The History of the English Language

The History of the English Language

Owen Alun and Brendan O’Corraidhe

In the beginning there was an island off the coast of Europe. It had no name, for the natives had no language, only a collection of grunts and gestures that roughly translated to “Hey!”, “Gimme!”, and “Pardon me, but would you happen to have any woad?” Then the Romans invaded it and called it Britain, because the natives were “blue, nasty, br(u->i)tish and short.”

[This was the start of the importance of u (and its mispronounciation) to the language.]

After building some roads, killing off some of the nasty little blue people and walling up the rest, the Romans left, taking the language instruction manual with them. The British were bored so they invited the barbarians to come over (under Hengist) and “Horsa” ’round a bit. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes [oh my] brought slightly more refined vocal noises.

All of the vocal sounds of this primitive language were onomatapoedic, being derived from the sounds of battle:

Consonants were were derived from the sounds of weapons striking a foe. (“Sss” and “th” for example are the sounds of a draw cut, “k” is the sound of a solidly landed axe blow, “b”, “d”, are the sounds of a head dropping onto rock and sod respectively, and “gl” is the sound of a body splashing into a bog.

Vowels (which were either gargles in the back of the throat or sharp exhalations) were derived from the sounds the foe himself made when struck.

The barbarians had so much fun that decided to stay for post-revel. The British, finding that they had lost future use of the site, moved into the hills to the west and called themselves Welsh.

The Irish, having heard about language from Patrick, came over to investigate. When they saw the shiny vowels, they pried them loose and took them home. They then raided Wales and stole both their cattle and their vowels, so the poor Welsh had to make do with sheep and consonants. (“Old Ap Ivor hadde a farm, L Y L Y W! And on that farm he hadde somme gees. With a dd dd here and a dd dd there…”) To prevent future raids, the Welsh started calling themselves “Cymry” and gave even longer names to their villages. They figured if no one could pronounce the name of their people or the names of their towns, then no one would visit them. [The success of the tactic is demonstrated still today. How many travel agents have YOU heard suggest a visit to scenic Llyddumlmunnyddthllywddu?]

Meantime, the Irish brought all the shiny new vowels home to Erin. But of course they didn’t know that there was once an instruction manual for them, so they scattered the vowels throughout the language purely as ornaments. Most of the new vowels were not pronounced, and those that were were pronounced differently depending on which kind of consonant they were either preceding or following.

The Danes came over and saw the pretty vowels bedecking all the Irish words. “Ooooh!” they said. They raided Ireland and brought the vowels back home with them. But the Vikings couldn’t keep track of all the Irish rules so they simply pronounced all the vowels “oouuoo.”

In the meantime, the French had invaded Britain, which was populated by descendants of the Germanic Angles, and Saxons, and Jutes [oh my]. After a generation or two, the people were speaking German with a French accent and calling it English.

Then the Danes invaded again, crying “Oouuoo! Oouuoo!,” burning abbeys, and trading with the townspeople. The Britons that the Romans hadn’t killed intermarried with visiting Irish and became Scots.

Against the advice of their travel agents, they descided to visit Wales. (The Scots couldn’t read the signposts that said, “This way to LLyddyllwwyddymmllwylldd,” but they could smell sheep a league away.) The Scots took the sheep home with them and made some of them into haggis. What they made with the others we won’t say, but Scots are known to this day for having hairy legs.

The former Welsh, being totally bereft, moved down out of the hills and into London. Because they were the only people in the Islands who played flutes instead of bagpipes, they were called Tooters. This made them very popular.

In short order, Henry Tooter got elected King and begin popularizing ornate, unflattering clothing. Soon, everybody was wearing ornate, unflattering clothing, playing the flute, speaking German with a French accent, pronouncing all their vowels “oouuoo” (which was fairly easy given the French accent), and making lots of money in the wool trade.

Because they were rich, people smiled more (remember, at this time, “Beowulf” and “Canterbury Tales” were the only tabloids, and gave generally favorable reviews even to Danes). And since it is next to impossible to keep your vowels in the back of your throat (even if you do speak German with a French accent) while smiling and saying “oouuoo” (try it, you’ll see what I mean), the Great Vowel Shift came about and transformed the English language.

The very richest had their vowels shifted right out in front of their teeth. They settled in Manchester and later in Boston. There were a few poor souls who, cut off from the economic prosperity of the wool trade, continued to swallow their vowels. They wandered the countryside in misery and despair until they came to the docks of London, where their dialect devolved into the incomprehensible language known as Cockney.

Later, it was taken overseas and further brutalized by merging it with Dutch and Italian to create Brooklynese.

That’s what happened, you can check for yourself. But I advise you to just take our word for it.

Copyright (c) 1994 Corrie Bergeron and Ben Tucker all rights reserved Permissions: This may be reproduced in SCA newsletters for non- commercial purposes only. (i.e., If you make any money off of it, send us a cut.)

