Gereord and Stæfcræt

My academic interests include the history of the English language, and in particular the Old and Middle English forms of the language. Indeed I consider myself a philologist. As a graduate student I worked at the Dictionary of Old English project, and so I have a special fascination with lexicography. I am also interested in some of the more recent peculiarities of English, many of which become apparent to me as a teacher of English Writing. This category archive contains some of my musings on language, both medieval and modern.

July 12, 2007

Semper ubi sub ubi

There has been a recent flurry of blog posts and news articles on the web repeating the suggestion made by Dr. Marco Mostert in a paper delivered at the Leeds conference that the recycling of linen underwear to make cheap rag paper spurred on literacy during the middle ages because it was possible to print cheap books. Bill Poser mentions the story over at Language Log, and Carl Pyrdum has a post over at Got Medieval which links to a number of iterations of the story and provides some interesting commentary. What strikes me as odd is that this isn’t a particularly new idea. I seem to recall James Burke mentioning the idea in one of his documentary series. I don’t recall whether or not he specifically links the idea with literacy, though I do believe that he suggests that the cheap paper produced from recycled underwear did lead to an information explosion. Curious that this idea should be getting so much attention now.

Posted by Mark at 05:06 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

July 10, 2007

Scip-gefere: Paddle your own canoe (part II)

(This is a continuation of yesterday’s post.)

But back-tracking to the middle ages for a moment, we can see a similar metaphor, only the characterisation is different in the Christian world view. For instance, in the Old English elegies “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” harsh exile is pictured in terms of a lonely journey in a boat, and the homiletic implication of this exile/pilgrimage is that the Christian soul’s ultimate destination is back to God. God is the only course to steer towards. Similarly, in the later middle ages, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the Man of Law’s Tale, Custance, who is set adrift at sea by her antagonists to get rid of her, puts her faith in God: “In hym triste I, and in his mooder deere, / That is to me my seyl and eek my steere”. God is her sail and her rudder, her means of propulsion and steering. Again, this is a metaphor of the relationship between the Christian soul and God, and therefore of man’s place in the world. Though as in the ancient world, man does not control his fate, it is not a capricious god to whom he is subject.

Known as great sailors in the earlier part of the middle ages, the Vikings, who really only had the square sail, cheated a bit by lowering one end of the sail to allow for greater manoeuverability. But for the most part they made do with very simple means and no sophisticated navigational equipment. Here’s a picture of a Norse knarr (click to enlarge):


They were often blown off course, and as described in the Vinland Sagas, it was often due to accident that they made discoveries such as Greenland and Vinland. Interestingly, there’s quite the mix of chance, fate, luck both good and bad, pagan, and Christian in the Vinland Sagas.

As for the advance in sailing technology, in the late middle ages or early renaissance, the triangular lateen sail began to be used in Europe. Here’s a picture of a lateen sail:


The triangular sail, of course, works like a wing — high pressure on one side and low pressure on the other — and it allows a ship to sail almost directly into a headwind. And so by tacking in a zigzag pattern ships can sail go in any direction and are no longer at the mercy of the wind, as long as there is wind, as seen here (click to enlarge):


(You can read a good explanation of all this here.) Ships also started using sternpost rudders rather than steering with an oar hanging off the right side (starboard, literally the steering side, as opposed to the left side called port which was the side towards the dock, also known as larboard or loading side). The stern mounted rudder made it possible to steer larger ships, and larger ships could carry more provisions, including most importantly fresh water. These along with the old square sail (to take efficient advantage of favourable winds), as well as improvements to navigational technology allowed for real exploration to begin at the end of the middle ages and throughout the renaissance, kicking off the European age of discovery. Here’s a picture of the complete package:


Note both the square sails and the triangular lateen sail.

These advances too are reflected in the imaginative literature of the period. This is of course the age of humanism, when the cultural focus shifted from the purely religious to the world of man. People began to define their place in the world in terms other than purely spiritual ones. The eighteenth century, for instance, is full of travel literature, perhaps most famously Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver goes out into the world ostensibly to discover things about other people and places, but in fact learns about his own country in the process. Mankind defines itself through its exploration of the outside world, through its own ability to direct its own course in the world. This is a radical shift from the medieval seagoing metaphor as demonstrated most clearly in Chaucer’s Custance, who is really only defined by her relationship to God. The humanist shift in cultural focus goes hand in hand with the seagoing technological shift.

Though Gulliver can sail anywhere in the world, sailing is still a risky business and he is frequently stranded. Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the outer frame narrative of Walton’s arctic exploration in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sound a note of danger in unbridled exploration. This is perhaps somewhat comparable to Dante’s perspective of Ulysses. While mankind is more and more able to govern his own destiny, there are some things he shouldn’t meddle with. If the sea voyage is a metaphor for man’s place in the world and man’s relationship with God, then trying to control your own destiny rather than following God’s guidance is a problem.

(Continued tomorrow)

Posted by Mark at 06:12 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 26, 2006

Olympic verbiage II

The last week or so have been a little light on blogging. It was reading week here at Mount A and I’ve been spending a lot of time watching the Olympics, along with catching up on some reading and marking. And since I wrote a blog entry during the opening ceremonies, it seems appropriate that I write another during the closing ceremonies.

During the last summer games I wrote about some interesting sporting terms that were used repeatedly in the Olympic coverage, so here are few interesting ones from the winter sports.

First of all a couple of figure skating terms: lutz and salchow. Unsurprisingly these two jumps are named after people, figure skaters Alois Lutz and Ulrich Salchow. The Austrian figure skater Lutz apparently first performed the eponymously named jump 1913. The Swede Salchow performed the jump named after him in 1909. No Swedes or Austrians won medals in figure skating this Olympics.

In curling, the leader of a team is called the skip, which presumably is short for skipper, as in the captain of a ship, and thus cognate with ship from Old English scip. However, I can’t explain where the curling terms hammer and hog line come from.

