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Reflections 2012
Series 13
August 18
The Island of Britain - Anglo-Saxons - Runes - Old English


We’ve been reviewing how the Norse, often called the Vikings, expanded outwards from their core in Scandinavia during the Viking Age running from the late 8C to the 11C CE. We reviewed how they (mostly Swedes) went eastward to Russia. The next step is to see how they (mostly Danes) moved southwestward to England and Normandy, and after that, we’ll see how they (mostly Norwegians) moved westward to the Atlantic Isles and America.


But before continuing with the Norse in the British Isles in the next posting after this, we should see what it was that they found there. What was the backstory? Who had been there before them? This posting will discuss the island of Britain and its earlier invasions, including, most importantly, the Anglo-Saxons and their language, which forms the basis for the language that we are presently communicating in.


We’ve been following the Norse Expansion on this centuries-by-color map as well as on this date-and-route map. On both maps take a close look at England (with the rest of the British Isles), and Normandy, on the south side of the English Channel in France.


From the first map you’ll see that the North of Anglo-Saxon England, in red, became Norse (Danish) in the 9C, and the South, in yellow, followed in the early 11C, when Anglo-Saxon England actually became part of the Kingdom of Denmark. How’s that for Norse expansion? In between, in the 10C, the Norse settled in Normandy, in orange. England did become independent from Denmark again after only 26 years of total Danish rule, but only for 24 years more, when the Norman French--Norse of a sort--invaded in 1066. It seems ya just can’t win. But this will be the second half of the story, in the next posting.


The Island of Britain   Let’s now peel the layers backward and investigate the military invasions, followed by settlement. In any case, remove the Normans, to reveal the Danes mixed with Anglo-Saxons. Remove the Danes and you find just the Anglo Saxons. Remove the Anglo-Saxons and you find the Roman province of Britannia. Remove the Romans and you find where the Celts had been. This is where we’ll start.


Of the two major islands in the British Isles, we have to remove all the later developments from our thinking, all the way up to the modern UK. We need to just think geographically. The western island was called in Latin Hibernia, and we know it as Ireland. That will lie outside our purview. We’ll concentrate on the island called in Latin Britannia, which we call Britain; it was named after the Britons living there, a Celtic people. We shall use the term “Britain” purely in the geographic sense referring to the island, and not to the modern country.

 To distinguish between this larger Celtic Britain and the smaller Celtic Brittany (today in France), the large island of Britain has also been referred to as Great Britain. The word “great” just refers to its size, although nowadays it is often used in a patriotic sense, referring to how “great” the UK is. The UK might be great, but that’s not what the first word in Great Britain refers to. In contrast, Brittany can also be called Little Britain or Lesser Britain. The two terms first appeared in writing c 1136 in Late Latin “Britannia major” and “Britannia minor”. In French, the very same word, “Bretagne” refers to both places, so the need to add “Grande” to Grande-Bretagne (Great Britain) is even more urgent, to distinguish it from Bretagne (Brittany).

When talking about Norse expansion to the British Isles, we noted on the maps that not only Ireland was affected, but on Britain, so were Scotland and Wales. But for our purposes here, we’re limiting ourselves to England proper within the island of Britain. We’ll discuss the Celts and Romans, but then concentrate on the subsequent three invasions, the Anglo-Saxons (here) and the Danes and Normans (in the next posting). Our purpose is to follow the developments of English history, but primarily to see the forces that shaped the English language.


CELTIC SETTLEMENT We had seen in the previous posting that the Celts--officially pronounced Kelts, although many do say Selts--had been widespread on the continent as well as the British Isles. It apparently is not accurate to call their being in Britain an invasion in the same military sense as later invasions. This map shows the early Celtic lands in more detail. The yellow shows the core Celtic territory at about the 6th century BCE, located in Central Europe. The blue-green shows their maximal expansion by the year 275 BCE. Both green areas are more recent. The light green is where Celtic lasted into recent centuries, and the dark green shows the only areas where Celtic languages remain widely spoken today, in Brittany (Breton), Wales (Welsh), the far west coast of Ireland (Irish Gaelic) and tiny bits of Scotland (Scots Gaelic, not to be confused with Scots English).


As other empires spread, with later invasions the Celts were pushed to the far Atlantic coast. The Celts living in what is now England during the Iron Age were called Britons, and are the ones who had given their name to Britain as an island.

 As we talk of invasions affecting England, it’s worth mentioning two Celtic invasions I just became aware of, themselves involving Britain. Gaelic tribes from Ireland invaded northwestern Britain, absorbing both the Picts and Britons living there. This eventually became the Kingdom of Scotland in the 9C, and explains to me finally why we have two forms of Gaelic both Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic, as Celtic languages.

Also, at the same time as the later Germanic invasion of southern Britain, many Britons that had been located there emigrated across the English Channel to Brittany and so Breton is descended from the Celtic language of those emigrants. This now explains to me why Brittany is the only existing Celtic area outside the British Isles (it was a cross-Channel colony of the Britons!), and, most obviously, why this should very properly be called Lesser Britain, as a continental settlement emerging from Great Britain.

Back to the Britons remaining in Britain. The Celtic language the Britons spoke was called British (!!!), not to be confused with modern, political meanings of the word. It can also be called Brittonic, or Brythonic. It is now extinct, due to later Roman and Germanic invasions. HYPOTHETICAL: If the Celts hadn’t been pushed aside as they were, we might be corresponding in British (Brittonic) or Welsh right now.

 This is slightly off-topic, but is too good to leave out, particularly now, talking about the Celts, and about to talk about the Romans. Germanic had a word derived from the Volcae, a Celtic people living near the Rhine, and the term became the general reference to all Celts. Later, the term also included speakers of Latinate languages, in other words, all non-Germanic (“foreign”) areas essentially to the south and west of the Germanic area. This word developed into modern German “Welsch” and Old English “welisc” (among other spellings; pronounced WEL.ish). The term has usually been neutral, but also disparaging.

