Early Germanic Dialects – Old Low Franconian

Blog time!

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

So, off to our history lesson we go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

And then, he expanded his territory.

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

Eeeexcept…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter… Charlemagne.

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

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

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

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

Yeah, I know, that’s a bit confusing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On that note, off to language we go!

Let’s start with consonants, as per usual.

Most are unsurprising in comparison to what we might expect.

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

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

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

    and finally:

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

Again, there are very few surprises in store here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • But it has undergone rhotacism.

Aaand, I’ll stop there.

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

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

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References

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

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

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

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

and

Wikipedia’s entry on Low Franconian languages.

Early Germanic Dialects – Old Frisian

It’s time for our second language in the Anglo-Frisian branch of the West Germanic languages! Let’s take a look at Old Frisian!

Now, though I usually start these posts with a history lesson, this one I’m going to start off a bit differently: with a word of caution.

You see, we say Old Frisian, but in fact, the surviving texts that we have are from periods which would qualify as the middle periods for most Germanic languages (e.g. Middle English). The oldest surviving Old Frisian texts are actually from the middle of the 13th century, a very late “start”. Why? Well, for that, we need our history lesson!

Very little has actually been said about the history of Frisia…

In fact, we have gaps of a few centuries in which they are barely mentioned at all.

The first we hear about it is in Tacitus’ account of the Roman general Drusus crossing the lower Rhine in 12 B.C. There, he apparently encountered a tribe named the Frisii. Now, because he was Roman and that is what Romans did, Drusus immediately subjugated the Frisii. And, for the next three hundred years or so, the Frisii were under the yoke of the Roman Empire.

It may seem obvious that these people called the Frisii were the ancestors of the later Frisians. However, there are actually some conflicting opinions on this matter. Some scholars have suggested that the Frisii might actually have been a non-Germanic group. This group merged with Germanic groups, lending their name to the final result.

The etymology of the word Frisii or Frisian doesn’t really help. There are some potential Germanic roots, but there are also some non-Germanic ones. Ideas range from meanings like friends or free men to edge dwellers or curly-haired ones.

Where exactly the Frisii lived is also a bit unclear. Their homeland might have stretched as far down as the Old Rhine (which flows into the North Sea at Katwijk in the Netherlands) and as far northeast as the Ems, or potentially only as far as the Lauwers.

So what do we know?

Well, we know that the early Frisii were herders rather than farmers. We also know that they supplied provisions and soldiers to the Roman army. Likely, they were also a part of the Roman garrisoning of Britain.

We know that they successfully cast off the Roman yoke in a revolution in A.D. 28 but that, 19 years later, they were back under the yoke. After that, we, again, hear very little about the Frisii.

However, even though we don’t hear anything, we know that a lot of things must have happened.

For one thing, the beginning of the 5th century marked the start of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain. This was followed by the great migration (that is, when the Saxons and Angles actually moved to Britain). Suddenly, there was a lot of land no longer in use and the Frisians spread out over the area.

Until the 7th century, when they made the mistake of trying to retain Frisia Magna despite increased Frankish pressure. Most Germanic groups appear to have had some or another difficulty with the Franks, and Frisians were no different. Although valiantly attempting to defend their territory, their most famous defender, King Redbad or Redbod, was defeated in 719. During the following decades, the Frisians were gradually annexed by the Frankish empire, but they remained in its periphery.

This may actually have been considered a blessing for a long time.

You see, it allowed the Frisians more independence than most annexed areas. But, it also meant that the Frisians received less protection from the mighty Frankish empire. This likely became unpleasantly obvious for the Frisians with the arrivals of the Vikings in the 9th century.

It is always the Vikings, isn’t it?

Anyway, Charlemagne’s grandson didn’t really want the hassle of a Viking invasion. So, he simply ceded parts of Frisia to the war-crazed people from the North. It was basically a, “Here, take this for not invading us. Also, it’s your responsibility now, have fun with the other Vikings!”

It didn’t last very long and appears to have had no direct influence on the history or culture of the area; however, it did lead to an increase in power for the Frankish counts in Holland. They eventually pressed a special claim on West Friesland, and the area fell to them in 1289.

That wasn’t the end of it. In 1464, German East Friesland was given to the Low German-speaking counts of Cirksema. As a result, the Frisian language came under immense pressure. Eventually, the northern areas of Groningen also went over to using Low German. In Germany today, Frisian is only spoken in an area known as the Saterland.

