Early Germanic Dialects: Old English

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alright, let’s talk language!

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

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

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

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

cyning ‘king’
frogga ‘frog’

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

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

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

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

her ‘here’

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

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

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

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

Old EnglishGothicModern English
frǣtonfrêtun'ate' (pl.)

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

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

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

Old English GothicModern English

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

What’s with WH?

In many varieties of English, a W is a W. In these varieties, W sounds like [w] like in ‘wise’ and ‘wonderful’ and ‘wowza’ (unless it’s at the end like in ‘draw’ or ‘stow’, in which case it’s quiet as a mouse.)

However, in Scottish, Irish, New Zealand, and certain American dialects, wh-words are pronounced a little different. In words like ‘which’ and ‘whale’, the H makes the W kind of…H-y.

Why is that? Why are those words even spelled with an H to begin with? As with many questions about the bitter rivalry between English pronunciation and English spelling, we have to look to the distant past…

Or, you know, the fairly old past—the Old English-y one. Old English inherited from Indo-European (with a few twists and turns through Grimm’s Law) a sound we linguists like to call a voiceless labiovelar approximant1. In IPA, [ʍ]. That’s fancy language-people talk for a kind of voiceless W. In OE, this sound was spelled ‘hw’. ‘Which’ was ‘hwilc’ and ‘whale’ was ‘hwæl’. Perhaps the real poster child for this phenomenon is the first word of Beowulf: Hwæt! (ModE ‘what’)

During the Middle English period, the spelling of this sound was flipped to our modern ‘wh’, most likely due to the influence of French scribes who came to England with the Normans. It was also sometime during this period that some dialects began to see a merger between the pronunciation of ‘wh’ and plain old ‘w’. For a while, the merger was seen as uncouth, and educated speakers deliberately maintained the [ʍ] pronunciation of ‘wh’. Now, we find more dialects than not where the merger is complete and both spellings are pronounced [w]. But as mentioned before, there are several varieties of English where the original [ʍ] is hanging in there.

English has its share of strange, purely historic spellings, but this isn’t one of them. Your [ʍ] dropping friend isn’t mispronouncing ‘white’ or being pedantic; they’re just kicking it old school.


1This sound is sometimes traditionally/erroneously called a labiovelar fricative.

Let’s get together and talk about languages getting together

Historical linguistics is often synonymous with the study of language change over time, and investigating what the reasons for that change are; are the changes being triggered by processes internal to the language, or did they come about through influence from another language? We know that English has changed significantly in its history – I recommend going back to Rebekah’s post about the English periods for a recap. Exactly what mechanisms are behind some of these changes are still under debate, but we do know that English has been greatly influenced by the languages it has been in contact with throughout history and in particular the contact with Old Norse and French. (Read also Sabina’s post about the creolization hypothesis for more about these contact situations)

Looking at these two contact situations, they had quite different effects. This can partly be explained by the different relationships these language had with English during the time of contact. Let’s investigate:

Old Norse

Remember the Vikings and their language, which Sabina taught us about two weeks ago? This language first became introduced to Britain through Viking raids in the 8th-9th centuries. The very earliest evidence of influence from Old Norse is from this period, and it shows up through loan words which have to do with seafaring and similar themes. The Norsemen eventually started settling in the British Isles, however, and in England, this meant some drastic political changes: wars between the Danes and Anglo-Saxons led to the establishment of the Danelaw, an area covering most of the East and North-East of England, which was under Danish rule for some time (although, the power shifted between Anglo-Saxon and Danish for the duration of the Danelaw). The relationship between Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon English (Old English) thus changed in the Danelaw, in that Old Norse became the language of the rulers. In this period we see many Old Norse words to do with law and government entering English.

