believe that Chaucer himself got bored with the task and left the tale unfinished as a result (which may or may not be true). Regardless, though, the Legend may potentially be the first significant work in English written in the iambic pentameter, so no matter what one thinks about the story, one can’t really exclude it from historical consideration.
Storywise, it is written in the form of a dream-vision, a literary device that was very common during the Middle Ages, and starts with a prologue in which, presumably, Chaucer himself falls asleep and finds himself in the company of the God and Goddess of Love. The goddess of Love, Alceste, soon berates him for his depiction of women in stories like Troilus and Criseyde. For those of you who are unfamiliar with that story, the point is that Criseyde is depicted as very inconstant in her love. Because of this, Alceste commands Chaucer to tell a tale of virtuous, good women and their deeds (supposedly, this demand was actually a poetic description of an actual request made by Anne of Bohemia, who became the Queen of England).
And so he does. The Legend tells the story of ten virtuous women and their unwavering loyalty and love to men that, ultimately, betray them. My personal favourite is the story of Dido, the queen of Libye and the founder of Carthage. Chaucer’s story is clearly based on Virgil’s Aenid and Ovid’s Heroides, telling the story of how Aeneas (or Eneas as Chaucer names him) comes to Carthage and how Dido falls in love with him. She soon takes him as a husband, but Eneas has no intention of staying. Instead, he sneaks away late at night, sailing to Italy as was always his plan. Dido, in a fit of despair, orders a sacrificial fire and, in the right moment, throws herself into the flames, driving the point of Eneas’ abandoned sword into her heart.
Most of the stories tend to work out like this, so perhaps Chaucer should have rethought the title of the story, changing it to, the more truthful, “Legend of false men”. Regardless, it is worth a read, if only to get the opportunity to read a typical dream-vision poem of the Middle Ages. And, if you’re like me, you’ll enjoy the stories too!
There you are, three of our favourite stories! Let us know what some of your favourite stories are in the comments or on Facebook or Twitter and don’t forget to read, recite, sing or listen to some historical stories today – enjoy the language, the style, the stories themselves… No matter, just enjoy!
I’m sure you haven’t missed that Sabina recently started a series
about the early Germanic languages on this blog? The series will continue in a couple of weeks (you can read the latest post here), but as a short recap: when we talk about the modern Germanic languages, these include English (and Scots), Dutch (and Flemish), German, Icelandic, Faroese, and the mainland Scandinavian languages (Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish). These languages, of course, also have a plethora of dialectal variation under their belts1. Today, I’m gonna tell you about one particular grammatical feature that we find in only a couple of Germanic languages. You see, when it comes to the grammar of the modern Germanic languages, they’re all relatively similar, but one quirky trait sets the ones spoken on the British Isles apart from the rest: do-support.
Before we begin, I want to clarify my terminology: Do-support is a feature of syntax, which means that it’s to do with word order and agreement. The syntax concerns itself with what is grammatical in a descriptive way, not what we prefer in a prescriptive way2. So, when I say something is (un-)grammatical in this post, I mean that it is (dis-)allowed in the syntax.
So what is do-support?
Take a simple sentence like ‘I like cheese’. If a speaker of a non-English (or Scots) Germanic language were to turn that sentence into a question, it would look something like ‘Like you cheese?’, and in most Germanic varieties a (clearly deranged) person who is not fond of cheese would answer this with ‘No, I like not cheese’. In their frustration, the person who asked may shout ‘Eat not cheese then!’ at the deranged person.
But, those sentences look weird in English, both the question and the negative sentence. The weirdness does not only arise from the meaning of these sentence (who doesn’t like cheese?), but they’re, in fact, ungrammatical!
English, and most Scots dialects, require do-support in such sentences:
Do you like cheese?
No, I do not (or, don’t) like cheese.
‘Don’t eat cheese then!’
The above examples of do-support, interrogative (the question), negative declarative (the negated sentence), and negative imperative (the command) are unique to English and Scots, but there are other environments where do is used, and where we also may find it in other Germanic languages, such as:
Tag-questions: ‘You like cheese, don’t you/do you?’
