Well, I figure that I’ve been throwing features of phonology, syntax, morphologyl, etc., etc., at you for quite some time now – how will anyone ever remember all those details?!
Instead of continuing to throw such facts at you (however interesting they may be), today, I thought I’d tell you about my very special trick – a simple one that works in (some) cases – though not all – to separate all these dialects from each other, fairly quickly. (Just don’t quote me on it – it’s just to give you an inkling of what you’re working with so that you can continue with further tests to make sure.)
So, what do I do?
Well, if presented with a new text where I am unsure of which Germanic dialect I am dealing with, the first thing I do is start looking for pronouns. But not just any old pronoun – I look specifically for the masculine third person pronoun in the nominative form!
Gosh, that was specific. But, you see, these pronouns differ a bit from each other in some of the Germanic dialects.
Old Low Franconian
Old High German
As you can see, using this technique means that you can exclude a number of choices: if the text is using hann it is likely Old Norse; if it uses er, it is likely Old High German.
Gothic may be a bit tricky as the morphological structure may allow for excluding the pronoun itself – in that case: look for reduplication as Gothic is the only Germanic language that has retained the feature!
But, as you can also see, that won’t help you all the way: Old English, Old Saxon, and Old Low Franconian all use he. So what do we do here?
Well, here, we start looking for a-stem nominative plurals in Proto-Germanic – like arms.
And, here, we see some differences between these languages too!
Old Low Franconian
And that is it! That is really all that I do (in the initial stages – then it all needs to be checked of course).
Basically, just ask yourself:
Does it use reduplication? – If YES, you’re dealing with Gothic
Which masculine third person plural is it using? – If a unique one, you’re in luck. If not:
Which declension of Proto-Germanic a-stem nouns is the text using?
And you’re… well, not really golden but a step closer to figuring out exactly what you’re dealing with!
And with that, I am hereby declaring our Early Germanic Dialect series at an end.
I hope you enjoyed hearing about these dialects as much as I enjoyed the opportunity to read more about them!
Next week, we’re doing a bit of a breather for you (and me) with a book review before we dive into our next topic (and no, I won’t tell you what it is – surprises are delightful!).
So, join me next week when I take a look at the #1 New York Timesbestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss (and perhaps an inkling of what is to come….)!
As always, take a look at Robinson’s book Old English and its closest relatives.
Today, we’re looking at Old High German – our last and final Early Germanic Dialect (but see the end of this post for a hint of next week’s topic – it’s a juicy one!).
As usual, let’s start with a history lesson!
So, we really have three EGDs that were instrumental in the formation of the German dialects:
Old Saxon Old Low Franconian and Old High German.
Saxons are associated with Old Saxon, and therefore the later Low German dialects of northern Germany. The Franks, with Old Low Franconian, are associated with the later dialects of Dutch as well as a number of High German dialects of central Germany.
Most of the High German-speaking area, though, is associated with three Germanic (sub)groups: the Alamanni, the Bavarians, and the Thuringians.
These three belong to a subdivision of the West Germanic tribes sometimes known as Elbe Germans, because, during the last few centuries B.C., they were grouped around the lower and middle Elbe.
Eventually, they started to expand from there, primarily towards the south. You see, to the east of them were the East Germanic tribes while the Weser-Rhine tribes, ancestors of the later Franks, occupied the area to their west.
And eventually, again as people tended to do at this point in time, they found themselves quarreling with the Romans. This, naturally (…), led to a war of about 400 years – sometimes quiet but never quite restful. The driving force behind this war was, during the last 200 years anyway, a loose confederation of a large number of people.
They were known as the Alamanni.
The Alamanni were dead set on breaking the frontier barrier of the Roman Empire, which they finally managed around 260 A.D. For about 70 years, there was relative peace in the area, but then they set their sights a bit too high. Attempting to conquer what is today Alsace, they were defeated in 357 by the Roman emperor Julian.
Of course, the Alamanni were just as tenacious as the other Germanic tribes. So they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and tried again.
This time, they succeeded and conquered most of Alsace. At the same time, they pushed north and west toward the Moselle river and south into present-day Switzerland. Pretty impressive multitasking.
