Author Archives: Kate Wiles

Merry Xmas! An Illustrated History

It’s Christmas!! I’m sitting here in my Fairisle knit jumper with reindeer and snowflakes on, I’m listening to Idina Menzel forcefully emote glorious Christmas music at me, and I still haven’t bought all my presents or finished putting the decorations up. The festive season is definitely upon us.

All of that is slightly beside the point for the purposes of this blog post, but damnit, I just really love Xmas.

Oh wait, sorry – not Xmas, Christmas.

This is a common complaint at this time of year and gets people really riled up. A quick poll of my small corner of Twitter (disclaimer: I did this last year and was so slow to write the post that I saved it for this year) shows that pretty much everyone prefers to write Christmas over Xmas. For some, it’s a matter of principle, that they don’t like shortening or abbreviating words, or because Christmas is more proper and more traditional. For others, it can be seen as ‘taking the Christ out of Christmas’, which is obviously something bad if you’re religious, but might be preferable for secular writers.

Of course, I’m not here to tell you whether you should be offended by something or not, but I think opinions about this are interesting considering the history of Xmas.

Xmas is no less full of Christ than Christmas in any way but spelling. Any quick Google will tell you this, but I’m going to put it here. With pictures. Lots of pictures. But the point stands; writing Xmas is not taking the Christ out of Christmas. And it’s certainly not any less traditional.

The ‘X’ in Xmas comes from the Greek spelling of Christ, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ. The first character, the X, is called Chi (pronounced ‘kai’, to rhyme with ‘high’). It had been used by pagan Greek scribes to mark notable or good things in the margins of texts, but in the 4th century it merged with the Rho to become a symbol.


The Chi-Rho

The Emperor Constantine adopted it, went into battle under it and won, and it took off. All of a sudden this symbol had power across the Christian world. Indeed, the Christian cross as we know it didn’t start to appear in art produced in the British Isles until the sixth century. The Chi-Rho was the go-to symbol, and is still used today.

Charles Thomas, in his Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500, has two excellent illustrations showing its development and use in different contexts:

 Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 14.39.16 Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 14.39.34
[Google Books link, pp. 88-89]

And here, for your enjoyment, are some other cool things from early Christian history with XP on them:

redware-shard-ar20711Roman North Africa, 4th – 5th Century AD []

The Hinton St Mary mosaic from Roman Britain in the 4th century, AD.
[more info from the British Museum]

Most people were not literate in their own language, let alone in Latin or Greek and it’s very unlikely they recognised letters in the symbol. To most of the western Christian world, this symbol was Christ. The Chi-Rho was already in use in Roman Britain, and it comes into use again by the Anglo-Saxons from the fifth century. As I’ve written about elsewhere, scribes love abbreviating, and they really love symbolism, and XP combines those two in one heady mixture. XP is what we call a nomen sacrum, a sacred name, in which the symbol itself has power. In such cases, the abbreviation is not used to save space or effort, but because that form has more power than the full words. It was ‘not really devised to lighten the labours of the scribe, but rather to shroud in reverent obscurity the holiest words of the Christian religion’.*

It appears in the fanciest of manuscripts, taking up entire pages:

The Gospel of St Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels, the fanciest of manuscripts.

The Book of Kells. The fanciest of manuscripts.

And in quiet little brown manuscripts, used as part of the normal text:

 xpADD37517 135V a
British Library, MS Additional 37517  f. 135v, a quiet little brown manuscript.

Harley 2892   f. 20 a
British Library, MS Harley 2892 f. 20

Royal 1 D IX   f. 43v a
British Library, MS Royal 1 D IX f. 43v 

Harley 391   f. 33
British Library, MS Harley 391 f. 33

And oh wow in so many more places. See if you can spot it on each of these pages: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5.

Of course, as we know, Christ is not just a stand-alone word, it also appears within other words (Christmas being the relevant example here). In 1485, for example, it’s used in christened:

 1485   Rolls of Parliament. Any Kyng or Prynce in England Xp̄enned.

And in 1573, in Christopher:

1573   J. Baret Aluearie,   The long mistaking of this woorde Xp̃s, standing for Chrs by abbreuation which for lacke of knowledge in the greeke they tooke for x, p, and s, and so like~wise Xp̃ofer.

And eventually, just the X is used as a short-hand for the whole thing, as more obscurity slips in. The OED cites the first use of X in Christmas in 1551 by which time I imagine it’s long lost its symbolic power, particularly as, as the previous example shows, even in the sixteenth century, people were confusing the Greek letters Chi and Rho for the Latin letters Ex and Pee:

 Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 22.13.21
The earliest instance of X in Christmas,
in Edmund Lodge’s Illustrations of British History.

And then we see it cropping up in early 1900s greetings cards entirely detatched from any symbolic, early Christian meaning:

From the Ephemera Society

And on Victorian Xmas cards –  none of which I’m able to post here for reasonable copyright reasons but which you should look at because they’re lovely –  in the 1860s and 1870s.

So, not only is X- old as balls, in the medieval period it was even more powerful than Christ-. Feel free to use it for space-saving, festive, jolly, and religious reasons. And Merry Xmas!