[Owen Alun is a wandering Cornish poet and harper whose travels have taken him to EVERY group in the Northshield. Ben Tucker helps keep the St. Paul School District moving into the Information Age. (He recently wired his elementary school into the Internet so the kids can get on-line!) Brendan O Corraidhe is a wandering Irish singer and storyteller. Corrie Bergeron is a project manager and designer for the company that makes PLATO educational software.]

Brendan, who cowrote this, also writes about bardic at his blog https://bardlog.wordpress.com

Lesson One

My Laurel, Sieglinde Syr, gave me the advice that everyone has an inner five year old.

Five year olds have thought about a lot of things, and can do just about anything with the right encouragement.

Authenticity, patience, clear expectations, and care together lead towards trust. Trust most often brings forth joy.

Give yourself permission to share that kind of love and trust with and in yourself, too.

For the Midrealm:  A War Song

War Song

Fly Dragon, Fly
To the corners of the kingdom
Fly Dragon, Fly
Blaze a sign for all to see.
Fly Dragon, Fly  
For the time of War approaches
And the Armies of the MidRealm rise to meet the enemy.

Go Dragon, Go
Boldly sing the song of battle
Go Dragon, Go
Loudly blow the War Horn
Go Dragon, Go
Proudly we march forth behind you
Of chivalry and glory was the Middle Kingdom born.

Come Dragon, Come
Mighty warriors assemble
Come Dragon, Come
To the summons of the King
Come Dragon, Come
To the Pennsic War we travel
May the Dragon’s strength defend us
As we march beneath your wing

Fire Dragon, Fire
Spreading fast across the prairie
Fire Dragon, Fire
We shall drive away our foe
Fire Dragon, Fire
Let our deeds be told in story
For the honor of the Dragon now to War to War we go

Strike Dragon, Strike
For the Tyger is upon us
Strike Dragon, Strike
Let cold steel give our reply
Strike Dragon, Strike
Feel the battle heat rise in us
Let the ground beneath us tremble when to Victory we fly.

{after the last cannon, until before spring coronation}:
Sleep Dragon, Sleep
For now the War is ended
Sleep Dragon, Sleep
Gentle Dragon take thy rest
Sleep Dragon, Sleep  
For the borders are defended
‘Till we meet again in battle with the Foe we love the best

[repeat first verse]

Fly Dragon, Fly…

© 1989 Ben Tucker

Permission granted for reuse, performance, publication, and recording.  

Promisi et Credo

Three for whom a bard must stand
The crown and people of the land
Above these she who holds his heart
And above all else he serves his art

Three tasks by which a bard must live
To worthy deeds, praise freely give
To teach his students all his days
To seek for wisdom always

Three lessons that a bard must ken
Words have great power over men
Don’t just listen, learn to hear
Those who sing do not have fear

Words have no worth that are not true
and one who wears a wreath must know
To serve the Crown helps the land grow
Thus have I said, thus shall I do.

 

 

The Realm of Erehwon

Hearken to the sound of Erehwon's call
As the leaves of Summer turn to Fall
Beckoning warriors one and all 
To the Realm of Erehwon.

On the field of battle all as one
Gather in chivalry beneath the Sun
For a new day has begun
Behold the Realm of Erehwon

On the field and above the stream
Honor shines forth as bright blades gleam
For this moment it is no mere dream
We cross the bridge and enter Erehwon

As the eventide on us descends
Each combattant and consort are friends
Here in this land the dream nver ends
Share the joy of Erehwon.

In the dawn we watch the new Sun rise
There is no sorrow here among the wise
What lives and loves among us never dies
In the land of Erehwon.

(c) 2001 Ben Tucker {Owen Alun}

On Riddles

Class Description:  Riddle me this!
Riddles have been popular for thousands of years, and particularly in period. Learn what makes a great riddle, and try your hand at creating one.
— Master Owen Alun


What is a Riddle?

This class won’t attempt to define what a riddle is.
Riddles are fish.  Pretty, slippery, right in front of you, and yet elusive to catch. It is a metaphor that exists in stasis waiting for explanation, it is understanding striving to be born.
Riddle is a mask.
Riddle is play, is pretend.
Riddle can be parable
Riddle can be evasion.

Riddle is a game, and almost as old as that, it is the deadly serious game that is played for very high stakes.  The SphinxSamsonHeidrek, and of course Bilbo and Sméagol.

Riddle is a mystery wrapped up in an enigma.  Riddle sits at the point of connection between  drama and tragedy.    It is the confluence of disjoint things, and the irresistable force that drives action.

Riddle places the mind in wonder, changes the way we think, and in doing so may change the world around us.  Riddles reflect commonplaces between us and bring us together.

Riddle engages.

And then vanishes.

Rather than trying to define the what of riddle, let us look at the how.

A riddle brings together two things (which can be variously physical objects, monsters or mythic beings, present past or future actions, or anything whatsoever that the mind may ken), and finds commonplaces between them that allow one to hide in the shadow or reflected light of the other.

The Ancient Greeks had the riddle of the Sphinx, and had collections (now lost) such as

One example from Symphosius:

Virgo modesta nimis legem bene seruo pudoris;
Ore procax non sum, nec sum temeraria linguae;
ultro nolo loqui, sed do responsa loquenti.