In Britain, the word can be seen in the terms Welsh/Wales, as the second element in Cornwall, and in the names Wallace and Walsh. In German, French-speaking Switzerland (la Suisse Romande) can be called die Welschschweiz. I don’t find a reference for Italian-speaking Switzerland (Ticino), but South Tyrol in Italy, and no longer in Austria, can be called Welschtirol. Beyond that, if someone is speaking some incomprehensible language, he’s said in German to be speaking “Kauderwelsch”.

The term for a French-speaking Belgian, Walloon, (Dutch/Flemish Waal) also reflects the term. It was also applied to Romanians, hence the name of the southern Romanian region of Wallachia. Finally, to distinguish from the native hazelnut a new nut arriving in Britain from Gaul, the new nut was called the walnut, essentially “welsh nut” in the sense of “Gallic nut”, or “Gaulish nut”. This is also seen in the Late Latin name for the nut, “nux Gallica”, which means the same thing.

ROMAN INVASION The Romans had a major part in moving out the Celts as their empire expanded. This is the Roman Empire at its greatest extent, in 117 CE, during the reign of Trajan. Click to see the province of Britannia, with Caledonia (Scotland) to the north and Hibernia (Ireland) to the west. (They did invade Wales along with England, though later, Wales once again remained separate from England). But the Roman Empire shrank as more and more troops were called home to protect Rome itself, and most Romans had departed from Britain by about the year 410 CE. The variety of Latin they’d spoken there is referred to as British Romance, now also extinct. HYPOTHETICAL: If they hadn’t left, we might be corresponding now in British Romance that sounded like--what, Italian, French? Well, that’s what happened in France, Spain, Portugal and Romania. Note England among the black areas with little or no trace of any Italic (Romance) language beyond some place names after the Romans left. (Romania is an alternate name for the Italic (Romance)-speaking countries as a whole. It’s a good name, but rarely used, because of the confusion with the country named Romania. In that regard, if you ever wondered why Romanian fits into this group of languages, this map shows it clearly. Slavs (Serbs, Bulgarians, others) settled all around Romania--as well as Hungarians--cutting it off from the rest of the group.) This 20C map is clearer to see the contemporary situation for these languages, and this map is even easier to read.


GERMANIC & NORMAN INVASIONS Beyond any contributions to English that the Celts and Romans made--an odd vocabulary item, a place name-- our emphasis is on the Germanic country that England later became, and for that, we have the three settlements or invasions that followed the Roman invasion: 1) the Anglo-Saxons, bringing West Germanic, 2) the Norse (Danes), bringing North Germanic, and 3) the Normans, former Scandinavians, bringing the Norman version of French.


Anglo-Saxons & West Germanic   You recall that West Germanic was concentrated in the German lowlands in the north, and this is where the Angles and Saxons came from. However, they weren’t alone, since the Jutes came as well, and some Frisians. This map shows Europe in the late 400’s CE. It’s understandable that the Roman soldiers were called back from Britain in 410, since the Roman Empire was collapsing, and ended with the abdication of the last emperor in 476. I suppose we can modify Sic transit gloria mundi to Sic transit gloria Romae. Not only didn’t the Romans hold sway in Britain any longer, they didn’t hold sway in Rome. Look at the Germanic tribes across Europe--the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals. While the Saxons, Thuringians, and Alemanni became part of Germany (southern German and Swiss dialects are called alemannic; “Germany” in French is Allemagne, in Spanish Alemania, in Portuguese Alemanha), the Germanic Burgundians and Franks settled in Gaul/France and became French, the Franks giving their name to the country. I wasn’t familiar with some of the names on this map and had to look them up. They aren’t ethnic names, but people’s names. Julius Nepos became an East Roman Emperor in 474. Flavius Odoacar was a Germanic soldier who became the first King of Italy after 476. Syagrius was the last Roman official in Gaul, who held on until being defeated by the Franks in 486.


It was during this period of turmoil and change, of Germanic peoples migrating across Europe, that the peoples on and just south of, the Jutland peninsula decided to go to Britain. Note on the above map, at the bottom of the Jutland peninsula, the Angles, and south of them, the Saxons. To the side are the Frisians, and north of them the Jutes, after whom the peninsula is named. It is unclear just where the Jutes were located on the continent. I’m assuming they were a West Germanic people as the others, and not North Germanic as the Danes, but in any case, they blended in with the others in England. You can also see that the Saxons settled in in England south of the Angles, just as they had been on the continent.


This is a modern map of the Schleswig-Holstein area, which is the German part of the Jutland peninsula. We just discussed in 2012/12 Hamburg and Lübeck; Travemünde is the orange circle NE of Lübeck. At the bottom is Niedersachsen / Lower Saxony, and off the map to the SE is Sachsen / Saxony. Just south of the Danish border on the Baltic is the area still known as Angeln. The Halligen on the map are part of the North Friesian Islands, the East and West Friesian Islands continuing down the German and Dutch coasts.


It is from these areas that the peoples migrated to Britain, as part of the Great Migration of Germanic peoples from about 400 to 800 CE, otherwise known pejoratively as the Barbarian Invasions (in German they are more neutrally the Völkerwanderung, literally the “folks-wandering”, or the Migration of Peoples). Note in yellow the Germanic invasions that concern us here. It was the expansion of West Germanic from the continent to Britain, just as North Germanic later expanded from the continent to Iceland). The further irony of this map is that it flips the map of the Roman Empire. Instead of the Romans reaching north, the Germanics reached south.

 Just a couple of Germanic influences on the Italic (Romance) languages dating from this period: the Germanic word for “blue” becomes “blu” in Italian and “bleu” in French; the Germanic word for “helmet” (German “Helm”) becomes “yelmo” in Spanish; the Germanic front-rounded vowels Ö and Ü, present in all Germanic languages (but since lost in English) and not present in any of the Italic (Romance) languages, nevertheless penetrate French, with Ö, spelled EU, appearing in words like “peu”, and Ü, spelled U, appearing in words like “tu”.

The exodus to Britain started early, about 200 CE, but got going much more strongly in about 440, during the period of general migration on the continent. One reason to leave was apparently local unrest going on at home. At first, the Germanics were apparently called in to help the remaining Celto-Roman population militarily against the Picts, since there was a break in security with the Roman armies leaving, but in time, they began to establish themselves instead, eventually either displacing or absorbing the local Celto-Roman population.