[Note: What does surprise me – and if anyone can answer this, I’d be interested – is how low Xmas is compared to Christmas on Google NGrams. Possibly because it only contains published books, where Xmas might be rarer?]

Continue reading

On the Origins of Fuck Part 2: But what about the D?

Last week I got to visit the manuscript that started it all. The one with the brilliant little note in the margin insulting some unpopular cleric with one of the earliest recorded instances of the word fuck:

whole page adjusted

Brasenose College MS 7, f.62v [photo mine, with thanks to Brasenose College, Oxford and Llewelyn Morgan]

What this picture shows is one full page of a fifteenth-century manuscript. The two main columns are a section of Cicero’s De Officiis – a moral treatise on good behaviour – which was the second-most frequently copied text of the Middle Ages. And at the bottom of these two columns someone has come along and written the following:

1.  false are the works wich this Abbot writ in the abbie of Osney alias Godstow 1528
2.  O d fuckin Abbot

This handwriting is found on several pages throughout the manuscript and, very unusually, it gives us a date – 1528 – so we know exactly when it was added.

Writing notes on manuscripts was common practice. Manuscripts weren’t viewed as they are now, and they weren’t equivalent to our modern books. We see a printed book as a complete object; to write on it is to defile it. Medieval manuscripts, despite being rarer than our mass-produced books and MUCH more expensive, were constantly added to, first by editors and correctors, then by later readers or students. In fact, this was a practice which continued for centuries, as described in this excellent post about Mr Bennet’s library. 

On this manuscript there are actually two layers of annotations: the handwriting shown here, and the work of a second, much more prolific person, who wrote all over it, clearly engaging very closely with the main text.

But to get back to the fuckin Abbot.

The first line tells us something about the possible identity of the abbot: the Abbot of Osney in Oxford in 1528 was John Burton and, as it happens, he wasn’t a particularly popular abbot.

At that time fuck was a word used to describe sex. It wasn’t used as a swearword as we’d use it today. So the ‘fucking’ here is probably being used literally: ‘Oh, that abbot who fucks a lot’. (Someone has tried to find evidence of this but the worst they could find was one pregnant nun nearby who may, or may not, have been shagged by the Abbot. If he WAS trying for Casanova’s record, he kept it quiet). 

‘BUT WHAT ABOUT THE D?’ I hear you cry.

 close up

The only mention of it that I’ve found suggests that it’s an abbreviation of damned or damn, as in, ‘O damned fuckin Abbot’.* This isn’t an unreasonable thought: as I discussed in an earlier post, medieval scribes loved abbreviating. They loved it more than they loved doodling in margins and sharpening their quills.

However, when they abbreviated they typically added a mark – a dash, or a squiggle – to show that something had been missed off. Not always, but enough that the absence of such a mark here is unusual.

But how likely was it that damn would be used then?

Unlike the so-called Anglo-Saxon four-letter swearwords, the gritty, grubby nasty ones which we like to imagine hark back to a harsh medieval life, damn is originally from Latin, and came into English via French. In Latin, damnāre meant ‘to inflict damage upon something’ or ‘to condemn to punishment’.

When damn arrived in English, some time before the fourteenth century, it had a <p> in it, as you can see in these two examples:

‘For hadde God comaundid maydenhede, Than had he dampnyd weddyng with the dede’ (For had God commanded maidenhood, then he had damned marriage with the act (of consummation)). Chaucer, The Wife of Bath (c.1386).

‘He wolde pray god for hym that he myght knowe whether she was dampned or saued’. William Caxton, who introduced the printing press to England (1484). 

There are a few theories to explain the appearance of <p> in damn and in words like it (although I should note here that as damn arrived in English from Old French dampner it’s not, strictly speaking, exactly the same).

In Latin, Old French, and Middle English the second syllable of damn when declined was still pronounced (e.g. ‘dam-NED’). The addition of that syllable changes the way the ‘-mn-’ is pronounced. Now, the ‘n’ is silent, but in Middle English it was pronounced.

This consonant cluster falls at a tricky point in the syllable break between making an /m/ with your lips and an /n/ with your tongue on your alveolar ridge (the hard bit behind your upper teeth and before your palate), where you need to coordinate the switch between the two. The mouth’s way of getting around this is to insert a ‘transitional sound’ between them (this is officially called stop epenthesis). In the case of /-mn-/, a /p/ is produced because, like /m/, it has bilabial articulation (both lips). In English this <p> is first seen written down in the thirteenth century, particularly in the West Midlands, and when damn arrived from French it fit in quite nicely with the existing pronunciations.** The <p> was even included in damn when it wasn’t declined. In 1400, ‘I damp þe’ was ‘I damn you’.

You can see this process at work in words like dreamt or empty, where the mouth has to make a /p/ in the process of going from /m/ to /t/. Both dreamt and empty gained a <p> in their spellings in Middle English, but empty is the only word to still have it preserved in its modern spelling. It’s quite a nice fossil.***

Damn started out as a verb, to damn, and over the centuries it has become more versatile, doing all kinds of damn things, like:

becoming an adjective in the fourteenth century (appearing later in, for example, ‘Out damned spot’),
a noun by the seventeenth century (e.g. ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn‘),
and an interjection (‘Damn!’).