In skiing, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term mogul comes “probably from Scand. (cf. dial. Norw. mugje, fem. muga, ‘a heap, a mound’), or from southern Ger. dial. mugel in the same sense.” The same web site states that slalom comes “from Norw. slalam ‘skiing race,’ lit. ‘sloping track,’ from sla ‘slope’ + lam ‘track’ (related to Norw. laan ‘a row of houses’).” Not surprising that the Scandinavian countries provide much of the skiing terminology, and though they no longer dominate the sport as they used to, they still do well in them: Norway took all but one of their 19 medals in skiing related events and Sweden took 11 of their 14 in skiing related events.

I won’t even touch snowboard vocabulary, though there’s a lot of it and it’s quite amusing.

And finally sled-related vocabulary. First of all, the word sled comes from Middle Dutch sledde, from the Proto-Germanic root *slido, and is thus cognate with Old English slidan, which gives us Modern English slide. The related term sleigh comes from the Dutch slee, a variant of slede, and seems to be more common in North American English, though the official Olympic term is bobsleigh, not bobsled. And as for the first element, bob, Middle English bobbe, ‘cluster (of fruit, leaves, etc.)’, may be of Celtic origin (cp. Gael. babag). I suppose a bobsled is a diminutive sled? Interestingly, the word luge, from French and before that from Medieval Latin sludia, may also be Celtic in origin, from a Gaulish word cognate to English sled and slide. On the other hand, skeleton, a sport similar to luge, is so called because of the stripped-down nature of the sled, though apparently there is one competing theory that the word is a mispronunciation of the Norwegian word kjelke which means ‘sled’. The word skeleton, of course, comes from Greek meaning ‘dried up’. The turns in the track used for boblseigh, luge, and skeleton are called chicanes. The Online Etymology Dictionary gives the following information: “from Fr., originally ‘subtlety,’ perhaps related to Ger. schick ‘tact, skill,’ from M.L.G. schikken ‘arrange appropriately;’ or from Fr. chicane, from chicanerie (see chicanery).” I’m not sure I see any patterns in all of this in terms of Olympic results…

Posted by Mark at 03:01 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 25, 2006

Blogiversary II

Well, here it is, my second blogiversary. It was two years ago today that I wrote my first blog post. There have been a few starts and stops along the way, most recently all of last fall. But here I am at it again.

One year ago today I wrote a blog post about the word blogiversary, tabulating the number of ghits for the various possible spellings. It seems like this would be a good opportunity to update the results, so here are last year’s and this year’s results:


The first thing to notice about these numbers is the overall increase of instances of the word, a total increase of about 495.2%. And indeed the number of instances of each individual spellings has increased. The other obvious thing to notice here is that the spellilng blogoversary has vaulted from 4th position into second in terms of frequency. A second table listing percentage frequencies is illustrative:


Interestingly, as these percentage statistics make clear, although blogiversary is still by far the most common spelling, the percentage has dropped off significantly. Similarly, blogaversary, which was the second most common spelling, drops in percentage and rank to the 3rd spot. The two least common spellings bloggaversary and bloggoversary, though increasing in total number of occurrences, drop in terms of percentage frequency. As a corollary of these percentage drop-offs, as I already mentioned, blogoversary has a dramatic percentage increase, thus ranking as the second most common spelling, and the seemingly less likely spellings bloggiversary and blogversary also increase their percentage frequencies.

So, what can we gather from all this? While one tends to expect spellings to become more regularized, clearly the spellings for this words are still in a state of flux. Predictably, the two statistically insignificant spellings, bloggaversary and bloggoversary, are even more so. Blogiversary is still the clear favourite, and the similarly formed bloggiversary, also taking its vowel from anniversary and its doubled vowel like from forms such as blogging and blogger, makes a significant increase. Blogoversary, possibly influenced by the term blogosphere, makes the most significant increase. The simplified formation, blogversary, also increases in percentage frequency. However, both spellings with the a stem vowel decrease in percentage frequency.

It would be interersting to see a year from now how these numbers change…

Posted by Mark at 03:06 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 07, 2006


Following up on my previous post on Stephen Colbert, here are more postings on Language Log on the word ‘truthiness’:

The birth of truthiness?
Truthiness: a flash in the pan?
Truthiness in journalism

Interestingly, it appears that Colbert hasn’t been truthful (or is that truthy?) about the pronunciation of his name. I’m so disillusioned.

Equally interesting, and a testament to how fast things move these days, there’s not only an entry on Stephen Colbert in Wikipedia, there’s an entry on the word truthiness. He may not have received the recognition he thought he deserved from the American Dialect Society, but the Wiktionary entry for truthiness does mention Colbert.

More recently, Stephen Colbert appeared on the cover of Newsweek (in the top right-hand corner). Of course the article mentions the whole truthiness bruhaha.

All this talk of the word truthiness makes me reflect on my favourite medieval English word: truth. Yes, I know it’s a modern English word to, but the particularly interesting thing about the word in medieval English is the range of meanings the word had. Not only did it have the obvious meaning of veracity (that is, not being false), and the less obvious though perhaps still present moral sense of fidelity or faith, the word was also at that point undifferentiated from the word troth, meaning a promise, as in betrothal or to plight one’s troth. This range of meanings is particularly important in Middle English literature, where truth is often represented as one of the chivalric virtues (a bit like Superman’s truth, justice, and the American way, I suppose). As a chivalric virtue it implied both a moral rectitude and the keeping of one’s word. Chaucer, in addition to mentioning the quality numerous time in the Canterbury Tales, also wrote a short poem called Truth.

In a more religious context, in William Langland’s Piers Ploughman, when the question is asked what is the way to heaven, the answer is that truth is the best.

And in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the quality of truth is Sir Gawain’s most fundamental virtue. Indeed the trials Sir Gawain undergoes are a test of his truth. In the end, Sir Gawain passes with almost a perfect grade, demonstrating his truth. King Arthur, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to fully take the lesson to heart, perhaps only displaying truthiness.

Posted by Mark at 05:56 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 13, 2006

Truthiness is the best

As someone who works with language and as a fan of The Colbert Report, I’ve been highly amused by the recent mock-battle going on between Stephen Colbert and the ‘wordanistas’ over the word truthiness. The whole thing is well summarised over at Language Log (read the following links in this order to get the whole story):

Truthiness or trustiness?
Colbert fights for truthiness
The truthiness wars rage on
Colbert immortalized again

As an interesting side note, the scholar in question has also written a dictionary of Buffy slang. Who said linguistics was a boring subject?