Buuut, they seem to have forgotten something about the northwest. Because there they, of course, encountered another Germanic people.
Unified, strong, and probably pretty scary. Can you guess?
Yep, you’re absolutely right – the Alamanni encountered the Franks. As you might imagine, the huge battle that ensued in 496 did not end well for the Alamanni. It thus marks the beginning of a long and very unhappy relationship (for the Alamanni at least).
In the sixth century, the Alamanni were already recognized as a part of the Merovingian Frankish kingdom. By the mid-eight century, the last illusion of their independence disappeared – they were totally subsumed by the Frankish kingdom.
Their (maybe) buddies, the Bavarians, suffered roughly the same fate.
The Bavarians seem to come out of nowhere in the late fifth century. Their origin is still largely unknown – who were they and where did they come from?
While we actually don’t know, scholars appear to be reasonably sure that they came from an original Elbe-German group. Their name might give us some clue: it is probably derived from a pre-Germanic tribe. Perhaps a Celtic or an Illyrian tribe called the Boii (by the way, I am curious if George R.R. Martin was inspired by the name Illyria – Valyria does seem remarkably similar…)
Anyway, their origin remains argued about but it is not very relevant for our purposes so let’s move on.
Last of the groups, we have the Thuringians. The Thuringians appear to have worked together with the possible ancestors of the Bavarians – a group known as the Marcomanni – for a little while at least. And then, of course, they decided to “compete” with them (which appears to be a fancy word Robinson uses for “making war upon”).
Anyway, they took over parts of Bohemia and extended their area quite significantly for a while…
And then, they encountered the Franks.
Well, actually, they met with a joined force of Franks and Saxons and –poof – gone was the kingdom of Thuringia. By 531, northern Thuringia fell to the Saxons and the rest quickly became integrated into the Frankish kingdom.
And that’s the end of our tale! Let’s look at language.
Obviously, the most distinguishing feature of Old High German and its surviving descendants is that odd little thing they did to some of their consonants. That is, the shift we now know as the High German consonant shift or the second Germanic consonant shift.
There are three phases to this shift:
The first phase, controversially dated to as early as the 4th century, affected the entire High German area.
In this phase, the voiceless plosives /p/, /t/ and /k/ changed when they were found between vowels or in word-initial position. Here, they changed, becoming long fricatives, like so:
/p/ > /f/ – for example, OE slǣpan > OHG schlafen ‘sleep’ /t/ > /ts/ – (often spelt <z> or <zz>) for example, OE strǣt > OHG strāzza ‘street’ /k/ > /x/ – for example, OE rīce > OHG rīhhi ‘rich’.
This shift did not affect the consonants if they were found in word-final position. This phase also didn’t affect the consonants if they were already geminated or if they occurred following another consonant. So the two p’s in appul ‘apple’ remained unaffected, as did skarp ‘sharp’.
The second phase of the shift was completed by the 8th century. At this point, the same sounds became affricates in three environments: in word-initial positions, when geminated or when following a liquid (/l/ or /r/) or a nasal (/m/ or /n/). And so, we get:
/p/ > /p͡f/ – also written ⟨ph⟩ in OHG /t/ > /t͡s/ – written ⟨z⟩ or ⟨tz⟩ /k/ > /k͡x/ – written ⟨ch⟩ in OHG
This shift didn’t take place if the plosive was preceded by a fricative. So in the combinations /sp, st, sk, ft, ht/, the plosive remained unchanged. The plosive /t/ also didn’t shift if it was followed by /r/. This stopped the shift of modern German words like bitter or Winter, as these stems had /tr/ in their inflected forms in OHG (so, bittr– and wintr-)
Some of these were simplified in some German dialects. I won’t talk about that other than to note it, though.
We have enough things to go through without it!
And last, the third phase. This phase likely began in the 8th or 9th century, after the first and second phases had stopped. How do we know that, you ask? Well, if not, the voiceless plosives that were the results of the third phase would have continued to shift according to the first and second phases of the shift – which they did not. You see, during this phase, the voiced plosives become voiceless:
b > p d > t g > k
You might be familiar only with the second shift here – the dental shift from /d/ to /t/. This is the only shift that universally finds its way into standard German. So, for example, English day but German Tag.