Ellipsis: ‘I ate cheese yesterday, and Theo did (so) today’
Emphasis: ‘I do like cheese!’
Main verb use: ‘I did/am doing a school project on do-support
In all the examples above except for the emphasis and main verb usage, do is essentially meaningless; it doesn’t add any meaningful (semantic) information to the sentence. Therefore, we usually call it a “dummy” auxiliary, or simply dummy do. (Auxiliary is the name for those little verbs, like do, is, and have, which come before other verbs in a sentence, such as in ‘she is eating cheese’ and ‘I have eaten cheese’)
English and Scots didn’t always have do-support, and sentences like ‘I like not cheese’ used to be completely grammatical. We start to see do-support appearing in English around the 15th century, and in the 16th century for Scots. As is the case with language change, do-support didn’t become the mandatory construction overnight; in both languages we see a period where sentences with and without do-support are used variably which lasts for centuries before do-support eventually wins out (in the 18th-19th century).
Interestingly, in this period of change we also see do-support in non-negated sentences which aren’t intended to be emphatic, looking like: ‘I do like cheese’. These constructions never fully catch on though, and the rise and fall of this affirmative declarativedo has been called a “failed change”.
Why did we start using do-support, though?
Well, we aren’t exactly sure yet, but there are theories. Many scholars believe that this is a so-called language-internal development, meaning that this feature developed in English without influence from another language. This is based on that do used to be a causative verb in English (like cause, and make in ‘I made Theo eat cheese’), which became used so frequently that it started to lose its causative meaning and finally became a dummy auxiliary. This process, where a word gradually loses its meaning and gains a purely grammatical function, is called grammaticalisation.
There have also been suggestions that it was contact with Welsh that introduced do-support into English, since Welsh had a similar structure. This account is often met with scepticism, one reason being that we see very little influence from any celtic language, Welsh included, on English and Scots grammar in general. However, new evidence is regularly brought forward to argue this account, and the origin of do-support is by no means a closed chapter in historical linguistics research.
What we do know is that do-support came about in the same time period when English started to use auxiliaries more overall – you may have noticed that, in English, we’re more likely to say ‘I am running to the shop’ than ‘I run to the shop’, the latter being more common for other Germanic languages. So, we can at least fairly safely say that the rise of do-support was part of a greater change of an increased use of auxiliaries overall.
The humble dummy do has baffled historical linguists for generations, and this particular HLC writer has been trying to understand do-support in English and Scots for the past few years, and will most likely continue to do so for a good while longer. Wish me luck!
1I’ve written about the complex matter of language vs. dialect before, here.
2In our very first post on this blog, Riccardo wrote about descriptivism and prescriptivism. Read it here for a recap!
Willkommen zurück, everyone! (I have no idea if you would actually say that in German but we’ll stick to it!)
You might remember that we, three weeks ago, kicked off a new little series by introducing you a little bit to Proto-Germanic? Well, this series is called Early Germanic Dialects (coincidentally, this is also the name of a course on this particular topic that we took during our studies), and in it, we will be introducing you a little bit to – you guessed it – the early Germanic dialects!
Before we study those, though, we need to talk to you a bit about the relationship of these dialects. We’re sure you remember that we’ve talked quite a lot about the concept of ‘families’ of languages (Germanic, Italic, Finno-Ugric, etc.). Today, we’ll look closer at the Germanic language family!
So, of course you know by now that the Germanic languages are languages that comes from Proto-Germanic (which, in turn, hails from Proto-Indo-European). What you may not know (or at least we haven’t outright told you) is that the Germanic language family is also divided into different branches, three in total. These are: West Germanic, North Germanic and East Germanic.