Posted by Mark at 12:20 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 07, 2006

Doceo linguam Latinam

Way back I posted that Aven and I were about to move to Sackville, New Brunswick to teach at Mount Allison University. Well here we are already one term in, and I haven’t posted at all about my teaching here. I’m teaching in both the Classics department and the English department, so this entry will focus on my Latin teaching, and later I’ll post about the English course I taught.

For the Classics department I’m teaching first-year Latin. Anyone who knows me will know that I’m not actually a classicist, but in fact a medievalist. However, the rigorous Latin training one receives at the Centre for Medieval Studies is well known, and so here I am teaching first-year Latin. Besides, I’m a philologist, and so language is a particular interest of mine, and much of my work, including some more recent avenues of investigation, focus on Latin translation (that is, translation of Latin into medieval vernaculars), so I’m quite enjoying the opportunity to teach Latin.

The departmental choice of textbooks, Ecce Romani, would not have been my first choice — personally I prefer a more rigorously grammar-based approach rather than the reading-based approach. Of course the other popular choice for an undergraduate Latin textbook is Wheelock, which it must be said has its own drawbacks. Nevertheless, I think it’s a better textbook. But I haven’t had a look at the latest edition of Wheelock, so I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who had seen it, or even taught from it. The CMS favours Moreland and Fleischer, Latin: An Intensive Course for the baby Latin course. This works very well for graduate students who are highly motivated to learn Latin grammar as quickly as possible so as to be able to move on through the programme, but it might be too intensive for undergraduates. Any other options?

In the first semester, the final enrollment was 50 students—quite large for a language class, but consistent with the class sizes I had with Old English. This term I have about 12 at the moment, which is a definite luxury. These students will get quite a good class with all the individual attention I’ll be able to give them. We had a good time last class, talking about the Roman delicacy of stuffed mice.

We also discussed the concept of relative clauses, not in itself the most difficult topic—I described relative clauses as giant mutant adjectives of course—but what is initially difficult is the fact that relative pronouns agree with their antecedent in gender and number but not in case. I’ll start the next class with a continuation of this topic, and I think I’ve come up with a better way of explaining it. Rather than starting with a sentence with a relative clause in it and taking it apart, bracketing off the clause, I’ll start with two separate sentences and show how subordination can combine them. This way I can show how a relative pronoun functions like any other pronoun. Hopefully this will make it all clear. I do find relative clauses to be a tricky concept for many students. Still, it’s much more straightforward in Latin than in Old English, which uses an indeclinable relative pronoun, sometimes in combination with other pronouns. Old English was just not made to subordinate that much. In any case, it’s interesting to compare teaching the two languages.

Posted by Mark at 04:07 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 04, 2005


I haven’t yet posted on my teaching since my blog rose from the ashes a few weeks ago, so now seems like a good time. As I posted a long time ago, I’m teaching two full year courses this year, Old English again and Chaucer, and both have gone quite well. Today I’ll post about the Old English class and soon I’ll do another about the Chaucer class.

I tried out a new Old English grammar textbook this year, Peter Baker’s Introduction to Old English. While I like the idea behind the arrangement of the book, I’m not entirely satisfied by the execution. The main problems with the old standard textbook for Old English, Mitchell and Robinson’s Guide to Old English, are that it isn’t user friendly, it presumes that the students already have some grounding in at least modern English grammar if not another inflected language like Latin, and it isn’t arranged in a pedagogically useful manner. Thus, it is up to the instructor to provide the necessary structure and explanation, as I did last year when I used the book. Baker’s book, on the other hand, is an attempt to make up for this lack. The material is arranged in such a manner so as to allow the students to progress through the grammer in a somewhat graduated fashion, while slowly introducing them to simple short texts. Unfortunately, there are a number of errors in the book and some of the explanations are rather vague or incomplete. Perhaps these issues will be addressed in future editions, but I don’t think I’ll use this textbook again. Instead, I would go back to Mitchell and Robinson, which is far more reliable, and supplement this with a photocopied package of materials which I would put together myself. This proposed package would include what is essentially an interface to Mitchell and Robinson, arranging the material in a pedagogically sound manner with accompanying readings and exercises. This way I would have the reliability of Mitchell and Robinson’s treatment of the grammar with an arrangement more like the old warhorse Latin texbook by Wheelock in graduated sections. Well, it’s a bit of a pipe dream now, as it would be much work to put such a thing together, but I do think it would be worth it.

Otherwise the class is going well. The enrollment dropoff is a little higher than in recent years, but those who are sticking with it are talented and keen. We just finished with The Wanderer, which seemed to really catch the students’ interests and produced some good class discussion. Before that we looked at The Dream of the Rood. I become more and more fascinated by the poem every time I read it. One of these days I’m going to have to sit down and put together an article on it. Now we’re on the Deor, which is always fun because it gives me the opportunity to tell all the stories behind the allusive (and often elusive) references to Germanic legend in it. By the way, it’s interesting to note that my entry from exactly one year ago today has much the same comments.

Posted by Mark at 03:33 PM | Comments (0)

February 25, 2005


Well, since today is Alliterative’s one-year blogiversary, and since it’s been a week since I last posted, it seemed like a good time to get around to posting again. The fact that I’ve got yet another cold — you may now direct your sympathy towards me — coupled with the general busy-ness of my life has already put me behind a bit in my blogging, but I’ll make up for it now.

So it’s been a year since I started blogging. This actually seems somewhat of a hollow milestone — what a bizarre mixed metaphor — since for a large chunk of this year I wasn’t blogging at all, but such is the way things go. In any case, it was my realisation of this impending blogiversary that got me writing again, so I suppose it has served some purpose.