If you think about it though, you might recognise the other two shifts in some German words.
These are the original geminates, so, for example, Rippe ‘rib’, Brücke ‘bridge’. In single consonants, the shift is restricted to the High Alemannic German in Switzerland, and south Bavarian dialects in Austria.
And that is it for the High German Consonant Shift. Naturally, these aren’t the only changes (and they are, of course, only a very brief overview). These are the three commonly recognised distinct phases of the shift though.
You still with me?
Good – let’s look at some other distinctive features of OHG!
Now, obviously, German today contains numerous umlauted vowels (ä and ö for example). These are often (though not always mind you) evidence of i-umlaut (remember i-umlaut? If not, check it out here).
For example, the Proto-Germanic vowel /ɑ/ became /ɛ/ in numerous Germanic languages, like English, German, Swedish and Icelandic. Yet, we all appear to be spelling it a bit differently.
Let’s look at the word men, for example.
In English, of course, we spell this plural form (from Proto-Germanic *manniz) with <e>. Icelandic also spells it with <e> (menn), while both Swedish and German spell it with <a>, complete with umlaut marks (<¨>) over it – that is, <ä> (German Männer, Swedish män).
Similarly, we find <ä>, <ü> or <ö> in some words where English spells it <ee> or <ea>, for example, Gänse ‘geese’, Füße ‘feet’ or hören ‘hear’.
I think you get the picture.
Obviously, there are many interesting features of Old High German that I haven’t talked about today, but a blog post can only be so long (and I tend to be better at writing books than short stories) so I’ll stop myself there. As always, check out our sources for more information about Old High German and other Germanic languages!
This was our last Early Germanic Dialect! However, it is not over quite yet… Tune in next week when I will tell you my personal (super-secret so hush) cheat-sheet for recognising the different Early Germanic Dialects!
As always, I refer you to Orrin W. Robinson’s (1992) book Old English and its closest relatives.
For this post, though, Robinson’s book was a bit dense, so to clarify some points, I’ve also looked at Wikipedia, this Powerpoint presentation from the Middlebury Blog Network (specifically the first two slides on page 4), and slide 23 and 25 of this slideshow.
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.
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.
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.
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]
The letter <g> was probably pronounced as the stop [g] after a nasal or when geminated (doubled). Otherwise, it was most likely the fricative [x] or possibly [ɣ].
Let’s move on to vowels, shall we?
Again, there are very few surprises in store here.
Old Low Franconian has the vowels i, e, a, o, u, both long and short. So far, no surprises.
But they also had a number of diphthongs: ei, ou, ie, uo and io, the last sometimes alternating with ia.
However, something you must remember when you’re studying old languages is that, as Angus McIntosh wrote:
Whatever we may claim to know is derived indirectly ; by making a study of written material and drawing certain conclusions from it
– Angus McIntosh, (1956) The analysis of written Middle English, page 27
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 Franconian
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!
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.
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:
No evidence of sharpening – that is, the general sound development in Gothic by which Proto-Germanic *ww becomes ggw (as seen in Gothic)
Rhotacism has taken place – that is, Proto-Germanic *z has become r
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!
As always, I direct you to our primary source: Robinson, Orrin W. 1992. Old English and its closest relatives.
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 High German
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.
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!
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).
And EGD is back! Today, we’re going to be talking about something close to my own heart: English! This is Early Germanic Dialects thought, so, naturally, we won’t be talking about modern English, but, Old English.
Now, before we start, let’s make one thing very clear: Shakespeare is not Old English. Nope, nope, not even close. In fact, some native speakers of English (and I’ve experimented on this with friends), don’t even recognise Old English as English. Let’s compare, just so you can see the differences. These are the first two lines of the epic poem Beowulf:
Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon
Listen! We of the Spear-Danes in the days of yore
of those clan-kings heard
of their glory
A bit different, wouldn’t you say? And now, of course, you’re wondering how it went from that to this? Well, that’s a different story (but we’ve told it in bits and pieces before).