Then, as today, to damn had two main meanings: the first is to imply damnation, to suggest that someone is condemned to Hell. The second is a profane intensifier much like very, as in, YOU DAMN DIRTY APE! (it performs the same function as a slightly swearier very (‘YOU VERY DIRTY APE!’). By the 1500s, the date of the tricky D, this second meaning was definitely in use and it wouldn’t be unexpected to see it in this manuscript.

I just don’t think it was.

Instead, I think this is a mistake, or a false start. You can see in the picture that the ‘d’ is smudged but nothing else is. There are no other smudges on any of the other things written by that person and the letters around it aren’t smudged. I think that this was a half-hearted attempt to rub out the D which may have been an intended damn, or some other word.****

Normally a scribe will correct a mistake by scraping the vellum (animal skin) with the point of a knife. It leaves that spot a bit roughed up, but you can write over it and, if you don’t look too closely, no-one will ever know. Here, for whatever reason, the Sweary Scribbler hasn’t fully erased the mistake. Maybe because there wasn’t a knife-point to hand, or maybe because it’s time-consuming and delicate work and this isn’t formal writing meant to be presented neatly, it’s just a note.

I’m not saying it DEFINITELY wasn’t meant to be a damn(ed) fuckin Abbot, I just think it’s unlikely.

Continue reading

On the Origin of Fuck

One origin story for fuck is that it comes from when sex was outlawed unless it was permitted explicitly by the king, so people who were legally banging had Fornication Under Consent of the King on their doors, or: F.U.C.K. But obviously that’s wrong. As are all of the other nonsensical acronyms floating about (anything ending in Carnal Knowledge uses words which wouldn’t be used until AFTER the contents of this blog post). So if you do believe any of that, stop it. Stop it right now.

But right now there’s a post going round with a lovely image of a manuscript from Brasenose College, Oxford, proudly declaring it’s the earliest instance of fuck in English (although, it notes, that is apart from that pesky one from Scotland and that one that says fuck but is written in code). But even if we DO agree to discount those two little exceptions, it’s still not the earliest instance. I think the Brasenose fuck was considered the earliest in 1993, and that’s quite out-dated now.

So, for your enjoyment and workplace sniggering, here’s a potted history of fuck.

Instances of fuck before the fifteenth century are rare. Despite it commonly being classed as one of the Anglo-Saxon four-letter words, Jesse Sheidlower (author of an entire book on fuck, and past editor of the OED so he knows what he’s talking about) suspects that it came into English in the fifteenth century from something like Low German, Frisian or Dutch. While ‘fuck’ existed in English before then it was never used to mean rogering, instead it typically meant ‘to strike’ (which was, way-back-when, related to the word that became fuck because it’s a kind of hitting…). Anything that appears earlier is most likely to be the use of fuck to mean ‘to strike’. If you wanted to talk about making whoopee in a dirty way, the Middle English word to use was swive. [ETA: @earlymodernjohn asked if it’s related to Modern English ‘swivel’ as in ‘go swivel’ and it is! The more you know…]

Another theory for why there’s hardly any written record of fuck before the fifteenth century is because, if it was around before then, it was just too darn rude to write down. The coded example might have been an early way around actually writing it.

Another theory for its late arrival is that it’s a borrowing from Norse (the Vikings) via Scottish because several early instances are found in Scottish writing (such as the fifteenth-century one discounted in that other article). However, this is generally believed to be unlikely, in part because the Scottish weren’t considered influential enough for English to borrow words from them. Perhaps there were more early written examples in Scottish simply because they were less prudish about writing it.

There are lots of instances of the word fuck from before the fifteenth century drifting around, some of the most notable of which are, chronologically:

John Le Fucker (supposedly from 1278) – While excellent, this name is probably apocryphal. Since it was first written about no-one’s been able to find it and it’s generally assumed to be a mis-reading, perhaps of Tucker, or a variant on fulcher, meaning ‘soldier’. Disappointing.

Fuckebegger (1286/7) it appears as part of the surname of one of Edward I’s palfreymen. Marc Morris posted this excellent photo on Twitter:

However, this is generally assumed to mean ‘to strike’ and can be compared with the Anglo-Norman surname Butevilein meaning ‘to strike the churl or wretch’ (‘vilein’ being related to the English villain which originally meant a person of a lower status).

The place-names Ric Wyndfuk and Ric Wyndfuck de Wodehous (which sounds like a brilliant place to live), both of which are found near Sherwood Forest in a document from 1287. These use the bird-name Windfucker (first cited 1599) which may or may not have something to do with making the beast with two backs. The OED veers towards yes, probably, it’s a kestrel which majestically mounts the wind. So the place-names here kind of have fuck in them by a circuitous route and are possibly the earliest instance of fuck in English.

Simon Fukkebotere and Willm’i Smalfuk (Ipswich, c. 1290). Simon’s ‘fuck’ is almost definitely being used to mean ‘to strike’ and describes his trade, which, I know, is hugely disappointing. Who wants ‘hit-butter’ when you could have ‘fuck-butter’?? William’s ‘fuck’ is a new one and it’s probably related to a fukke, a type of sail first cited in 1465. Sorry.