Upon beginning to write this entry, it occurred to me that I had no idea how one would spell ‘blogiversary’, so I decided to do some Google searches to see what was the most frequent spelling. For everyone’s edification here are the results for all the spellings tried:


I’m sure you all find this fascinating reading… Well this sort thing interests me anyway, and since it’s my blogiversary…

Posted by Mark at 03:21 PM | Comments (7)

August 19, 2004

Olympic verbiage

Recently I’ve been watching the Olympics a lot on tv. Like most Canadians, I’m a little disappointed at the lack of success of our athletes. There has been a lot of talk from the athlete and pundits alike about the reasons for this, but I’m convinced that the main reasons are lack of funding and the Canadian Olympic Committee’s decision to not send athletes in all the events we qualified for — in other words, the COC set the bar higher than the International Olympic Committee. Ostensibly the decision was made so that we don’t have a lot of athletes competing and failing, as we are sending only our top medal hopefuls, but I’m sure it’s really just a cost cutting measure. And you never know when an athlete will have a really good day, perform a personal best, and perhaps win a surprise medal.

In general, I think we need to support our athletes more, or stop complaining that we don’t do very well at the Olympics. Of course it’s an unfair comparison to make looking at the US Olympic success, but a better comparison is with Australia, which is comparable in size and resources, and has recently become one of the top Olympic countries. In any case, I’m enjoying watching the Olympics in spite of Canada’s difficulties.

Watching the Olympics has also allowed me to become reacquainted with some vocabulary that I only seem to encounter during the Olympics, such as peloton and repechage. A peloton is the small clump of cyclists that follows the leader in a bike race. According to the OED, peloton comes from French peloton, and ultimately from Latin pilotta, a diminutive form of pila ‘ball’. It’s interesting to note that the OED does not list this sports usage of the word, listing only two senses: “1. A small ball or spherical mass. Obs. rare” and “2. A small body of soldiers; = platoon”. Perhaps this will be updated in the third edition.

The term repechage, on the other hand, is only a sports term in English. It comes from the French repêchage, from the verb repêcher ‘to fish out, rescue; to give an examination candidate a second chance to pass’, and is defined by the OED as “an extra contest in which the runners-up in the eliminating contests compete for a place in the final”. Both interesting words with interesting etymologies. Isn’t language fun?

Posted by Mark at 05:13 PM | Comments (0)

July 26, 2004

This post has been brought to you by...

A new web ring as been added to the sidebar. Called “letter zed”, this ring is devoted to Canadian spellings. Here’s the official write-up:

Do you have a blog or journal and think it’s about time Canadian English made its presence known to Blogosphere? Then this is the ring for you — Join up and celebrate the True North take on the English language!

So if you’re interested in reading other blogs that hold Canadian spellings dear, have a look at some of the other sites on the ring. And welcome to those who’ve found this site through the ring. Matters of language come up from time to time here (though not so much during the quieter summer). Trolling through the archives, I’ve found two entries that specifically relate to Canadian spellings and dictionaries for your perusal:

The difference one letter can make

Posted by Mark at 11:28 PM | Comments (0)

July 09, 2004

Þære wucan word


Check out the Old English word of the week at the Dictionary of Old English website. (A cookie for anyone who can correctly identify the quotation in the graphic above.)

Posted by Mark at 02:40 PM | Comments (1)

April 25, 2004

Russisc geondspiwe

For some reason I’ve been getting a lot of Russian spam lately. Seeing as I know very little Russian, unlike my sister — I know a handful of words and and can count to ten… well maybe six at the moment — this spam is utterly failing to accomplish anything useful for the senders. Is Russia a major source of spam these days, or am I just lucky? While I certainly do get some spam in in various Asian languages that I don’t know, much of the spam from Asian countries comes in English, though often English which seems to be produced by translation software (a topic for another day). Is there a large global marked for spam written in Russian?

While I’m on the topic of Russian, I added a link on the sidebar a while ago to Chainik, the blog of linguistics student who is focussing on Slavic languages. In addition to her study of Slavic languages, she also conlangs (a pursuit I once tried my hand at — another topic for another day). Anyway, another interesting blog that’s worth a look.

Posted by Mark at 06:05 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 24, 2004

Forðgewiten fulfremed and mare þonne fulfremed

On Tuesday I attended an interesting lecture by Professor Matti Kilpiö from the University of Helsinki entitled “Diachronic Changes in the Inflection vs. Non-Inflection of the Past Participle in Old English Perfect and Pluperfect Constructions Formed with Habban”. Professor Kilpiö is writing the entry for habban for the Dictionary of Old English. His findings are perhaps still somewhat preliminary, but he showed some very interesting patterns. While the non-inflection of the past participle in perfect and pluperfect constructions is by far more common than the inflection of said participles, they are in variation during the Old English period (as the inflection becomes gradually less common over the period). He even had examples of sentences with both inflected and non-inflected participles. There were definitely some interesting distribution patterns (including word order patterns), and Professor Kilpiö supplied some very useful handouts.

Posted by Mark at 11:45 PM | Comments (0)

April 23, 2004


There is an interesting posting on kennings over at Language Log and a link to a Lexicon of Kennings. Both worth a look.

Posted by Mark at 12:24 AM | Comments (0)

April 22, 2004


There’s an interesting post on Language Log about phrasal verbs and which verbs are permitted to take these so-called “prepositions”. I think Mark Liberman is dead on here. This does represent an older linguistic pattern which has survived to the modern English.

This interesting discussion has inspired me to write on a topic which perscriptive grammarians often make erroneous statements about: ending a sentence with a “preposition”. What perscriptivists don’t seem to realise is that up in sentences like “He cleaned up” or “She finished up” is not a preposition at all. It is more accurately thought of as akin to the separable prefix of separable prefix verbs in German, and due to the Germanic principle of embraciation, the normal word order for such separable prefixes is often the end of a sentence. Ending sentences with such separable prefixes was perfectly normal word order in Old English and in Middle English, and is still normal and acceptable in Modern English. So don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t end a sentence in a “preposition”.

As an interesting aside, I should point out that in Old English prepositions sometimes come after the noun they govern (as in him biforan ‘before him’).

Posted by Mark at 11:46 PM | Comments (0)

April 18, 2004

Hwa oððe hwam

There is a post by Geoffrey K. Pullum over at Language Log by that I find somewhat curious. He very rightly points out that the use of whom is disappearing from modern English, being leveled into who.

