23 September 2015

Nucg Nucg, Winc Winc: The Anglo-Saxon Dairy Business

Those of my visitors who know something about Old English poetry may have realised that the link between the F-word and churning butter (see the previous post) is not just etymological – it’s a literary allusion.  Among the famous Anglo-Saxon riddles preserved in the Exeter Book we find the following one (Riddle 54):

Hyse cwom gangan,    þær he hie wisse
stondan in wincsele,    stop feorran to,
hror hægstealdmon,    hof his agen
hrægl hondum up,    <hrand> under gyrdels
hyre stondendre    stiþes nathwæt,
worhte his willan;    wagedan buta.
Þegn onnette,    wæs þragum nyt
tillic esne,    teorode hwæþre
æt stunda gehwam    strong ær þon <hio>,
werig þæs weorces.    Hyre weaxan ongon
under gyrdelse    þæt oft gode men
ferðþum freogað   ond mid feo bicgað.

An Anglo-Saxon churn lid, with the Freudian hole
The Exeter Book (written more than one thousand years ago) is the largest extant anthology of Old English poetry. It contains diverse stuff, from solemn religious and allegorical poems, saints’ lives, elegies and fragments of heroic legends to comic, somewhat naughty, light compositions, such as Riddle 54. There are as many as 96 Old English riddles in the manusctipt (the genre is hardly documented in any other source). Many of them have very serious religious solutions, but certainly not this one. Good translations of the riddles are hard to get by. Much is lost in translation, and humour is usually the first victim. A specialist can always enjoy the original, but for the sake of those whose Old English is not very fluent I’m going to offer my own translation, for what it’s worth. At least it isn’t a horrible mistranslation (some others are) and it tries to capture the spirit of the original. I also hope it isn’t too stilted (for a piece of Old English verse).

Some things are practically untranslatable. For example, Old English had grammatical gender, and the use of feminine personal pronouns (corresponding to Modern English she and her) doesn’t mean that the pronoun indicates a female human being. It can refer to any object whose Old English name is a feminine noun (e.g. tunge ‘tongue’, bōc ‘book’,  duru ‘door’, etc.). It may suggest a woman, but since the alternative possibility is also probable, the suggestion is much weaker than in Modern English. This subtle ambiguity would be lost completely if she were replaced by it, so I let it stay. Just remember that in Modern English not only ships but also some tools and utensils can be conventionally personified by their users and referred to as “she”. It isn’t quite the same thing as Old English grammatical gender, but must suffice to justify my artistic licence.

Another problem is that Old English is a dead language and its written record if far from perfect. The words in angle brackets represent editorial emendations in places where the text seems to be corrupt. The first of the restored forms, <hrand> actually reads rand in the manuscript, but this can’t be the word intended by the poet. The rules of Old English poetic alliteration demand something beginning with h in the first stressed position of the second half of the line. The most likely emendation is hrand. Unfortunately, such a word-form does not occur anywhere else in the entire Old English text corpus. The context requires a verb in the past tense here. A past tense like hrand presupposes the infinitive *hrindan, past tense plural *hrundon, past participle *hrunden, etc. But what might they mean? Not only is the verb otherwise unknown from Old English; it has left no Middle of Modern English descendants either. To use a technical Greek term, it’s a hapax legomenon, a word appearing only once.

There’s nothing wrong with being a hapax. It’s the inevitable consequence of the fact that words have wildly different frequencies of use (a common motif in my blog posts). In fact, in any large corpus of texts at least about 40% of the words (types, not tokens) occur only once. The same is true of Old English: more than half of the entries in any more-or-less complete Old English dictionary occur only once or twice in the surviving texts. So hrand is not anything unusual, just a little enigmatic.