Another effect of this time is that speakers of Old Norse and Old English lived side-by-side and dealt with everyday communication. If you’ve paid attention during Sabina’s Early Germanic Dialects series, you will know that Old Norse and Old English are quite closely related languages, both being descendants of Proto-Germanic. In fact, these two languages had not been developing separately for very long before they came into contact in England again (only about 4-500 years or so, quite a short time in the grand scheme of things). This fact, along with some evidence in records from the time, suggests to us that speakers of these languages could understand each other, with help from some accommodation from each side. I imagine this to be something like when I, as a Swedish speaker, am talking to a Norwegian speaker and end up speaking something we jokingly call ‘Svorska’, a combination of Svenska (=Swedish) and Norska (=Norwegian).

It is through this close relationship between the languages in the Danelaw that we see some of the deeper effects of Old Norse influence in English. First of all, the type of loan words that enter English in this period is the type of words that are most reluctant to change or influence, such as the verb take, or the noun sister; words that are used so frequently and are so fundamental to the language that they rarely get replaced by innovations. There are also some grammatical changes that have been suggested to be triggered by contact with Old Norse, such as changes in word order and simplification of the case and gender system on nouns. While some suggest that these grammatical changes were directly influenced by Old Norse, others argue that the changes were already underway before the contact, but that the contact triggered them to happen quicker.

How does contact with another language affect the grammar, if it’s not a direct transfer? Well, this can partly be due to grammar becoming compromised when people accommodate to a closely related language – people taking “shortcuts” to make themselves understood, kind of. It can also be due to that children learning their first language become presented with a mixed-but-similar-enough input that the grammar they learn as a first language is slightly different from what came before.

This Danelaw way of speaking came to influence the other English dialects, and Scots as well, through large enough numbers of people bringing their dialect with them from the Danelaw to other parts of Britain, even after the Norman conquest (immigration from the North to London is of particular importance for the Northern dialect forms entering standard English).

So what about that Norman conquest?



Well, in short: the Norman army conquered England in 1066. English nobles were replaced by French ones, and Norman French as well as Parisian French became the language of rulers across England. This contact situation was in some respects similar to the situation in the Danelaw, in that French, like Old Norse, became a language of invading rulers, but the situations differ in one very important way: French never became the language of the people. The French-speaking nobility were always in a position of power, and often had to speak English in order for their subordinates to understand them. Furthermore, the French-speakers were much fewer in numbers than the Old Norse-speakers were. After French loses its influence over England, the nobility starts to shift to English altogether, and English successively regains its position as the national language of England and the process of standardisation begins.

What English gets from this period is a whole lot of vocabulary. We especially see a huge influx of French vocabulary items entering English when the nobles shifted from French to English.. These words are often relating to “higher” contexts, such as art, music, religion and government, but there are also everyday words, such as joy, entering the language as a result of this contact. The legal and “governmentary” words largely came to replace the similar words that were previously borrowed from Old Norse, but mostly the French vocabulary expanded the language so that there were more word choices (compare the French borrowing joyous to the Old Norse borrowing happy).

The influence was not only in form of individual word transfers, however. The sheer number of words that entered English caused some alteration to the grammar: for example, the French suffixes -ment and -able became productive suffixes, meaning they can now combine with any word stem, whether Germanic or French (or other), and the sounds /f/ and /v/ became “upgraded” from allophones to phonemes.

In conclusion…

Most languages do not develop in a straight line from their origin to the present day, and English is certainly no exception – it is usually estimated that 70% of the English vocabulary is loan words! Not all of these are from Old Norse and French of course, but they certainly make out the largest chunks of the borrowed vocabulary.

Is English uniquely mixed, though?
A lot of people would like to think so, but there are plenty of other languages in this melting-pot continent of Europe which have experienced intense contact during long periods of time – for example, 40% of the Swedish vocabulary is estimated to be from German. However, there is no doubt that English has been greatly affected by these conquests, which sets it apart at least from its Germanic sisters in terms of its vocabulary and grammar.

Eh: What’s the Big Deal, eh?

You may have heard the word eh being used before. Often, it’s found at the end of sentences; for example, you might hear someone say ‘nice day, eh?’. Usually, eh serves to mark a question or initiate some kind of response from the listener, though it can also be used to signal agreement or inclusiveness. We call these kinds of words ‘tag particles’ – they have no set meaning on their own but are often used for a particular communicative function.