Let’s today simply focus on Old English, shall we?
Right, so as per usual, let’s start with a bit of a history lesson!
As you might know, while English is today the dominant language of the British Isles, this was certainly not always the case. In fact, the tribes that we eventually consider “English” were all invaders or immigrants: Saxons, Angles and (maybe) Jutes! The native population of the British Isles were, the stories tell us, treated rather horridly – primarily thanks to the Celtic king, Vortigern, who ruled there during the mid-fifth century, who made a really bad call.
You see, Vortigern had a problem: the Picts and Scots kept attacking him and he simply couldn’t deal with these vicious barbarians on his own! So, he called in reinforcements! That means, he invited Saxons to come over to deal with the problem.
And they did. Then, I suppose, they were chatting amongst themselves, and with their buddies who were already living there, and thought “wait… If he can’t deal with these people… How would he possibly be able to deal with all of us?”. After, I imagine, a bit of snickering and laughing, they went off and told Vortigern – pleased with himself after the Picts and Scots had been pushed back – that they weren’t intending to leave. I imagine that left him less pleased.
It is actually from this period in time (or somewhat later), around the year 500, that we get the legendary myth of King Arthur. During this time, a great battle was fought at someplace called Mount Badon (which we can’t really place), and the British people succeeded in stopping the Anglo-Saxon expansion for a little while, and they may (possibly, maybe, we don’t really know) have been led by a king called Arthur (kinda little historical evidence for one of the most widespread myths out there, right?). Despite this success, a great deal of southern Britain was in the hands of the Anglo-Saxons by the year 600, and the areas under British rule had been reduced to distant corners of the west, such as Wales and Cornwall. What we end up with, is a geographical division that looks something like this:
Now, naturally, when people come together in close quarters and multiple leader-types, what follows is about 300 years of squabble about the ‘overlordship’ of this green area. Then… Then, they had other things to worry about – the Vikings had arrived.
But we’re not gonna talk about that today, so check it out here if you want!
So, the Vikings arrived, and this led to a long war. Eventually, King Alfred the Great of Wessex forced the Vikings to peace-talks (mostly because he kept beating them, though he might have been pretty much the only Anglo-Saxon king who could boast about that), and the Danelaw was formed.
The descendents of Alfred managed to keep things pretty smooth for a while. Specifically, until 978, when King Edward was murdered. Enter: Æthelred the Unready (and no, that is not a nickname that history added: his own contemporaries called him unræd, loosely translated as ‘ill counsel’). Basically, he did most things wrong (even attempting to order the death of all Danes in the country). The, probably, largest mistake that Ætheldred did though, was the decision to kill the sister of King Swein of Denmark.
Riled Vikings? Really, that’s a bad idea.
And in 1013, Æthelred was shown just how much of a bad idea that was, when a pissed-off Viking army landed on his beaches. The army of Danes met little resistance and Æthelred was forced to flee to Normandy. However, Swein died just a couple of months after that, and Æthelred returned to England – only to be re-invaded by Canute the Great, son of Swein, in 1015. Æthelred eventually died in 1016, and his oldest surviving son Edmund died soon after, leaving Canute the ruler of England.
Canute’s sons, Harald Harefoot and Hardecanute, ruled after his death, until 1042, when the son of Æthelred and Emma of Normandy (Hardecanute’s adoptive heir) Edward took the throne, which he held onto until his death in 1066. And we all know what happened after that… Enter the Norman invasion. Though Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, was acclaimed king after Edward, he held the throne for only nine months before he fell at the Battle of Hastings, thus putting a bloody end to the (fairly bloody) Anglo-Saxon state.
Alright, let’s talk language!
Though we have a number of surviving texts from Old English (a lot more than many other of the EGDs that we’ve been talking about), a lot is, of course, lost to us. What does survive, and what we really mean when we say “Old English”, is the late West Saxon dialect. The reason for that is simple: most surviving texts are written in that dialect. But, when studying Old English, it’s worth keeping this in mind: we’re not (necessarily) talking about a unified language; we’re talking about a dialect that happens to be primary in the surviving materials.