EDIT [15th Sept 2015]: Roger Fuckebythenavele (1310) A new discovery! I spoke to Vox about it here.

Fockynggroue – Another place-name, from Bristol in 1373. This was shown in 2007 quite persuasively to be the earliest instance of fuck in English used to mean doing the funny downstairs business. It’s a name akin to Lovegrove rather than one which uses the Old English personal name Focca which appears in the place-name Fockbury, or from Old English Folca as in Folkestone. While the instances before this are possibly to do with getting down and nasty, this one’s pretty conclusive, and predates the Fucking Abbot by 155 years.

The coded poem mentioned above from 1475 called Fleas, Flies and Friars in which ‘fucking’ appears as follows:

Non sunt in celi
quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk
Which, decoded reads: ‘fuccant uuiuys of heli’

‘They [the friars] are not in Heaven because they fuck (the) women of Ely’ (which might be interpreted as a pun on ‘Hell’).

The following are the earliest citations in the OED:

1513 – W. Dunbar Poems, Scottish, ‘Be his feirris he wald haue fukkit’.

The Fucking Abbot (1528) isn’t even the earliest citation that’s widely talked about, predated by ten years by Dunbar, which the link discounts as not being in English, despite appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary.


1663 – Richard Head, Hic et Ubique: or, The Humors of Dublin. A comedy, ‘I did creep in..and there I did see putting [sic] the great fuck upon my weef.’ I’ve included this even though it’s quite late because I really like saying ‘the great fuck upon my weef’. And because it’s written by a man called Richard Head. RICHARD. HEAD.

And in 1680 by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester in a book of what sounds like LOVELY poems: ‘Thus was I Rook’d of Twelve substantial Fucks’.

So, I think we can definitely say there’s at least three, possibly four earlier instances of fuck in English before the Fucking Abbot. Sorry dude.

Continue reading

What Can Place-Names Tell us about Basically Everything?

Hot damn, place-names though! I have ridiculous levels of enthusiasm for place-names, which may be evident in the slightly breathless roller coaster of exclamations that follows in this blog post, and for that I apologise.

So why would anyone care about place-names? Admittedly they’re niche. But place-names can tell us ridiculous amounts about so much: settlement patterns, landscape, agriculture, farming and commerce, language, societal hierarchies, administration, cultural attitudes and trends, religion, regional politics and probably much more. They do it all! And the reason I get so excited about them is not the names themselves, but the wealth of information you can get from them by looking at an area and studying them in the contexts of the names around them, and the contexts of naming patterns in general.

My area of expertise is Old English place-names, but the theory and patterns I’ll describe here would probably apply to most other languages and cultures. The predominant trend in Old English place-names is the use of landscape terms, which arose because the Anglo-Saxons were an agricultural society and were heavily dependent on the landscape around them. This is reflected in a massively diverse lexicon of landscape terms, which I’ll come back to later.

There are two main structures of Old English place-name: Simplex and Compound. The simplex just has one element or word in it, the compound has two or more in, typically a generic word meaning ‘town’, ‘settlement’, etc, and a specific, modifying word or element which describes that settlement and distinguishes it from other ones. This is off the top of my head, but I believe that simplex names are generally older, and that compound names developed later. These can be used as evidence to date when an area was settled because names, like so much in life, follow fashion.

Within these structures, there are different types of place-names. Simply put, places can be named after different types of things. There are place-names which describe the landscape, which are plentiful, more plentiful and varied than in Modern English, reflecting a different relationship with the landscape. These probably arose as a way to describe the place where people lived, such as the hill shaped like a heel (‘hōh’ in Old English), or the valley with three sides (‘cumb’), or a clearing in a forest (‘leāh’). There are Old English words for different shapes of hill and valley, for different types of water and shapes of river bend, different soil types, plants, woods, walls. All sorts. A lot of them have since died out in the general language but remain fossilised in place-names.

There are places named after an important figure, such as the leader of that community. A famous example is ‘Nottingham’, which is literally ‘settlement of the followers of Snottr’, a Norse name which probably came about after the Viking invasions and settlement in the North of England. After the Norman Conquest, French speakers, unfamiliar with the <sn> consonant cluster, dropped the <s>, and their usage has given us the modern spelling. Place-names after people are interesting not just because they tell us about the presence of different nationalities, or about the names of leaders, but because they can tell us about the growth and spread of a community. Depending on whether a place-name ends in -ham, -ingas, or -ingaham, we can tell whether it was the point of initial settlement, or a satellite settlement as the original community grew too large and had to spread out into the surrounding area (because these name-elements follow fashions and trends, too). Typically, the earliest settlements (and thus names) are those near water and on the best soil, and as demand for land grew, the community would have to spread on to poorer and poorer land. Sometimes there’ll be a connected place-name some distance away from the original settlements, and a path or road linking them, which shows the distance a community would have had to travel to find decent farmland.

Places can also be named after the people who live there. These names will be given not by those who live in the place, but others around it, as a way of labelling and of distinguishing ‘us’ and ‘them’. A nice example is ‘Wales’, which means ‘foreigner’ or ‘outsider’ in Old English (from ‘wealh’).

