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What’s so bad about Weird Al’s “Word Crimes”?

So Weird Al Yankovic is back. To completely lift the words of my brilliant friend Stoo, “you remember Weird Al, right? He was last popular around the same time as nothing at all, ever”. On Tuesday night, I watched his second video-a-day offering (following Monday’s ‘Tacky’, a daft but vaguely entertaining ditty to the tune of Pharrell’s ‘Happy’). Called ‘Word Crimes’, it’s set to the tune of omnipresent twat-anthem Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, and is a lighthearted riff on the mistakes people make in written and spoken language. OR IS IT? (Clue: it isn’t.)

As soon as I read that blurb, I inwardly sighed. Then as I watched it, I outwardly sighed. A lot. I knew within hours it would be a viral hit with the ~liberal educated Internet crowd~ (of which I am one, I hasten to add), and was proved right when I opened Facebook this morning and several friends had shared it and sung its praises.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the wordplay is solid (rhyming “educate ya” and “nomenclature” definitely raised a smile) and god knows I’d rather listen to a less sexually predatory version of that song (“You would not use ‘it’s’ in this place” was slightly more palatable on the ears than “You the hottest bitch in this place”.) But it’s gross. It sums up everything that’s wrong with the current ~liberal educated Internet crowd’s~ habit of mobilising themselves as some kind of Language Army, taking down anybody who doesn’t conform to one particular type of English in order to cleanse the human race of morons and half-wits (read: to mutually pat each other on the back and bask in their collective superiority complex).

inb4 “Oh GOD you’re such a killjoy” – maybe I am. But this isn’t just some random video. This is going viral, will be watched by millions, and will inevitably be used for months to come by pedants to try and validate their weird obsession with making people feel bad about themselves.

English is the second most-spoken language in the world, behind Mandarin. It’s also the most-spoken second language in the world, and while totals are near-impossible to estimate, it’s probably reaching the point where almost a billion people speak some kind of English to some degree of fluency. A seventh of the population of Earth. That’s pretty cool (if you don’t think too much about the fact that it’s mostly because of colonialism/general douchebaggery that this is the state of affairs), and it’s pretty sweet that so many people can communicate with this one language. The language being spoken in so many places inevitably means it’s going to change. Language changes constantly; that’s just a fact of life, inevitable, and most definitely not negative. There’s a chance, owing to the vastness of its number of speakers, combined with the near-instant communication a huge number of us have access to and the dominance and reach of English language media, that these changes will be accelerated, and have been over the last few decades.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but society hasn’t collapsed in on itself just yet. As the English language has spread and changed; as we’ve introduced thousands of new words; as some of us have started using “was like” instead of “said” as a quotative; as people have occasionally spelt words with numbers in emails and text messages; as second person indirect pronoun “whom” has started to be used less often — the world has not spontaneously imploded or been sucked into the cavernous mouth of a hell-demon. Also, we can still communicate as effectively as ever.

And, funnily enough, hundreds of years ago when English lost its case inflection system, and the pronouns “thee” and “thou” (leaving “you” to act as both singular and plural second person signifier), and when the Great Vowel Shift caused (among other things) the word “night” to change from ‘nikt’ to ‘nayt’, we also didn’t spontaneously combust. In fact, we continued progressing to a society that now has stuff like 3D printed organs and peanut butter cup ice cream. Changes in language don’t mean that we as an English-speaking population will grind to a halt due to being unable to successfully communicate with each other. It just doesn’t. We adapt to the changes (even if that means a couple of instances of minor miscommunication, which are easily overcome) and then we carry on our merry way(s).

It’s natural to fear and reject the unfamiliar, I get that. But it’s only since the formalisation of arbitrary grammar rules and regulations that deviating from this perceived norm has resulted in pointing fingers and accusations of being “raised in a sewer”. Until the 17th Century (ish), without a formal way of printing language and very little in the way of transport, English was spoken differently in different places with no real bother. Then BAM, industrialisation. Trains! Roads! A conscious class system! At some point, those in the South East (London-based, mostly) decided that the way they spoke was the proper way. And, having the money and facilities open to them, decided to write books to that effect, books that ended up in schools and which still inform English language teaching to this day. Now, this isn’t in itself a completely terrible thing. Language teaching is good, it gives people a tool for communication, etc. etc.