Some reports say the Angles were the only group that migrated in its entirety. Others doubt that, thinking that at least some stayed behind, but do admit that the upper levels of society did leave. That Angeln was largely empty is shown by the ease in which the Danes later invaded and took it over.


In any case, it’s easy to see where they settled in Britain. While the Jutes concentrated on the south coast, in Kent and Hampshire/Isle of Wight, the Angles went to the east coast and the Saxons filled the rest of the south. It isn’t known how many migrated from the continent to Britain, but the estimate is about 200,000.


Note this interesting group of place names. Where the East Angles settled is to this day known as East Anglia, which was formed by the merger of the North Folk and South Folk, known today as Norfolk and Suffolk. “Folk” here is in the original Germanic sense of “people”. Where the West Saxons settled is today Wessex, the South Saxons, Sussex, and the East Saxons, Essex. There was no North Saxon settlement, so there is today no *Nossex, and the Middle Saxons did NOT form a *Missex.


If all, or even most, of the Angles transferred to Britain, while the Saxons and others were split, retaining a continental toehold, then it’s appropriate that in time, England should have been named after the Angles alone. Still, it’s of interest to note that the Celtic groups to this day refer to the English using words deriving from “Saxon” instead. The Britons called the all the invaders “Saxones” or “Saeson”, and to this day, the Welsh still call the English “Saeson”, which in Irish Gaelic is “Sasannach”, spelled “Sasanach” in Scottish Gaelic.


Why do we have the term “Anglo-Saxon”? There seems to be a very practical reason for why it started. Since the Saxons were in two places, there were two ways to refer to them. The Saxons on the continent were referred to as “Ealdseaxe”, or “Old Saxons”, while the Saxons in Britain were called Anglo-Saxons, in other words, those Saxons living where the Angles are. However, that point succumbed to today’s meaning, where Anglo-Saxon simply refers to all the first West Germanic settlers in Britain.


Since the country is named after the Angles, we can concentrate on them. There are three schools of thought to how their homeland, Angeln in Germany, became named. The first is geographic. A Germanic word *anguz meant “narrow”, which is reflected in the German word “eng” (narrow), and the root in English angle/angular. This would mean that in English, the same root refers to both geometric angles and ethnic Angles. The narrowness referred to could either point to the fact that the Jutland peninsula is a narrowing to the north of the continent, or that the fact that the district of Angeln is bordered to the south by an estuary, a narrow arm of the Baltic called die Schlei.


A second theory is that the name Angeln is based on the Indo-European root *ang- “to bend”, and is a reference to a hook, the same root as in English “to go angling”, meaning fishing, and in the same German verb “angeln”. The third will bring a smile. The Angles on the continent had been connected to the Germanic god Yngvi, whose name also appears as Ing, the god whose name appears in Ingvar (and Igor). One has to be amazed by the fact that the same root exists in geometric angles, angling for fish, ethnic Angles, and possibly the god Ing, and then by extension, (East) Anglia, England, and English.


In any case, in Britain, the Old English term ænglisc (æ as in sang/sæng, SC=SH) eventually lost its original sense of referring just to the Angles, as distinct from the Saxons, and began to be applied to all the Germanics in Britain, and the Old English name Ænglaland or Englaland developed into the name England.


The final point is, what about that first vowel? That æ didn’t remain in any other languages, since they don’t have the æ sound as in sang/sæng, but also didn’t remain in English itself, which does.

 In some languages it’s an A. French has Anglais/Angleterre. Russian has английский (angliyskiy)/ Англия (Angliya). Greek has Αγγλικά (Angliká)/Αγγλία (Anglía). (You may find it of interest that Greek uses two gammas [γγ] to represent [ng]).

In many languages it’s an E, but be careful to notice, it’s a genuine E, as in “send”. Continental Scandinavian has engelsk(a)/England; Iceland has Enska/England; Dutch has Engels/Engeland; German has Englisch/England. Again note that in all of these, Eng(land) rhymes with--what can I use?--ginseng.

Another large number use I: Italian has inglese/Inghilterra. Spanish has inglés/Inglaterra. Portuguese has inglês/Inglaterra.

Romanian has an interesting mix: engleză/Anglia.

Which leaves us to the trick question: what does English use? Hint: if a logical choice based on Æ would be either A or E, why do some languages use an I?

Answer: English uses an I, as in Inglish/Ingland. The reason native speakers are mislead as to what they’re saying is that the spelling has never been corrected to an I, and remains an older E, but remember” the beginning of Eng(lish)/Eng(land) rhymes with “sing”.

We are now at the point where we have the West Germanics settled in Britain, and could talk about the Norse invading and how that changed England and the English language. The only problem is that we really should know what the basis was that was changed. Anyway, it’ll be fun taking a bit of a look at Old English, which has the alternate name of Anglo-Saxon. However, as with the word Viking, I tend to shy away from calling the language Anglo-Saxon, since many people who have heard the term have little idea of what it refers to, and do not necessarily understand that it’s West Germanic imported to Britain. Since we’re talking about how English started, I think the better name is Old English, and secondarily, Anglo-Saxon. The Anglo-Saxon era lasted some 5-6 centuries, from early arrivals in the mid-400’s to 1066, when the Normans invaded and the world turned upside down. Old English started at the same time, but managed to hang on, eclipsed by Norman French, for perhaps another century, until the mid 1100’s, or until the older generations of Old English speakers died out.


Runes   Before taking a closer look at Old English, we should discuss runes and the runic alphabet(s). Before Germanic languages adopted the Latin/Roman alphabet, they used runic symbols for inscriptions, such as on this 6C-7C runestone in Sweden (click to inspect closely and compare with below information). This alphabet, with local variations, is derived from an old Italic script from alphabet systems on the Italian peninsula. The earliest runic inscriptions date from around 150 CE, an era when Common Germanic was still the norm, before the separation into West and North (and East) branches. As Christianity spread, runes were generally replaced by the Latin/Roman alphabet, in about 700 CE in Central Europe and by 1100 CE in Northern Europe. In recent times, runes have only been used in Northern Europe for decorative purposes, such as on art objects, or for historic nostalgia on signs.