East Germanic, unfortunately, had only one known descendent and that language has gone extinct: Gothic. We know that Gothic once existed and we have a pretty good idea about what it looked like because of a few surviving texts. One of the most recognised of these is the so-called Codex Argenteus, a beautiful 6th century manuscript which contains a 4th century gothic translation of the Bible. Known most commonly as the Silver Bible or the Silver Book, the manuscript is an impressive sight: its thin vellum pages are stained a regal purple, the script and illuminations are made in silver and gold with an ornate jewelled binding. Sorry, I got a bit carried away there, but truly, it’s quite remarkable. If you ever find yourself in Stockholm, Sweden, make a bit of a detour and see it IRL at the University of Uppsala, its current home.
Anyway, back to linguistics. So, Gothic is the only descendent of East Germanic, meaning, of course, that there are currently no living descendents of East Germanic. That is not the case for the other two branches though. Let’s look at North Germanic first.
The North Germanic branch of the tree are the languages that come from Old Norse, meaning, of course, the Viking languages!
Kidding (kind of). The languages that comes from Old Norse are Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish. These languages share a couple of features which are not found in most of the East and West Germanic languages, such as u-umlaut (though you may see u-umlaut in other Germanic languages, such as Old English, too, but it is commonly more limited than the u-umlaut found in Old Norse and not to be confused with the ‘umlauted’ vowel Ü in German). You’ve heard us talk about umlaut before, quite a bit actually, but we’ve primarily focused on i-umlaut. U-umlaut works in a very similar fashion: when a /u/ or a /w/ followed in the next syllable, stressed vowels were rounded so instead of milk, as in English, you get mjòlk (Icelandic), mjölk (Swedish), for example. Of course, there are important differences within these languages too, but we’ll get there in due time.
Now, the West Germanic branch is a bit bigger than East and North. This branch consists of all languages that comes from Anglo-Frisian, that is Old English and Old Frisian, and the languages that comes from Proto-German (not to be confused with Proto-Germanic), that is Old High German, which eventually produced German and Yiddish, as well as all languages that comes from Old Low German, also known as Old Saxon and Old Dutch, which eventually became Low German, Dutch and Afrikaans.
Let’s put that in a tree for you:
This makes it a bit easier to visualize, of course, but this way of representing things have shown to be somewhat problematic. As you may notice, for example, it gives you no indication of timeline, and of course, all of the language changes that makes West Germanic different from North or East Germanic didn’t happen at the same time. Consider the tree, if you will, an extremely simplified visualization of a very complex relationship.
This post has aimed to give you some insight into the relationship of the Germanic languages, but we will end on another note of caution: this relationship is far from uncontroversial. For example, there are some features shared by the Anglo-Frisian languages and the North Germanic languages but not by the Proto-German languages, and there are some features shared by Old High German and Gothic that set them apart from the other languages – some have even gone so far as to claim that English is a North Germanic language, not a West Germanic one. This, of course, indicates a closer relationship than what is readily evident by the traditional tree that you see here.
So, keep this with you, always: don’t accept the tree as the unequivocal truth, because really, it’s not.
And if you would like to know more about the claim that English is actually a North Germanic language, check out Emonds and Faarlund’s book English: The language of the Vikings, published in 2014. Fair warning though: the hypothesis has been questioned by many voices in the historical linguistic community and we suggest you also check out a couple of reviews on the book to get an understanding of both schools of thought. We will not be discussing our personal thoughts on this topic here, but if you want to know more and discuss it with us, just send us an email or ask us a question on Facebook or Twitter.
We’ve written about several big, historic sound changes, like umlaut and Grimm’s Law. But why does pronunciation have to change at all? Why can’t it just stay the same forever? Surely, that would be easier for everyone (especially us historical linguists trying to reconstruct speech from a time before sound recording).
Without diving in too deep today, let’s look at two of the big forces playing tug-o’-war with our phonemes (and the rest of our language): good, old-fashioned laziness and the need to be understood.