BUT, these books stated that anything that deviated from this South Eastern standard was wrong. Now, it’s not like everyone outside of this area was bellowing at each other and/or shrugging their shoulders until this point, completely unable to communicate. No, they had lives and communities and workplaces and everyone got along merrily. As soon as these kind of books were published (and listened to), the language that people outside the SE of England spoke became wrong. Bad. Defective. Immediately. Through luck and social circumstance, one variety of English got picked to be the proper one, and from then on it became okay to mock, deride and ridicule anybody who deviated from that, despite the fact that their own varieties of English were equally adequate at communication. The upper classes, then (for it was these who wrote said books), had yet another way to disregard the thoughts and opinions of the lower classes, because if they couldn’t speak properly (i.e. adhering to the rules the rich folk made up), then they were barbaric and weren’t worth listening to anyway.

“But that happened hundreds of years ago, Hannah! That is sooooo 18th Century!” I know that, but the exact same kind of message is put out in these videos, and by grammar pedants like this little shit. The only reason to gloat and sneer when people deviate from a rule (that is often not relevant any more) is to get some kind of moral superiority and dismiss them as inferior. It’s founded in classism (and often these days, racism, as a lot of this bile is targeted towards non-native English speakers who, let us not forget, are fluent in at least one whole other language too and that’s pretty damn impressive doncha think?) and it’s gross. Particularly considering – in this example – the rules being upheld are ones which are fading away for the most part because they don’t serve a communicative purpose any more.

“Whom” is used less often now because not using it doesn’t directly impair the understanding of a sentence. You know what the person means anyway. In fact, if you’re pointing out a ‘mistake’, you must understand them in the first place in order to do so. People who dangle participles or use the newer, extended emphatic meaning of “literally” or use single letters to occasionally replace words are not, as Al states, “incoherent”. They’re perfectly coherent, and their communicative purpose is unimpaired – you just don’t like it, and want to make them feel bad about it.

And boy, does this song do that. “You’re a lost cause.” “You dumb mouth breather.” “Get out of the gene pool.” “That literally makes me want to smack a crowbar upside your stupid head.”

inb4 “It’s just a song, he’s using those phrases to make it rhyme and sound funny!” Oh believe me, you don’t have to delve far into the Internet to see identical comments being made by the self-proclaimed ‘grammar police’, and in conversations on the topic the sentiment remains very similar.

There’s a lot of reasons a person might not know that ‘whom’ is the indirect version of a second person interrogative pronoun. Maybe they’ve never heard it (because of how it’s dying out). Maybe they were never formally taught it, whether it was omitted from their English lessons, or they didn’t progress through the education system to the point where this is taught. Maybe they’re a second language speaker, and haven’t got to the level of fluency to easily use it. Maybe they’re dyslexic, or have another kind of language impairment. Telling any one of these people to “get out of the gene pool” is obscene. It’s demeaning and cruel, and purely to make them feel small and you feel big. Can you imagine being told that? Being hounded for not following a certain rule, even though the main function of your speech or writing (i.e. communication) was successful?

Just stop. Stop the grammar police. Stop hurling wildly hyperbolic insults at people for daring to deviate from a standard. Accept that language changes, and that it’s okay. Encourage people to learn language so we can all communicate more and easily, but don’t shit on them if their version of it is different to yours. It’s classist bullshit, and it’s so 2010.

Also, I should stress, this charming parody song includes the line “you write like a spastic”, and really, that is reason alone to throw it in the bin.

tl;dr – the English language is not a sacred thing we must uphold at all costs, and being nasty to people who deviate from a set of outdated and arbitrary rules makes you an asshole.

NB. For a less-sweary, better-articulated version of this response, you can do no better than Lauren Squires or Stan Carey, both of whom are excellent.

