Here’s a little test: Torpenhow. Know how to pronounce it? Know its derivation? If it helps at all, it’s in Cumbria, and it’s a hill… and its name means hill hill hill. That’s English for you. But why? How did our language become so, well, strange? Or should that be weird? Why do we have so many different words for the same thing, and why does our spelling not even abide by its own rules?
I think the first clue might be that, as historian Ann Williams remarked, “We have little idea about what ‘spoken’ English was like before 1100 - virtually all the surviving texts are written in the literary standard (Standard West Saxon in modern scholarship) which was never a spoken language. The abrupt change in the Peterborough Chronicle in 1121 (pictured below) marks the moment when the scribe ceased to write in Standard West Saxon, and began to write in something like the local spoken dialect.”
So, there are two intriguing pieces of information here: a hint at the marked differences between written and spoken language, and the fact that it’s too easy, and inaccurate, to blame all our language anomalies on the Norman Conquest. So where did they come from?
Two thirds of England’s rivers take their names from ‘Celtic’ words, for example, Avon. We have place names which are a mixture - in the case of Much Wenlock, Much is from Anglo-Saxon mycel, meaning great, Wenlock comes from Celtic wininicas, white area, and the Anglo-Saxon loca, (place.) We have Roman influence, too, with castra (fort), seen in places such as Chester, and Manchester. Of course, the Anglo-Saxons did build forts of their own - burhs, which give Britain all the burgh and borough place names. But the Anglo-Saxons didn’t just come to fight, and/or defend, they also came to stay. They cleared places, to make space for their settlements, and gave us word endings like ley, ly, leay and leigh, which all mean 'clearing'. The Scandinavians followed suit and also added place names - by, booth, and thwaite.
The Normans did add a few of their own - Ashby was given to the de la Zuche family, (giving us Ashby de la Zouche) and Bewdley came from Beau Lieu (beautiful place).
But the Norman-French did not settle in with the same comfort as the Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians, nor in the same number. As we saw above, the commoners kept speaking English, which was still evolving, nevertheless, and came to add many French words.
There is a wealth of information to be gleaned from the study of our place names, and as Margaret Gelling says in her Signposts to the Past, “The linguistic agility which enables modern English speakers to accept Salop as a form of Shropshire is paralleled by the ease with which Keighley is an accepted spelling form of a name pronounced Keethley.” (If you can, get a copy of her book and marvel at her enlightening discourse on the ‘correct’ pronunciation of Shrewsbury!)
Of course, places names have different pronunciations not just because of language development, as in the case of Shrewsbury (Shrowsbury/Shroosberry.) So what can regional dialect tell us?
What Fettle Mun is a book on Cumbrian dialect by Tim Barker. Remember Torpenhow? Well, it is pronounced Tra’penner, or Truhpenner. The Tor bit is from an ancient British word, meaning hill. The Pen is from Celtic (Welsh) and it means hill. How is Old Norse, and it means… hill. Yes, Barker confirms that our language is definitely a hybrid.
Cumbria has the same root as the Welsh word for Wales - Cymru. The shepherds’ counting system, Yan, T’yar, tethera, methera, pimp, is very close to the Welsh for 1-5 (Un, dai, tri, pedwar, pimp).
The Lakeland dialect contains lots of thees and thous, similar to older English - Dost thou is still in evidence is phrases like Duster, as in "Duster want a cup o’tea?"
English development is not unique, but it is unusual. Other languages have remained more pure; Canadian French, for example, is much closer to medieval French, and American English bears traces of that spoken by those on the Mayflower who, being English, would nevertheless have talked of fall coming after summer, and of having ‘gotten’ things.
But here in England we can find even earlier traces. Staying in Cumbria, The Dictionary of Cumberland Dialect (Ed. Richard LM Biers) tells us that gang means go, remarkably similar to the Old English (OE) for 'going' : gangan.
At the other end of the country, In Broad Norfolk, Jonathan Mardle tells us that in the ninth century the Danes invaded the East coast and martyred the Christian king, Edmund. People in East Norfolk used to call the carrion-crow ‘Harra the Denchman’ (Harold the Danishman) which suggests a very long folk-memory of the Anglo-Saxon terror of the heathen vikings.
Norfolk shepherds also have a counting system which sounds rather familiar - Ina, tina, tether, wether, pink.
