Tag Archives: Linguistics

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.

133px-Simple_Labarum2.svg

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]

740px-Roundel_mosaic_christ_hinton_st_mary_british_museum_edit
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:

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

KellsFol034rChiRhoMonogram
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:

jan13
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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Why do people on the Internet write so ‘poorly’?

It’s been a year since I wrote one of these blog posts, which I know is appalling behaviour. But darling Kate recently posted some super interesting stuff about Old English, and that spurred/guilt-tripped me into writing something of my own.  Unsurprisingly, I don’t know anything about Old English, but do you know what I do know about? THE INTERNET.

Being a person who is On The Internet*, I’m amazingly fortunate to see language evolve before my eyes on a near-daily basis. When so much Internet communication is written/typed, it’s not surprising that different corners of the internet play with vocabulary, grammar and typology in order to carve out identities. Often, linguistic constraints caused by the technological corseting of computer programmes — like character limits, punctuation restrictions and the lack of intonation and other paralinguistic features that aid communication face-to-face — result in online communities developing linguistic quirks that go on to identify them as users of a particular game/forum etc. But it’s bigger and more exciting than that – those quirks are warped and developed into a whole new system of language use that singles out a person as a member of a gang, a clique, and that allows people to instantly relate.

The first instance I remember hearing of this was during an A Level English class, where we learnt about leet speak, or L337. Originating on message boards and online gaming communities in the 1980s and 90s, leet speak is a form of language which sees alphanumerical characters used to graphologically recreate written language – so Hannah, in an extreme case, might be spelt as I-I /-\ I\I I\I /-\ I-I. Phrases like l33t (from elite), n00b (from newbie) and pwned (from a frequent mistyping of owned) which are now used across the internet (and in spoken language) originated from hackers’ and gamers’ frequent communication, and evolved from their desire to conceal information, gain and show esteem and skill, and mock outsiders. L33t was one of the first stylised online dialects to become whole and recognisable – it developed coherent syntactical structures, reams of new vocabulary, and it was learnable for new users. How cool is that? Just the same way that people who speak to each other in person on a daily basis pick up phrases and quirks of accent from each other, the same thing happened with written language on the Internet.

Of course, this is nothing new. This post is also nothing new. There has been tonnes of commentary on the glories of Internet speech and the new and brilliant linguistic quirks that come from online activity. What I want to talk about is the snobbery that has bounced back from this internet speak, and why I completely disagree with it.

Tumblr is a newish social networking/microblogging site which was set up in 2007, and in recent years has been a hotbed of fandom action – some of which I observe and participate in. Tumblr is a primarily visual medium, with talented users photoshopping graphics for their favourite bands/shows/films/games/people, but it is also frequently used as a platform for lengthy discussion of social justice issues. Readers who partake in Tumblr will most likely be familiar with the language variety that has sprung up on the site, acknowledged as ‘tumblrspeak’. It’s hard to quantify every feature, as it develops and evolves every day, and I’m bound to have missed many here, but some of the most common ones include:

– a lack of capital letters at the start of sentences, and frequent omission of punctuation such as full stops and commas

– but: a very frequent use of capital letters to express shouting/excitement, and excessive use of exclamation marks and other punctuation

– long, run on sentences

– frequent use of abbreviations and acronyms (totes, amaze, lbr, kms)

– stylised, non-standard turns of phrase, often hyperbolic in nature: i want this because of reasons, i can’t hold all these feels, LET ME DIE, i am cry

– use of angry, offensive sentences actually meant with love/lust: shut up with your face, fuck you for existing in the first place, go away and stop ruining my life

– sentence fragments used to express emotion: i just, i can’t, i cannot even

reasons

Original comic, by Ryan Pequin, here. [Source corrected Feb 2014]

Found scouting around tumblr, here are a few examples of posts which use some of these features – 1 2 3 4**. A lot of the time this kind of language play is used in the tags of picture posts rather than in the content itself, so look out for that.

One of the most interesting things I see (and do) on tumblr is innovative use of graphology and the shape of words to mimic the pronunciation and intonation that is used in spoken communication to express sarcasm, etc. Frequently, people will staRT USING CAPS IN THE MIDDLE OF A WORD!!! to express a kind of aroused shoutiness/lack of control over one’s keypresses that makes perfect sense if you’re involved in fandom, but it kind of hard to explain to outsiders. Or, they’ll space words differently in a way that symbolically tells the person who is the focus of the post to s t o p.

It’s fascinating how the constraints of a written medium are circumvented and linguistic trickery is employed to make up for the lack of verbal cues. And, as with other mediums, tumblr’s rules and software quirks have resulted in a good many of these linguistic quirks: the tagging system, for example, doesn’t permit comma use, and so develops the tendency for run-on sentences.

But again, it goes beyond necessity. Tumblrspeak is a badge of belonging, of being in a place where EXTREME ENTHUSIASM isn’t frowned upon, and screaming about a TV show is a great way to make friends. And it’s absolutely brilliant. So much of tumblrspeak uses non-standard grammar, spelling and punctuation, but it’s not out of laziness. It’s a conscious decision: as this simple post puts it, not using punctuation is a way of using punctuation. Tumblr users are likely to be perfectly familiar with standard grammatical rules of English, but they’ve said ‘fuck it’ and put emotions first, twisting and moulding their own language variety that is by the medium, for the medium.

Just because language is non-standard, doesn’t mean it’s bad, or that communication is hampered. In fact, tumblrspeak is an incredibly effective and efficient method of communication. In tumblrspeak ‘I am really attracted to this person’ is translated to ‘FUCK U’, ‘I am having a lot of strong emotions about X’ is translated to ‘HALP’, and ‘I agree wholeheartedly with whatever opinion is being expressed here’ is translated to ‘THIS’. That’s pretty efficient!

People use language differently depending on the company they’re in – my furious potty mouth is toned down in front of my grandmother, but utilised in full force on my Twitter feed. Using language in a standard way, adhering to rules prescribed by teachers and centuries of grammar books, is just one way to use language. Flouting those rules allows for inventiveness, companionship and, far from being a sign of poor intelligence, is actually pretty damn smart.

Final point: a frequent feature of Internet/fandom-related language is the keysmash, or a stylised ‘askjdhfgjakhsd’ used to express feelings of the most extreme nature. A tumblr user suggested this should be referred to as typerventilating. Typerventilating. T Y P E R V E N T I L A T I N G. And I’ll be damned if that’s not the smartest, most brilliant thing I’ve ever heard.

*different to being ‘on the internet’ – the capitals suggest that I conduct a good deal of my life and friendships through online platforms, and have for years.

** NB. One or more of these posts may contain One Direction.

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.