Lean, Unlovely English


Harold the Saxon's no-good very bad day.

One of the best things that ever happened to the English-speaking peoples was when a rapacious army of Scandinavian-derived Frenchmen conquered the right little tight little island about a thousand years ago, shot the king of England in the eye, and more or less banned the native tongue for a hundred years or so. Spoken English was limited to common people, written English ceased to exist for a while, and when the language came back into official usage it was a French/English hybrid that was a vastly richer, more powerful, and easier to use language (among other things, it no longer had three genders and declined nouns) that has resisted all attempts by grammarians to put it back in a box.

You can tell a person is ignorant when he or she complains that the works of Chaucer are too hard to read because they're in "Old English." Chaucer wrote in Middle English, the same basic language we use, which you can get the hang of with a few hours of application and a good dictionary. Old English was a different language, closer to Old German than to what we speak, and its literature consisted of haunting but crude verses about killing people.

As if to prove that point, a new and apparently complete dictionary of Old English is now available. Because the project was funded with $1.8 million in U.S. taxpayer money, it is the subject of an article by the lexicographical adventurer Ammon Shea in the National Endowment for the Humanities' house magazine. Shea makes a compelling case for the strengths of Old English:

Much has been said about how our modern English language has drawn its highbrow vocabulary, the words to describe fancy or fanciful things, from the snooty French conquerors. Likewise, the base and basic elements of our language have come from Old English, which supplied the everyday words. To my mind, we may add to these everyday words many of those that are larcenous and violent (although violent and everyday may well have been one and the same), with specimens such as cyricbryce (the act of breaking into a church) and what seems to me to be a delightful superfluity of words for breaking bones, bruising, assaulting, warring against, and otherwise doing grievous harm.

Browsing through a small section of the alphabet, I happened across gederednes, derian, gederian, gederod, deriendlic, deriendnes, derung, gedeþed, and gedigan, all of which are words that have to do with injuring, harming, or killing (with the exception of the last word, which means 'to survive'). But lest you come away with the idea that the speakers of this language were linguistically brutish, I would draw your attention to a word that appears shortly after all of these bruising terms: digollice.

Digollice is one of those words of which any language should be proud. It is elegant yet robust, clear yet multi-faceted—a description that perhaps sounds like that of an overpriced wine, but which is apt nonetheless. Among the meanings of this single word are the following: in a manner intended to avoid public attention, stealthily or furtively, in a manner that is unnoticed, with a lack of ostentation, in hiding, secluded in monastic life, spoken in a low or soft voice, spoken with circumspection or restraint, whispering slander, relating to secret thoughts of inward affliction, obscure or requiring interpretation, and a handful of others that I'll let you find on your own.

If you are at all interested in where your language came from—and you should be—this new research is worth a look. (After all, you helped pay for it, even though the dictionary is published by a Canadian university.) For a great piece of Saxon nostalgia, try the one-page story "The Witness" by Jorge Luis Borges—one of the 20th century's greatest appreciators of English.

But the truth is that it's post-Norman English that contains the delightful superfluity. You can see it in popular pairings like "wrack and ruin" and "lewd and lascivious," in which a Saxon word (almost always a monosyllable) is paired with a Latinate word (usually a polysyllable), and both words have the same meaning. There's no need for formations like this: They're flourishes, braggadocio by a language that is better off for having been conquered and destroyed.

Courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily.

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  1. A language that has a word specifically for the act of breaking into a church… is a language I want to be affiliated with. Hell ya!

  2. It’s not certain that he was actually shot in the eye. Death by impalement through the eyes was a punishment for perjury, so this might have been a political statement someone was trying to make.

    1. That’s plausible. The casus belli of the Norman Conquest was essentially a probate dispute (who was the legitimate heir of the previous king to the Crown of England).

      1. A number of kings or other leaders supposedly got shot in the eye. If it is true, it makes me suspect that there were some very good archers whose job was to pick off the dudes in the fancy armor. Probably is why generals and kings became REMF’s after a while.

        1. The eye slit was also a vulnerable spot in the armor over a vital organ. In a hail of arrows the one hitting it would be the fatal one.

          1. And nobody ever makes engravings of the ones that missed.

      2. Right, and, at least as far as the story goes, William the Bastard (later William, Duke of Normandy, conqueror of England), made Harold Godwinson swear (on a holy relic) that he would support William’s claim to the throne of England after Edward the Confessor died; Harold reneged, and then William invaded. I’m sure Harold would have told a different story, had he lived. But as far as William is concerned, Harold had violated a sacred oath.

  3. “A man who speaks in Saxon
    Is a man to use the axe on.”