A modest maid, too well I observe the law of modesty;
I am not pert in speech nor rash of tongue;
of my own accord I will not speak, but I answer him who speaks.

Riddles present us with the unexpected, there is often some humor in a riddle, though it may not be the predominant motif.  Riddles can be quite serious, even when they show humor, especially in concert with the Riddle game.

Cicero, in On the Orator (ch. 63), says that “The most common kind of joke is that in which we expect one thing and another is said; here our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh.”

Jesus spoke in parables.  The church fathers were aware of the power of parables, but were also concerned with the explication of the mysteries that they represented.  Augustine in the depth of his disillusionment in the Confessions said:  “I became a great riddle to myself”.  In his Expositions on the Psalms he said: ” The Lord Himself is at one time termed a lion, at another a lamb”   (Expositions, 11) and that at different times the allegories meant different things.  There was a significant concern that people could become confused and misunderstand things without guidance.

Practical considerations:

The semantic component of a riddle is structured by taking two “things” in the broad sense indicated above, and identifying similarities between them that can allow the one to hide in proximity to the other.

The aesthetic component of the riddle is constellated by creating syntactic and rhetorical flourishes that direct the audience to focus on the semantic properties of the structure.  Careful word choice is key with the avoidance of terms related to the hidden referent in favor of terms that describe the mask.

I have often said that in riddles the nouns lie and the adjectives tell the truth.  That’s not strictly true, but it’s been a useful starting point for some.

As far as presenting a riddle, it is important to realize that in creating a new riddle, there will be times when someone comes up with an alternate answer.  It is incumbent on the riddler to give credit to the guesser if they have kenned an alternate solution, lest you have to give up your own answer.  It is permissible in this place to say “that wasn’t the answer I was thinking of, but it serves” — then go off and refine your riddle to make it work more precisely for the intended hidden referent.

Riddles exist in suspension.  The moment that they are guessed, they transform into something else, a commonplace.  This transformation only happens once for each person who hears a riddle, so protecting the suspension is important to allow the riddle to work for new audiences.  Once someone has heard a riddle, their perception of it is as one who is “in the know”

In this regard, Riddles are a lot like legerdemain and slight of hand, except that in the end the secret of the riddle is guessed.  A good magician can do a trick more than once before their secret is divined.

The Riddle Game

The most common form of playing at riddles is the Riddle Game, where first one person then another take turns asking Riddles of each other, often then dropping out when there is a riddle that they cannot guess.

There is a literary trope of the Riddle Game as a method par excellence for determining fate.  This comes from the sense that solving riddles is itself an inspirational activity, and the one who can guess the Riddles the best must be favored either through cunning or direct benefice by the (G/g)od(s).  This gets particularly interesting when one of the protagonists is of divine origin.    In Folktake-Morphological terms, this most commonly happens at the barrier to go into the land of adventure, or as the final step to be able to leave (or live).  The resonance here is that the Riddle game in the story is represented as the same game that is played amongst friends, so being the one who can guess the riddles positions the guesser as heroic, challenging the unknown in the quest for wisdom.

The person asking the riddles is therefore in ways that aren’t true in most other performing arts, taking on a persona of the anti-hero, out to thwart the intentions of the guesser-hero.

This is one of the reasons why the Riddle Game is almost always played in turns.


A,  Analysis of some Riddles

“A box without hinges key or lid, yet golden treasure inside is hid”

(from The Hobbit)

The riddle double compares two sets of things, “a box” and “a thing that holds ‘treasure'”  — the discordance here is that the box is “not a treasure chest” and the “treasure” is implicitly “not something like gold coins”

A box  that contains a treasure that is not a treasure but that is golden in color.  The box is probably not a standard box, because it has no lid, no key, and no hinge.

The solution here is to see that the treasure is actually at the center of the riddle, if we know the nature of the treasure, we can then discern the nature of the box.

What is golden in color, hidden inside of something (and desireable), where the something is difficult to open?

To construct a similar riddle, we would think of a part for the whole relationship:  For example:

I was born on the back of a birds wing, though I fly not, I have one tiny foot yet my tracks may be quite large, my children are born of the air and at times return to it, I am the careful observer of deeds great and small, though delicate ’tis said I conquer all.

Who am I?

“The children” are the center of this riddle.

What things (children) are born of the air and can return to it and how are related to (part of) (something bird or bird-like)  (but is clearly not “a bird”)  that observes deeds and is (mighty/enduring/strong)?

B. Practicum

As an exercise, take two things and list three properties of each that are like the other thing.   No determine which way you want to go, and describe one of the things as if it was the other thing (letting the referent hide behind the description of the masking thing).

When presenting this as a class: 

We will then work in groups to generate one or two riddles as examples, working first through the semantic aspects and then looking at the asthetic aspects of phrasing.

 

 Riddle sources and commentaries:

For further reading:

Twisty Maze of Passages all Philosophical:

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