They still call a song thrush a Mavis, the OE name, and they retain OE plurals - childr, housen. There is much of what we would term biblical language: "Go ye into the village."
East Anglia became part of the Danelaw. The Danes inter-mingled and Danish became part of the East Anglian dialect. Then came the Flemish weavers in the 14th century. Then an influx of Dutch and Walloon weavers in the 16th century - the ‘strangers’ - brought the word ‘lucum’ (attic window) from the French ‘lucarne’. So not all of our French words come necessarily from Norman French. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Those who came to England early on spoke a Germanic language (Indo-European). The word for father in a document of AD800 is faeder. In Old High German it’s Fater and in Old Frisian fadar or feder. Modern German gives us Vater. We can see the connection. The Story of English (McCrum, Cran & MacNeil) adds that other Frisian words, ko (cow) lam (lamb) goes (goose) boat (boat) dong (dung) and rein (rain) suggest that had the Conquest not happened, we might all be speaking something akin to modern Dutch.
We should therefore expect some hybrids (as we’ve seen in the place names) and some alternatives with the arrival of the Normans eg wedding/marriage. Although why we don’t have Lapin for rabbit, when it was the French who introduced rabbits to England - can anyone tell me?? (Seriously, I would love to know!)
But leaving aside hybrids, dialect and alternatives, why the different spellings of seemingly similar words?
OE contains barely a dozen Celtic words, and most of them, as we have seen, are geographical. And most place names are English or Danish. OE was not uniform, it had local varieties which as we’ve seen are still discernible today, and also regional accents as diverse as 'Geordie' in the north-east, Dorset with its soft ‘burrs’ and Kent, with speech patterns that go back to Jutish origins. The impact of Old Norse (ON) is harder to gauge because words were so similar to OE. But it has given us beck, laithe, garth - all generally found in areas of Viking settlement in the north, as is riding, a word for an administrative unit, which as an interesting aside, is also used in Canada for a parliamentary constituency.
Certain developments affected vocabulary: the coming of Christianity brought biblical words - Greek and Latin - and gave OE the ability to speak of concepts (frumweorc: from fruma, beginning, and weorc, work, which gives OE for creation), and the Conquest brought a linguistic ‘apartheid’ in areas of religion and law, with the introduction of words like felony, perjury, attorney, bailiff and nobility.
But many of our unusual spellings simply boil down to phonetics. The English had two letters for the th sound (þ and ð) which became virtually interchangeable. They had no silent letters; every letter was pronounced. But there were weaknesses in the system - the same letter, c, was used for cold and child (cild) and king (cyning).
G was both hard and soft, and was also used for a sound similar to the ending of Scottish ‘loch’, as well as the j sound in hedge, which was written with a cg spelling (hecg). The sh sound was written sc - (scip = ship).
So h, c and g were being used for several sounds.
There were similar problems with vowels; with no clue given in the spelling as to the length of the vowels. The scribes experimented with double letters and accents, but it wasn’t ideal. They had no silent letters, remember, so vowels couldn’t be used as clues to pronunciation. But post-1066, double vowels came to be used (sweet, queen).
The Normans might not have had everyone speaking French, but they introduced new ways of hinting at pronunciation of English - sc became sh, cw became qu, and cg became dg, as in hedge.
They brought in the letter w, but this looked too much like v v (havving), so doubling up went out and the silent e was added to aid pronunciation (have, live). And suddenly it starts to become clear why we have all our spelling anomalies.
For anyone wondering about through, trough, throw, threw, thorough, bough, and tough, I recommend David Crystal’s book, Spell it Out, for it would seem that a lot of our peculiar spellings were born of a need to show how words should be pronounced.
So, whilst the Normans might not have altered the way we spoke, they certainly altered the way our words were spelled.
It is my intention to revisit this subject, and in a future post I will look at how Old English and Anglo-Norman turned into what we call Middle English, and how, why and when even the nobility stopped speaking French.
See Part II of the Story of English Here
[all the above images are in the public domain, via Wikipedia]
Her second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia. It charts the career of the earl who sacrificed personal happiness to secure the throne of England for King Edgar, and, later, Aethelred the Unready. It too has just been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.
Most recently, she has contributed to the anthology of short stories, 1066 Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagine the events of 1066, and which has just been awarded HNS Editors’ choice and long-listed for Book of the Year 2017.
Alvar the Kingmaker
To Be A Queen
1066 Turned Upside Down