In reference to the sentence Whom were you talking to?, he writes:
In normal conversation, the frequency of whom at the beginning of a clause (as opposed to preceded by a preposition) is now virtually zero.
I am by no means a perscriptivist, but I do think he is somewhat overstating the case here. While I’m sure who is by far more common here, I doubt the use of whom is “virtually zero”, but perhaps I’m wrong. Having worked with Old English (and Old Norse, and Latin, etc.) for many years, I guess I’m very keyed to the use of case in language, but I don’t think I’m prone to using impossibly archaic language in everyday contexts. I’d be interested to know what others who don’t work in the field of linguistics think about this. Pullum goes on to write:
If you are teaching English to foreign learners, you should unquestionably teach them to [use] who in such contexts, not whom.
Again, I wonder about this advice. Surely the most sensible thing is to teach this as an optional rule, but then again perhaps those who have more experience teaching ESL students would wish to correct me on this.

Pullum seems to be understandibly frustrated with the arguments of perscriptivists, but his own argument seems too go to far (hypercorrection of hypercorrection?). Nevertheless, it’s an interesting post with other interesting example sentences, and well worth the read.

Posted by Mark at 11:58 PM | Comments (3)

April 17, 2004

Dissertatio: Back to the Future, or The Future is Now (available)

My dissertation, The Conceptualisation of Futurity in Old English (abstract), is now available for download from UMI ProQuest Digital Disserations (free for those with academic affiliations and with a charge, which doesn’t go to me, for the general public). Strangely enough, it is not yet available in the U of T Library — they seem to be very slow to catalogue new items — but it is available in the PIMS library. It’s about the development and usage of futural verbal constructions in Old English.

Now anyone who wishes can have relatively easy access to it. This is a good thing, I think, since I don’t think I’ll be trying to have it published as is. Instead, I plan to suck all the marrow out of its bones and publish a series of articles based on the best parts of it. Chapter 1 could probably be expanded into a monograph and published on its own, and the rest of it would make sense as shorter articles, also expanded and revised. I think the material will be more approachable that way, and, to be mercenary about it, I’ll get more lines on my résumé that way. But what do others think of the relative merits of publishing a dissertation as a book or as a series of articles?

Posted by Mark at 06:13 PM | Comments (1)

April 05, 2004

Ic eom stæfcræftes god!

Grammar God!
You are a GRAMMAR GOD!

If your mission in life is not already to
preserve the English tongue, it should be.
Congratulations and thank you!

How grammatically sound are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

Posted by Mark at 10:41 PM | Comments (4)

April 04, 2004

Skither and other neologisms

When I was watching the Leafs hockey game on Friday, I heard the most wonderful new word: skither. Sportscasters are well known for mungling words. In this case, skither seems to be a conglomeration of skitter and slither, and was used to describe the movement of the puck down the ice. What a wonderfully descriptive word!

Later that night, I read in Kevin Jackson’s Invisible Forms that Gelett Burgess, apparently a very talented neologist, had coined the word blurb, meaning ‘a brief publicity notice, as on a book jacket’, as well as bromide in the sense ‘a platitude’ and goop.

For some more wonderful neologisms, see Rethabile Masilo’s On English (specifically here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

Anyone else have any others to add to the list?

Oh, and the Leafs won Friday’s game (a shutout against the Buffalo Sabers), as well humiliated the Ottawa Senators 6-0 on Saturday night! Go Leafs go!

Posted by Mark at 07:59 PM | Comments (2)

March 29, 2004

The difference one letter can make

While I’m on the topic of dictionaries, a particular spelling convention came up in my English Writing class. The word was license/licence. I told my class the usual rule that the s spelling was for the verb, and the c spelling was for the noun, just as it is with practise/practice. I then started to wonder how universal this convention is. The OED makes the spelling distinction, pointing out that the “rule seems to have arisen from imitation of the spelling of pairs like advice sb., advise vb., which expresses a phonetic distinction of historical origin.”

As for American dictionaries, Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary list the s spelling for both the verb and noun of license/license. M-W lists the c spelling as a variant and the AHD lists the c spelling as a “chiefly British variant.”

When it comes to Canadian spellings, which is what I’m really concerned with, the verb/noun distinction does seem to be generally accepted. Both the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and the Gage Canadian Dictionary follow the convention in their headwords (though the other spellings are accepted as variants). Is this spelling convention indeed in generally use?

Posted by Mark at 06:29 PM | Comments (1)


I’m curious to know which Canadian English dictionary most people use (at least those who need to do so). I have the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and the Gage Canadian Dictionary. I prefer the spelling conventions of the Oxford but I do admit that the ditcionary is somewhat parochial in many ways. What do others think of this dictionary? Or other Canadian dictionaries?

On the topic of dictionaries, the choice of British dictionaries is obvious, what with the unabridged OED. But what of American dictionaries? I’ve noticed that many refer to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, but I’ve always found the The Amercan Heritage Dictionary of the English Language to be far more useful, especially for etymological information. Anyone have any opinions on American English dictionaries?

Posted by Mark at 06:18 PM | Comments (5)

March 25, 2004

Wit oððe we, unc oððe us

A student in my Old English class asked me an interesting question today. We were reading Wulf and Eadwacer and pondering the use of pronouns in the poem. In the refrain line (Ungelic is us ‘It is different with us’, or something along those lines), the speaker uses the plural pronoun us, and it is not clear who this ‘us’ is or how many people it refers to. Later in the poem the speaker refers to Uncerne earne hwelp ‘our wretched whelp’ and uncer giedd geador ‘our song together’ using the dual pronoun uncer.1 It’s still unclear who the pronoun refers to — there seems to be a love triangle in the poem, so it refers to the speaker and one of the two men, Wulf or Eadwacer — but it is clear that it refers to only two people. It has been suggested (though I don’t know if it has been universally accepted) that the plural refers to the speaker and one of the two men, and the dual refers to the speaker and the other of the two men.