Anyway, first, as per usual, let’s look at some phonology!
Most letters of the Old English alphabet are fairly uncomplicated for a speaker of modern English. Some, however, have surprises in store.
One of those letters is the letter <g>. This letter is pronounced as in modern English ‘good’ only when it follows [ŋ] or when it’s doubled:
cyning ‘king’ frogga ‘frog’
Before the front vowels i and e, after them at the end of a syllable, and also in a few instances where <j> or <i> originally followed but has since disappeared, <g> is pronounced like the first consonant in modern ‘yes’. Before back vowels, though, <g> was pronounced [g].
Elsewhere, <g> is pronounced as a back fricative (remember Rebekah’s phonology lesson on consonants?), unless it is a sequence of <cg>, in which case it is pronounced as the first sound in modern English ‘giant’.
Another sequence that has a surprise in store is the letter sequence <sc>. Although a modern English speaker might expect that <c> here actually corresponds to [sk], it doesn’t. Instead, it would have been pronounced something like [ʃ], that is, the first sound in modern English ‘ship’ (as, indeed, also Old English scip).
Last, in this part, we have the letter <h>. While seemingly simple enough, <h> is pronounced [h] only in initial position and before vowels:
But before consonants, and when occurring in word-final position, <h> is pronounced as [x], a sound today found in German nacht or Scottish loch:
feohtan ‘fight’, here pronounced with [x].
In the vowels, Old English shows a number of changes that are not found in the languages discussed so far in our little EGD series. For example:
Like most other Germanic languages (except Gothic), Old English originally changed the vowel [æː] into [aː], yet under most circumstances (though especially before w), it changes back to æ:
Similarly, in most cases, the change of short [a] (which usually also changes into [æ]) systematically fails to take place when <a> is followed by a single consonant, plus <a>, <o>, or <u>:
daga (dat. sg.)
Except before nasal consonants, where long and short <a> instead becomes long and short <o>:
Now, something rather interesting before we move on: in Old English, we find evidence of a process known as assibilation. This process, which is shared only with Old Frisian of the Germanic dialects, means that the stops k and g becomes [tʃ] (as in church) and [dʒ] (as in drudge) respectively. This process is also the one responsible for correspondences like skirt/shirt, where shirt is the assibilated Old English form, while skirt is borrowed from Old Norse, which did not undergo this process, and thus retains a hard [k] sound. Interesting, isn’t it?
Now, I’m going to break tradition a bit and not really talk about morphology. Instead, I want to say a few words on syntax, that is, word order. Why? Because the syntax of Old English is not quite the same as the syntax of modern English. In fact, it’s rather markedly different.
Most notably, Old English is significantly more inflected than modern English: it inflected for five grammatical classes, two grammatical numbers and three grammatical genders, much like modern German. While this may be frustrating to students of the language, it did mean that reliance on word order was significantly less than it is today because the morphological form would tell you who was the subject, object, etc. This means that Old English word order was a bit less rigid than in modern English (in which, it is the only thing that shows you that there is a difference between the dog bit the man and the man bit the dog).
Generally speaking, the standard rule for Old English is that it has a verb-second word order, that is, the finite verb takes the second position in the sentence regardless of what comes before it. So it really doesn’t matter if the first element is the subject or the object, the verb holds its second position (in which case, the declension of the words become important for understanding the sentence correctly).
However, this holds true only for main clauses. In subclauses, Old English is (generally speaking) verb-final, that is, the verb winds up at the end of the sentence. Students of modern German (such as myself in fact), may recognise this kind of word order.
On the topic of syntax, I would like to wrap this post up with a cautionary note.
If you’re reading Old English poetry (and sometimes even when you’re reading prose): chuck these ‘rules’ of Old English syntax out the window. They won’t do you any good: in Beowulf, for example, main clauses frequently have verb-initial or verb-final order while verb-second is often found in subordinate clauses. So heads-up!
Right, that’s all I had for today, though, obviously, this is a very small appetizer in a huuuge buffet. If you’d like to learn more, we, as always, refer you to Robinson’s great book but, to be quite honest, the chapter on Old English is quite dense and even I had to refer a couple of times to Wikipedia and other sources just to make things clear. However, it is a good starting point so do enjoy!