There are also places which describe what type of agriculture, faming or lifestyle the people who lived there had (for example, ‘Swindon’, which means ‘pig hill’ (or swine-hill), so the people there farmed pigs. On a hill) (or, for example, Gropecuntelane, Clawecunte and Shavecuntewell as described in this paper (admittedly some of these are particularly graphic topographical descriptions but I couldn’t NOT mention them!) (this paper also mentions the excellent Orcas in Sandford which is from the Old French ‘Oriescuilz’ meaning ‘golden ballocks’. David Beckham, take note).

There are places named after religious figures or practices. These are typically pagan, by which I mean non-Christian, and are quite rare. Weirdly, there are about 5 clustered together in Hampshire and Surrey, where I’m from, and include Thurston and Tuesley (named after Thor and Tiw (as are Thursday and Tuesday) and Peper Harow, which means the Piper’s Hearg, ‘hearg’ being a pagan temple. With the Christianisation of England, pagan temples were ransacked and paganism died out. If the names were still recognisable to the people living there they were likely to rename it, perhaps to disassociate themselves from paganism. We also find Christian place-names, the most common I can think of is ‘eccles’, which is the Latin for ‘church’ (as in ‘ecclesiastic’). These are interesting, because the survival of a Latin name means that place must have been settled in the time of Roman settlement, and continued to be lived in by people long beyond the presence of Romans and the use of Latin as a vernacular language, and that the name continued to be used by people even though they didn’t necessarily understand its meaning as a Latin word.

There are also some oddities which can tell us about a specific moment in time.

The River Avon, for example, just a Celtic word, a rarity, meaning ‘river’. A nice theory I’ve heard about this is that when the Anglo-Saxons invaded and pushed the resident Celts out (to Wales and Cornwall), there was very little contact (evidenced by the almost total lack of Celtic words in Old English), and when they came to the Avon someone said ‘what do you call this?’, and the Celts shrugged and said ‘a river’, and the Anglo-Saxons, not understanding Celtic, thought it was the name and appropriated it. Why they bothered to ask if they cared so little is unexplained… The same is said of ‘Ouse’, which is Celtic for ‘water’.

There’s Morpeth, which literally means ‘murder path’. Which tells a nice story…!

And Grimston hybrids. These are compound names in which one element is Old English and one is Old Norse. Grimston, obviously, has this: ‘Grimr’ is an Old Norse personal name, ‘tun’ is Old English for ‘town’ (compared to the Old Norse equivalent ‘by’ as in ‘Grimsby’). There are a couple of ways these places could’ve come about. They could be Anglo-Saxon settlements which received an influx of Viking settlers, or which received a new Viking leader, but the speakers remained Old English. Or, it could be a wholly new Viking settlement but they saw ‘tun’ as just what goes on the end of a place-name in this new country, much like ‘ville’ in America which is technically a French element, even though the people who name a place ‘Jacksonville’ aren’t actually French speakers.

The most notable thing about English place-names today is their weird spelling/pronunciation, which causes untold strife to non-native speakers. Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, I’m looking at you. But there is a good reason for these weird pronunciations. Basically, place-names start out life an a description or a thing, or a label. They’re just a short noun-phrase used to distinguish a thing or a place from other things or places. At some point, these short phrases stop being phrases and become names. And how do we know that happens? The pronunciation is a big clue. Say, for example, a new estate was built near you, and you referred to it as the new estate. Ten years later, you’re still calling it the new estate, but it’s no longer new, other estates have been built since, but that one’s still called the New Estate. The words have ceased to mean ‘the estate which has just been built’ and have come to mean ‘the place we call ‘new estate”. 100 years down the line, it’s still called the New Estate. Perhaps it’s got some kind of independent administrative system and they’ve taken on the name New Estate and made it official. 500 years down the line English has changed quite a bit, but the name has become twisted, and because no-one connects it to the words ‘new’ and ‘estate’ anymore, that form doesn’t need to be preserved, and people who speak a different language have since invaded and repronounced everything anyway, and now it’s 1,000 years down the line and that place is now called Nustat. That’s how Gloucestershire happened.*

This means, when you’re trying to find out what a place-name means, you need to find the earliest cited form of the name, because confusion can arise. For example, a modern place-name ending in ‘borough’ can be from any of three different words. There’s Old English ‘beorg’ meaning ‘a rounded hill’, Old Scandinavian ‘berg’ meaning hill, and ‘burh’ one meaning ‘a fortification’. Each of these words tells a very different story about the history of that settlement, the people who lived there, and about their relationships with each other and with the landscape. And that, to me, is the beauty of place-names.

*Shameless plug, but I recently wrote a journal article about that. Ask me more!

Did Old English Die Out? Or, a Brief Introduction to Late Old English

I wrote this as a response to a friend’s question and decided that, as it’s been well over a year since we updated this poor lonely blog, maybe, just maybe, I could post it here. The question was regarding this article, which reports on some research arguing that Old English couldn’t survive the presence of Old Norse, and that Middle English and then Modern English developed out of Old Norse instead. The follow-up to this was how exactly we might determine this.

First of all, a disclaimer: I haven’t read that full paper, just the summary in that link, but on instinct I don’t agree, because of everything else we know about that period. Also, the line between language and dialect – and what we actually call distinct languages – is nigh-on impossible to define, which adds another layer of difficulty here (this is my flatmate’s PhD topic, incidentally).