Similarly, in Holland, the Frisian language is under heavy pressure from the Dutch standard language.

The prognosis for the continued survival of Frisian is not good, Robinson noted in 1992. And it hasn’t gotten better since.

According to the Endangered Languages Project, Frisian (also known as Saterfriesiesch) has roughly 5,000 native speakers. Compare that with a “strong” Germanic language, like Swedish with its roughly 9.2 million native speakers. Its survival is thus qualified as “Threatened”.

So, if you, after this post decide to learn Frisian, and teach it to your kids and so on… Go for it!

With that said, let’s look at the language (or its historical ancestor anyway).

Old Frisian and Old English are pretty closely related, so it is unsurprising that they share a number of features. One example is palatalization:

For example, we find the combination [ts] or [ tʃ] in church, a sound that came to be written in many different ways in Old Frisian (e.g. tsyurka, szurka, tszurka). We also find palatalization in Old Frisian g, which can be pronounced as [g], [ɣ] or even [x] or [ç] in certain dialects (I’ll take this opportunity of loads of IPA characters to remind you of Rebekah’s previous post on consonants).

Some other things that Old Frisian has in common with Old English are:

  1. No evidence of sharpening – that is, the general sound development in Gothic by which Proto-Germanic *ww becomes ggw (as seen in Gothic)
  2. Rhotacism has taken place – that is, Proto-Germanic *z has become r
  3. Evidence of metathesis of the sequence CrV to CVr – that one might be tricky because I did not mention it in my post on Old English. Basically, what it means is that in words like Old Saxon brennian, where a consonant precedes the <r> and a vowel follows it, the vowel and the <r> trades places. Hence, Old Saxon brennian ‘burn’, becomes Old Frisian berna (Old English beornan ‘be on fire’ or bærnan ‘to kindle’).

This list is by no means exhaustive!

Let’s move on from the things Old English and Old Frisian share and look at how they are different!

Unlike Old English, <k> is much more common in Old Frisian. In fact, <k> was required before the letters i and e.

Also unlike Old English, there is some variation in the reflexes of the Proto-Germanic diphthong /ai/. In Old English, this diphthong invariably becomes [a:], but in Old Frisian, it can also become [ē] (e.g. mēn ‘false’ vs. Old English mān).

Similarly, the Proto-Germanic diphthong /au/ becomes ā in all circumstances. For example, Old Frisian rād ‘red’ but Old English rēad.

And… well, in terms of what my primary source has to say, that’s pretty much it.

However, again, the lists (both here and in my sources) are not exhaustive. I’m sure you can find plenty more differences between Old Frisian and Old English! Why don’t you tell me some of the ones that you can spot?

Until next time, I hope you enjoyed this little bit on Old Frisian! Next week, we’ll start to check out our last group: the Proto-German languages, starting with *drumroll* Old Low Franconian!

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References

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

In addition, I have been using:

The Endangered Languages Project

The article “How Many People Speak Swedish, And Where Is It Spoken?” by Steph Koyfman in +Babbel Magazine.

Omniglot’s pronunciation charts of Frisian

and

Etymonline’s entry on the development of ‘burn’ in English.

Early Germanic Dialects – A reminder

And we’re back!

Gosh, long time no see!

As I am sure that you are aware, the HLC is undergoing some changes. I do hope you enjoy the ones that I’ve done so far! If not (or if something could be done better), just contact me under “Contact” and tell me!

We’re back on track now though, and I am taking you back to my Early Germanic Dialects series!

However, as you haven’t heard anything about EGDs since this spring, and summer offering all those lovely distractions, a recap might be in order.

During spring, we talked about Gothic, Old Norse, Old English and Old Saxon. We also went through the relationship between the Germanic languages, and that is where I am going to start!

As you might (or might not – I don’t judge) remember, we talked about the Germanic language family. I tried my best to explain that there are three distinct branches of Germanic (and hope I succeeded reasonably well!)

These branches are: East Germanic, North Germanic and West Germanic.

East Germanic had only one known descendant: Gothic.

Gothic, of course, is now extinct, meaning that this particular branch of Germanic is, unfortunately, lost. But not completely, thanks to surviving materials and hard-working historical linguists!

The most famous work written in Gothic is the Codex Argenteus, also known as the Silver Bible. If you find yourself close to Uppsala, Sweden, go by the Exhibition Hall at Carolina Rediviva and check it out. It truly is a marvel (and entrance is free of charge!).

