The Oxford Linguistic History of English series lives on

Back in 2006, Oxford University Press published Don Ringe’s From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic, which was billed as the first volume in a new OUP series called A Linguistic History of English. That particular book wasn’t so much a history of the English language that we know as a reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European. Don Ringe is a major figure in Indo-European studies (as well as historical linguistics in general), and it was great to get a state-of-the-art reconstruction from his perspective.

The cover of the book The Development of Old English by Ringe and Taylor After enjoying that first volume, I would impatiently check the new arrivals shelf at the university library so I could read the second volume straightaway. Years passed, however, and nothing ever appeared. I had wondered if the series had been canceled, but now Oxford University Press finally unveiled the second volume: The Development of Old English, this time by Don Ringe and Ann Taylor.

This is over 600 pages of historical linguistics goodness. Ringe & Taylor reconstruct Proto-Northwest Germanic first, dedicating the first nearly two hundred pages to this intermediate language, and only then do they introduce the innovations of Anglo-Saxon. One area that gets unusually detailed coverage is Old English syntax, which is described with examples from the York–Toronto–Helsinki Corpus of Old English Prose. The authors base themselves loosely on generative linguistics, but they sought to avoid being bogged down in theory.

This is a major publication. It may not quite replace Roger Lass’s Old English: A Historical Linguistic Companion (Cambridge University Press, 1994) as a clarification of the odd paradigms and sound changes for people going back to Old English to study its literature, but it certainly represents a great reference for readers following Proto-Indo-European forward.

The languages of Czernowitz and old Bucovina

From my acquaintance with the life and work of Paul Celan – not to mention passing through on several occasions and seeing traces of its imperial past – I was aware that the former Austro-Hungarian town of Czernowitz was once home to a remarkable ethnic diversity, later erased as the surrounding province of Bucovina was ceded to Romania – whereupon it gained the name Cernăuți – and then the USSR and Ukraine for which it is now known as Chernivtsi. I was happy to discover Gregor von Rezzori’s memoir Blumen im Schnee (in English translation as The Snows of Yesteryear) which sheds much light on the changing demographics of the town. In reminiscing on his childhood nanny Cassandra, hired out of some remote village in the Carpathians, Rezzori makes the following comment on the languages that he heard spoken in his childhood:

She spoke both Romanian and Ruthenian, both equally badly—which is not at all unusual in the Bukovina—intermixing the two languages and larding both with bits from a dozen other idioms. The result was that absurd lingua franca, understood only by myself and scantily by those who, like her, had to express themselves in a similarly motley verbal hodgepodge. Even though it may be questioned whether I was actually fed at Cassandra’s breast, there can be no doubt that linguistically I was nourished by her speech. The main component was a German, never learned correctly or completely, the gaps in which were filled with words and phrases from all the other tongues spoken in the Bukovina—so that each second or third word was either Ruthenian, Romanian, Polish, Russian, Armenian or Yiddish, not to forget Hungarian and Turkish. From my birth, I heard mainly this idiom, and it was as natural to me as the air that I breathed.

How much things have changed in a century. Yiddish disappeared from Czernowitz with the genocide of its Jewish population in World War II. As Rezzori observes, German was already on the wane right after Trianon. From my experiences walking the streets of the city, it’s pretty much down to just Ukrainian, Russian and Romanian now. And while the intermixing of languages was simply accepted as a fact of life back then, today in at least southern (Romanian) Bucovina, the observation that a word in Romanian is of foreign origin is often taken as an insult.

Incomprehensible English

In Graham Greene’s 1940 novel The Power and the Glory the protagonist, a Mexican priest with some knowledge of English, comes across the following snippet of a poem and is utterly baffled by it:

I come from haunts of coot and hern,
I make a sudden sally,
And sparkle out among the fern,
To bicker down a valley.

While reading this on my Kindle (which I had thought would be most useful for foreign literature), I had to look up several of these words with the built-in dictionary: a coot is a medium-sized water bird; hern (which wasn’t even in the Kindle’s ample dictionary and had to be sought online) is an archaic variant of heron; bicker is used not in the sense of ‘to quarrel’ but rather in a previously unfamiliar sense of ‘(of water) flow or fall with a gentle repetitive noise; patter’. Only after consulting the dictionary could I understand that we are dealing with a river or stream.

These four lines turn out to come from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Brook” (find the poem here in the same anthology that Greene has the priest leaf through). The following stanza even throws in a thorp, another word that very few people know today.

I’m sure that Greene included this snippet not just because it would baffle foreigners, but also because it would challenge English speakers of his day as well. Considering that Greene was writing only a mere 85 years after the poet, it just goes to show how archaizing Tennyson’s style was.

Why Danish is impossible to understand (now with science)

I’ve mentioned here before the fearsome reputation that Danish has for other Scandinavians, namely by linking to the classic Uti vår Hage sketch purporting that even the Danes no longer understand each other.

