Early Germanic Dialects: Old English

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alright, let’s talk language!

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

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

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

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

cyning ‘king’
frogga ‘frog’

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

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

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

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

her ‘here’

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

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

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

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

Old EnglishGothicModern English
sāvensaian'sow'
sǣdsêþs'seed'
frǣtonfrêtun'ate' (pl.)

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

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

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

Old English GothicModern English
monbutmanna'man'
mōnaðbutmênoþ'month'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

Wikipedia

and

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

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

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

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.

Notes

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

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

Notes

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.

WhanThatAprilleDay19!

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!

Epilogue

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!

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!

EnglishIcelandicDanishNorwegianSwedish
theyþeir/þá/þær/þaudedede
themþeimdemdemdem
their(s)þeirraderesderesderas

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are they all going?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Is English a creole?

Hi all!

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

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

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

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

That… didn’t clear things up, did it?

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

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

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

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

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

Well, there are reasons to assume so:

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

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

First came the Vikings…

*1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then came the French…

*2

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

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

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

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

And now, I’ll try to tell you why.

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

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

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

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

*3

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

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

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

Sources and references

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

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

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

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

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

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