I called the first force laziness, but perhaps a kinder appellation would be “conservation of energy.” Unless you live by yourself in a cottage deep in some leafy forest somewhere, you probably regularly do a fair amount of communication (yes, even you introverts). Speech1 is a repetitive motion, and like other repetitive motions (e.g. signing your name), we unconsciously streamline it as it sinks deeper and deeper into our muscle memory. ‘Cannot’ in most instances becomes ‘can’t’; the <tt> in ‘button’ becomes [ʔ] instead of [t].2
This tendency to expend the least amount of effort in language production is called ease of articulation. This is what leads to phenomena like umlaut: it’s easier to pronounce consecutive vowels in the same area of the mouth, so back vowels are pulled forward after front vowels (e.g. Proto-Germanic *mūsiz “mice” becomes OE *mȳs). Similarly, vowels in unstressed syllables tend to relax into schwa. Why enunciate every sound when you don’t really have to? (Except sometimes you do have to.)
Ease of articulation is one thing, but on the other hand, language can’t allow itself to devolve into a mushy, mumbly mess. That would be self-defeating. When your whole purpose in life is to communicate messages, by gum! you’ve got to make sure you can effectively communicate a message. If things become too similar, a language finds ways to self correct, to dissimilate. Dissimilation is a process whereby two linguistic elements that are confusingly alike are pulled back apart to a reasonable, comprehensible distance. Take, for example, the OE pronouns hē “he” and hēo “she”. Linguists aren’t exactly sure which specific sound change stepped in to shift hēo to she, but I think we can all agree that it’s easier to tell who’s who with more distinct pronouns. Or in another case, we find the word pilgrim ultimately comes from Latin peregrinus “foreigner, traveler”. In Latin words with far too many /r/s, one of them commonly became an /l/ over time to unmuddy the waters.
Though they seem almost like an uptight, mothering older sister (dissimilation) and her carefree, lackadaisical little brother (ease of articulation), these two processes work in tandem as much as they work against each other. You could almost say they bring balance to the Force. (But you could also say that languages are wild, organic things that refuse to be tied down. It’s not you, it’s them. And as you may have guessed, ease of articulation and dissimilation aren’t the only suspects complicating this situation. We’ll get there.)
1 It’s something we haven’t brought to the forefront in a while, but I’d like to remind you that when we talk about “speech,” we could just as well be talking about signing. Sign languages function much like spoken languages. 2 Depending on your dialect.
Remember two weeks ago, when I said that I’d get back to you about Southern Hemisphere Englishes? Well, I’m following through with this post!1
So, what do I mean by Southern Hemisphere (SH) Englishes? Well, it can be defined more broadly or more narrowly, but for this post I mean varieties of English that are spoken as a first language in the Southern Hemisphere, such as in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, St Helena, and the Falkland Islands. Today, I will focus on the first three varieties on that list: Australian English, New Zealand English, and South African English.
If you, like me, enjoy listening to accents, imitating them, and trying to figure out their characteristics, you may have noticed that these three SH varieties often sound very similar2. With Australian and New Zealand English, them being geographical neighbours could partly explain this, but this does not work as an explanation for South African English. Also, there is not great dialectal variation within these varieties, relative to, for example, the UK, where you get distinct accents and dialects between two places only a commuter’s distance apart. How can this be?
In my post about American English I went a little bit into how the development of that variety is affected by the linguistic diversity of the input (that is, what English accents and dialects were spoken by settlers), challenging the claim that American English would be a preserved Shakespearean English. The story of the formation of SH Englishes is, unsurprisingly, not so different from this. Once again I want to investigate the idea that a language develops in a straight line from one single older language, and the question of the week is therefore: Is Cockney to blame for the similarities between SH Englishes?
The SH countries in question were colonised by Britain much later than North America was, but in the same century as each other; the 19th century. The nature of their settlement differed slightly, however: Australia was at first a penal colony, New Zealand was initially settled by craftsmen, labourers, and farmers, and in South Africa, which was previously colonised by the Dutch, a deliberate action was made to start British farming communities by sending out 5000 British settlers to start this up (this did not work very well, and the British settlers soon moved into the cities to take on other professions).
