The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 08 Jun 2020

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:

    A map of
a small portion of Europe, with London at the west, a squiggly
purple line proceeding eastward along the River Thames to the sea,
stopping off in “Forland” on the eastern coast of Britain near
Margate, and preparing to make a short run straight east across the
North Sea to Middelburg in the Netherlands.

    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

Regarding Dutch

  • 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 Dutch:

    • Middle English eke (“almost”) is spelled ook and pronounced /oke/ in Dutch.

    • 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 weibliche (“female”).)

    • 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.

Regarding German

  • 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 syllables”.

    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 "Mach-tte-burch".

    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 is ihr.

Final note

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 writing.

[Other articles in category /lang] permanent link