More about Middle English and related issues
Quite a few people wrote me delightful letters about
my recent article about how to read Middle English.
Paul Bolle pointed out that in my map, I had put the “Zeeland” label
in Belgium. Here's the corrected map:
I was so glad I had done the map in SVG! Moving the label was trivial.
I had said:
The printing press was introduced in the late 15th century, and at
that point, because most books were published in or around London, the
Midlands dialect used there became the standard, and the other
dialects started to disappear.
But Derek Cotter pointed out the obvious fact that London is not in
the Midlands; it is in the south. Whoooops. M. Cotter elaborates:
You rightly say modern English comes largely from the Midlands
dialect, but London isn't in the Midlands, as your map shows; it's
in the South. And the South dialects were among the losers in the
standardisation of English, as your Caxton story shows: we now say
Northern "eggs", not Southern "eyren". William Tyndale from
Gloucestershire, Shakespeare from Warwickshire, and Dr Johnson from
Staffordshire were influential in the development of modern English,
along with hundreds of aristocrats, thousands of prosperous middle
class, and millions of migrating workers.
I had been puzzled about schuleth, saying:
“Schuleth” goes with ‘ye’ so it ought to be ‘schulest’. I don't
know what's up with that.
Derek Cotter explained my mistake: the -st suffix is only for
singular thou, but ye here is plural. For comparison, consider
the analogous -t in “Thou shalt not kill”. I knew this, and felt a
little silly that I did not remember it.
Regarding Old English / Anglo-Saxon
brian d foy pointed me to
this video of a person trying to buy a cow from a Frisian farmer, by speaking in Old English.
Friesland is up the coast from Zeeland, and approximately the
original home of the Anglo-Saxon language. The attempt was
successful! And the person is Eddie Izzard,
who pops up in the oddest places.
I had mentioned a couple of common Middle English words that are no longer in
use, and M. Bolle informed me that several are current in Modern
Middle English eke (“almost”) is spelled ook and pronounced /oke/ in
Wyf (“woman”) persists in Dutch as wijf, pronounced like
Modern English “wife”. In Dutch this term is insulting,
approximately “bitch”. (German cognates are weib (“woman”) and
Eyren (“eggs”). In Dutch this is eieren. (In German, one egg
is ei and several is eier.) We aren't sure what the -en
suffix is doing there but I speculated that it's the same plural
suffix you still see only in “oxen”. (And, as Tony Finch pointed
out to me, in “brethren” and “children”.) M. Bolle informs me
that it is still common in Dutch.
My original article was about
schuleþ, an old form of “shall, should”. Aristotle Pagaltzis
informed me that in Modern German the word is spelled schulden, but the /d/
is very reduced, “merely hinted at in the transition between
One trick I didn't mention in the article was that if a Middle English word
doesn't seem to make sense as English, try reading it as German
instead and see if that works better. I didn't bring it up because
it didn't seem as helpful as the other tricks, partly because it
doesn't come up that often, and mainly because you actually have to
know something. I didn't want to be saying “look how easy it is to
read Middle English, you just have to know German”.
Tobias Boege and I had a long discussion about the intermutations of
‘ȝ’, ‘y’, ‘g’, and ‘gh’ in English and German. M. Boege tells me:
I would just like to mention, although I suppose unrelated to the
development in England, that in the Berlin/Brandenburg region close
to where I live, the dialect often turns "g" into "y" sounds, for
example "gestern" into "yestern".
This somewhat spreads into Saxony-Anhalt, too. While first letter
"g"s turn into "y"/"j", internal ones tend to become a soft "ch".
The local pronunciation of my hometown Magdeburg is close to
and also brought to my attention
this amusing remark about the pronounciation of ‘G’ in Magdeburg:
Man sagt, die Magdeburger sprechen das G auf fünf
verschiedene Arten, aber G ist nicht dabei!
(“It is said, that the Magdeburgers pronounce the ‘G’ in five
different ways, but none of them is /g/!”)
The Wikipedia article
provides more details, so check it out if you read German.
It occurs to me now that the ‘G’ in Dutch is pronounced in many
cases not at all as /g/, but as /ɣ/.
We don't really have this sound in English, but if we did we might
write it as ‘gh’, so it is yet another example of this
intermutation. Dutch words with this ‘g’ include gouda and the
first ‘G’ in Van Gogh.
Aristotle Pagaltzis pointed out that the singular / plural thou /
ye distinction persists in Modern German. The German second person singular
du is cognate with the Middle English singular thou, but the German plural
The previous article about weirdos during the Depression
hit #1 on Hacker News and was viewed 60,000 times. But I consider the
Middle English article much more successful, because I very much prefer
receiving interesting and thoughtful messages from six Gentle Readers
to any amount of attention from Hacker News.
Thanks to everyone who wrote, and also to everyone who read without
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