While you’re there, check for some of the unique traits of the Gothic language – like the use of reduplication and the lack of rhotacism! (If you can’t remember what that is, check out our original post here!)

Let’s move on, shall we?

The next branch of Germanic is slightly larger than its sibling: let’s talk about North Germanic.

The surviving daughters of North Germanic are all found in the northern parts of the world (surprise, surprise…). They are Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese. The languages are usually divided into West Scandinavian Languages (Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese) and East Scandinavian Languages(Swedish and Danish).

The sub-division is simply because the languages hail from different dialect groups of Old Norse. They therefore differ a bit from each other.

Among the notable features of Old Norse, we find some assimilatory phenomena that, collectively, are quite unique. I won’t go over them all here, but, as an example, the Gothic consonant cluster [nþ] becomes [nn], as in Gothic finþan ‘find’, which becomes finna in Old Norse.

If you would like to read up more about the Old Norse language, check out our original post here. And don’t forget to check out some of the Icelandic Sagas and Eddas! (Like the Codex Regius, meaning “Royal Book” or “Kings’ Book”. The manuscript has been photographed and is available here.)

And now, we reach the final, and largest, branch of Germanic: West Germanic.

Now, West Germanic, in comparison to what we’ve just looked at, is huge. It consists, at the first level, of the Proto-German and Anglo-Frisian languages.

Let’s take a look at the Proto-German (not to be confused with Proto-Germanic) languages first.

The Proto-German languages are the ancestors of German, Yiddish, Low German, Dutch, and Afrikaans. Here, we also find Old Saxon, which we’ve briefly talked about before.

Our most famous source of the Old Saxon language is the Heliand, an alliterative poem of some 6000 lines. Surviving evidence of Old Saxon indicates several unique, or mostly unique, features, such as the unconditional change of the Proto-Germanic diphthongs /ai/ and /au/ to [e:] and [o:].  For example:

Old Saxonstên
Gothicstains
Old Norsesteinn
Old High Germanstein

However, the poem isn’t interesting only for its linguistic features but also for how it was written. The poem itself is, or should have been, a pretty standard retelling of the life of Jesus. But the Heliand actually changes the setting!

Instead of describing some far-off Holy Land, the story is set on the marches and plains of Northern Germany! Worth checking out just for that, isn’t it? Well, if you feel up to the challenge – check out the British Library’s manuscript (Cotton MS Caligula A VII) here.

Finally, the Anglo-Frisian languages.

As I’m sure you’re expecting by now, this is where we find the ancestor of English and Frisian. We haven’t actually talked about Old Frisian yet, but we have covered Old English!

Remember: surviving texts of Old English are mostly written in the West Saxon dialect. What we mean when we say “Old English” is really “Late West Saxon Old English”. You should keep that in mind if you want to study, say, dialectal variation in Old English.

We have many surviving texts of Old English. Beowulf is the typical example (check it out here). But we also find The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Cædmon’s Hymn and many others.

Linguistically, Old English underwent a process, shared among its siblings only by Old Frisian, known as palatalization of the stops k and g – meaning that these become [tʃ] (as in church) and [dʒ] (as in drudge) respectively.  This is the process by which we get corresponding pairs like skirt/shirt, where shirt is the palatalized Old English form, while skirt was borrowed from Old Norse, which didn’t undergo this process and thus retained the hard [k] sound.

Of course, that is not the only thing that is interesting with Old English. To learn more, check out the original post here.

And that’s our recap (with some additional links to some great manuscripts!).
Join me again next week when we continue our trip down memory lane and dive into Old Frisian!
Until then!

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References

You’ll find most references for this post in the links that are provided throughout the post. In addition, I refer you to Robinson’s Old English and its closest relatives (1992).

We’re not so different, you know?

Insights from the ISLE Summer School, 24-28 June 2019

This week, I had the pleasure of attending the International Society for the Linguistics of English (ISLE) Summer School. The summer school is bi-annual, and explores different themes each time – this year, the theme was using the past to explain the present, with the description: “A special focus will be on evidence for past states of English and Scots, with reference to the functioning of writing systems in manuscript and printed contexts.”

With a theme like that, there’s no wonder that this summer school caught the interest of two HLC:ers: Sabina and myself (Lisa)!