The tag particle eh has a long history, dating back in literature to the 1600s. It has been noted across a far-ranging spread of dialects and varieties, including Scottish English, Canadian English, Guernsey English and New Zealand English, suggesting a common British origin. In each variety it shares several semantic and social functions and it is frequently associated with national identity and vernacular use. However, over time these different varieties have also developed dialect-specific uses of eh. Today we’re going to focus particularly on the use of eh in New Zealand English, where it has the shortest but nonetheless very interesting history. But first, we cannot talk about eh without briefly mentioning its prominent role in Canadian English.

Canadian English

Eh has long been recognised as a typical feature of Canadian English, and it is so prevalent and so well-known that it is often the subject of jokes or caricatures of the Canadian accent. Already in the 1970s and 80s it was being used in advertisements, indicating that this particle was becoming widespread and nationally recognised.

Canadian eh has with time become associated with national identity, and this has endowed it with the status of a purely Canadian feature, or ‘Canadianism’, despite the fact that eh also plays this role in a number of other accents. The Canadian variant is typically pronounced as the short, front, mid-high vowel [e], and has a rising intonation. The main function of eh is to mark informality and inclusiveness, as well as seek agreement from the listener. Eh has been found to be widespread across Canada geographically and socially, although it is more frequently used by the lower classes, who tend to make more use of addressee-oriented devices in general. Though it has several functions, Canadian eh is most commonly found in:

Opinions: ‘nice day, eh?’
Statements of fact: ‘it goes over there, eh’
Exclamations: ‘what a game, eh?’
and fixed expressions, such as: ‘I know, eh’ and ‘thanks, eh’.

It is also found in questions, requests for repetition, insults, accusations, and narrative functions, although the questioning and narrative function of eh is often seen by speakers as uneducated, lower class, and rural.

New Zealand English

To jump forward a few centuries to a more recently developed English accent, eh is commonly found in New Zealand English as well. New Zealand English (NZE) speakers tend to prefer eh to other possible tags, leading to its highly salient nature. As in Canadian English, eh is a well-recognised feature, and is also showing signs of growing national awareness, exemplified in its use in a nationwide advert promoting New Zealand’s national soft drink; L&P. This soft drink is an iconic feature of New Zealand, originating and being produced there, and it is partially named after the small town it was created in.

Notice that the spelling here is aye rather than eh. This is most likely because in NZE eh is realised as the diphthong [æe], as in ‘face’, with a slight palatal approximant gesture (meaning that the vowel is followed by a slight ‘y’ sound), unlike Canadian eh which is realized as [e] in IPA. New Zealand speakers generally pronounce eh with a falling intonation, which distinguishes eh from most other varieties of English who typically have a rising intonation, Canadian English included. Eh most commonly occurs at the end of sentences, but is also likely to occur mid-utterance, unlike in most other varieties. For example:

‘the phone will be non-stop eh with all the girls ringing him up and stuff’

Eh performs a number of functions in New Zealand English and tends to be used to a greater extent by working-class speakers and in informal contexts, which overlaps with the patterning we find for Canadian English. The array of semantic roles eh has acquired are both New Zealand-specific and share significant overlap with the Canadian variant. In New Zealand English its most common purpose is to signal, recheck or establish common ground with the interlocutor, but eh can also be used to checking the comprehension of information, confirm shared background knowledge or seek reassurance of the listener’s continued attention. However, question and answer sentences discourage eh, quite unlike the Canadian variant. This wide range of usage may be partially due to the historical developments it has undergone since it arrived on New Zealand’s shores. 

But where did this eh in New Zealand English come from exactly?

Whilst we cannot know for sure with the current information we have, it seems very likely that eh came from Scots, where it is still found today. Previously, the general assumption was that New Zealand English was generally derived from the English of South East England, but now we know that a surprising number of words came from the north of Britain, particularly from Scots. The use of Scottish eh, or rather e (as it is commonly transcribed), is prevalent in some Scots varieties such as Hawick Scots and also in Edinburgh. Just like New Zealand English, it too has a falling intonation, although it is pronounced [e] rather than [æe]. E typically occurs with be and have, for example:

‘he had a stroke, e?’