I didn’t know that this lack of comprehension has been studied scientifically until I came across Take Danish – for instance ed. Henrik Galberg Jacobsen et al. (University Press of Southern Denmark, 2003), a collection of papers in honour of Hans Basbøll on his 60th birthday. Nina Grønnum contributes a paper titled “Why are the Danes so hard to understand?” that takes a theoretically rigorous look at the language, with lots of tables and charts. A comparison of the intonation of a given sentence in Danish and Swedish

She arrives at the following conclusion:

An abundance of vowels, weak syllable codas, unstressed syllables without any vowel sound, and fairly inexpressive prosody makes Danish a harder nut to crack perceptually than most languages which it otherwise is reasonable to compare it to.

Any trained linguist who has studied Norwegian or Swedish and finds that Danish is impossible to understand would profit greatly from this paper. Kamelåså!

The decline of German (and French) as languages of culture

In his book Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, the late Eric Hobsbawm writes on the decline of Mitteleuropa as a sociocultural phenomenon. This remark on the disappearance of German as a language of pan-European culture struck me, being in line with some anecdotal musings that I have had for some time:

Equally, and perhaps even more significant, is the end of German linguistic hegemony. German is no longer the lingua franca of the educated from the Baltic to Albania. It is not merely that a young Czech meeting a young Hungarian or a Slovene will most probably use English to communicate with him or her, but that none of them can any longer expect the other to know German. It is that nobody who is not a native German speaker is now likely to use Goethe and Lessing, Hölderlin and Heine as the foundation of educated culture, let alone as the way from backwardness into modernity.

European literary culture has been massively affected by the change of the European lingua franca to English and increasingly nothing but English. I have always thought it remarkable how many European intellectuals born in the 1920s and 1930s were fond of Hölderlin, participating in his 20th-century resurgence even if they were from outside German-speaking countries proper. Hungarians and Italians upheld him as a poet to know. Now, a few decades on, Hölderlin may well be of interest only to those working in Germany, Austria or Switzerland.

It is not just German. I wonder if Samuel Beckett’s novels (namely the trilogy) have fallen so drastically into obscurity compared to his plays because the former were usually read on the continent in their original French, and now people are less likely to know French or at least read it for pleasure.

Phantom linguistics publications

It is frustrating when one is alerted by catalogues to books on language that were never actually published.

Routledge’s Language Family Surveys series now covers most of the major language groups of the world. However, the announced volume on the Manchu-Tungusic languages, said to be edited by Alexander Vovin, never appeared even though it worked its way into the Helsinki University Library catalogue (on order) and Amazon. I hear that Vovin is still working on this, but it will appear from a different publisher.

Another phantom publication is Teach Yourself Yiddish, a book that was meant to appear in 2009 and compete with the new edition of rival Routledge’s Colloquial Yiddish, a book which very much exists. Supposedly authored by Chaim Nelsen and Barry Davis, Teach Yourself Yiddish never did appear, in spite of also being announced at Amazon complete with ISBN.

Substrate speculations

Just two briefly mention two substrate hypotheses which I’ve come across in the last 24 hours:

  1. Theo Vennemann posits a Semitic substrate for Proto-Germanic, an encounter made possible by Phoenician colonization of the North Sea area. Among the supposed loanwords are the names of the Germanic gods Pol and Baldur, none other than the Semitic god Baal. Vennemann’s vast work on Semitic and Basque substrates in Europe seems to be politely tolerated but generally ignored by IEists, and I heard of this hypothesis from the popular press: John McWhorter’s Our Magnificient Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English. McWorther does mention that there are serious objections to this theory, but in my opinion, even bringing it up at all risks leading impressionable laymen astray.
  2. Alexander Lubotsky’s article ‘The Indo-Iranian Substratum’ in Early Contacts between Uralic and Indo-European: Linguistic and Archaeological Considerations ed. Carpelan et al. (Helsinki: Finno-Ugrian Society, 2001) notes that the phonological peculiarities of non-Indo-European words in Indo-Iranian are the same for loanwords in Indo-Aryan specifically. The author writes, In order to account for this fact, we are bound to assume that the language of the original population of the towns of Central Asia, where the Indo-Iranians must have arrived in the second millennium BCE, on the one hand, and the language spoken in Punjab, the homeland of the Indo-Aryans, on the other, were intimately related.


I confess to finding Early Modern English somewhat dull, for as a native speaker of English generally interested in foreign languages, it’s only with Chaucer and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that things get sufficiently exotic for me. Nonetheless there are evidently some surprises to be found even as late as the 17th century. Terttu Nevalainen’s textbook An Introduction to Early Modern English speaks of how the Southwestern dialect of English retained the Old English pronoun ‘I’ in its VC form while other dialects dropped the consonant. This form is attested not only on its own, but in numerous contractions e.g. cham ‘I am’ < Ich am. By way of illustration, Nevalainen quotes a passage from the verse play Gammer Gurton’s Needle attributed to William Stevenson:

Hodge. Cham agast by the masse, ich wot not what to do.
Chad nede blesse me well before ich go them to
Perchaunce some felon spirit may haunt our house indeed,
And then chwere but a noddy to venter where cha no neede,

Tib. Cham worse then mad by the masse to be at this staye
Cham chyd, cham blamd, and beaton all thoures on the daye,
Lamed and hunger storued, prycked vp all in Jagges
Hauyng no patch to hyde my backe, saue a few rotten ragges.