Now, let me tell you a little bit about Cockney:
Famous fictional Cockney speaker: Eliza Doolittle, in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (perhaps more known from the stage musical adaption My Fair Lady)
Famous non-fictional Cockney speaker: Michael Caine (an actor who, depending on your age, you either know from the movie Alfie, or as Alfred in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy)
Cockney is the accent traditionally spoken in London’s West End, which, in the 19th and early 20th century, was one of the more impoverished areas of London. The Southern English accent spoken in the West End developed in a quite distinct way, influenced in part by the culturally diverse population which resided there. If you’re not from Britain, you may recognise Cockney as the accent often used to make fun of/imitate the British. Some notable Cockney features are, for example: pronouncing the diphthong in words like ‘mate’ so that it sounds like the diphthong in ‘might’, dropping word-initial /h/ so that ‘hello’ becomes ‘ello’, vocalising (= turning into a vowel) the /l/ in certain environments so that ‘milk’ sounds like ‘miwk’, and glottalising the /t/-sound between vowels so that words like ‘glottal’ become something like ‘glo-al’. The cockney accent also had more general South-Eastern English features (and indeed, some of the already mentioned features are also found elsewhere), such as not being rhotic (so that ‘far’ is pronounced ‘fah’), and raising of the ‘e’-vowels to sound more like ‘i’, making ‘better’ sound more like ‘bitter’.
During the 20th century, the rise of the prestigious Received Pronounciation (RP)3 meant that Cockney became more and more seen as vulgar and overall unprestigious. However, Cockney speakers were large in numbers, and, as is often the case in language change, features from Cockney have successively found their way into wider South-Eastern British English and even RP – so much so that the traditional RP known as the Queen’s English sounds much more “common” these days, even when spoken by the Queen herself.
Cockney is frequently given credit for the Australian English accent, and this is not an entirely bonkers idea. In a situation such as the settlement of Australia and New Zealand, the number of speakers of a certain variety, i.e. the frequency of certain accent features, has been said to play a greater role than the social prestige of a variety, and the majority of convicts arriving in Australia were Cockney speakers. The interaction between the convicts, and thus the numerical influence of Cockney features over other accents, started already on the ships taking them to Australia, and once there, the speech of the convicts even affected the speech of the penal officers. Thus, Cockney speech features became numerically dominant in Australia and shaped the way English was spoken there.
We know already that the type of settlement was different in New Zealand, so what role did Cockney play there? Well, Cockney speakers in New Zealand were not as many as in Australia, but there were significant numbers of speakers from the South-East of England (about half of the settlers). There were also many settlers from Scotland, and a smaller but relevant number of settlers from Australia (7%)4, in the early days of New Zealand settlement. So, even though Cockney specifically wasn’t spoken by great numbers in New Zealand, those features of Cockney which were also found in other Southern English and (Cockney-influenced) Australian accents spoken in New Zealand had numerical strength among the settlers there. Therefore, these features, such as the high ‘e’ in better, non-rhoticity, and the distinct diphthong in mate, eventually became features of New Zealand English.
Likewise, the British settlers in South Africa were largely from the South-East of England. While the number of settlers was quite small in South Africa, they formed a tight-knit community of English-speakers in a region where many other languages were spoken, Dutch/Afrikaans being only one of them, and largely resisted influence from these other languages. Thus, even though the group of English-speakers in South Africa was small in numbers compared to the rest of the South African population, it was the majority accent within the English-speaking community, i.e. South-Eastern British English, which came to influence the development of South African English.
The numerical strength of individual features, rather than the “whole accent”, is important to understand why some notable cockney characteristics, such as h-dropping and t-glottaling, are missing from all of these SH accents. New Zealand, for example, had plenty of input from other British accents than South-Eastern ones, so pronouncing /h/ and /t/ was more common among speakers than not doing so. Australia was also subsequently settled by speakers of different English varieties, which we can assume swamped out some of the features more specific to Cockney.
So, can we blame Cockney entirely for the similarities between the different SH varieties? Of course, which I hope to have shown in this post, it is never that simple.