As always in our EGD-series, our main source is Robinson’s Old English and its closest relatives (1992).
For this post, we’ve also taken a look at:
The passage of Beowulf, with its translation, is by Benjamin Slade: you’ll find it – and the rest of the translation of Beowulf – here
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:
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:
[b] > [b]
[d] > [d]
[b] > [p]
[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 High German
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>:
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.
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. gôþs ‘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:
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.
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.
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?
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!
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:
Remember the Vikings and their language, which Sabina taught us about two weeks ago? This language first became introduced to Britain through Viking raids in the 8th-9th centuries. The very earliest evidence of influence from Old Norse is from this period, and it shows up through loan words which have to do with seafaring and similar themes. The Norsemen eventually started settling in the British Isles, however, and in England, this meant some drastic political changes: wars between the Danes and Anglo-Saxons led to the establishment of the Danelaw, an area covering most of the East and North-East of England, which was under Danish rule for some time (although, the power shifted between Anglo-Saxon and Danish for the duration of the Danelaw). The relationship between Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon English (Old English) thus changed in the Danelaw, in that Old Norse became the language of the rulers. In this period we see many Old Norse words to do with law and government entering English.
Another effect of this time is that speakers of Old Norse and Old English lived side-by-side and dealt with everyday communication. If you’ve paid attention during Sabina’s Early Germanic Dialects series, you will know that Old Norse and Old English are quite closely related languages, both being descendants of Proto-Germanic. In fact, these two languages had not been developing separately for very long before they came into contact in England again (only about 4-500 years or so, quite a short time in the grand scheme of things). This fact, along with some evidence in records from the time, suggests to us that speakers of these languages could understand each other, with help from some accommodation from each side. I imagine this to be something like when I, as a Swedish speaker, am talking to a Norwegian speaker and end up speaking something we jokingly call ‘Svorska’, a combination of Svenska (=Swedish) and Norska (=Norwegian).
It is through this close relationship between the languages in the Danelaw that we see some of the deeper effects of Old Norse influence in English. First of all, the type of loan words that enter English in this period is the type of words that are most reluctant to change or influence, such as the verb take, or the noun sister; words that are used so frequently and are so fundamental to the language that they rarely get replaced by innovations. There are also some grammatical changes that have been suggested to be triggered by contact with Old Norse, such as changes in word order and simplification of the case and gender system on nouns. While some suggest that these grammatical changes were directly influenced by Old Norse, others argue that the changes were already underway before the contact, but that the contact triggered them to happen quicker.
How does contact with another language affect the grammar, if it’s not a direct transfer? Well, this can partly be due to grammar becoming compromised when people accommodate to a closely related language – people taking “shortcuts” to make themselves understood, kind of. It can also be due to that children learning their first language become presented with a mixed-but-similar-enough input that the grammar they learn as a first language is slightly different from what came before.
This Danelaw way of speaking came to influence the other English dialects, and Scots as well, through large enough numbers of people bringing their dialect with them from the Danelaw to other parts of Britain, even after the Norman conquest (immigration from the North to London is of particular importance for the Northern dialect forms entering standard English).
So what about that Norman conquest?
Well, in short: the Norman army conquered England in 1066. English nobles were replaced by French ones, and Norman French as well as Parisian French became the language of rulers across England. This contact situation was in some respects similar to the situation in the Danelaw, in that French, like Old Norse, became a language of invading rulers, but the situations differ in one very important way: French never became the language of the people. The French-speaking nobility were always in a position of power, and often had to speak English in order for their subordinates to understand them. Furthermore, the French-speakers were much fewer in numbers than the Old Norse-speakers were. After French loses its influence over England, the nobility starts to shift to English altogether, and English successively regains its position as the national language of England and the process of standardisation begins.