Just as today the Latin/Roman alphabet has national variants (Italian, for instance, doesn’t use Y and some others; Swedish adds å and some others) and just as the Cyrillic alphabet has variants between Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and others, the runic alphabet had its own local variants. The Scandinavian variants are known by the name fuþark (or futhark, for the thorn-impaired), and the Anglo-Saxon variant is the fuþorc (or futhorc). While these names might strike one as odd, do understand that both names are just acronyms for the first six letters of the alphabet, in the Scandinavian one, F, U, Þ, A, R, K, and in the Anglo-Saxon one, F, U, Þ, O, R, C. (Both include the letter thorn, Þ). This naming convention is exactly like referring to the standard typewriter or computer keyboard as QWERTY, based on the first six letters at the upper left, or calling the Latin/Roman alphabet the ABC’s (“learning your ABC’s”), or even the word “alphabet” itself, which is built upon Alpha and Bet(a), the first two letters of the Greek alphabet.


We saw above a runestone in Sweden, and here is a manuscript on vellum on which the writing might be easier to see. This is a page from the Codex Runicus (click to enlarge), which contains one of the oldest and best-preserved texts of the Scanian Law, which dates from when Skåne was Danish, and is the oldest Danish provincial law, and one of the first Nordic provincial laws to be written down. The Codex Runicus, whose headings are in red, runs to 202 pages, is written entirely in runes, and dates from around 1300 CE. Because of the late date, this document is considered a nostalgic and revivalist use of runes, sort an hommage to a dying alphabet. This document being Scandinavian, the runic alphabet used would be the FUÞARK. Typical of runic inscriptions, spaces are not used to separate words, but instead, one or more dots are used.


Old English Runic Alphabet   But the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) version of the alphabet was the FUÞORC, so that’s the one we should take a closer look at. We can find similarities of letter shapes to those of the Latin/Roman alphabet. In the first line, note the F, R, H; on the second, I, S, T, B. But on first seeing this chart, it’s the letter names that startled me.


FUÞORC LETTER NAMES I’ve written in the past about thorn (þ) and it always struck me an odd coincidence that the name of the letter just happened to be a word. I’ve also seen that the letter æ referred to as “ash”, and that just sounded weird. (Now I know it refers to ash, the wood or the tree [not fire ash].) Then I looked at the chart and it all became clear. Runes don’t have names of the type we expect like “cee” and “em”. They instead use common words that start (usually) with the sound in question. This is very similar to a child today learning the alphabet from a picture book, where “A is for Apple, B is for Bear” is the norm, except that Apple and Bear would actually be the letter names.


On further thought, this system isn’t odd at all--it comes up frequently, in what is called Spelling Alphabets, used when noise interference distorts the usual names of the letters, such as on the phone or in radio transmission. English has several, including Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, and Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta. French uses Anatole, Berthe, Célestin, Désiré; German Anton, Berta, Cäsar, Dora; Italian Ancona, Bologna, Como, Domodossola; Spanish Antonio, Barcelona, Carmen, Dolores. And it doesn’t stop with the Latin/Roman alphabet. Russian uses А́нна, Бори́с, Васи́лий, Григо́рий / Anna, Boris, Vasilii, Grigorii, and Greek uses αστήρ, Βύρων, γαλή, δόξα / astír ('star'), Víron ('Byron'), galí ('cat'), dóksa ('glory'). Although it’s nice to see again the esteem with which the Greeks hold Lord Byron, one would think this system is less necessary in Greek, since Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta (all without alternate meanings, though), are themselves long enough words to be understood as names.


So, if I were to use the FUÞORC letter names to spell a modern word, we might try beorc, æsc, þorn (birch, ash, thorn) and end up spelling “bath”. However, if we hadn’t thrown out two babies with the bathwater, we’d still spell it bæþ.


Review the letter names and compare them to the modern words, as shown, and I’ll make a few comments beyond the more obvious words.

 The name for the runic F, feoh (wealth), came down to us, also referring to money, as “fee”. (The German word Vieh, which sounds the same as “fee” and has the same derivation, means “cattle”, another way to measure wealth.)

The name for NG is our old friend, the Norse god Ing. Since NG can’t be at the beginning of a word, the letter name Ing is one of two with the sound appearing after the beginning. The other is X (take a look). Another god besides Ing is Tyr, used for T.

Another horticultural word to go with thorn (þ) “thorn” and æsc (æ) “ash” is ac (a) “oak”. Although today, “oak” primarily has an O-sound, ac rhymes with “(cogn)ac”. This distinction between having separate letters, A and Æ, for two separate sounds, will be commented on further below, as will be some other letters and letter names in the chart.

Fuþorc had arrived with the Anglo-Saxons in the 5C. From the 7C on, Latin script began to replace it, although the two alphabets continued parallel for some time. However, five unique letters were retained from the old system and transferred to the new one for certain sounds occurring in Germanic that had nothing to do with the Latin alphabet. These letters remained in Old English for centuries until the Normans arrived in 1066. Norman scribes, bless their black little hearts, despised non-Latin characters, and were instrumental in abolishing them. These letters continued to disappear into Middle English, a disappearance that was compounded after Gutenberg did his movable type thing for the printing press in the mid-1400’s (2005/17). Printing flourished from Mainz up the Rhine to the Netherlands, Dutch printers brought their craft to England, but their supply of wooden movable-type letters included only Latin ones, and there was no hope left for the special letters for English, which were finally lost.


LETTER LOSSES MERELY OF HISTORIC INTEREST Of the five runic and modified-Latin letters, two were lost without hurting the language, so we’ll review them just for historic interest. One is yogh (such an ugly name!) and the other is wynn (such a beautiful name!).