Footnotes 1 The content of this post is again largely credited to material by Dr. Claire Cowie at the University of Edinburgh. I also recommend this video for a general (albeit slightly dated) overview of Cockney and Australian English. 2 Of course, a more trained ear than mine will hear clear differences between them. If you’re not very familiar with these accents, listen to some samples from the International Dialects of English Archives (IDEA):Australian English, New Zealand English, South African English. I picked three samples that were similar in that they were all by men in their 20s. There are more samples to listen to on the IDEA site (and many many more accents!). 3 We’ve mentioned RP before, for example here in the context of standardisation. 4 As a reminder, I’m getting these numbers from material put together by Dr. Claire Cowie for the course LEL2C: English in Time and Space at the University of Edinburgh.
We had a talk the other day and you know what we realised?
We talk a lot about Proto-Germanic but we’ve never really talked about Proto-Germanic, have we?
We’re sorry, let’s make it right! Today, we’ll take a closer look at this mother of the Germanic languages (though it will be brief glance, I’m afraid: it is an entire language after all)!
As you might remember, a proto-language is a language that has never actually been attested. Instead, such a language has been reconstructed through the comparative method. This means that nothing from Proto-Germanic actually survives the long centuries since it was spoken but we still know quite a bit about the language itself (isn’t the comparative method awesome?!)
One of the things that we can say that we know with reasonable confidence is that Proto-Germanic was spoken in and around Denmark, probably no earlier than ca 500 B.C.
Eventually, it developed into three different branches: West Germanic, North Germanic and East Germanic. We’ll talk more about these branches, and the early Germanic dialects, a bit more later on, but let’s focus on Proto-Germanic for now.
Proto-Germanic developed from Proto-Indo-European (PIE), which you probably already knew, and one of the unique features that separates the Germanic languages from the, for example, Italic ones, is a sound change that we’ve spoken about earlier: Grimm’s Law!
As a reminder, Grimm’s Law is a sound change that changed some consonantal sounds into other consonantal sounds: for example, p became f so Latin pater is English father.
Grimm’s Law was completed at some point during the Proto-Germanic period, something that we may be relatively confident about because the other PIE-languages don’t have it (so it must have happened after Proto-Germanic ‘broke away’ from the other PIE-languages) but all the Germanic languages do (so it must have happened before the Germanic dialects grew apart).
We also find a good number of other sound changes that we’ve already talked about, like ablaut and umlaut. As you may remember, ablaut is the regular vowel variation that you find in forms like sing, sang, sung, and umlaut, a sound change in which one vowel changes to become more similar to a following (or preceding) vowel.
We won’t say too much about the ablaut of Proto-Germanic, because frankly it gets complicated real fast, but it retained the ablaut system of PIE in the strong verb classes (and if you really want to know about ablaut in Proto-Germanic, check out Don Ringe’s excellent account referenced below), which is why you do find vowel alternation in, for example, English (or German: gewinnen, gewann, gewonnen, meaning win, won, won or Swedish vinna, vann, vunnit, also meaning win, won, won).
We will spend a moment on umlaut thought, because something quite significant happened before the early Germanic dialects ‘separated’: i-mutation (or i-umlaut).
You’ve heard about this sound change here at the HLC before (check it out) but in case you forgot (I mean, it was quite a while ago), i-mutation is the reason why you get examples like foot – feet, mouse – mice, but nothouse – hice!
I-mutation is so called because one vowel raised due to a following /i/ or /j/ sound in the next syllable. These syllables were then lost, making the sound change kinda hard to immediately recognise. Let’s take foot – feet as an example.
So, the Proto-Germanic form for foot was something like *fōts. No /i/ or /j/ in the following syllable there, so *fōts became Eng. foot, Dutch voet, Ger. Fuß, Swe/Nor fot, Dan. fod, and so on.
But! The Proto-Germanic plural was *fōtiz! The vowel ō then changed, becoming closer to the i, a process we might call assimilation. Having done so (or at least been enough underway), the -iz ending was lost and, suddenly, we have a word that doesn’t really look any different from *fōts but with an already changing (or changed) vowel. That doesn’t mean, of course, that it always changes to an e/ee as in English feet. In Swedish, it became ö (fötter) for example and in German Füße.