My student asked me if the use of the dual pronoun implied greater intimacy. I wasn’t really sure how to answer this. Is the dual pronoun ever used to refer to two antagonists in Old English? I suppose one could say that the dual pronoun is sometimes used when the dual number of the referent is specifically regarded, not only because of intimacy. Sometimes the dual is conspicuous by its absence; for instance Adam and Eve are not refered to using dual pronouns in Ælfric’s translation of Genesis.

But what of other languages? I know that Old Norse also preserves the dual pronouns. What other languages do? Is there any special implication in the use of the dual in those languages (other than simply number)?

1 Old English has dual-number forms of the 1st and 2nd personal pronouns:
wit, unc, uncer ‘we two, us two, etc.’ and git, inc, incer ‘you two, etc.’, as opposed to the plural we, us, ure ‘we, us, our’ and ge, eow, eower ‘you, you, your’.

Posted by Mark at 03:26 PM | Comments (6)

Webbstowa be stæfcræfte

I’ve added a number of new links on the sidebar to language blogs that I read.

The first language blog I started reading was the excellent On English, which I’ve had listed on the sidebar for some time and have mentioned before.

There is an interesting discussion in Language Log (here and here) about case and military prowess in the ancient / early medieval world. As was pointed out, the actual conquerers of Rome were in fact Germanic speakers, specifically Goths, who had nearly as many cases to deal with as there are in Latin. They did, however, have a simpler tense/aspect system. Hmm…

Blinger has a useful entry on putting together a teaching dossier, a process that I’m going through at the moment.

Languagehat has a posting on the Englisc List, an e-mail discussion group about composition in Old English of which I am a lurking subscriber. There is also a review of Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything that is rather more critical than my own. Languagehat makes some valid points. I guess my reaction to the book wasn’t as critical because my expectations were somewhat different; I was expecting a light, entertaining history of the OED, and that’s what it is.

Also worth a read are Tenser, said the Tensor and The X-Bar, which both have excellent titles. Click over to all of these blogs if you’re interested in peculiarities of language.

Posted by Mark at 02:00 PM | Comments (2)

March 22, 2004

Underðeodendlic gemet (Be he live or be he dead...)

Another cross-over between my Old English class and my English writing class.

There’s a line in The Wife’s Lament that has a particular use of the subjunctive forms of the verb ‘to be’: “Sy æt him sylfum gelong / eal his worulde wyn, sy ful wide fah / feorres folclondes” which can be very literally translated ‘be all his joy in the world dependant on himself, (or) be he very distantly outcast from his far country’ or perhaps more smoothly though freely translated as ‘whether all his joy in the world is dependant on himself, or whether he is very distantly outcast from his far country’.

This use of the two subjunctive forms to form a correlative construction with the sense ‘whether … or’ survives into Modern English (though somewhat archaic) in Jack and the Beanstock: “Be he live or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread”.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that some of my English writing students have a tendency to use this construction. I wonder if they do so in an attempt to sound more formal. I generally suggest they change it to ‘whether … or’, which I feel is more common in Modern English, but perhaps the construction is fine in current usage. Does anyone else use this construction in their writing (or speech, I suppose)?

Posted by Mark at 10:35 PM | Comments (1)

March 19, 2004

Scrabblator Optimus

First of all, another quiz:

You know the difference between indecisive and
undecided, and won’t hesitate to call it!
You probably taught your teachers a thing or two,
and have the glasses to prove it.
But don’t forget, not everyone is asking for your

What Board Game are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

Yeah, that sounds about right for me. I do love my words.

On the topic of Scrabble, the Latin Scrabble Tournament at the Centre for Medieval Studies has wrapped up, and you can read all about the results here.

My congratulations to this year’s winner of the title Scrabblator Optimus, Morris Tichenor. It’s quite a feat. In the final round Morris played against my thesis advisor George Rigg. Morris even successfully challenged a word in the game, which must have taken nerves of steel.

One of my favourite plays in the tournament is the word er (played in game one of round 4) which means ‘hedgehog’. Truly impressive. In fact there are a number of clever plays in that game in terms of overlapping word placement involving a number of two-letter words. I guess that’s the key to playing Latin Scrabble: knowing all those short, obscure words.

Anyway, my congratulations to everyone who took part in the tournament and to its organizer. Have a look at the official website, it’s a lot of fun!

Posted by Mark at 12:12 AM | Comments (0)

March 13, 2004


A few weeks ago, I got some examination copies from the publishers (as one often does), in this case of two History of the English Language books, C.M. Millward’s A Biography of the English Language 2nd ed., published by Thomson, and Thomas Pyles and John Algeo’s The Origins and Development of the English Language, 4th ed., published by Harcourt. These are two of the most commonly used HEL textbooks.

Well, more recently I got a copy of John Algeo and Thomas Pyles’s The Origins and Development of the English Language 5th ed., published by Thomson, which raises a few questions.

I’m confused about the publication situation of the Pyles and Algeo (or Algeo and Pyles) book. It seems that Harcourt still has the rights to the 4th edition (which is dated 1993), but Thomson has the rights to the new 5th edition (which is dated 2004). That seems like a rather odd situation. Would there be any market for the older edition? I’ll have to sit down with the two and see how they actually differ.

The other odd thing is why the switch in the order of the names: the 4th edition is Pyles and Algeo, and the 5th edition is Algeo and Pyles. Did Algeo just decide to take top billing in the new edition, or is there some sort of editorial purpose behind this change?

Finally, it occurs to me that Thomson is really cornering the market here with both the new edition of The Origins and Development of the English Language and A Biography of the English Language (not to mention the many other English textbooks they publish).

Posted by Mark at 11:56 AM | Comments (0)

March 10, 2004

Werlic cynn and wiflic cynn

It occurs to me that I haven’t blogged about a linguistic topic in a while, so I thought I’d write about the issue of gender in language as it became an issue in both my English Writing class and my Old English class this week.

The grammar topic I covered with my English Writing class this week was agreement (subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent), and this brought up the problem of the lack of a gender non-specific singular personal pronoun in English. Of course it has become pretty much standard usage in spoken language to use they for this purpose as in: ‘Every doctor has outdated magazines in their waiting room.’ I had to convince my students that it wasn’t correct to use their that way in written language.