Yogh Yogh (Ȝ ȝ ) is pronounced as in yogh(urt). It’s unique, in that it wasn’t a rune, nor was it a modified Latin letter. It’s based on the G, but if you go back and check the FUÞORC chart, you’ll see that the rune for G in the top line looked like an X, so the rune itself wasn’t borrowed. But you’ll find that while the runes lagu and gar are spelled using a regular g, the rune for G itself was ȝiefu (“gift”), written with yogh, unusual in that here, the transcribed G resembled the number 3. (Perhaps if you open the left side of the loop on the lower-case g you get a 3? Just a guess.) Yogh is just an alternate way the Latin g was written in the Old English period.


But then G altered its pronunciation, and could be pronounced G, or Y, or even KH, and the yogh spelling was retained in each case. Find on the chart the runes for D, dæȝ “day”, and H, hæȝl “hail”. Both words are spelled with G/yogh. G had already moved to a Y pronunciation, so dæȝ was pronounced “dæy” and became “day”, while Swedish to this day retains the G in “dag” and German “Tag”. With hæȝl, the pronunciation was “hæyl” and today we have “hail” (the precipitation), while Swedish retains the G in “hagel” and German in “Hagel”.


G/yogh also developed a KH pronunciation, as in niȝt “night”, which would have sounded like “nit”, but with a KH as in Bach inserted. Then two things happened. First, those intolerant Norman scribes Latinized the spelling using the digraph GH, so that niȝt was now spelled “night”, but still pronounced NIKHT. Then, in time, the sound was lost entirely, the vowel changed, and the word got its modern pronunciation--yet retained the baggage of that GH spelling. Still, the loss of yogh is of no significance today, just of historic interest.


Wynn Wynn (Ƿ ƿ) has a much more attractive name, and also shape. However, the name would have been pronounced at the time WÜN, and corresponds to a W, which eventually replaced it. Also, the fact that it was so close in shape to a P was not in its favor, so it’s no great loss. Still, I think it’s a graceful letter, and reminds me of an Irish harp.


If you check the above runic chart, you’ll see that the rune itself was borrowed, as well as its name, ƿynn “joy”. (It seems insulting to write the word ƿynn as wynn, using its rival, W, doesn’t it?) When I saw that the name meant “joy”, I got suspicious about a certain English word that might contain it, checked its etymology, and I was right. Can you think of what word I suspected?


It’s “winsome”, meaning “naïvely charming” as in “a winsome smile”. The Old English form was “wynsum”, containing “wynn”, and meant “agreeable, pleasant”. It also turns out that wynn is a cognate of German “Wonne”, which also means “joy, delight”.


[An aside] We could leave this topic at this point, but it would be so much more fun to talk about how W got where it is today, and how it overtook wynn. For that we need to talk about the trio U/V/W, and while we’re at it, the similar situation of the duo I/J. Let’s put it this way: it’s not a coincidence that these two groupings fall together in alphabetical order. I/J started out simply as the mother I, who gave birth to J. The other family started out with the mother V, which first produced the offspring U, and later, its younger sibling, W.


Since we’re dealing with the Latin alphabet, which was later modified to be alphabets for other languages, we’re stuck with the fact that Latin used the letter I to represent two sounds, a vowel and consonant, and also used the letter V to represent two sounds, a vowel and consonant. Let’s look at each situation separately.


[I/J] First you must peel away later developments. Forget English J (D+ZH) as in “jam”. Forget French J (ZH) as in “déjà vu”, which had been like English J (D+ZH), but dropped the first element. Forget Spanish J (KH in Spain, H in America), as in José. How J became applied to those sounds is beyond our purview (which really means I don’t know). We are only dealing with the pure, original J that has always represented Y in a multitude of languages, including all the other Germanic ones, and many Slavic ones, as in “ja”, or, if you imbibe, in “Jägermeister”, or in the Croatian spelling of Jugoslavija.


Since J grew out of the Latin letter I, which represented the vowel I and also the consonant Y, then J=Y is the original use. The best example was a recent one. Refer back to the map of Europe in the 400’s showing the Germanic tribes, all named in Latin. Above the Saxoni and the Angli were the Iuti. While we translate that as the Jutes, the word Iuti is pronounced YU.ti, a perfect example of how Latin used the letter I for both the vowel I (at the end of this particular word) and the consonant J (Y) (at the beginning).


But in those early centuries, writing was in the hands of the scribes, who (thankfully) decided to split that dual usage. In modifying the Latin alphabet for other languages, they left the letter I to be just the vowel I, and added a hook on its bottom to be the consonant J (Y). The offspring, J, was then alphabetized after the I.


There is ample proof of the relationship. Lower-case j maintains the dot from above lower-case i. In some decorative typefaces, capital I and J both look like the J. And my favorite: though Italian doesn’t usually use the letter J, it does have a name for it, which is “I lunga”, or “long I”, which tells the history of the development of the hook right in the name.


[U/V/W] Now we move to the next Latin letter doing double-duty, V. As a consonant, it always represented the sound W in Classical times, and a V only later (you see why these three are a trio), so remember that when you say veni, vidi, vici. As a vowel, it represented U, which is something you might have seen as part of the name in stone of a posh museum, as MVSEVM. Even a better example. The Vatican Museums in Rome, which would have been called the Mvsea Vaticana in Latin, have that V-spelling imitated in the Italian name, Mvsei Vaticani. In either case, you see a V used both as the consonant we know, and also as a vowel.


Again, later scribes, resolved this. They kept the V, with a point at the bottom, to be the consonant, and rounded that point to form the letter U, to be the vowel. Further proof of the relationship between the two is this: pick up an “air pen” and write in script in the air a capital and lower-case V, and you’ll find that in script, both the V and v use the rounded bottom as well, in both cases! While in the case of I/J, the original one (I) stayed as the vowel, in the case of U/V, the original one (V), stayed on as the consonant, and was alphabetized after the U.


Which finally brings us to the last member of the trio, W. W was originally invented by scribes as a West Germanic letter, and today, it remains a factor in its original use, differentiating two consonants, in two of them, English and Dutch. While W appears very frequently in German (and also Polish), it differentiates nothing.