There are a number of significant overlaps between use of eh in NZE and use of e in Scots. E can be used to confirm shared background knowledge, which matches its usage in NZE, where eh acknowledges the shared understanding between speakers. For example:

‘we know him quite well by now, e?

Furthermore, both eh and e can also be used as a positive politeness feature to make a statement, opinion, or request less sharp and more polite. For example;

 ‘Put it down there, e’
 ‘I like Sambuca, e’

However Scots e is also noticeable in question and answer sentences, unlike NZE. For example:

‘he’s coming, e?’  
‘he isnae coming, e?’

We can see here that Scots e performs a number of functions, some of which have significant similarities with eh in NZE, and some which differ. So, if NZE eh possibly comes from e, how did it get into the accent?

Scottish e contributed to the rise of eh in New Zealand English through process of new dialect formation. Historical dialect formation is (often) the result of a number of different dialects being brought into close proximity with one another in unique, isolated circumstances. Through various processes these form a new dialect. These processes have been categorized into five distinct periods by Peter Trudgill. Initially there is reduction and accommodation between the different dialects; the most dialectal features are discarded and ‘half-way’ features are frequently chosen. The next two steps involve further levelling (so removing the strongest dialectal features) and modification through speaker convergence (speakers adapt their speech to make themselves more comprehensible). During this process one feature is chosen and becomes standardised; in this case it was eh rather than other tags that was chosen as the agreement marker. The final components to dialect formation are focussing and adoption by the wider community. These last steps are still ongoing today; use of eh is led by the youth in the NZE community.

One of the great things about the New Zealand dialect is that we actually have recordings from the very first British settlers setting foot on New Zealand soil, right up until present day NZE. These recordings, stored in what is known as the ONZE (Origins of New Zealand English) corpus (https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/nzilbb/research/onze/), have allowed researchers to see (or rather hear) these processes of dialect formation in action. In the corpus, we found that use of eh was significantly higher in the region of Otago, which historically saw a high concentration of Scottish settlers. Unlike the rest of New Zealand, the dialect from this local area has a number of Scottish-inspired features, including Scots vocabulary items and rhoticity. Furthermore, speakers with Scottish parents showed greater usage of eh, regardless of where they had settled in New Zealand. Small numbers of e were in fact present in the first wave of recordings (1860-1900), but this becomes gradually replaced by eh after 1900. So here we can see the stages of dialect formation taking off; initially e is present in the dialect, but with reduction, accommodation, and levelling, eh was chosen and has become widely adopted into everyday NZE during the last fifty years. However, this might not be the whole story.

Whilst it seems likely that eh came into NZE from Scots and pre-colonial varieties of English, the difference in pronunciation between the two is more difficult to account for. However, there is some precedent for minority language influence on New Zealand eh; various studies have found that Maori speakers, particularly males, were the most frequent users of eh. The particle eh is very similar both in pronunciation and function to the Maori tag particle (pronounced [næe]. It is possible that once eh was adopted by Maori speakers if would have been influenced by to produce a form similar in phonetic quality. The functions of eh also appear to have expanded, again through influence from .

This change in turn possibly influenced young Pakeha (non-Maori) speakers, who have shown increasing use of eh by from around 1940 onwards. This gives us the particular ‘ay-ye’ pronunciation that is now in wide circulation, as well as the new meanings associated with eh. We can see this change happening shortly after increasing numbers of Maori were migrating to the cities in search of work, bringing them into greater contact with Pakeha speakers. The New Zealand Government also practiced a policy of ‘pepper potting’- the scattering of individual Maori families among Pakeha neighbours, in an effort to prevent the Maori community from clustering together in the cities. This naturally brought the two speaker groups into closer contact with one another, allowing for cross-dialectal influence.