My students weren’t terribly happy with the rather clunky solution of using he or she or s/he (‘Every doctor has outdated magazines in his or her waiting room’), but there really isn’t any way around that is there (suggestions welcome).

Historically, most languages (or at least the Indo-European ones I know) use the masculine gender to cover both (‘Every doctor has outdated magazines in his waiting room’), but this no longer as acceptable, not only for the sake of political correctness, but also for logical correctness; with respect to my sample sentence, a hundred years ago one might be more or less safe in assuming that all doctors are male but that’s certainly not true now.

While it isn’t correct to use they as a gender non-specific singular personal pronoun in written English now, I’m sure that in a hundred years or so it will be (unless some other pronoun is developed to fill that void). I’d be interested to hear from anyone who might be able to enlighten me as to how other languages not familiar to me handle this problem.

On a related topic, I find it stunning how often scholars have tried to interfere with the gender expressed in the Old English poem The Wife’s Lament. The poem is a first person monologue, with no name given for the speaker. It is clear from the first sentence of the poem that the speaker must be female because of two adjectives referring to the speaker which have unambiguous feminine endings (geomorre and minre sylfre). A surprising number of Old English scholars have suggested emending those inflectional endings so as to take the speaker as male. It is a testament to the systematic misogyny of 19th century scholars, I suppose. What is perhaps even more surprising is that even as late as the 1960s such arguments were still being floated. And it is remarkable the lengths that these scholars went to explain away the gender expressed in the text and how inventive some of their arguments were. It’s a shame, because it is such a compelling poem and such a powerful female voice.

As a final note, if you enjoy reading about language, click over to On English (also linked to on the sidebar), a very entertaining and interesting blog written by Rethabile Masilo, who enjoys punning neologisms as much as I do.

Posted by Mark at 10:31 PM | Comments (1)

March 06, 2004


I just finished reading The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester (see the list of readings on the sidebar and this previous posting). As I noted earlier, this is a book about the history of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and, as someone who has previously worked at a dictionary (the Dictionary of Old English), I found this book to be particularly congenial. The book is well written and quite interesting; in fact, it has certainly made me want to read Simon Winchester’s previous book on the OED called The Professor and the Madman.

There are a lot of interesting facts in this book that I didn’t know, such as the fact that Henry Sweet, whom I’m familiar with as an important Old English scholar who wrote various OE textbooks, a student’s OE dictionary, and editions of OE texts, was the model for Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Indeed, having read the prefaces to his Early English Text Society edition of King Alfred’s West-Saxon Version of Gregory’s Pastoral Care and The Student’s Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon, where he comes across as a fairly ornery fellow, I am not entirely surprised by this revelation. There are also many wonderfully interesting bits of trivia contained in his very entertaining footnotes.

I’m quite the dictionary fanatic and never pass up the opportunity to acquire another. And I find it fascinating to read the history of all these linguistic tools that I use constantly, such as the OED and the editions of the Early English Text Society, a society which was created to supply reliable editions for the OED, and of which I am a member. I really should have been a nineteenth century scholar of language and Old English. In any case, reading The Meaning of Everything has put me in a non-fiction state of mind, so next up is Colin Peter Field’s The Cocktails of the Ritz Paris.

Posted by Mark at 12:32 PM | Comments (0)

March 03, 2004

A Sublimi ad Ridiculum

Two Latin items:

Follow this link to read about the 2004 Latin Scrabble Tournament at the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto.

And my weird Latin phrase:

I want my rubber ducky!
Volo anaticulum cumminosam meam!
“I want my rubber ducky!”
Okay, so you’re a little childish. You know how to
have a good time.

Which Weird Latin Phrase Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Posted by Mark at 01:26 AM | Comments (0)

March 02, 2004

Ring Composition

Well, the main addition to this site today is the web rings section on the sidebar. This site is now a part of the Grammar Avengers web ring devoted to blogs of people who have “a love of language”. It seemed like the obvious choice for me! Do check out some of the other blogs on the ring.

I’d also like to follow up on one of the many cogent and interesting comments posted by Anatole on one of my previous entries.

I would suggest that recent political leaders seem less able to speak off the cuff, or at least they do so less. Their handlers seem to keep them pretty strictly on the script (a wise move in the case of George W. Bush). Even Jean Chrétien, who used to be known for his fiery style of oratory in the 60’s and 70’s, was much more subdued and premeditated in his speach patterns as Prime Minister in the 90’s. But this may not be a reflection on ability, so much as a technological exigency. In the early half of the 20th century, an off-the-cuff remark by a politician wouldn’t be replayed ad nauseum on a headline news channel.

But in terms of the level of sophistication of prepared speaches I think the theory does hold. Political speaches today do sound a lot more conversational and direct, belying their careful crafting. After all, Reagan was known as “the great communicator” for his use of straightforward language. Well, he certainly wasn’t Churchill.

Getting back to my original point, I guess technology of one sort or another has always been a driving force behind spoken-language change: the creation of the technology of writing necessitated the invention of written language, adapted from spoken language; years later the invention of computer technology has led to spoken language again having an influence of written language. The two diverged for a few thousand years but may be coalescing again. Punning again on the title of this posting, I guess written language is coming full circle.

Posted by Mark at 11:50 PM | Comments (1)

March 01, 2004

Ða Wealas and leac

Well, I don’t have time for a full posting today, but I thought I’d just take a moment to wish everyone a happy St. David’s Day. I suppose it’s odd that I titled this posting in Old English (‘The Welsh and leeks’), but I’m afraid I don’t know any Old Welsh (would someone care to enlighten me?); it’s especially odd since the word ‘Welsh’ comes from the Old English word Wealh, which originally meant ‘foreigner, slave’. The poor Welsh were made slaves and foreigners in their own country by the Anglo-Saxons!

In celebration of St. David’s day, we put leeks in our chicken noodle soup last night (made from our home made stock). Etymology for the day: the word ‘leek’ comes from the Old English word leac, which is actually a general word for ‘onion’ and is the second element in the compound garleac ‘garlic’, literally ‘spear-leak’ because of its shape.