 Discount the Italic (Romance) languages where the letter W is hardly ever used, and usually not considered part of the alphabet. If at all used, it appears in borrowings, which appear highly-foreign looking, such as Spanish el whisky or Italian il watt. The pronunciations for these might be V, or a foreign-sounding W. French has a few more than the others, notably le wagon, pronounced with a V, an le week-end, pronounced with a foreign-sounding W. For the genuine W-sounds in these languages, the letter W is NEVER used. Spanish uses U, so “bweno” is written “bueno”; Italian also uses U, so “bwono” is written “buono”. French uses OU, so “wi” is actually spelled “oui”.

Discount the Russic (Slavic) languages. All those that use the Latin alphabet (Croatian, Slovene) use V and never W; Czech uses V and only rarely W in very few foreign words, like above. The apparent exception would be Polish, which uses W extensively, such as in the name of the capital Warszawa (var.SHA.va). But in Polish, not only is W ALWAYS pronounced V, the letter V doesn’t even exist in the alphabet! In other words, W IS the way the Polish V is spelled, which to me puts it out of consideration as something to make a V/W contrast with.

Discount the North Germanic languages. All use V and never W. In Swedish, all V-words that used to be spelled with W were re-spelled with V. Only some family names starting in W remain; perhaps you know the name of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. However, these are pronounced with V, and--you may find this amazing--are alphabetized in the phone book among the Vs. In this way, Swedish is like Polish--if you see a W anywhere, it’s a V.

It’s the West Germanic languages, which are the true home of the letter W (as frequently as it may be seen in Polish). As it turns out to my surprise, the W sound was more widespread early on, including in Old High German, and the scribes wondered what to do with their U/V to account for this sound. Since they’d already played around with points or curves at the bottom, their decision was to use doubling, that is to use two copies of one of the letters into what is known as a digraph, either UU or VV, to represent the W sound. Old English, as it moved from the runic to the Latin alphabet, most often represented the W sound by wynn, using both the rune and its name. However, in time, the digraph UU was also adopted, particularly again under pressure from anti-rune Norman scribes after 1066, and began to take over. If you ever wondered why the English name of the letter remains Double-U to this day, this is the reason. (The French name is double-V [V sounds like vé, rhyming with café]; the German name also sounds like vé.)


[Many years after this early period, in 1693, Cotton Mather published a book about the Salem Witch Trials (2011/20) of the previous year (that he helped instigate). This is its cover. Note in the first line where he writes “Wonders” with a W, but in the fifth line where he writes “UUitches” (Witches) with UU. Since this is so much after the period when UU was really used, it has to be a nostalgic reflection of that spelling.]


However, UU also appeared as VV, the oldest form being where the two inner lines of the Vs overlapped each other in a bit of an X. If you see this overlapped version in modern fonts, it came before the use of VV that didn’t overlap, which is today the most frequent form of the letter W. Thus the development was gradual.


The W sound continued in West Germanic, but even by the end of Old High German, the W sound began to be lost in German, being replaced by a V sound--but still spelled with a W!. Thus, in something like “Was ist das?”, its ancestor--to my surprise--did have a W sound, although today that word is pronounced VAS. Thus German has lost the V/W distinction. Its use of the letter W (as a V) is frequent, but, like in Polish, contrasts with nothing. The letter V exists in the German alphabet, but is useless. In most native words (Vater, Volk, von, vier) it simply represents an F, and those words could be spelled Fater, Folk, fon, fier). In a small handful of non-native words (Violine, nervös), the letter V does represent the sound V, but mostly, W does that job, essentially making the letter V in German totally redundant.


The only two languages where there is a regular, valid distinction made between V and W are the remaining two West Germanic languages. Dutch today retains both a V and W in its alphabet. The letter V is V; the letter W in Flanders is a W as in English, in the Netherlands the letter W represents a somewhat unique V-ish W sound. To any speaker of Dutch, the names Victor and Willem start with two distinctly different sounds.


And finally English. English has the letters V and W and the sounds V and W. On this basis, the International Phonetic Alphabet uses W, as pronounced in English, for the W sound.


Thus, the story of the W sound in English is a lengthy one, between wynn, UU, VV, and W. W won out, so the loss of wynn has not harmed the language and is not a cultural loss. Still, since Wikipedia has substantial entries in Old English, note the spelling of the name: Ƿicipǣdia. Wynn (and ash) live on!


LETTER LOSSES RESULTING IN CULTURAL LOSS The loss of the remaining three letters that were dropped from Old English has stunted English spelling and has to be considered a cultural loss. They are ash, thorn, and edh.


Ash Ash (Æ, æ) is the letter representing the æ sound in mæn, cærry, bættle, Cænada--and æsh. It’s rather unique to English. It was dropped, and all these words are today spelled with an A, which has plenty of other work to do, such as for the sounds in able, all, art, and others.


If you look at the earlier runic chart, you’ll see the slot for the sound æ, the name “ash’, and the rune symbol, which looks like an F with drooping arms. The rune itself was not borrowed, only its name and sound. The new letter for ash was taken from Latin, which used æ as a diphthong combining A and E. The Latin symbol is still used in the British spellings of æsthetic, encyclopædia, and other words, where the American spelling has been simplified to esthetic and encyclopedia.


Æ is used today in Danish and Norwegian (Swedish uses Ä), to cover various pronunciations of vowels, as does Faroese. Icelandic uses it, apparently rather consistently to represent the AI combination in AIsle. However, in the International Phonetic Alphabet, it’s the English sound in mæn that ash is used to represent.


The reason dropping ash is a cultural loss is that Old English made a clear distinction between A (as in “far”) and Æ (as in “mæn”) in the spelling, to match the distinction in pronunciation. We still have the distinction in pronunciation, but no longer have both letters to show it in writing. Today, the phrase “what wallet” has two A’s that are genuine A’s, while the phrase “what cat” has one A and one Æ, which is nevertheless still spelled as an A. The phrase would be better spelled as “what cæt” to show the difference. Losing the letter ash was a cultural loss to the English language.


Thorn & Edh We now come to Tweedeldum and Tweedledee, thorn (Þ þ) and edh (Ð ð), which represent two sounds that, quite unfortunately, are both spelled TH in English. If you’re unaware of the two sounds, follow this explanation.