What about possible cognates in other Germanic languages? We have Old Icelandic hrinda (past tense hratt < *hrant < *hrand) whose precise meaning is known: ‘push, hurl down’ and, figuratively, ‘launch’ or ‘expel, get rid of’ (the verb has survived in Modern Icelandic and Faroese). The literal meaning roughly fits the context of Riddle 54. Most Modern English translations use thrust; I prefer shove because of its greater semantic overlap with Scandinavian hrinda, and also for the sake of alliteration. Last but not least, shove is less dignified than push or thrust, and has the kind of colloquial vigour they lack, which is an advantage in this case. All right, I’ve never tried it before, so here goes!*)

A lad came walking    to where, as he knew,
she stood in a corner;    stepped in from afar,
a brisk bachelor,    tucked up his own
shirt with his hands,    shoved under the girdle
of the one standing    a stout thingumajig
and worked his will;    both rocked back and forth.
The servant quickened up:    at times he was of use,
a handy workman,    he grew weaker though
with every stroke,    strenghtless too soon,
weary from work.    There began to form
under her girdle    that which good men often
dearly desire    and procure with money.

And the solution is yes, yes, you’ve guessed correctly!  a butter churn, that is OE ċyrn. By the way, this word occurs three times in Old English texts: once as cyrin (sg.), once as cyrne (pl.), and once as cirm (misspelt by the scribe). As you can see even the citation forms that we use for convenience represent “Standard Old English” imposed by modern dictionary editors rather than the actual language of the manuscripts.

An early 20th-century postcard
Needless to point out, ĊYRN [wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more, say no more] is the “formal” solution of the riddle. The informal one is as obvious to us as it was to any Anglo-Saxon audience in the tenth century. Other ambiguous riddles in the Exeter Book exploit the same risqué ambiguity: the alternative interpretation is invariably bawdy. Their innuendo-laden humour may be crude, but it still appeals to the modern reader. For the survival of the whole collection we are indebted to Leofric, Bishop of Exeter, a well-educated bibliophile, who died in 1072, bequeathing his impressive manuscript collection to Exeter Cathedral. He apparently did not regard the riddles as subversive enough to be denied the shelter of the cathedral library. Riddle 54 helps us to understand why, back in 1290, a chap from Ipswich, presumably a local dairyman, was called Simon Fukkebotere. It offers us a glimpse into the secret world of naughty associations that existed in the minds of Anglo-Saxon scribes and their audience (and still exist in ours), so we are not making things up when we hypothesise that the original meaning of fuck was ‘strike repeatedly’. Who knows, perhaps the speakers of Old English could use the same word for churning and, with less innocent intent, for [know what I mean? nudge nudge] the other thing.

13 September 2015

The Middle English Dictionary Needs a Fucking Update

Sorry, but I have to comment on this topic.  The news has already spread across the Internet, arousing the interest of several bloggers:

here, here, here, etc.

Somewhere among the indictment rolls of the county court of Chester (1310/11), studied by Dr. Paul Booth of Keele University (Staffordshire), a man whose Christian name was Roger is mentioned three times. His less Christian byname is recorded as well, with minor orthographic variations. The repetition guarantees that what the name contains is not an artefact resulting from a spelling mistake but the real thing: to wit, the man’s full name was Roger Fuckebythenavele. Though Roger was finally outlawed by the court and never heard of again, his legacy will make a lasting impact on English word studies. Not only does his second name move back the earliest attestation of fuck in its modern sense by many decades; it also, for the first time, establishes it as a bona fide Middle English word. Inevitably, the question will be raised again whether fuck is a native English word (a view defended, among others, by Lass 1995) or a relatively late newcomer (as argued e.g. by Liberman 2007: 78-87).

Like dog (attested once about 1050 and then again some 150 years later) and shark (attested once in 1442 and then again in 1569), fuck has a “ghost lineage” – a long attestation gap during which it must have existed, although no record of its use has survived. We do see several occurrences of fucke in 13th-century bynames like Fuckebotere (= “Fuckbutter”, 1290) and Fuckebeggar (1286/87), but in these, the verb seems to mean, respectively, ‘churn, beat’, and ‘punch, hit’ rather than you-know-what. Semantic associations leading from such meanings to the rather obvious sexual connotations of Roger’s bizarre cognomen are pretty natural, though. The coexistence of both ca. 1300 suggests that the use of fuck for sexual intercourse is a semantic specialisation which took place a long time ago. We find it not only in English but also (perhaps independently) in a few other Germanic languages. For details, you may consult the etymological information in the beautifully updated entry in the OED.