    1. Racist!!!

    2. actually, the term “Saxon” is widely thought to have derived from old Germanic word “seax”, which is a type of axe the Saxons were fond of using; so it’s not a coincidence that they sound similar.

      1. I thought a seax was a knife.

        1. You may be right. It was definitely a bladed weapon, and I believe it is etymologically related to the English word “axe”.

        2. It’s both, depending on how big it is.
          But even the smallest knife was pretty big. Like chef knife big. And even the biggest sword was more a short sword than what we think of as “swords”
          *fan of sharp pointy things*

  4. “wrack and ruin” and “lewd and lascivious,” in which a Saxon word (almost always a monosyllable) is paired with a Latinate word (usually a polysyllable), and both words have the same meaning. There’s no need for formations like this: They’re flourishes, braggadocio by a language that is better off for having been conquered and destroyed.

    I had it from some lawyers-in-training many years ago that such pairing originated as a way of making contracts clear when they were executed between French speaking nobles and Saxon speaking commoners. Likewise for laws written by nobles for the commoners. Thus “Cease and desist” and so on.

    No idea of the veracity of this claim, but I thought I’d throw it out there.

    1. But who knows if this is “true and correct”?

    2. I doubt it. Just look at the popularity of “rhyming slang” in the UK. Finding new ways to abuse the language is pretty much part of the language.

  5. Oh wow, that actually makes sense when you think about it.


  6. Even before 1066, invasions of England served to simplify the language. From what I understand, conversations between Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, who spoke a similar but different Germanic tongue, forced the elimination of complicated noun declensions before the French language even got there.

  7. “was a vastly richer, more powerful, and easier to use language (among other things, it no longer had three genders and declined nouns) ”

    So what? Your linguistic ignorance is showing. Russians were able to impose their even more “complicated” tongue on millions of people. Middle English is not demonstrably “richer, more powerful or easier” as a language than Old English. It’s the culture that dictates the language’s richness and importance not vice-versa. Bahasa Indonesia is much easier to pronounce and more logical than English and I don’t see it threatening for world dominance.

    1. Well, I think the 100 Years War pretty much paid back the suffering of the English speaking peoples by the flowers of French chivalry. Between Crecy and Poitiers, I think the English freeman got his.

    2. You are showing some ignorance as well. Languages do generally get simpler structurally and more diverse in vocabulary as they evolve. Periods without written language and where languages mix speed this process. This is where middle and modern English came from. The fact that Russian is a difficult and complicated language that was imposed on a lot of people is not a counter example to this.

      1. Languages do generally get simpler structurally and more diverse in vocabulary as they evolve

        Not as they evolve, no. There does seem to be some evidence that languages spoken by large numbers of people tend to be structurally more simple than languages spoken by small groups of people. So Arabic, Persian, English, Latin, Sanskrit, Chinese all became more simple structurally as they became imperial or trade languages and became widely learned by non native speakers. Basque, Japanese, and Georgian have not become simpler structurally although they have also evolved. So the Norman conquest, as many linguists have pointed out, probably did not make English simpler, the trend had already begun as a wider population, many of them native Welsh, Gaelic, Cornish or Norse speakers, were being forced to learn the language.

  8. A tyrant losing an eye is always a good thing but the tyrant who replaces the old tyrant is sometimes worse. The Who had a song the end with the words “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” or something like that.

    1. Really?

    1. For many years, new words were coined from Latin and Greek roots, but with the decline in the study of those languages during the last fifty years, this is no longer the case. Today new words are formed by rhyming based on similar English words: prequel (from sequel), skyjack (from hijack), threepeat (from repeat), et cetera ad nauseam.

      1. Let me tell you about me and Epi’s bromance, dude.

  9. English might have become simpler in some ways but it became more complex in others, particularly in vocabulary and sentence construction, but that is a trade off for flexibility.

    1. Vocab and construction are very very flexible. There are tons of words for the same thing, and there are many ways to form a sentence with those words. The thing is, they all have very slight difference in impact and metric, and that can change the mood of a sentence in subtle ways. People that have mastered writing are able to utilize those differences to large effect.

      I think the ad hoc mutt approach is why it is the modern lingua franca. It tends to serve as a gap-filler for non-native speakers in their native tongue (think “spanglish”). You can convey a lot without being an expert, but you can also create very vibrant works if you want.

      1. “I think the ad hoc mutt approach is why it is the modern lingua franca.”

        Ahem, me thinks the conquest of a quarter of the planet may have had something to do with this.

    2. Pick up Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. John McWhorter argues that the odd sentence structure of English is largely a product of Celtic influence.