Most sounds come in pairs, as two sides of a coin. Some are whispered sounds, called voiceless, some are full-voiced sounds, called voiced. Try whispering an F (that’s all you can do, since F is voiceless), then add voice: FFFFFVVVVV, and you’ll find that voiceless F has on its flip side its voiced counterpart, V. Or do it the other way. Prolong a Z in the same way, and you’ll hear its voice. Remove the voice, and see what you get: ZZZZZSSSSS. S is the voiceless counterpart of voiced Z. Similar pairs are P/B, T/D, K/G, SH/ZH, and others.


Among these others are the two TH sounds, where the distinction is hidden, because they’re spelled the same way. Prolong the TH in THick and you’ll see it’s voiceless. Prolong the TH in THen, and you’ll see it’s voiced. To see that it’s voiced, it can be written as DH, so a similar experiment as above would yield TH-TH-TH-DH-DH-DH. Hold that thought.


Icelandic today uses both these sounds as well, and usually spells them quite consistently. The voiceless TH as in THick is spelled with the runic letter thorn (Þ, þ), whereby the sound, the actual letter itself, and the letter’s name are all taken directly out of the runic alphabet (check chart above). Note the quirk that lower-case thorn, þ, is the only instance where a lower-case letter is larger than the capital, Þ.


Icelandic uses, for the voiced TH as in THen, the letter that can be spelled eth or edh. It would seem that spelling it eth is a waste of time, since you can’t see which TH it is, and even looks like it could be the other one. Therefore, I always use the spelling edh. Edh is not runic. It’s a letter from the Latin alphabet that Irish scribes were the first to modify, by adding a crossbar. They took the capital D, added the crossbar to its middle, and made it into Ð for a capital edh. They then took a SCRIPT lower-case d, with its head gracefully leaning to the left, causing it look like a backwards 6, and added the crossbar to its top instead, resulting in ð, the lower-case edh. So thorn is Þ, þ, and edh is Ð, ð.


These two letters involve only four languages. Faroese uses only edh, and has odd uses for it, so we’ll discount Faroese, and consider only three languages: (1) Icelandic uses both letters quite regularly to this day, and usually makes clear distinctions between them. We’ll talk more about Icelandic when our writeups reach it, but for now, to use a word that has both symbols, note that the National Festival held in the Westman Islands is called Þjóðhátíð. If you are still thorn-impaired and eth-impaired, I’ll transliterate the word using TH and DH: Thjódhhátidh. Any better?


You will have seen both letters used in words we’ve quoted from (2) Old Norse, and also from (3) Old English. The letters were removed from English gradually in the 14C, and instead of being replaced with TH and DH, respectively, were both replaced with TH, causing confusion to this day.


While lower-case edh, ð, is used in the International Phonetic Alphabet for that voiced sound, thorn, þ, is not used for the voiceless sound, since Greek has instead provided its letter theta, θ. Thorn and theta represent the same sound, as the letter names indicate.


It should be pointed out that in Old English, thorn and edh were used differently, and not at all as consistently as Icelandic does today. Whether you wanted to use thorn or edh was up to the writer, and the same scribe could use both in the same text. But once you chose your letter between the two, there was a pattern as to which sound it represented, and where. This pattern also affected the letter F, which was used to represent the sounds F or V, and S to represent S or Z (do you notice the voiceless/voiced pairings?) This is further explained below in the alphabet summary.


However, we’ll continue here to use thorn for the voiceless sound and eth for the voiced sound, as is done in modern Icelandic, and not as done in Old English. Nevertheless, the loss of thorn and edh harmed the language and was a cultural loss to English. We cannot see the sound difference between bath and bathe, but we could if still spelled bæþ and baðe. We cannot tell that, in Modern English, “north” is pronounced “norþ”, but “northern” is pronounced “norðern”, and this change is hidden by spelling both sounds TH. It’s the same with “south” being pronounced “souþ”, but “southern” being “suðern”--even worse, since the vowel change is also hidden in the standard spelling. We cannot see from the written form that “with” can be pronounced two ways, at the speaker’s option, but we could if we wrote either “wiþ me” or “wið me”.


[In an earlier writeup on thorn (2008/17), we explained how thorn continued in existence for some time, but that scribes gradually altered its lower-case form, þ, in such a way that it “lost its head” and began to look like a lower-case y in most handwriting. This resulted in “þe”, which was being used to represent “the”, looking like “ye”, which was nevertheless still pronounced “the”. This is the source for pseudo-archaic forms like “Ye Olde Booke Shoppe”, where people take the Y for a Y and pronounce Ye as in “yie[ld]” and not as “the”. We also discussed the famous first line of Robert Herrick’s 1648 poem, which is “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”, which, surprisingly, includes both this last word, as well as the other word “ye”, a form of “you”, which is pronounced as written. Therefore, the accurate pronunciation of the line is “Gather the rosebuds while ye may” and, avoiding both archaicisms, it may be modernized to “Gather the rosebuds while you may”.]


Old English Latin Alphabet   We discussed above the Old English Runic Alphabet, the FUÞORC, and then led in to understanding the Old English Latin Alphabet by first discussing its quirks: yogh, wynn, ash, thorn, and edh. (In addition, we discussed last year (2011/22) the lower-case long S, as in Boſton Poſt Road.) The alphabet consisted of 24 letters, and was used for writing Old English from the 9C to the 12C.