Hodge. I say Tyb, if thou be Tyb, as I trow sure thou bee,
What deuyll make a doe is this, betweene our dame and thee.

(Nevalainen points out that the fact that the Hodge character reverts to the standard form I underscores that this is a stage dialect instead of authentic dialect writing.)


It occasionally happens that a word newly encountered, which I suppose to be completely defunct and perhaps even a hapax legomenon, is met again soon after somewhere very different. While reading Saint-John Perse’s work Amers, his long poem in honor of the sea, I was not sure of the definition of one of the terms in this dizzying list:

Et c’est la Mer qui vint à nous sur les degrés de pierre du drame:
Avec ses Princes, ses Régents, ses Messagers vêtus d’emphase et de métal, ses grands Acteurs aux yeux crevés et ses Prophètes à la chaîne, ses Magiciennes trépignant sur leurs socques de bois, la bouche pleine de caillots noirs, et ses tributs de Vierges cheminant dans les labours de l’hymne,
Aves ses Pâtres, ses Pirates et ses Nourrices d’enfants-rois, ses vieux Nomades en exil et ses Princesses d’élégie, ses grandes Veuves silencieuses sous des cendres illustres, ses grands Usurpateurs de trônes et Fondateurs de colonies lointaines, ses Prébendiers, et ses Marchands, ses grands Concessionnaires des provinces d’étain, et ses grands Sages voyageurs à dos de buffles de rizières.

Amers, ‘Invocation’, 6

I had no idea what a prébendier might be, but I was too lazy to find a French dictionary and look it up. Perse is known anyhow for Frenchifying classical terminology otherwise rarely attested in the language, and I wasn’t sure if such a word would be in any commonly available French dictionary.

But oddly enough, the only other work of literature I’ve taken along for my current travels in the Middle East, the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, uses the word in English in its chronology of the author: 1742 (8 January) Admitted as prebendary of North Newbald.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as: The holder of a prebend; (formerly) a canon of a cathedral or collegiate church who obtained income from a prebend; (in later use) an honorary canon in any of various Anglican cathedrals.. A prebend according to the OED is Originally: the estate or portion of land from which a stipend is derived to support a canon of a cathedral or collegiate church, or a member of its chapter (more fully corps of the prebend).

The etymology, again according to the OED, is lit. “things to be supplied”, use as noun of neuter plural of gerundive of classical Latin praebēre to present, show, to offer, to provide, supply, contracted < praehibēre to provide, supply (Plautus) < prae- PRE- prefix + habēre to have, hold.

Finally, prebend was clearly reborn out of classical literature. The descendent of the Vulgar Latin neuter plural of the gerundive of praehibēre came down to us as a different word but somewhat more often read, namely ‘provend’, having undergone a characteristic b > v shift in Middle French.

Prescriptivist ranting in the media, example #447

The website of BBC News has a feature today titled ‘20 examples of grammar misuse’. Readers had written in about what ‘ungrammatical’ elements in contemporary speech peeved them, and 20 of them were selected for the article.

What is frustrating is when people get so cranky over language change that is quite natural and doesn’t create any obstacle to understanding. Take this one:

15. There is also confusion over lend and borrow. I keep hearing school children asking ‘to lend your pencil’ when what they actually mean is to ‘borrow’ the pencil.
Ian Walton, Bedford

I am fairly sure that the use of the English verb in both sentences has a long history at least in the dialects. For a clear example from another language, Swedish now uses its cognate att låna in both senses. The meaning ‘to borrow’ can be emphasized with the adverb ut ‘out’ or by specifying the indirect object, but Swedes don’t appear to have any problem understanding the difference in cases like jag ska låna dig en tia ‘I will lend you ten kronor’ and får jag låna telefonen? ‘may I use your telephone?’

Then you get bizarre demands like this:

17. I don’t like it when people say: I can go there ‘by foot’ instead of ‘on foot’…the right preposition to use is on.
Daniela, Urbana, IL

And no discussion of grammatical ‘mistakes’ in English would be complete without saying that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition:

19. A classic confusing rule is the one that states that one is supposed never to end a sentence with a preposition. While this is easy and appropriate to follow in most cases, for example by saying ‘Yesterday I visited the town to which she has just moved” instead of ‘…the town she has just moved to’, it becomes troublesome when the verb structure includes a preposition that cannot be removed from it, as in ‘At work I am using a new computer with which my manager recently set me up”, which cannot correctly be changed to ‘…I am using a new computer up with which my manager recently set me’.
Philip Graves, Stockholm, Sweden

Why are we still anxious over a centuries-old fallacy based on the idea that English grammar must be just like Latin? Come on, Philip. You’re in Sweden, where people aren’t ashamed of the way their Germanic language orders its words.