The background issues which I’ll try to grapple here are:

Germanic versus Scandinavian languages
The situation in England
Viking presence
The North-South divide
The West-Saxon dominance
The Norman Conquest

So, what do we mean when we talk about language families? Well, this is the traditional model, the Indo-European language family tree.

You can see on the left the Germanic family of languages which branches off into West and North Germanic. This means that at the time, Old English and Old Norse were about as close as Norwegian, Danish and Swedish are now. Obviously there are problems with this tree model because it doesn’t allow for later influences such as those we’re thinking about here, like the Viking influence on English, or the Norman influence, or the later cross-pollination with other languages. If you looked at this you’d think English had almost nothing in common with French… Basically what the tree shows is how communities split off and accents and dialects became more and more distinct until they ceased to become mutually intelligible, or until the communities decided that they were speaking different languages even though they could still understand each other (see: the border between Norway and Sweden, I think).

A bit of history: at the time all this was going on, England was a bit unstable, divided up into multiple kingdoms. We divide up the dialects of OE to mirror these kingdoms even though it doesn’t really map sensibly, and leads to problems. When the Vikings settled properly they were basically given the north of the country, and given the rule of it, called the Danelaw. You can still see evidence of that in place-names (and I have another post about place-names in the works), so, for example, any settlement whose name ends in ‘-by’, such as Grimsby, is a Viking settlement, compared with the OE ‘-tun’, such as Withington. The influence is also seen in the different modern accents, and in dialect words. The North obviously came under massive influence from Old Norse, while the South was more influenced by the centre of power at the time, Winchester, and the West-Saxon dialect.

And finally we have the Norman Conquest in 1066, which resulted in a small influx of very important people who restructured everything and flooded the language with new words.

And then to answer the question about how we can conduct these kinds of studies. What evidence are they using?

lexical change [adoption of new words]: happens easily – fandom, for example, picks up new words from other languages, or new coinages, and they get introduced and become widespread incredibly easily. Think of how the OED announces new words each year (whether you like them or not).

However, some words don’t change as easily, words that we use all the time, like pronouns, conjunctions, the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to have’.

The article talks about the adoption of lots of Scandinavian words for everyday concepts for which OE words already existed. There’s a fantastic article by Roberta Frank which I recommend everyone read called ‘Terminally Hip and Incredibly Cool: Carol Vikings, and Anglo-Scandinavian England’ which I can send to anyone who fancies it. It basically compares the Vikings to Jazz musicians – they were cool, they were sexy, the English woman all loved them. They were basically over paid, over-sexed and over here. And of course the English picked up their words. This was helped by the fact that, like British English and American, the two languages were already similar enough to be mutually intelligible. There’s a brilliant passage in the Old English poem ‘The Battle of Malden’ with a conversation between a Viking and an Englishman which has the Viking’s poems in a funny accent – the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the Swedish Chef basically.

Pronunciation change: happens all the fucking time. We see different sound changes in areas of Viking settlement to the South, but then, there were different accents before the Vikings. Of course, the presence of the Vikings in the north had an influence on the pronunciation of words which is still evident today. A nice example of the accent difference between Old Norse and Old English is the <sk> <sh>/<k> <ch> sounds. For example, Modern English has ‘shell’ and ‘skull’, and ‘shirt’ and ‘skirt’. These were the same words in Germanic, but when the tribes split off the West Germanic speakers shifted towards the <sh> sound, and the North Germanic speakers went to <sk>. The Vikings brought their new pronunciations back over and they were appropriated as new words alongside the OE pronunciations. Ditto the Old Norse ‘kirk’ alongside ‘church’, although the meaning hadn’t changed here, so they were just appropriated by different groups of speakers as two words for the same thing.

Syntactic change: This seems to be the crux of the argument in this study. Syntactic change happens much less easily. These features become genetic identifiers of languages along with the high-frequency words I mentioned above. Syntax and grammar do change, but as the average speaker is much less consciously aware of them, and they’re so overarching, it’s rare. We might mimic Yoda’s sentence structure but it’s with an awareness that you’re doing something different, it doesn’t become normal usage easily. There are subtle changes – British English is being very influenced by American verb usage at the moment because of America’s cultural dominance (eg. ‘can I get…’). There’s also the addition of a new tense since the early eighteenth century: Jane Austen said “I am come to see my sister”, not “I am coming…” because the present progressive is a new thing. So syntactic changes do happen, even on a massive scale, but they don’t mean a language isn’t a language.

The few examples this paper gives give really aren’t enough to convince me, I’d have to read the full paper. But if they’re talking about the transition from Old to Middle English they’ve completely ignored the Norman influence, which ALSO resulted in loads of new vocabulary items being added, replacing pre-existing Old English words, and it ALSO resulted in syntactic changes. When two languages co-exist, and one is culturally dominant over the other the languages are going to merge and influence each other and adopt convenient things from each other’s language.