Right, enough phonology. Let’s take a look at morphology too, while we’re at it.
Proto-Germanic inflected for 6 cases: vocative, nominative, accusative, dative, genitive and instrumental; 3 genders: masculine, feminine and neuter; 3 numbers: singular, dual, and plural and 3 moods: indicative, subjunctive and imperative.
Woof, that’s quite a bit. Of all these things though, there really is only one thing that we haven’t said anything about before (though we’ll tell you more about case in the future too): the number dual. You all recognise, I assume, the singular and the plural but what, exactly, is the dual?
Well, it is precisely what you would expect: a form that refers to exactly two entities, no more, no less. The dual was a surviving number-category from PIE but came to be shown only in the first- and second-person pronouns in Proto-Germanic before eventually dwindling away entirely in the daughters of Proto-Germanic (though they retain it for a while in pronouns).
So, now, you have just a little bit of an understanding of Proto-Germanic (though it is very brief, of course)! This will be really useful for the coming weeks here at the HLC as we’ll be taking a bit of a closer look at the early Germanic dialects, their common ground and their differences!
Welcome back then!
An excellent resource is:
Ringe, Don. 2006. From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
which we have consulted for this post. It’s quite advanced, however, and you might find yourself just a bit overwhelmed of the sheer number of detailed descriptions in it. Bear with it though, it really is quite amazing!
We’ve also consulted
Robinson, Orrin W. 1992. Old English and its closest relatives. London: Routledge
which doesn’t talk that much about Proto-Germanic itself but is a great resource for the early Germanic dialects (we should know: taking the course with the same name two years ago, this was the course book).
Barber, Charles. 2000. The English language: A historical introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
regarding the dual number.
Aside from that, we’ve used the excellent online resource etymonline.com and, yes, we’ll admit it, Wikipedia (oh, the horror!), for the Proto-Germanic forms that we discussed here.
Today, we’re going to make an assertion that you may not like: you know the third person plural pronouns in English, i.e. they, them and their(s)?
Well (you’re gonna hate us): they aren’t English.
Okay, so that may not be exactly true. Let’s say: they weren’t English to begin with.
It’s actually a rather amazing evidence of borrowing – in this case, English borrowed from a little language called Old Norse, spoken by the Vikings.
You might be sitting at home thinking that we’re talking absolute BS right now, pronouns are rarely borrowed from other languages because they are so integral in the language’s grammar, right? (Okay, you might not have known that, but now you do!) Bear with us and let’s have a look at the same pronouns in all modern languages that we know comes from Old Norse: Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish!
Shockingly similar, don’t you think?
Well, perhaps not so shockingly. After all, they all come from the same thing: the Old Norse plural pronouns.
Why, exactly, English decided to borrow these are somewhat lost in the mysteries of time. Old English, of course, already had the plural pronoun hīe, so why borrow?
Well, while we are still not sure exactly how this borrowing took place, Old English and Old Norse were in close contact for centuries in the area of densest viking settlement (the Danelaw), so forms like these were likely borrowed between the two languages to make communication easier. It might also be that the Old English plural pronoun had grown too similar to the singular pronouns hī (m.), hit (n.) and hēo (f.) in pronunciation that it started to become an issue. Both of these explanations are possible.
What we do know though: English borrowed a lot from Old Norse, probably more than most native-English speakers realize. As a matter of fact, some of the most common words in English are Norse in origin (for example, egg; knife; skirt; eye; sister, and so on). The nordic languages (except for Icelandic) are making up for it though and borrows extensively from English today (in Sweden, we even have commercials at bus stops using English terminology). So don’t feel bad about it, English, buuut…
Tune in next week when we’ll keep going at it with the English pronoun they – is it always a plural pronoun?
Can’t wait? Check out the etymology of they, them and their in the meantime!