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.

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.


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.


In an article in the collection Comparative-Historical Linguistics: Indo-European and Finno-Ugric ed. Bela Brogyanyi and Reiner Lipp (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1993), Denis Sinor makes the intriguing case that English hullabaloo ‘tumultuous noise, uproar, clamorous confusion’ is of Turkic origin.

Common Turkic ala ‘multicoloured, dappled, spotted; piebald’ is attested in virtually all Turkic languages beginning with Old Turkic. In Common Turkic, ala forms rhyming compounds with the words bula, bulag or bulga, which have no meaning on their own but are certainly related to CT bulga- ‘to stir, confuse, produce a state of disorder’. In some Turkic languages the resulting compound means ‘multicoloured’, while in Kazakh ala bula came to mean ‘nonsense’, in Kirghiz ‘frankly’ and in Turkmen ‘only’.

After Sinor had already written the bulk of the article examing the many Turkic attestations, he discovered a note prepared by Gösta Langenfelt in 1919:

My interest in this word [hullabaloo] was aroused because of the resemblance between the consonantical interiors of the words hullabaloo and [Turkish] kalabalık, which words represent exactly the same meaning: tumultuous noise or clamour; uproar; clamorous confusion […] I venture to suggest that it was imported to England by way of vulgar channels, by sailors who had been over in the Levantine ports and had picked it up there.

To this Sinor responds, In my view hullabaloo does not render kalabalık but rather one of the many forms beginning with a vowel.

This Turkic compound has entered other languages as well. Mari has ola-vula and Manchu has alha bulha, both with the meaning ‘multicolored’.

A linguistic approach to Fela Kuti’s lyrics

Last October I wrote a post about the interesting innovations in Nigerian pidgin English as heard in the songs of Fela Kuti. Evidentally I am not the only linguist interested in Fela Kuti’s music, as I’ve discovered an old paper on the topic. Back in 1998 Markus Coester of the University of Mainz wrote a paper entitled ‘Language as a product of cultural contact: A linguistic approach to Fela Kuti’s lyrics’. Coester writes by way of introduction, ‘What Fagborun calls code-mixing – in his eyes “the most interesting of all modes of communication in the Yoruba territories” – strongly inheres in Fela Kuti’s lyrics. Code-mixing “may, at times, comprise Yoruba, English and/or Pidgin in one and the same sentence, depending on the level of education of the speaker.”’ We get such rigorous analysis of Fela’s language as, discussing the song ‘Sorrow, Tears & Blood’:

Assuming that Fela Kuti is describing a police action in progress even the very first lines give evidence that the language applied is not ‘pidgin­proper’ In ‘pidgin­ proper’; ‘e run’ is supposed to mean ‘he ran’ (‘E run’ = ‘e come run’, as the tense marker ‘come’ can be omitted without distorting the meaning of the sentence.)

There is no reason why we should expect past tense to be used in this particular context, especially as ‘Everybody run, run, run’ and ‘Everybody scatter, scatter’ occur later on in an indisputably ‘present tense context’. In line 3 Fela shows that he is aware of the grammatical structure of Standard English, using the preterite of ‘lose’. In Nigerian Pidgin English the verb in simple past should be formed with the time marker ‘come’ and the infinitive. The third line would be as follows: ‘some come lose some bread’ or with deletion of ‘come’, which is also possible, just ‘some lose some bread’. This is, of course, why ‘e run’ stands for ‘he ran’.

Line 4 of ‘Sorrow, Tears, and Blood’ corroborates to the use of the infinitive as a means of expressing past (if translated ‘someone nearly died’, referring to the previous past tense). However, the infinitive form could also indicate present perfect, e.g. in line 5.

As becomes obvious in my translation of both lines, I preferred present perfect, according to the context. Yet, this tense does not exist in Nigerian Pidgin. Basically there is a distinction of three different tenses in NP, namely past, present and future. However, there are certain ways of expressing, for example, present perfect although there are no such things as auxiliaries for forming verb phrases in the structure of NP. Rather, there are ‘aspect marker’:‘there are two main aspectual notions in NP. These are the imperfective and the perfective. The imperfective can be interpreted as either habitual or continuous’. The perfective aspect in NP is marked by the particle ‘don’ ‘which indicates completion, plus present relevance’. The interpretation depends on the context, in which it occurs or the semantics of the particular verb involved.