What English gets from this period is a whole lot of vocabulary. We especially see a huge influx of French vocabulary items entering English when the nobles shifted from French to English.. These words are often relating to “higher” contexts, such as art, music, religion and government, but there are also everyday words, such as joy, entering the language as a result of this contact. The legal and “governmentary” words largely came to replace the similar words that were previously borrowed from Old Norse, but mostly the French vocabulary expanded the language so that there were more word choices (compare the French borrowing joyous to the Old Norse borrowing happy).
The influence was not only in form of individual word transfers, however. The sheer number of words that entered English caused some alteration to the grammar: for example, the French suffixes -ment and -able became productive suffixes, meaning they can now combine with any word stem, whether Germanic or French (or other), and the sounds /f/ and /v/ became “upgraded” from allophones to phonemes.
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.
While on the subject of Scandinavian people who move around a lot, let’s talk Vikings! Actually, we have to look a bit further back first: to the Age of Migrations (the first phase of which is considered to be roughly between the years 300 and 500 CE, and the second between 500 and 700 CE). During the first phase, many Germanic tribes migrated from their homeland in the north (hence the Age of Migration), but the ancestors of the speakers of Old Norse stayed fairly close to home.
That doesn’t mean they didn’t move around quite a bit within that area: the Danes moved out of the south of Sweden, to Zealand and the Jutland peninsula, while the Swedes stayed put and expanded their territory to central Sweden and Götland through… well, somewhat hostile efforts. What eventually became the royal house of Norway came from Sweden to the Oslo region, as reported by the Old Norse genealogical poem Ynglingatal.
However, while a lot was going on in the frozen north of the world, the world went on much as per usual – until around the mid-eighth century when the rest of the world had a… probably somewhat unpleasant surprise. We’ve reached the Viking Age.
I won’t linger too much on the Vikings; most of you probably know quite a bit about them anyway. What you may not know is that the Norwegian, Danish and Swedish Vikings actually focused their attentions quite differently.
When you do think about Vikings, it is quite likely you might be thinking of the Norwegian or Danish Vikings. These are the ones that came to Britain and Ireland, and they must have been an unpleasant surprise indeed.
The first we hear (read) about the Danish Vikings is this:
Her nom Beorhtric cyning Offan dohtor Eadburge ⁊ on his dagum cuomon ærest .iii. scipu ⁊ þa se gerefa þærto rad ⁊ hie wolde drifan to þæs cynginges tune þy he nyste hwæt hie wæron ⁊ hiene mon ofslog þæt wæron þa ærestan scipu Deniscra monna þe Angelcynnes lond gesohton.
Which was translated by J.A. Giles in 1914 as:
This year king Bertric took to wife Eadburga, king Offa’s daughter; and in his days first came three ships of Northmen, out of Hæretha-land [Denmark]. And then the reve [sheriff] rode to the place, and would have driven them to the king’s town, because he knew not who they were: and they there slew him. These were the first ships of Danishmen which sought the land of the English nation. (The bold font here is, of course, our addition.)
This was written in the year 789, and it was but the first of many ‘visits’ that the Scandinavian Vikings paid England. And, of course, it didn’t stop there. In 793, Norwegian Vikings were most likely responsible for sacking the Lindisfarne monastery in northeast of England; this event may be considered to be start of the ‘true’ Viking Age.
While we all enjoy a bit of historic tidbits on the Vikings, I think we might often forget how truly terrifying these people were to those that were attacked. Some may even have believed that the Viking incursion was the fulfilment of Jeremiah 1.14: “The LORD said to me, “From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land”.
To put it short and sweet: the Vikings were terrifying. Of course, they continued to plague England for a long time, and one could even (a bit weakly) argue that the Anglo-Norman Invasion was, at least partly, a Scandinavian one; the duchy of Normandy in France, of which William the Conqueror was the duke, was created by Danish Vikings, and France had actually conceded the region to the Danes in 911. Of course, by the time of the invasion in 1066, the Normans were more French than Danish, but the ancestral relationship was still recognised.
Unlike the Danes and Norwegians, the Swedish Vikings mostly left England alone and instead focused their attentions on establishing profitable trading towns on the Baltic. They seem to have been somewhat less aggressive in their travels – though don’t mistake that to mean that they weren’t aggressive at all – and could perhaps be described as piratical merchants who traded with people as far away as Constantinople and Arabia. Their principal trading routes, however, lay in what is now Russia, and some even claim that the Swedish Vikings, under the name Rus, were the founders of some major cities, such as Novgorod and Kiev (though whether this is true is somewhat unclear).