Posted by Mark at 11:46 PM | Comments (0)

February 27, 2004


A certain grammatical point I was teaching to my English writing class started me thinking about the place of writing in people’s day-to-day lives. First the grammatical point itself.

I was teaching my students about when to use that and when to use which to introduce a relative clause. The rule of thumb that is oft repeated is to use that if the relative clause is restrictive (restricting the meaning of the noun it modifies and thus essential to the meaning of the sentence) and which if the clause is nonrestrictive (adding additional information and thus not essential to the meaning of the sentence). Of course this is a prescriptivist rule that can be traced back to Fowler. In practice the distinction is not so clear cut. But what I told my class is that if they follow this rule they’ll never be wrong. It’s an arbitrary rule, but written language is filled with arbitrary rules that have nothing to do with the deeper structure of language.

Although the human brain seems to be wired to learn spoken language automatically, written language is an artificial skill, and thus we must follow artificial and often arbitrary rules in order to communicate effectively in writing. Indeed, I constantly have to remind my students not to write in spoken idioms. They very naturally write in an almost conversational tone.

This made me speculate about the perception of the different registers of language. My theory is that people of a younger generation (at least younger than me) are in many ways better able to express themselves in writing, or at least they are less intimidated by it because they grew up in a world of the internet, e-mail, blogging, instant messaging, etc. If nothing else, they are more naturally prolix. However, they have a harder time differentiating between spoken language and written language, because communications such as e-mail and blogs exist in a liminal state between speach and writing. The boundary between spoken language and written language is much fuzzier. People of my generation or older probably didn’t write as much when younger, certainly not as much in informal contexts, because we didn’t have an output like e-mail. For this older generation, written language was more restricted to formal contexts. Certainly there was letter writing, but not in the same quantity as there is e-mail, and I imagine that letter writing was already in decline long before e-mail anyway. Thus, while those in the older generation may not have as natural approach to writing, they are more aware of the difference between spoken and written language.

Well, that’s my theory anyway. I’d be interested to hear what others thought, particularly those who write blogs. Do you write in the same register that you speak in? I find it very difficult to bring myself to write in anything other than a written idiom.

Getting back to the starting off point for this train of thought, how do others use that and which in spoken and/or written contexts? I’d be particularly interested to know if usage guides like Fowler are still used by magazine or newspaper editors (a question that perhaps Alasdair or Sue could answer for me). Or is this sort of thing just left up to the individual writers? Is a breakdown in the diffentiation between spoken and written language being felt in such written contexts?

The irony of all this is that one of my lines of research that I’m particularly working on right now is discourse analysis which is essentially taking a theory linguists developed by studying spoken language and applying it to written text. It is particularly applicable to medieval literatures because they are closer to their foundations in oral traditions, again in a liminal state between spoken and written language. It’s sort of the reverse of e-mail, but with perhaps similar results.

Posted by Mark at 02:46 PM | Comments (2)

February 26, 2004


I’ve been pondering syntax rather intensely over the last couple of weeks, both Old English and Modern English. Well, perhaps I’m always pondering syntax, but there are two things in particular I’ve been thinking about recently. Today I’ll post on my Old English musings and tomorrow I’ll write about my Modern English musings.

While working on a discourse analysis of the Old English poem Judith a while ago, I ran into the phrase sittan eodon (sittan being an infinitive meaning ‘to sit’, and eodon being preterite plural of the verb ‘to go’),1 and it occurred to me that in the context (men attending a feast), it didn’t seem to make sense to translate it as an infinitive of purpose (‘they went to sit’); it seemed like two separate actions (‘they went and sat’).

Of course, it is often pointed out that an infinitive with a verb of motion or of perception in Old English often seems to function like a present participle in Modern English (‘he went running’ or ‘I saw him running’). In fact, in Modern English we can still use the bare infinitive after a verb of perception in this way (‘I saw him run’). With the verb of perception, the infinitive can be anything, but with the verb of motion, the infinitive is generally something appropriately connected to the motion, perhaps describing the manner in which the subject moved. The classic example is in Beowulf: “Com on wanre niht / scriðan sceadugenga” (‘The walker in the darkness came gliding in the dark night’).2 Less frequently a verb of rest is used instead, as in lagon slapan (‘they lay sleeping’).

What I wondered is to what extent this construction was relevant to my Judith passage, an infinitive of rest following a verb of motion. Of course many scholars would (and have) simply classify this as an infinitive of purpose. Perhaps the infitive shows consecutive action (‘they went and sat at the banquet’), or perhaps the passage should be translated as ‘they went, sitting at the banquet’).

The thing about syntax questions like this is that the more you think about it, the less clear it becomes. Do ‘they went and sat’ and ‘they went to sit’ come to the same thing anyway?

Stæfcræft is seo cæg, ðe ðæra boca andgit unlicð (‘Grammar is the key, which unlocks the meaning of these books’).3

1 The full quotation is: “Hie ða to ðam symle sittan eodon” (‘They then went to the feast and sat’) Jud 15.

2 Beo 702b-703a.

3 ÆGram 2.16-17.

Posted by Mark at 02:31 PM | Comments (0)

February 25, 2004


I thought I’d start with a brief discussion of what I’ve been reading lately. My reading interests are rather eclectic actually.

Leaving aside the more research-related work reading, I’ve recently read H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (again), and Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. Quite a mix.

In recent months I’ve been on a bit of a Jules Verne / H.G. Wells kick, and, of course, since I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan, I often pull my facsimile edition of The Strand Magazine Holmes stories off the shelf from time to time. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the Pratchett novel and would certainly read another Maurice book at the drop of a tiny rat-sized hat, I’m afraid I haven’t been converted into a Pratchett fanatic generally (sorry Aven). In any case, it’s a interesting book about what would happen if animals became intelligent. It’s quite fascinating to see how they develop cognitive abilities such as language.

At the moment I’m reading Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything about the history of the Oxford English Dictionary. As a former research assistant at the Dictionary of Old English and someone with a great interest in lexicography in general, I’ve been enjoying this book enormously. I would certainly recommend the book to anyone, especially Mike, who I know enjoys dictionaries, perhaps almost as much as I do.

Posted by Mark at 06:21 PM | Comments (0)