The summer school was organised at the University of Glasgow by the ISLE president, Professor Jeremy Smith. On the first day, he held a workshop which led us to think more about how the past can help us explain the present, and he emphasised the importance of considering that the old languages and writing systems we study were produced by people who were as much conditioned by social factors as we are today. In fact, the name of this year’s theme is a scrambled version of a pioneering publication by famous sociolinguist William Labov, On the use of the present to explain the past, which explored the idea that humans are not so different in history and today, and thus we can use our knowledge of today’s languages, and the people who speak them, to make inferences about history. Likewise, through looking at material culture (for example scribal practices, and the look and material of manuscripts), and through exploring the social context in which they operate, we can learn more about what drives language change. 

The exploration of manuscripts continued into the workshops in the morning of the second day. Professor Wendy Scase from the University of Birmingham held a workshop about writing systems, and made us aware of the social factors which may condition how we write. The traditional view of spelling is that it follows pronunciation, but it’s not usually that straightforward, and there are often social cues in what spelling systems we adhere to. 

One simple example is, of course, the differences between British and American English; the use of colour or color says nothing about pronunciation, but reading one or the other immediately tells you something about the writer. Consider also things like “heavy metal umlaut”, as found in the band names Mötley Crüe and Motörhead; these umlauted letters are pronounced a certain way in the languages who use them in their writing systems, such as Swedish and German, but these bands use them as a form of identity marker. If these social identity markers are used in the present day, we should be aware that this may also be the case in the past. As an example of this, a mediaeval writer may have chosen to use the italic script to advertise to the reader that they are a humanist. 

Italic script. The image is taken from this article, where you can also read more about the history of Italic script.

As the second day progressed, we received introductions on how to use historical corpora by Dr Joanna Kopaczyk (University of Glasgow) and Dr Kristin Bech (University of Oslo). While these workshops were more focused on presenting resources for doing research in historical linguistics, the theme of the week still ran like a red thread through them: for example, we were reminded that when looking at historical written text, the scribal practice should not only be taken to be dialectal, but can also be socially conditioned. 

On the third day of the summer school, we went on a field trip to Ruthwell Cross, in Dumfriesshire. The runes inscripted on the cross make the earliest evidence we have of Anglo-Saxon in Britain, and it was interesting to learn about some of the unique features of the runic system which are only found on this monument, which again led us to think about what the purpose was behind using these particular symbols.

The Ruthwell Cross, photo by Lisa Gotthard

In the final two days of the summer school, all participants presented their PhD research, and we reflected on the mechanisms behind language change in a discussion led by Jeremy Smith. In this discussion, we looked at different examples of words or expressions which use and meaning had changed in the history of English, and whether social factors may have driven these changes. In the HLC’s weekly etymologies on facebook, we have sometimes demonstrated how social associations may trigger the meaning of a word to become more negative or positive – an example being the word ‘villain’, now a pejorative term, which developed from simply referring to someone living on a farm. This is only one type of language change that can be socially conditioned, and this week we’ve come to learn even more about how identity markers and other socially conditioned factors play a role in how we express ourselves, both in writing and speaking. This is why it’s so important for historical linguists to approach our textual sources with the same sociolinguistic awareness with which we would approach today’s spoken data.

Personally, I found this week to be incredibly inspiring, and in our final discussions you could tell that we had all received plenty of input and inspiration for continuing our research with some more attention to material culture and social practice. 

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.

Early Germanic Dialects: Old Saxon

Well, you’ve certainly have had fun without me, haven’t you? It’s been four weeks since you heard anything new about the Early Germanic dialects, but I can see that Lisa has had a word with you about contact situations and language influence (and exposed the HLC’s horrifying lies about language change!), and our great guest posts, by Sarah and Claire, must have kept you plenty entertained!

Now we’re getting back at it, though, and today, we’ll have a look at a little language that was part of the foundation of the Anglo-Saxon community in England: Old Saxon!

Let’s do what we usually do and start with a bit of a general history lesson, shall we?

The Saxons–surprise surprise!–were a somewhat warlike people. So much so, in fact, that their very name is a reference to a sword: a short sword characteristic of the Saxon people, known as the sahs (we still find its derivation in the second part of the German word for ‘knife’ (Messer)).

The Saxons were first mentioned during the middle of the 2nd century A.D. by the Greek geographer Ptolemy in his chapter Magna Germanica (in the book Geographia), in which Ptolemy places the Saxons in the area around the North Sea coast and to the east of the lower Elbe, an area that is now Holstein in the county of Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost state of Germany (just south of Denmark)–and if you’re wondering why all the warlike people seem to be coming from the northernmost areas of the world: it’s the cold. Definitely the cold.