But let’s also not forget that the Vikings were more than pirates: they were great explorers. They discovered the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and ‘Vinland’ (nowadays, we know – or strongly believe – this to be some part of North America).
Anyway, eventually, the Vikings became christianized and, thanks to the conversion, the excesses of the Viking Age were moderated and eventually came to an end. With Christianity came also something else extremely important: the introduction of the pen.
Old Norse, as Orrin W. Robinson puts it, “is unique among the Germanic languages in the volume and richness of its literature” , which of course also gives us a rich insight into the language itself. I won’t be taking you through the literary genres of Old Norse here but they are certainly worth a look! Instead, I’ll do the same thing as I did with Gothic and take you through some of the features of Old Norse that make it unique (or almost) and distinctive in comparison to the other Germanic languages.
Let’s get going!
First, let’s look at some consonants.
Like Gothic, Old Norse underwent sharpening. There’s a bit of a difference in comparison to Gothic, though. As you may recall, in Gothic, the medial consonant clusters jj and ww in Proto-Germanic became ddj and ggw respectively, while in Old Norse, they both became gg clusters followed by j or v respectively. So, you’ll find consonant clusters like tveggja ‘of two’ and hoggva ‘strike’.
Unlike Gothic, Old Norse underwent rhotacism, meaning that it turned Proto-Germanic z to r, and also underwent a process known as gemination. Gemination means that if the consonants g or k were preceded by a short vowel, they doubled. So, we find Old Norse leggja ‘lay’ but Gothic lagjan.
Old Norse also had a number of ‘assimilatory’ phenomena, meaning that one sound becomes like (or identical) to an adjacent sound. These are:
[ht] becomes [tt]: Gothic þûhta ‘seemed’ corresponds Old Norse þotti
[nþ] becomes [nn]: Gothic finpan ‘find’ corresponds Old Norse finna
[ŋk] becomes [kk]: Gothic drincan ‘drink’ corresponds Old Norse drekka
[lþ] becomes [ll]: Gothic gulþ corresponds Old Norse gull
As a group, these are highly distinctive features of Old Norse.
That’s enough of consonants, I think, but let’s also have a brief look at the vowels. As you may recall, Old Norse has undergone umlaut. Actually, Old Norse underwent three varieties of umlaut: a-umlaut, i-umlaut and u-umlaut. I won’t be going through the details of umlaut here, but check out this post if you want to know more!
There are two more particularly interesting features of the Old Norse language that I’ll mention here – I’d keep going, but you’ll get sick of me.
First, the Proto-Germanic ending *-az, which was used for both masculine a-stem nouns and most strong masculine adjectives, has been preserved in Old Norse as –r. In Old Norse, you therefore find forms like armr for ‘arm’ and goðr for ‘good’.
Second, and this is a biggy: the definite article in Old Norse (in English, ‘the’) is regularly added to the end of nouns as a suffix rather than as a separated word before them. In Old High German, you find der hamar but in Old Norse, it’s expressed like this: hamarinn.
Of course, the Vikings (and their predecessors) also made use of runes, but I won’t get into that here. If you’re interested in that sort of thing, check out our previous post on runes.
Gosh, that was quite a bit, wasn’t it? I hope you didn’t get too sick of me, but it is the historic stage of my own native language after all, so I suppose I was bound to keep talking too long.
Until we meet again, dear friends, I hope you enjoyed this post on Old Norse and please join us next week as we welcome guest blogger Sarah van Eyndhoven, PhD student in Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh, here at the HLC!
As before, our source for this post is Orrin W. Robinson’s (1992) book Old English and its closest relatives – a really excellent resource if you’re looking for an excellent overview of the Early Germanic Dialects. His quote above is taken from page 61 of this book.
The Old English text quoted here is from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. We’ve taken the quote from here and the translation from here. (While it is from 789, the listing will tell you 787.)