Tag Archives: Language

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 [ancientresource.com]

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?]

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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.

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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.