In the following centuries, the Saxons show up prominently in a bunch of bloody battle accounts and struggles; they were fighting with their neighbours, with their allies, with their enemies… with pretty much everyone and anyone. But mostly, they fought with their neighbours, the Franks.

Despite this, they must have had a reasonably amicable relationship with their neighbours to the southwest around the year 531, when they joined together to destroy the kingdom of Thuringia:

1

However, the new Saxon kings of Thuringia were forced to pay a yearly tribute to the Frankish kingdom, which did not sit well with the Saxons. So, naturally, for about 200 years, there is an on-again-off-again war between the Saxons and the Franks.

Then, in 715, the western Saxons invaded the lower Rhenish areas. They were pushed back by Charles Martel in 718, who had to enter western Saxony twice–and was not happy about it (which he brutally took out on the local population). Yet, the Saxons were nothing if not stubborn and revolted again in 753, with the same expected results. One would think they had enough by now, right? Yeah, not so much. The scenario was repeated again, with the same results, in 758 (have you ever heard that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”2?).

Eventually, we reach the fatal year 772–the beginning of the end for the Saxons as an independent state. In that year, the Imperial council officially declared war on the Saxons. Enter, stage right: Charlemagne.

Charlemagne completed the Frank’s annexation of Saxon territory in 782, but the final battles between the Saxons and the Franks weren’t fought for another 12 years, when finally, we see the end of the Saxons as an independent state.

That isn’t the last we’ll hear about the Saxons, of course, but I’ll deal with their history in England in the chapter on Old English rather than here (it’ll make sense to you soon enough, I promise).

Our knowledge about the Saxon language comes from two major surviving texts: the epic poem Heliand and a copy of Genesis which runs to just 330 lines, so it’s quite short–though it is argued that the original was likely quite long. The Heliand is quite interesting for a multitude of reasons: an alliterative poem of some 6000 long lines, it recounts the story of Jesus in a way that combines the contributions of all four Gospels in a single narrative. The poem not only translates the story into a Germanic verse form, but changes the setting of the story–the tale of Jesus is told not in some far-away Holy Land but on the plains and marshes of northern Germany, and the shepherds who are told of Jesus’s birth are not tending sheep, but horses.

Now that we’ve looked quite a bit at the history of the Saxons and their surviving texts, let’s have a look at the language that they spoke! It is why we are here after all.

Most of the time, the letters used in Old Saxon texts correspond quite well to what one, as an English-speaker, would expect–p, t, k, for example, are pronounced just as in modern English–but there are a couple of surprises:

In word-final position, the letter g corresponds to [x] (the sound in Scots loch or German nacht), so a word like dag ‘day’ would be pronounced something like dach, except if it was preceded by n. In these cases, g was pronounced like [k], so g in words like lang ‘long’ would be pronounced [k], i.e. lank.

Another surprise concerns the letters b and d. In general, these are pronounced as in Modern English, but in word-final position and before voiceless consonants (like t or s), they were probably pronounced [p] and [t]. So:

bi'by'[b] > [b]
dôan ‘do’[d] > [d]
lamb‘lamb’[b] > [p]
flôd‘flood’[d] > [t]

Another difference is found in the voiceless fricative /f/: when between vowels, it becomes voiced,  /v/, as does /θ/ and /s/ which become [ð] and [z] respectively. The difference between /f/ and the other letters that get voiced, is that the change in /f/ is faithfully reflected in writing! When /f/ became [v], it was consistently spelt ⟨ƀ⟩ and ⟨u⟩, so if you see those letters in between vowels, you can start to suspect that you’re looking at Old Saxon.

Let’s look at some other indicators that you’re looking at Old Saxon.

Unlike Gothic and Old Norse, Old Saxon shows a development of the older diphthongs /ai/ and /au/ to the monophthongs [e:] and [o:]. Other early Germanic dialects do this, too, but it is a conditional change, meaning that certain conditions must be fulfilled before the change can happen. In Old Saxon, though, we would call it an unconditional change, meaning that this change occurs virtually without exception–let’s look at stone as an example:

Old Saxonstên
Gothicstains
Old Norsesteinn
Old High Germanstein

So if you’re seeing <e> where in comparable texts you see a diphthong, you might suspect that you’re looking at Old Saxon–like we said, though, this is not bulletproof evidence, so let’s look at some more stuff that Old Saxon does!