EDIT 23/07/13 – So some of the feedback I’ve had on this post has been amazing, and some not so positive – that’s cool, obviously, I barely agree with myself half the time so I don’t see why everyone else should! I just wanted to address a couple of points raised:

1. I spelt Weird Al’s surname incorrectly. My bad, genuinely sorry about that, have changed it now.

2. As a native speaker of British English, I reacted badly to Al’s use of the word “spastic” in the song, as over in the UK it’s a pretty horrid ableist slur. Having read up on it (thanks to an informative post here), I see the same word in US English has a far less offensive meaning, akin to ‘klutz’. I also see Al has sincerely apologised to British listeners who didn’t like it. Fair play, that one’s on me too.

2.5. 24/07/13 – Okay, I slept on this one, and a couple of comments have made me decide that, actually, my discomfort with the word still stands. Regardless of its innocuous status in US English, the word’s roots are still pretty ableist, and I think it should have been (and should be) avoided.

3. A few people have said that the song is a parody of prescriptivism and language policing itself, and that I have entirely missed the point. I’m afraid it doesn’t look like that’s the case – Al has spoken about the song, and confirms that he holds the beliefs it puts forward about ‘proper grammar’.

People that know me (or have seen the grammar-related videos that I’ve posted on my YouTube channel) don’t doubt my credentials as a grammar nerd, so it was obviously a real joy to be able to vent about some of my pet peeves in a song parody.”

Alas.

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What’s the big deal about mocking someone’s accent?

As a society, we’re getting better at not being dicks to each other. It’s a slow progression, but some hurdles have been royally leapt: women can vote, homosexual couples can adopt, and ethnic minorities legally have access to the same goods and services as everybody else. Of course, we still deal with individual douche-canoes mouthing off at people because of their sexuality, gender identity, race, ability, age, body shape or a million other things; institutionalised prejudice hasn’t been eradicated; and prejudice is still enacted on a micro-level, often not from a malicious footing, but as the product of a society still breaking free of intolerant belief systems (that blasted patriarchy!). I’ve painted a cheery picture there, haven’t I? … but in general, while things are by no stretch of the imagination fixed, in most ways they’re getting better, and we’re a lot sounder to each other than we used to be.

Not, I would argue, when it comes to class. Class is something of a dirty word these days – we’re either too embarrassed to talk about it (“How gauche! To talk about money and social positions!”), or we believe we’ve superseded it (“We’re all middle class now”, came the cry from the New Labour camp upon election in 1997). I’m afraid that’s bollocks. While we still have caricatures of ‘chavs’ on television; while the richest 1% of people in the UK have as much wealth as 60% of the rest of the population combined[1]; while we still have benefit recipients universally derided as ‘scroungers’ in the mainstream press (and in opinion polls), we still have a class system in place, whether we’re talking about it or not. While I don’t think there should be a class system in place, ignoring that we have one isn’t going to make it go away.

There are many ways in which class judgements can be articulated, the majority of which I am not in any way well versed enough to write on[2] – but one of the ones I might be is language policing. That chavs don’t talk proper, innit. As with the majority of my blog posts, this one comes complete with OPINIONS and FEELINGS – you’ve been warned.

I reckon language and accent mockery and judgement is one of the last bastions of acceptable, overt prejudice. People mock each other’s accents all the time, in conversation, on television, and in print. Comments about people’s accents are often just a euphemism for class-based prejudices it would be improper to state more bluntly. “That woman sounds like she’s poor and ill-educated” – no. “She’s got a common, chav accent/Scouse is a horrible accent/she’s not even speaking English” – these are the kind of things you hear quite frequently. Mocking someone’s language is a helpful euphemism – a linguistic fig leaf, if you will – allowing shitty judgements and belief systems to go relatively unchallenged.

However, highlighting someone’s linguistic prejudice is often greeted with accusations of being oversensitive, and talk of “accent prejudice” followed by scoffs and eyerolls.  I can understand it – it doesn’t seem as severe as other douchebaggery, and in a real sense it’s probably not. But it does matter.