In this case the Normans were the upper class (the most well-known illustration of this is that Modern English has the words Beef and Cow, Mutton and Sheep, Pork and Pig, which are Norman (ModFrench Boeuf, mouton and porc) and OE (cū, scēap and *picga) because the French lords saw the meat on the table, while the English peasants had to farm them). The grammatical system of Old English changed – it had a very strong case system, a bit like in Latin, which meant that every word had a different ending on it which agreed with everything else in the sentence. In theory, this means the words can be put in any order, and they often were in poetry, because, like a good Christian nation, they liked to emulate Latin and adopt their rules. French speakers arriving couldn’t deal with this and had a different system, and one of them biggest shifts between Old and Middle English was the loss of the case system and the rise of a system where you know what function a word has in the sentence (e.g. subject or object) by its position. And if you read any Middle English you can’t miss how damn French it is. Seriously.

There were three written languages from 1066 onwards: English, Latin and French (or Anglo-Norman, which was basically a hybrid of the two, showing the influence they had on each other), and they were all as important as each other, Latin and French moreso in formal contexts.

Basically I would be more inclined to conclude that Old English came under massive influences from various waves of Viking settlement and then the Norman Conquest, and it’s the influence of BOTH of those languages which resulted in the weird hybrid we ended up with. Aspects of Old Norse were understandably more easily assimilated due to the similarity between the two languages. Unfortunately, we’re low on evidence for the 11th-13th centuries and very little was written that wasn’t a copy of an earlier text, but Old English texts continued to be copied completely coherently for those centuries, so obviously people still understood the language, and the texts were still understood in that form enough to warrant their being preserved. Happily, this is where my thesis comes in!

NOTE: Since writing this, it’s been pointed out to me that part of the paper’s argument is incorrect. It suggests that certain structures in Modern English are impossible in Dutch or German, but this isn’t the case – German has group genitives, for example.

Is Texting Ruining our Language?

As an undergraduate, one of my lecturers once said that language is a tug-of-war between laziness and comprehensibility. Laziness, and our desire to communicate with as little effort as possible will make language change, but our need for comprehension will temper how much it changes.

Text-language is a perfect example of this – we want to fit as much information as possible into as small a space as possible by pressing the fewest buttons, but it still needs to be understood by its recipient.

And people HATE it. Texting is ruining language. U no wen its all shrt & theres no pnctation lol. Isn’t it awful! Does it annoy you? Does it? Does it get your goat? (Actually, I’m drafting this in Word and it certainly gets Word’s goat – there’s so much red and green under that sentence it’s like Christmas.)

Actual linguists don’t hate texting. But then, our purpose is to describe language objectively, not to say whether it’s good or bad, right or wrong. That being said, ever since I got my first mobile way back when, I’ve been incapable of using any of the abbreviations; I’d always rather cut a clause or phrase than shorten a word!

Instead, most of the people who hate texting are the general public (and the Daily Mail. But I think we can take it for granted that if a thing is, the Daily Mail hates it).

The OUTRAGE when the OED introduced text-abbreviations this year! OMG. WTF. W.T.A.F. (never mind the fact that a dictionary’s role isn’t to say whether a word is good, or right, just to say that yes – this is a thing that is being used as a word and is in print enough for us to acknowledge it).

To quote the always excellent David Crystal:

‘The popular belief is that texting has evolved as a twenty-first-century phenomenon – as a highly distinctive graphic style, full of abbreviations and deviant uses of language, used by a young generation that doesn’t care about standards’*

But the fact is, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Writing is always dictated by the tools we use. Runes developed because straight lines are so much easier to carve in stone or onto bone. Roman inscriptions are all in big CAPITALS because they’re easier to carve. When quills and ink were developed, writing got curlier, but it was still slow because, as anyone who’s written with a fountain pen will know, you can’t go up without the ink splattering, so letters were formed carefully, using a series of strokes, rather than in one long scrawl (like my writing with a biro, which is possible because of the flexibility afforded by the ballpoint).

In 1890, telegraph operators’ language was dictated by the tools they used to transmit it. This lovely article shows operators abbreviating every word, taking out not just vowels but a lot of the consonants, too.

And then you have medieval scribes, my area of expertise. They abbreviated everything they could get their hands on.

Modern English has the ampersand, which comes from the Latin et, meaning ‘and’, which elided and morphed to become a single symbol.

This shows the evolution of et > & well enough.

That was, of course, for writing Latin. Old English had its own equivalent, the Tironian Nota: ‘7’ (pleasingly, on a modern English keyboard it’s the same key as the ampersand, and I don’t know if that’s intentional or not). And, just as the ampersand has been used to represent ‘et’ in longer words (such as ‘&c.’ for ‘etcetera’), so too was the tironian nota used for ‘and’ in longer words such as ‘andlang’, meaning ‘along’.

Some other common abbreviations can be seen here:

Beowulf. British Library, Cotton Vitellius, A. xv.**

The symbol in the middle of the lower red square is an abbreviated form of ‘þæt’, pronounced ‘that’ (the first letter is a rune called thorn pronounced ‘th’), meaning ‘that’ (see how little our language has changed in over a thousand years!). This little symbol is seen everywhere, all over Old English manuscripts, and is no different from the modern texting @ for ‘at’, or U, or 4, or 2.