A a Æ æ B b C c D d Ð ð E e F f Ȝ-G ȝ-g H h I i L l M m

N n O o P p R r S s-ſ T t Þ þ U u Ƿ-W ƿ-w X x Y y

Vowels, long or short, follow the international pattern as in: far, café, ski, no, rule; Y is Ü, as in wyrm (short y; “worm”) or fŷr (long y; “fire”)

H, initially, is H as in hūs “house”; then, as with German CH, after certain vowels it’s like Bach (eahta, “eight’), after certain others, it’s like ich (niht “night’)

C depends on the adjacent vowel: it’s K in cyning “king” but CH in cild “child” (sounds like “chilled”)

G depends on the adjacent vowel: it’s G in gōs “goose” but Y in gēar “year”

SK depends on the adjacent vowel: it’s SH in scip “ship” but SK in ascian “to ask” Three letters depend on position to see what they represent. F represents F/V; S represents S/Z; either Þ or Ð represent Þ/Ð. Each one represents the first (voiceless) choice at the beginning or end of a word, or next to a voiceless consonant. Each one represents the second (voiced) choice when intervocalic or next to a voice consonant, as illustrated below:

F is F in feld (at beginning) “field” but V in heofon (intervocalic) “heaven”

S is S in sunne (at beginning) “sun” but Z in rīsan (intervocalic) “to rise”

Ð is Þ in eorð (at end) “earth” but Ð in feðer (intervocalic) “feather”; it’s my understanding that Þ could have been used in both these words in the same way

The Old English Language   There is no reason why speakers of English shouldn’t know about its oldest form, Old English. There are some nice, short videos on YouTube you should really try (maximize all videos for legibility). This first one deals with pronunciation, a lot of which should now be quite familiar. The chap reading does have a bit of an accent, and has trouble with the word “pronunciation”. He also pronounces H, not as aitch, but as haitch, which a comment below the video chastises him for. The intolerant person making the comment doesn’t realize that the pronunciation haitch occurs normally in some English dialects, including Irish.


The second one deals with some basic phrases, which are quite simple. Try it, then note these comments:

 He should explain more about some phrases. He says that ȝé, which is, of course, “ye” became “you”. Not exactly. Ye disappeared, along with thou and thee. Look at the bottom of the ȝé page and note the word éoƿ, which includes a wynn. It’s pronounced éow, and when ye left, éow became you. This is the type of stuff learners should know, especially since éow is used in later phrases he presents. When you see the phrase for “how are you”, realize you’re saying “how goes it with you”. The phrase for “please” should be explained as “I bid you”.

The third one describes people and family, and is the most fun. German speakers will recognize the word for “boy”, cnapa, as “Knabe”. At the end, also note the two words for “are”, both “sind” and “earon”, which we’ll be discussing in the upcoming posting on the Norse invasions, since “sind” is genuine Old English and looks like the equivalent German word, but “earon” is Scandinavian, and developed into “are”.


It’s difficult to find genuine, complete texts to take a look at, and biblical sources would be the most available. So, although it’s a big jump forward to listening to The Lord’s Prayer in Old English, in a rendering dated circa 870 CE, it’s a good choice merely because the text is most likely familiar, making it easier to follow, and also, there are constant literal translations appearing on the screen. You have to remember that Old English, aside from a few stone monuments, was primarily handwritten, since we are before Gutenberg. Expect to see graceful--although perhaps hard to read--script. Lower-case R and F have long tails, and lower-case S looks a little like the R. Take a look, then check these comments:

 The beginning of the text has two items we already know, fæðer and þu … eart. Notice the F used as a V in “heaven”. “Kingdom” is rice, related to German “Reich”, Swedish “rik”. We again see earð “earth”, with a grammatical ending. The word for “bread”, hlaf, remains with us in the word “loaf”. The entire line including the words “. . . us today, and forgive us . . .” sounds very close modern English. Note the use of “guilts” and “those guilty to us”.

While my interests lie primarily in modern languages, you only begin to understand why modern languages are the way they are if you look at the now dead languages that preceded them. This is exactly parallel to studying history in general in order to understand today’s world better. We’ve delved into Old Norse, Old French, Latin, and others, and should certainly be aware of Old English. There are websites and blogs for Old English, among other dead languages, and Wikipedia has a rather active database of entries in what they list on the left side as “Ænglisc”.


The resource is referred to as the “Ænglisc Ƿikipǣdia, Sēo Frēo Ƿīsdōmbōc” (I just love seeing those two wynns), which is of course the “(Old) English Wikipedia, The Free Wisdombook”. While that last word in modern English would be a Latinate “Encyclopedia” (due to the Normans again), I still don’t think that my literal translation as “Wisdombook” is the best--I prefer the equally-Germanic “Book of Knowledge”, a phrase which is actually used to name encyclopedias. But it illustrates how the Germanic aspects of Old English work, using internal Germanic words to describe an abstract concept rather than doing what happened once the Normans came and reaching for a Latinate word like “encyclopedia”, itself coming from Greek.


As a final activity, I’ve copied the entire--but very short--Ƿikipǣdia entry in Ænglisc dealing with one of the seasons. The entire entry is only two sentences long, since Ænglisc enthusiasts apparently don’t have THAT much free time on their hands. You will figure out which season immediately, and your present knowledge of the facts of that season will help you to understand, or at least get the gist of, some (maybe all?) of the entry. To equalize any advantage I may have, I’ll say that related German words that hare helpful are “werden” (become), and the aforementioned “sind” (are). We’ll discuss the translation afterward.

 Ƿinter is cealdost tīma þæs ȝēares, betƿeox hærfeste and lenctene. On ƿintres sunnstede sind þā daȝas sceortoste and þā nihta lanȝosta, and þā daȝas ƿeorðaþ lenȝran æfter þǣm sunnstede.

Now see if you agree with what I see:

 1a) Ƿinter is cealdost tīma þæs ȝēares,

2a) betƿeox hærfeste and lenctene.

3a) On ƿintres sunnstede

4a) sind þā daȝas sceortoste and þā nihta lanȝosta,

5a) and þā daȝas ƿeorðaþ lenȝran æfter þǣm sunnstede.
1b)Winter is (the) coldest time of the year,”

2b) We see “betw-´ followed by two words connected by “and”, so the first word must be “between”. (Actually, with the X in it, it might actually be “betwixt”.) The two nouns would be “fall” and “spring”, but look more carefully. The first word is literally “harvest (time)” and the second is literally “Lent(en time)”.

3b) Instead of “on”, that word seems to imply “at the time of”, so “At the time of winter’s--what?” Even if we hadn’t seen above that sunne was “sun”, we could guess it, and the direction the description is going in the following sections seems to indicate we’re talking about the (winter) solstice here. I afterwards looked up stede, and it means “an appointed place”.

4b) Here German “sind” (“are”) helps us to say “the days are shortest and the nights longest,”

5b) German “werden” (“become”) helps us with “and the days become longer after the solstice.” Et voilà.
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