I hear the same excuses over and over:

1. “But it’s only an accent!” Accents are far, FAR more important than you might think when it comes to Getting On. Yes, we live in an age where BBC newsreaders aren’t restricted to a certain type of accent, and public figures like Professor Brian Cox, Paddy McGuiness and John Bishop (sporters of Mancunian, Lancashire and Liverpudlian accents respectively) are frequently featured on primetime. But if we’re more accepting of regional and multicultural accents, why are elocution lessons still on the rise? Although many carry a positive connotation (hence the choice to house many call-centres in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the accent being widely considered to be a friendly and approachable one), non-standard accents still carry an awful lot of stigma.

A damaging amount, actually. Even the most recent of studies – which led to ITV dedicating a Tonight programme to the issue – show that people still judge regional accents, with 28% of respondents feeling discriminated against because of their accent, and 80% of employers surveyed admitting to discriminating on the grounds of accent[3]. Previous studies have seen a person considered to be “significantly more guilty” of a crime having given evidence in a Brummie accent, compared to giving the same evidence with a Southern accent [4]. Likewise in the States, one researcher placed calls to landlords in white, African American and Latin American English accents, finding the latter two invited far more discrimination in finding housing[5]. This isn’t fiddle-faddle – people honestly think, in a simulated court of law, that a person is more likely to have committed a crime if they speak in a Birmingham accent – not based on the content of their speech, but how it’s pronounced. That’s not only bonkers, it’s a bit scary. Accent judgement has a real, tangible effect on people’s lives.

2. “But it’s just my opinion!” Yes, it’s your opinion, but it sucks. Other prejudices can’t be absolved by people just adding “…in my opinion” to the end. When some terrible homophobic member of congress says that gay couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry because they are a threat to children and it will result in homosexuality being taught in schools (before drunkenly crashing his boat into a bunch of kids [6]), he’s stating his opinion. And he’s also being horrible. How do you think it makes someone feel when you express disgust about the way they speak, something they can’t easily change, are born into, and are often proud of, it being an emblem of their upbringing? Yes, it’s your opinion, but it’s also mean. And perpetuating negative stereotypes about people based on their accent leads to more general poor treatment, as seen above.

3. “But they’re not talking properly!” What is “talking properly”? Most people would agree, including the people who write dictionaries, that the right way of pronouncing a word in British English generally matches the way a South-East English speaker would[7]. The standard accent is something akin to Received Pronunciation – though modernised – whose speakers are thought of as saying things correctly. An accent like Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen’s, for example. Everything else is deviant.

But who do you think invented this idea of a “standard” way of speaking (and writing)? DING DING DING, that’s right – a very small group of rich, powerful, Southern white dudes! It’s a common adage that history is written by the winners, and the same is true of linguistic history. Upon the arrival of the printing press in England in 1476, it was soon decided that the wildly disparate English spelling system needed reining in, and decades of grammar books, dictionaries and pronunciation guides followed. The people who wrote these tended to be the most powerful, in positions of higher education, often males (but not exclusively), who lived in the South. As such, they wrote down their own way of speaking as the “right” way, thus abandoning all others to the realm of non-standard. Their version wasn’t inherently better at communicating or more correct, it was just in the right place at the right time, and was therefore eternally considered to be so. People in the north, for example, haven’t been speaking “incorrectly” for centuries, it was just decided at an arbitrary point that they were Doing Talking Wrong.

4. “But I can’t understand them!” Ooh, this one riles me up. To put it briefly: if you can correct them, you can understand them. Consider the following exchange:

#1 – “I’m goin’ shop”
#2 – “You mean you’re going to the shop – I can’t understand what you mean if you say that!”