So it appears that eh came initially from Scots and influenced the New Zealand English dialect. It was chosen as the invariant tag of choice, and was in use within the post-colonial population in New Zealand. This tag was then adopted by Maori speakers acquiring English and influenced by their own particular tag particle, . The pronunciation changed, as well the particular uses of eh. This new form of the variant was then adopted by younger, Pakeha speakers, and is now spreading through the society, led by the youth.

But what about Canadian eh?

Again, there are similar possible links between the Scots e and Canadian eh. In 1851-61 there were several waves of British settlers to Canada, especially Scots and Irish immigrants as part of a concerted effort by the British government to populate Canada. In 1901-11 another wave of British migrants settled in Canada, particularly Scottish. In the unsettled areas of Ottawa Valley, the colonial lineage of Scottish and Irish accents remains to this day and can still be heard in the speech of some local speakers in the Ottawa basin.

So, it seems that eh could have spread via Scottish immigration during the colonial period. It concurrently underwent linguistic changes through new dialect formation to produce the form that has surfaced in several colonial countries over time. Both the New Zealand and Canadian dialects have developed their own version of eh, but it seems that the roots of this particle in both dialects stems from the same source; Scots. Pretty cool, eh?

Aesces to ashes

I teach fifth-grade Latin, and recently we were discussing the pronunciation of the Latin digraph and diphthong <ae>. One of my bright young scholars asked if the Latin letter was written with “one of those connected a-e thingies.”

My Anglo-Saxonist heart soared. That “connected a-e thingy” is <æ>, a symbol called by the Anglo-Saxons aesc, like an ash tree. With the adoption of the Latin alphabet, <æ> inherited all the rights and responsibilities of ᚫ, a rune of the same name in the Old English fuþorc. It was pronounced [æ]1, like in, well, ‘ash’.

My Latin class and I had to plow ahead with the nominative plural, but in the back of my mind, I kept mulling it over: Where did my beloved aesc come from, and why isn’t it all over the Classic Latin texts I read?

As with so many questions linguistic, the answer lies in human laziness. Since man started putting pen to paper (stylus to papyrus, wax, clay, &c.2), we’ve been conjoining letters to cut corners and save time and space. Cursive is one thing, but typographic ligatures are little clumps of two or three letters written as a single symbol. An example of a well-known ligature that grew up to be a letter in its own right is <w>, which as the name implies, began life as a double <u>.

There are copious examples of ligatures dating all the way back to Sumerian, but we’re investigating <æ>, and for that we have to look to medieval scribes. It’s as simple as you might imagine: Whether for speed or aesthetics, medieval scribes took <a> and <e> and wrote them as one. In Latin, it made no nevermind whether you used the ligature or wrote <ae>.3 In fact, as Latin pronunciation changed throughout the Middle Ages, the spelling was sometimes reduced to merely <e>. (Thus, we modernly tend to write “medieval” rather than “mediæval”.)

Old English wasn’t the only language to promote this particular ligature to a letter. Today, it can still be found in languages like Icelandic and Norwegian.

In Modern English, aesc has been relegated to the status of relic. It gets trotted out when calligraphers and designers want to make something look fancy or antiquated, but otherwise, it’s just some letter that we used to know.4


1 It becomes fairly obvious where linguists found the symbol to represent this sound in IPA.
2 I would just like to share that the ampersand or “and sign” (&) began life as a ligature of <et>. “Et” is “and” in Latin. I can’t even.
3 As far as Classical Latin goes, the Romans themselves and modern editors use distinct <ae> much more often than not.
4 Alas for me! I suppose I’ll just have to stick to doodling aesc in various margins.


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

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.  

[Teacher:] Forhwi?  

[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)

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

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!

Happy #WhanThatAprilleDay19!

Do you do ‘do’, or don’t you?

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 declarative do has been called a “failed change”.

It’s ok, affirmative declarative do, you’ve still contributed greatly to do-support research!

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!

Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

And now for something a little different! This week, we’re bringing you a book review. As in other fields, the volume of literature on the subject of linguistics can be daunting. (That’s volume-the-amount, not volume-a-book-in-a-series.) We’re not going to tell you how to spend your time, but there’s a whole lot more to explore about language than we can cover on a humble blog like ours (though we’re sure going to try!). With our reviews, which we’re going to start sneaking in from time to time, we hope we’ll be able to share what you absolutely must check out and what you shouldn’t waste your time on.

To kick things off, I recently listened to John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, read by the author (also available in print, but infinitely harder to consume while commuting in America—I recommend the format that works best for you).

Broadly speaking, there are two types of works written on linguistics: those written by linguists for linguists, and those written for the general public, i.e. pop linguistics1 (a merely categorical label that is by no means derogatory). Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is the latter.

Like many linguistic books written for a broader audience, OMBT tells the history of English. As a peopled narrative full of kings, revolutions, dusty manuscripts, and Vikings, it’s a much more accessible topic than, say, syntactic theory, which perhaps explains and excuses the greater percentage of mainstream publications devoted to the history of English. While OMBT is another addition to this delightful genre, it does a few things that set it apart from the crowd (I mean, even beyond its snappy title).

First, McWhorter explicitly eschews telling an etymological history, both because there are many works on the subject and because boiling the story of a language down to a series of lexical vignettes paints an incomplete picture. Instead, he tackles the much harder task of explaining the evolution of some uniquely English grammatical features, such as our dependence on the word ‘do’ when forming questions and negative statements. To make his points, McWhorter must explain some basic syntax, how the constructions work in English, and how they work in other languages. Admittedly, I am at an unfair advantage for understanding such discussions, but even so, the examples felt well-chosen, and the explanations should be accessible even to casual readers.

OMBT is also notable for its tone. Where many books present their facts and call it a day, McWhorter invites the reader a little into the world of academia. He doesn’t just state his assertions; he explains the prevailing opinions and then proceeds to argue his side, authoritatively stating his conclusions. (Oh, yes, indeed. We don’t know everything about linguistics yet, including about the development of English. We’re still hashing out the whereto’s and the whyfor’s.) One of the main points he argues for is the influence of language contact over internal factors in syntactic changes that took place in English. For linguists, it should be an interesting read on alternate theories. For non-linguists (our own darling wuggles), it’s a thought-provoking place to start. I would warn against taking either the author’s views or the prevailing views he fairly lays out as immutable gospel; rather, think of this as a jumping off point to investigate more and draw your own conclusions.2 While this is a book that could be enjoyed for its own sake, the tone seems to invite further discussion.

My general impression of this book is a favorable one, but there are some quirks I find a bit perplexing. While I love the tone of discussion and debate, it’s a curious choice for a book written for the mass public rather than a paper for a conference of like-minded language enthusiasts. Was the goal really to spark thought (as I generously concluded above), or is the book a soap box to draw innocent bystanders over to one side of an argument they didn’t know anybody was having?

I also found myself wishing that the topic of the book was more tightly focused. The first two thirds of the book explore syntactic changes and argue for the influence of language contact. Now, obviously not all changes in a language can be explained by a single force (just as not all problems are nails, and they can’t all be solved with a hammer), but I was still taken aback when the last two chapters jumped to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Grimm’s Law, respectively. McWhorter does use these topics to make some interesting points and observations, but their inclusion at all came as an odd surprise given the talking points and goals laid out in the introduction. Don’t be put off, though. The inclusion of Sapir, Whorf, and Grimm doesn’t truly hinder the book’s broader mission, and their chapters are worthy reads both in their own right and in the grander scheme of the rest of the text.

It’s not the one book I wish was required reading for humanity. It’s probably not even the first book on linguistics or English I would recommend, but I truly, deeply enjoyed OMBT, and I think you might, too. 3


1 Like our blog.
2I’ve been working with fifth graders lately (10-year-olds). Does it show?
3You know, since you’re at least interested enough in the topic to be reading this blog.

They, them and their(s) – the non-English pronouns

Hello friends!

We’re back! Isn’t that awesome?!

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 (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! 

See you next week!

Ye Olde Poste of Ye New Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy the knowledge and welcome back to the HLC!