Learning Old English? Iceland could be a good detour. Picture from freeimages.com.

The Path to Old English – Taking the Long Route via Iceland

I leapt at the chance to study Old English when the opportunity arose recently. I’m focusing on language change as part of my masters programme, and here was an exciting prospect to explore this in action in my own language.

Disclaimer: I’m a complete newbie. I’ve never studied Old English before. But I was stunned to find out how much of the grammar was oddly familiar. That’s not only because present-day English is the descendant of Old English. In fact, the unexpected boost was due to the fact that I’ve spent so much time with Modern Icelandic.

So how does knowledge of a different modern language help you learn an ancient one?

Well, the Icelandic spoken today is remarkably similar to the Old Norse of a thousand years ago. Its system of inflection is the most undisturbed of all the present-day Germanic languages. Where English, Dutch, Swedish, and even relatively conservative German lost or collapsed their grammatical case endings, Icelandic preserved their intricacy almost in its entirety.

Wind back a thousand years…

Wind back a thousand years, then, and you undo centuries and centuries of change that simplified the systems of those other languages. And at that point, at the end of the 10th Century, English was still young enough to bear a huge family resemblance to its Norse cousin.

Just look at the paradigms for house in Old English and Old Norse:

Old English

Singular Plural
Nominative hūs hūs
Accusative hūs hūs
Dative hūse hūsum
Genitive hūses hūsa


Singular Plural
Nominative hús hús
Accusative hús hús
Dative húsi húsum
Genitive hús húsa

Here you see some recurring themes in these young Germanic languages. For instance, the zero ending of the plural nominative and accusative with strong neuter nouns, the -um of the dative plural and the -a of the genitive plural are all hallmarks of their shared linguistic DNA.

It doesn’t stop there. Besides noun endings, many other features are still shared by Old English and Old Norse at this point – features preserved in Modern Icelandic today. They include the difference between weak and strong adjective endings (which German also clings onto), and sibling sets of personal pronouns (including a dual number), that almost look the spitting image of each other.

Unsurprisingly, you actually don’t have to wind back too many more centuries to get to the point where this pair were the same language (perhaps another 1500 years by one reckoning).

Heavy Lifting Done!

At the simplest level, this little voyage of discovery is just a fascinating observation in its own right. It leaves you wondering just how mutually intelligible the languages still were at that point in time – could Lindisfarne monks, for example, just about make out what the Vikings were shouting at them in that strangely familiar tongue?

Beyond that, however, it also shows the incredible utility of side-stepping from one subject to another related one. So much previous experience in Icelandic can be of use when starting out in Old English. The big grammatical challenge, the heavy lifting of getting your head around case and noun inflection, is already done. Just as it is in different ways, when skipping from German to Norwegian, or from Dutch to Afrikaans, or from Icelandic to Faroese.

It’s certainly a compelling argument for building up your polyglot stash by hopping between fairly closely related languages – a much-loved technique in the community.

Search those etymology dictionaries for evidence of semantic change! Picture from freeimages.com

Semantic Change : The Double Lives of Cognates

When I was young, I was a very silly girl. Not in the familiar, modern sense, of course, but in the long-lost meaning of those two words in English: a happy child.

Semantic change – words taking on new meanings over time – is a fascinating garden path of surprising twists and turns. And it’s not only a fitting focus for linguistics nerds, either. Travelling back down the path of language change can lead language learners to the crossover points that tie foreign languages to our own. It can be thoroughly eye-opening to learn of the double lives that words in related languages have come to lead. Ultimately, comparing cognates also bolsters our armoury in the quest to gain a deeper understanding of vocabulary.

A Worsening Situation…

Take silly, for example. Its rather dramatic journey from happy to daft can be traced back to the Old English form sælig. Back then, it covered a range of happy nuances from happy, to blessed, to fortunate. Germanists might recognise its family heritage here: it is cognate with the German word selig, which today means blissfully happy. So what happened to poor old silly in English?

Historical linguistics studying semantic change identify several broad flavours of meaning drift. What silly shows is pejoration, the application of a more and more negative meaning over time. It happens frequently in the history of words: knave is a rather old-fashioned word for a rogue, but originally just meant a boy, or servant. Of course, the opposite – amelioration – can happen too; just think of how bad, wicked and sick have been used in recent decades. And knight went the opposite way of knave, starting out as a mere boy but coming to take on quite haughty responsibilties. German cognate Knecht, of course, knew its station – it remains quite a lowly word.

On a slightly dispiriting side note, from a social standpoint, pejoration does seem to affect words for women with some degree of disproportion in English. For example, hussy, mistress, tart and wench all started out as quite neutral, uninsulting words. Language is the mirror of human culture, whether that be its pleasant or ugly side.

Straight and Narrow

Then, of course, we have girl. Back in Middle English times, the word referred to a child of any gender. Now, it is quite exclusively a female designation. And that is a classic case of narrowing of meaning from a general category to a more specific one.

Although cognates of girl don’t pop up in any high frequency vocab in related languages, there is an amusing, more obscure German analogue in Göre – a cheeky young childGöre has retained the gender-vagueness English lost, but has gained the slightly negative connotation of naughty (pejoration again!).

Learning More About Semantic Change

Taking a deep dive into semantic change is a fascinating way to work backwards in a language, revealing the maze of cross-language touch points. When the changes are as dramatic as the handful of words above, it can be fun tracing out this secret life of cognates.

Of course, pejoration, amelioration and narrowing are just a couple of a range of recognised processes of semantic change. To fall down this very addictive rabbit hole, check out Lyle Campbell’s chapter on the subject in his Historical Linguistics primer. The Wikipedia article on semantic change also gives a really helpful overview.

And if you find yourself hunting etymologies but lack access to behemoth resources like the OED, then Wiktionary is, as ever, always on hand. That site is fast becoming a second home…