Fucking, Austria
(renamed Fugging as of 2021),
probably unrelated

I side with those who believe that
fuck is old and has a respectable Germanic pedigree. The stem *fukkō-, with its characteristic double consonant, is easy to explain as a Germanic iterative verb – one of a large family of similar forms. They originated as combinations of various Indo-European roots with *-nah₂-, a suffix indicating repeated action. The formation is not, strictly speaking, Proto-Indo-European; the suffix owes its existence to the reanalysis of an older morphological structure (reanalysis happens when people fail to analyse an inherited structure in the same way as their predecessors). Still, verbs of this kind are older than Proto-Germanic.

One particularly clear example is English lick from Old Englich liccian < PGmc. *likkō-. Numerous cognates in other Indo-European languages show unambiguously that the PIE root was *leiǵʰ- ‘lick’. The expected Germanic reflex of *ǵʰ is a voiced fricative or stop (*ɣ/*g) resulting from the operation of Grimm’s Law. A different development in this case was caused by the suffix *-nah₂- , attached to the root in pre-Germanic times to yield *liǵʰ-náh₂- ‘lick (repeatedly)’. The root occurred in the reduced grade since the suffix carried the accent. After an unaccented syllable, the sequence *-ǵʰn- changed into *-gg-, which, as Grimm’s Law completed its course, became Proto-Germanic *-kk- (if the preceding vowel was short).

Many historical linguists don’t accept this development, known as Kluge’s Law (discovered more than a century ago but neglected for many decades). In recent years, however, so much evidence has been collected to support it that it seems unfair to call it “controversial” (if not something worse) any longer. The outcome of Kluge’s Law is the same for originally voiceless, voiced and “aspirated” (breathy-voiced) Indo-European stops: all of them yielded a voiceless geminate (double consonant) in the environment in which the law applied. After a long vowel or diphthong, however, the geminate was simplified, leaving a single voiceless stop.

There was a Proto-Indo-European root usually reconstructed as *peug- (or possibly *peuǵ-), meaning ‘stab, hit’ (cf. Latin pungō ‘pierce’, pūgnus ‘fist’, pūgna ‘fight’, pugil ‘boxer’; Greek púgmē ‘fist, fist-fight’). In combination with the *-náh₂- suffix we would get *pug-náh₂- > PGmc. *fukkō- ‘strike repeatedly, beat’ (like, say, “dashing” the cream with a plunger in a traditional butter churn). Note also windfucker and fuckwind – old, obsolete words for ‘kestrel’.

A number of words in other Germanic languages may be related to fuck. One of them is Old Icelandic fjúka ‘to be tossed or driven by the wind’ < *feuka-; cf. also fjúk ‘drifting snowstorm’ (or, as one might put it in present-day English, a fucking blizzard). These words fit a recurrent morphological pattern observed by Kroonen (2012): Germanic iteratives with a voiceless geminate produced by Kluge’s Law often give rise to “de-iterativised” verbs in which the double stop is simplified if the full vocalism or the root (here, *eu rather than *u) is restored.

If the verb is really native (“Anglo-Saxon”), one would expect Old English *fuccian (3sg. *fuccaþ, pl. *fucciaþ, 1/3sg. preterite *fuccode, etc.). If these forms already had “impolite” connotations in Old English, their absence from the Old English literary corpus is understandable. We may be absolutely sure that *feortan (1/3 sg. pret. *feart, pret. pl. *furton, p.p. *forten) existed in Old English, since fart exists today (attested since about 1300, just like fuck) and has an impeccable Indo-European etymology, with cognates in several branches. Still, not a single one of these reconstructed Old English verb forms is actually documented (all we have is the scantily attested verbal noun feorting ‘fart(ing)’).