Unfortunately, this decade-old webpage is now unmaintained and the images no longer load, but the text is all still there.

Fela’s Nigerian English

Over the past month or so I’ve been listening to a lot of Fela Kuti. The great Nigerian musician, human rights activist, and would-be politician was from a squarely middle-class family and lived for some time in England and the United States, so his English was generally of the standard international variety. Nonetheless, elements of Nigerian English slip through. One of the most striking innovations for me is the wide use of the verb ‘quench’, which I first heard in Fela’s song ‘Zombie’ (from his 1977 album of the same name). In comparing soldiers in the Nigerian military to undead puppets, Fela twice uses the verb in the following sense:

Tell him to go kill, tell him to go quench…

Go on, quench, with your .45s…

As speakers of American English generally use this verb only in the phrase ‘to quench one’s thirst’, this seems odd indeed. The Oxford English Dictionary gives another definition To put out, extinguish (fire, flame, or light, lit. or fig.), which is perfectly understandable though rather Victorian-sounding. There’s even the definition To destroy, kill (a person); to oppress or crush., though the examples show that in this case the verb is used in a consciously metaphorical manner.

In Nigerian English, however, the use of the word seems to have widened greatly. It can be used intransitively, e.g. ‘the stove has quenched’. It is regularly used in the context ‘to put out, extinguish’, and—to judge from Fela’s further use of it in a number of his songs—its semantic scope has widened to the point that it’s a perfectly normal word for ‘to execute’ or ‘to murder’.

I find it remarkable how in one variety of English the word has become quite marginal, while in another variety its use has expanded. Language change in action. It is a pity, though, that I’ve been unable to find academic references for Nigerian English so that I might learn other ways in which it has developed individually.

Received Pronunciation

Prof John Wells, phonetician at University College London who, I should imagine, needs little introduction, has an 2002 article up called “Whatever happened to Received Pronunciation?”. As a fan of the RP as a standard phonetic description of English and as a target for ESL students, I’m sad to see RP pass away, but the changes in English pronunciation that spur and accompany its demise are fascinating, and a good example of diachronic linguistics in action.


A post at LiveJournal alerted me of the existence of the Anglo-Saxon word neorxnawange, meaning ‘paradise’. The word occurs in Genesis, in the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve:

Þæt wīf andwyrde: “Of ðǣra trēowa wæstme ðe synd on Paradīsum wē etað: and of ðæs trēowes wæstme þe is onmiddan neorxnawange, God bebēad ūs ðæt wē ne ǣton, ne wē ðæt trēow ne hrepodon, ðī lǣs ðe wē swelton.”

Truly the oddest looking word in the (Old) English language. It’s not quite a hapax legomenon, for it appears three times in this fragment, and I suppose that rules out mere scribal error. I look forward to seeing if any investigation has been done as to its etymology.

I can’t help wondering if this alien word was the inspiration for the part of Sándor Weöres’s brilliant poem Néma zene (‘Silent Music’) where the poet presents the first three verses of Genesis in a tongue of his own devising:

incipit citatum: GENESIS I. 1–3

1. Ath paoxangwythai bmoumstaa XOUNGMO
n ythairoma vy scu rxemnathoa
2. e rxeghao smaogi sconen xiámchylli eonghu llych sluan
sciy chmallachái woon eonghei scu elxnácothoa
vlu liyp AATLENA EMEÁTH anghtechli n quoxumoaxan
3. scuploawtl stworn ceu GNAMO:
emathei qoetiwyuti:
vy ghmang qoghluxewuchti

Weöres was quite a polyglot, translating numerous languages into Hungarian, so it is a possibility. Look, I’ve just made a post tieing Anglo-Saxon to a Hungarian nonsense passage. That’s the kind of eclecticism you can only get here at Безѹмниѥ.