The top red box is another beastie entirely. The line over the top of the ‘u’ (and now you’re officially reading an Anglo-Saxon manuscript) means that either an ‘n’ or and ‘m’ has been removed from the end of the word. It’s even more common than ‘that’. Sometimes it’s used as a space-saving device – near the end of a line to squish a whole word in – but really, it’s used everywhere. It’s used in every genre of text: poetry, legal texts, record keeping, annals, histories, narratives. It’s used on fancy illuminated pages and in biblical texts, it’s not restricted to informal discourse like texting abbreviations are.

There are, in fact, so many abbreviations in medieval manuscripts that there’s a dictionary just for the abbreviation marks. It’s been put online (start clicking on letters to view it page-by-page). This is, frankly, far more extensive than anything we’ve yet to come up with through texting, and this is in Latin, the language we hold above all others and upon which we base our insane grammatical rules! And in Old English, the oldest and therefore BEST form of our language! At least, this is how they’re used in arguments by people scared about language changing and ‘corrupting’, when actually, language is language. It’s inextricably human and the ways we use it are the same whether we’re writing on parchment or texting on a phone.

I initially intended to write this blog post just to highlight the fact that abbreviation has been around, basically, as long as writing has, and it’s not new technology that’s causing a shift in the way we write. But, as I was researching it, a friend sent me a link to a BBC news article linking texting to literacy in children, which throws in a whole new line of conversation – not only is texting not corrupting language, it could actually be improving it. How d’you like that then, critics?

The article says:

‘when pupils replace or remove sounds, letters or syllables – such as “l8r” for “later” or “hmwrk” for “homework” – it requires an understanding of what the original word should be’

and concludes:

‘The use of text language “was actually driving the development of phonological awareness and reading skill in children”’

So, the process of creating a text-speak abbreviation involves being able to identify the various parts of a word and then being able to take bits out or to substitute them. Innovations with language like this require a relatively robust understanding of the language in the first place and the knowledge to be able to manipulate it meaningfully.

So, not only is texting not a terrible new scourge on our language, not only is it not showing a dumbing-down of the younger generation, but it’s actually helping them! Who knew?

Of course, I am a linguist and as such have to be totally descriptivist about this and not say that text-language is the WORST THING EVER because it’s just, demonstrably, not (this is also my get-out clause when I make mistakes in my writing – I’m a linguist, I believe there are no rights and wrongs in language, STOP BEING SO PRESCRIPTIVIST AT ME. What are you, THE MAN?). Its users are not, as John Humphrys so vividly puts it, ‘doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours 800 years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary’. They are, instead, continuing a millennia-old tradition of abbreviation and linguistic innovation, and improving their language skills, and all you prescriptivist grumps can put that in your pipes and smoke it!

* David Crystal, Txting: The Gr8 Db8 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 7.
** As is always the way when you try to find an example to illustrate a point, you can never find any of the buggers anywhere. Such was my search for pictures of abbreviation in manuscripts that weren’t copyright. I’d love to show you endless manuscript images with all sorts of abbreviations, but the law gets in my way. Instead, here is the first page of Beowulf, the most famous Anglo-Saxon manuscript image there is.

Some further reading:
Continue reading

Kate: Why I Love Language

Why I love Language

I think I’ve always loved language (singular, more than plural – more of which later). I remember when I was about 13 walking to school in the morning and repeating to myself “p”, “b”, “p”, “b”, trying to work out why they were different – they use exactly the same motion with the mouth but they’re different. Then, later, sitting in a lecture at university and mentally slapping my forehead when I was introduced to the concept of voicing. How had my thirteen-year-old self not worked out that “b” uses my voice and “p” doesn’t?! Whoever had worked that out was a clever egg indeed.

The aforementioned ‘later’

My fascination has always been not with learning individual languages, but with language as a concept – bugger the language itself. I don’t want to be able to use it; my brain has never latched onto language-learning like other people’s brains have. I just want to understand how it works, I want to pick it apart piece by piece and see what makes it individual, see what connects it to all the other languages. I love the feeling that linguists are like detectives, piecing together clues until we see the big picture. Or maybe a clockmaker. Or some other trade for which I am utterly unqualified. Maybe a jigsaw-completer, identifying the pieces, working out their shapes, and fitting them together to make a whole.

My chief interest is with the remote, be it historical or geographical distance. I studied aspects of some Pacific/Australasian languages and found it amazing that the rules of language that we’ve established by observing the Indo-European languages can be applied to those which have never had any contact. I love that they work in ways that are so different and yet the same.

Most of all though, I love historical language issues.  The fact that you can see the beginnings of Modern English in Old English. It’s simultaneously remote but at the same time instantly familiar. I love etymology, semantic and phonological change. Cognates. Language family trees. Reconstruction. All of it.

My research now is into the history of English, currently focusing on late Old English. This brings with it the awesome areas of research that are place-names, language change, manuscripts, and the relationship between the spoken and written language in Old English. Oh! The fun I have. In conducting this research I’ve had opportunities to read about Middle Egyptian poetry, Neuroscience, Folklore, Archaeology, Geography, Economics and Geology. Language is inherently human, and as such inextricably connected to everything we are and do. And that’s just marvelous, innit.

So – please talk to me about it! What do you like? What would you like me to talk more about? I am at your disposal.