The whole response is entirely paradoxical; how can you ‘correct’ someone’s grammar, inserting words they’ve omitted, and follow that by saying that you didn’t understand what they meant? I put it to you, either you’re not trying hard enough, or you’re just saying that to belittle someone. “In many cases…breakdown of communication is due not so much to accent as it is to negative social evaluation of the accent in question, and a rejection of the communicative burden” – Rosina Lippi-Green[8]. Which leads me on to my next point…

One of the things that gets my goat is when people do this:

kelly 2  kelly 3(Image source and a video link of the scene, with more examples here)

This is Kelly, from the TV show Misfits. She’s portrayed as a working class delinquent, completing a community service order, with a potty-mouth and a violent streak. As you’ve probably noticed, Kelly’s accent is written out phonetically in the transcripts above. But why? She’s saying the same words as you and I are, but hers are spelt out orthographically in a non-standard way. Robert Sheehan – the guy with the curly hair in the right gif – speaks with an Irish English accent, but his isn’t spelt out any differently. In fact, by this measure, all accents should be spelt out phonetically, as they’re all giving particular pronunciations of words.

But they’re not. Only certain accents are chosen to be spelt out like this – more often than not, accents like Kelly’s. This suggests that Kelly is not talking properly, that she’s somehow incorrect. By doing so, the way Kelly speaks (incidentally, with a broad urban Derbyshire accent) is portrayed as abnormal.

socha tweet 1
Lauren Socha – the actress who plays Kelly – responds.

The idea that non-standard varieties of English are inarticulate is long-standing.  Tony Crowley, in his book Standard English and Politics of Language, discusses early 20th Century division of people into ‘the articulate and the barbarians’[9], the latter being incomprehensible to the former. Non-standard speakers’ contributions are reduced from language to mere noise, and are therefore to be ignored; this allowed people to discredit the content of their speech based on its structure, considering it not worthy of time or consideration. When non-standard accents like Kelly’s are ‘translated’ to and from English, it reinforces this idea that their speech is defective, and therefore, if the speaker can’t even articulate themselves correctly, they can’t possibly have anything to contribute that’s worth listening to.

Some have said to me that it’s done from a place of affection, of celebration, and this could be true of things like dialect books and dictionaries, where local pronunciations are written out phonetically. But it’s tied up in and contributes to a bigger picture, one where regional and international accents of English are mocked and derided; one where speakers can be less likely to get certain jobs because of their accent (regardless of their intelligence or suitability); one where people with these accents feel the need to change them, and have internalised the stigma about their own accents to the point where they hate the way they speak. And that sucks.

Yes, having a standard is often useful, and allows for relatively easy communication on a global scale. However, variation shouldn’t be belittled, patronised and wiped out. You’ve probably seen the recent news stories about schools in Middlesborough and South London, whose teachers decided that they were going to try and quash regional pronunciation and vocabulary items; or stylised dictionaries of ‘chavspeak’ which have a dig at the kind of multicultural Englishes we see popping up in London and Manchester[10].

Non-standard accent and dialect features are interesting, valid, and often have a long regional history, not to mention being incredibly important to the speakers using them – and nobody should be made to feel bad for the way they speak. Someone’s accent is an integral part of who they are, and criticising it is kind of a dick move, wrapped up in long-standing classism. So don’t! Judge people on what they say, not how they say it.


[1] From a helpful and informative video here: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2013/oct/08/inequality-how-wealth-distributed-uk-animated-video
[2] If you’re interested, I’d start with Owen Jones or Danny Dorling if I were you.
[3] http://www.itv.com/news/2013-09-25/28-of-britons-feel-discriminated-against-due-to-accent/
[4] Dixon, John, Mahoney, Berenice & Cocks Roger (2002) Accents of guilt? Effects of regional accent, ‘race’ and crime type on attributions of guilt. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 21:2, pp. 162-168.
[5] Purnell, Thomas, Idsardi, William & Baugh, John (1999) Perceptual and phonetic experiments on American English dialect identification. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 18:1, pp. 10-30.
[6] Yeah, that happened.
[7] Though, of course, there are those who fervently state that a localised version is the “correct” way! [EDIT: This originally read “South-West” because Hannah is a numpty]
[8] If you get a chance to read any of English With an Accent, Lippi-Green’s book, PLEASE do. It’s ace, and covers with more knowledge than I am able discrimination of people with non-native English accents, which is incredibly important.
[9] Crowley, Tony. (1989) Standard English and the Politics of Language. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 180.
[10] See the work of Paul Kerswill and Rob Drummond for details.

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.