When we were talking about Old Norse, we briefly touched upon a process called gemination. What this means is that the consonants g and k doubled to gg and kk after a short vowel and before j (and sometimes w). This process has far greater scope in Old Saxon than in Old Norse; in Old Saxon, all consonants can be doubled except r and the doubling takes place before not just j and w but also quite frequently before r and l, and sometimes before m and n. Another unique feature of Old Saxon among the West Germanic languages (remember our tree?) is that it usually still shows the conditioning <j>:

Old SaxonOld EnglishModern English
biddian biddan‘ask’
huggianhycgan‘think’

Two more things before we wrap up:

In Old Saxon, as in all the languages that we will look at following this post (but not the ones that precede it), we find that the verbal infinitive has developed into something approaching a true noun, what we would today call the gerund. The gerund may function as the subject of a sentence:

Eating people is wrong

or the object of a verb:

The hardest thing about learning English is understanding the gerund.

And finally:  

Unlike in Gothic and Old Norse, the masculine nominative singular ending of Proto-Germanic, *-az, has disappeared completely in Old Saxon. In Old Norse, we find -r in its place, e.g. dagr ‘day’, while in Gothic, we find –s, e.g.  þs ‘good’. In Old Saxon, though, we find dag and gôd for these words – the ending has completely disappeared!

So, there you have it, features to look for in Old Saxon. Let’s wrap this up with a bit of an example, from the Eucharist, with a translation from Murphy3:

EucharistTranslation
tho sagda he that her scoldi cumin en wiscuning
mari endi mahtig an thesan middelgard
bezton giburdies; quad that it scoldi wesan barn godes,
quad that he thesero weroldes waldan scoldi
gio te ewandaga, erdun endi himiles.
He quad that an them selbon daga, the ina salingna
an thesan middilgard modar gidrogi
so quad he that ostana en scoldi skinan
huit, sulic so wi her ne habdin er
undartuisc erda endi himil odar huerigin
ne sulic barn ne sulic bocan
Then he spoke and said
there would come a wise king,
magnificent and mighty,
to this middle realm;
he would be of the best birth;
he said that he would
be the Son of God,
he said that he would rule this world, earth and sky, always and forevermore.
he said that on the same day on which the mother gave
birth to the Blessed One in this middle
realm, in the East,
he said, there would
shine forth a brilliant light in the sky, one
such as we never had before between
heaven and earth nor anywhere
else, never such a baby and never such a beacon.

Sources

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

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

Robert Flierman. 2017. Saxon Identities, AD 150-900. London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic.

1 The map is an edited version from this map

2This famous quote is, of course, attributed to Albert Einstein

3And finally, this text comes from Wikipedia


Lies the HLC told you: All languages change.

We usually kind of hammer into you readers that languages change, and in my last post I described situations in the history of English when the contact with other languages was so intense that it drastically changed the language. Language contact is one factor which triggers language change, but change can also come from within the language itself, through e.g. innovation by speakers or speech communities (remember Rebekah’s post a while ago about some of the mechanisms in sound change?).

However, despite all of this, some languages tend to be particularly reluctant to change. To give you an example, here is an extract from the Færeyinga saga1, written around the year 1200 in the western dialect of Old Norse, Old West Norse, which was used in Iceland and Norway:

Nv litlu sidar kemr Sigurdr j budina til brodur sins ok mællti. tak þu nu silfrit nu er samit kaupit. Hann suarar. ek fek þer silfrit skommu. Nei segir Sigurdr ek hefui ekki a þui tekit. Nu þræta þeir vm þetta. eftir þat segia þeir konungi til. konungr skilr nu ok adrir menn at þeir eru stolnir fenu. Nu leggr konungr farbann sua at æingi skip skulu sigla burt sua buit. þetta þotti morgum manni vanhagr mikill sem var at sitia vm þat fram er markadrinn stod.

Now, here is the modern Icelandic translation of the same extract:

Nú litlu síðar kemur Sigurður í búðina til bróður síns og mælti:
“Tak þú nú silfrið; nú er samið kaupið.”
Hann svarar: “Eg fékk þér silfrið skömmu.”
“Nei,” segir Sigurður; “eg hefi ekki á því tekið.”
Nú þræta þeir um þetta. Eftir það segja þeir konungi til. Konungur skilur nú, og aðrir menn, að þeir eru stolnir fénu. Nú leggur konungur farbann, svo að engi skip skulu sigla burt svo búið. Þetta þótti mörgum manni vanhagur mikill, sem var, að sitja um það fram, er markaðurinn stóð.