One has to remember that written records give us a strongly distorted picture of how people really spoke in the past. If you look at the frequency of fuck, fucking and fucker in written English over the last 200 years, you may get the impression that these words disappeared from English completely ca. 1820 and magically reappeared 140 years later. Even the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (whose ambition was to be exhaustive) pretended they didn’t exist. The volume that should have contained FUCK was published in 1900, and Queen Victoria was still alive.

Google books Ngram Viewer

Booth, Paul. 2015. Roger the incompetent copulator is outlawed, 28th September 1311. [Academia.edu].

Kroonen, Guus. 2012. Consonant gradation in the Germanic iterative verbs. In: Benedicte Nielsen Whitehead et al. (eds.), The sound of Indo-European: Phonetics, phonemics, and morphophonemics, Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 263-290.

Lass, Roger. 1995. Four letters in search of an etymology. Diachronica 12(1): 99-111.

Liberman, Anatoly. 2007. An analytic dictionary of English etymology: An introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

06 September 2015

A Jan’s Chance: The Fate of Innovations

Imagine that you start a linguistic innovation. One fine day you decide to replace the English word dog with a new, hitherto unused word — for example, jan. As of now, you will say, “I have to walk the jan”, “My jan’s name is Bruno”, and, “The jan is man’s best friend”. You will substitute jan for dog in set phrases such as “go to the jans” and “every jan has its day”. Jan would do its job neither better nor worse than dog. Both are arbitrary sound sequences (their pronunciation does not suggest what they mean); both are short and easily pronounceable. Dog has only one obvious advantage over jan: it is already an established, familiar, commonly used English word. There is no compelling reason why people should find it a good idea to abandon it just like that and learn to use a different word for the same concept. If you are really determined (and perhaps slightly nuts), you can try persuading your family and close friends to humour you and adopt your innovation when they are talking to you. You can bring up your children informing them that your family pet Bruno is a jan. But sooner or later they will find out that everybody else calls jans (including Bruno) dogs. Your experiment will almost certainly fail. Not because the word jan is useless, but because the function you’d like it to have is already carried out equally well by another word. It makes jan a “neutral” innovation — one that could play its role well enough but has no functional advantage over a preexisting competitor.

On the other hand, something similar to this thought-experiment really happened about one thousand years ago. The word docga (the Old English ancestor of dog), coined by an unknown innovator at an unknown date*), somehow became a widespread synonym of the established Old English word hund, and after a few centuries managed to replace it in the mental lexicon of every English-speaker of the time. Although its dethroned predecessor did not become completely obsolete, its frequency of use dropped by at least an order of magnitude, and it had to undergo narrow semantic specialisation in order to survive. Today, a hound is a special type of hunting dog, not just any dog in general. And if you look at other languages, you will occasionally see similar cases of lexical replacement. French chien and Italian cane go back to Latin canis, as expected, but Spanish perro is an innovation (about as mysterious as dog). It seems some new words for old things do catch on, albeit rarely. The chances are slim but apparently larger than zero.

A selfie with a jan (whose name is not Bruno)
A lexical innovation is more likely to succeed if it finds and conquers a functional niche not yet occupied by any other word. In this way it makes itself useful, which may give people a powerful incentive to adopt it. For example, the word selfie made its first recorded appearance in September 2002, in Australia (or rather in the Australian sector of cyberspace). Within the next few years it grew popular among (mostly young) English-speaking Internet users worldwide, slowly gaining the status of buzzword. Then it infected Facebook communities and its popularity soared to the zenith (as did the number of selfies published online). In 2013 the Oxford English Dictionary declared it the word of the year.

How is it possible for an innovation to become “fixed” in a large speech community? How do the the chances of fixation depend on the functional value of the innovation? What is that functional value? What happens to innovations that have enjoyed some success  but haven’t yet reached fixation? This is what my next blog posts will be about.

*) Nobody knows for sure where Old English docga came from. My own modest etymological proposal can be found here.