So this is quite similar; there are some differences in spelling (and punctuation), some of which give evidence of phonological change, such as the addition of <-u-> in e.g. konungr > konungur. The vocabulary, however, is pretty much identical.

To contrast this, let’s give the modern translation in Norwegian, which, like Icelandic, is another descendant of Old West Norse:

Lidt efter kom Sigurd ind i boden til sin bror og sagde: «Kom nu med pengene, for nu er handelen sluttet.» Men Haarek svared: «Jeg gav dig jo sølvet for en liden stund siden.» «Nei,» sagde Sigurd, «jeg har ikke tat imod det.» De trætted nu en stund om dette; derpaa gik de til kongen og fortalte ham om sagen. Han og de andre folk skjønte nu, at pengene var stjaalet fra dem. Kongen lagde da farbann paa skibene, saa at intet af dem fik lov til at seile bort, før denne sag var klaret. Dette tyktes mange stor skade, som venteligt var, at skulle ligge der, efterat markedet var slut.

While we can still see the family relation, this translation is quite different from the Old West Norse. This tells us that relatively little has happened to Icelandic since the year 1200. In fact, when it comes to the grammar, Icelandic is usually considered the most “conservative” of the Germanic languages, as it retains a system of case and gender on nouns, and a system of inflection on verbs, that has changed very little from the time of the early Germanic dialects.

Furthermore, remember how I said that the basic vocabulary is the most reluctant to change, and this is why the borrowing of basic vocabulary from Old Norse and French into English is evidence of some particularly intense contact? It is estimated that English has retained 67.8% of its basic vocabulary, meaning that 67.8% of basic vocabulary is inherited: from Germanic to Old English to its present day form (often with some phonological and morphological change). As a contrast, Icelandic has retained 97.3% of its basic vocabulary2. Quite the difference!

Why is this?

The Nordic countries – all but Finland has a North Germanic language as their national language. (Copyright: Alphathon, 2015. Wikimedia Commons.)

One reason is that Icelandic has been relatively isolated geographically, so it has not been as exposed to intense language contact as the other Germanic languages, which (save from Faroese and Afrikaans) are spoken on the mainland of the European continent and therefore have been exposed to plenty of input from their neighbouring languages, as well as having been more vulnerable to conquest and migration.

When it comes to the reluctance to borrow foreign vocabulary, this is partly due to an active effort to preserve Icelandic as a means to preserve the native Icelandic culture. This has led to, rather than adopting new vocabulary, Old Norse terms often being revived when a word is needed for a new concept or item. Alternatively, compounds of existing vocabulary are used: The Icelandic word for ambulance is ‘sjúkrabíll’, which literally translates to ‘sickness-car’ (whereas the other modern North Germanic languages uses forms of ‘ambulans(e)’).

Furthermore, in the process of borrowing words, we usually talk about adoption vs. adaptation. In the first process, a word is borrowed, adopted, with its foreign phonology and morphology; in Swedish, for example, new English loan words tend to use the English plural -s rather than the native Swedish -ar/or plural. In the process of adaptation, however, we borrow a word but adapt it to our own phonology and morphology (we’ve seen plenty of examples of this in our weekly etymologies on the HLC facebook page). According to April McMahon3, not only does Icelandic tend to revive Old Norse words for new purposes, but any new loan that does make it into Icelandic tends to be adapted rather than adopted.

So, just as we can make conscious efforts to introduce new concepts in a language, as in the case of the Swedish gender-neutral pronoun, we can also (to some extent, at least) make conscious efforts to not change a language, if enough people are on board with this. However, it’s not like Icelandic hasn’t changed at all – I wouldn’t recommend going to Iceland relying solely on your Old Norse proficiency in communications with the locals. So, in the end, we didn’t exactly lie when we said all languages change, but the degree to which they change is not always as dramatic as in the history of English.

Tune in next week for more early Germanic dialects with Sabina!

Footnotes

1This extract and translations are taken from http://heimskringla.no – a kind of data bank of Nordic texts.

2These numbers are taken from Lyle Campbell’s Historical Linguistics, p. 456.

3 In her book Understanding Language Change, p. 205.


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?

Source

French

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?