  10. Old English speakers did not write verses about killing people, at least not exclusively. There is some moving religious poetry in OE, not to mention retellings of bible stories, a translation of the bible and similar stuff.
    Most linguists believe that simplification probably did start with contact between Vikings and Anglo-Saxon speakers. It’s also not true that English was forbidden (at least there’s no evidence for such a law) and there are trickles of English throughout the period during which French got infused.
    FWIW the ‘shot in the eye’ story is based on a picture in the Bayeux tapestry where someone gets an arrow in the eye–there’s some doubt as to whether it was Harold or not.

  11. Great. Now am I going to have to press 2 for Modern English?

    1. I’ll stop the world and melt with you.

      1. Me too.

  12. Flatt & Scruggs.

    Well, my Norse & Icelandic sagas prof maintained that the structure of those languages made communicating in it almost ‘telegraphic,’ meaning if you were fluent in the language the meaning was imparted more quickly than in modern English, much in the same way of Latin (caveat emptor, let the buyer beware– half the words in Latin compared to English).

    I know Prof. Cavanaugh is way more erudite than I am, but I have trouble with the notion that one or another language is more flexible in expression than another. It seems to me if a person has a thought they want to express it can be said in any language– whether or not someone who speaks a different language than that speaker finds it as clear or elegant as it might be expressed in his own language is a matter of taste & other things that probably can’t be quantified.

    1. In theory, I agree. But the evidence of literure indicates something else. I’d take one Chaucer over a thousand Beowulf poets. That’s not chauvinism: I’d doubt Racine would have been as good if he were writing in anything other than Enlightenment French.

  13. I also learned Brian Sorgatz’s version of English linguistic history. Middle English was the pidgin form of Anglo-Saxon that emerged in the Danelaw.

  14. See Uncleftish Beholding for proof we coulda done just fine without those damn Normans.

    1. I’ll see your Uncleftish Beholding and raise you one Shakespeare in Esperanto.

      1. You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.

      2. I see a lot of suspiciously Old English (and decidedly un-Esperanto) looking characters in that extract. Probably a browser issue.

  15. How exactly does it cost $2M to build an old english dictionary? And will someone foot that to help me start my biotech company?

    1. It costs alot to clone all those old English people & get them to talk.

  16. I would feel so much better about the stimulus if it were paying for things like this.

  17. “…but I have trouble with the notion that one or another language is more flexible in expression than another…”–dl

    Ooo! but it’s true nonetheless. German humor is so untranslatable in most languages that vast swathes of the human race believe German humor doesn’t exist at all. It does with the aid of footnotes, which means no Ha-ha! Just an Ah-ha. Or more often a Hmmm—I see [smiling politely].

      1. But the “Vampire-duck” shirt is clever.

  18. It seems to me if a person has a thought they want to express it can be said in any language

    Except Newspeak. See also Sapir-Whorf. I think it’s largely horseshit, despite some interesting counter-examples such as color perception.

  19. I happened across gederednes, derian, gederian, gederod, deriendlic, deriendnes, derung, gede?ed, and gedigan

    These are all forms of the same verb! Well, except for the adjective made from the verb. So they are no more “different words” than “drink, drank, drunk, drunkenly” are.

    1. That was my thought too. They look a lot like declinations of German verbs.

      On the other hand, I imagine that actual linguists get a lot of humor mileage out of laymen thinking that things “look like”.

  20. I always thought that simplified grammars were a function of any lingua franca be it English, Malay, or any of the various Pidgins. Essentially they are languages of trading.

    It makes sense that English took its path considering the hodgepodge of conquered and conquerors.

    Furthermore, vocabulary is a very local or trade specific function.

    Without an Academy to force unformity, or a small population of speakers which insures the same, a language is really just another marketplace so to speak.

    Even with fierce regulators like the French have words like le weekeend seep in or lingos like verlan (a sort of French pig Latin) are created.

  21. The only thing I learned after reading that is that Mrs. Cavanaugh must get schooled in Scrabble all the time.

    “Digollice!?!? You’re totally making that one up.”

  22. Congrats, Tim. The artsiest-fartsiest H&R post evah!

  23. Meh. I remain unconvinced the Norman conquest was such a great thing.

    The Danish/Saxon hybrid that was England was big on trading and had a crude form of representative accountability for rulers. The Normans set that all back by centuries.

    Not that it matters, but William’s claim to the throne was laughable. The Pope was willing to sign off on it and buy his story about Harold breaking an oath because William’s invasion of England was essentially the first Crusade to bring a renegade province back under the wing of Mother Rome.

  24. I have to say, after years of reading/enduring threads at Hit & Run, I’m baffled at discovering you all are in reality a bunch of language experts.

    1. It took almost 20 years but I knew that linguistics degree would come in handy some day.

  25. English isn’t the lingua franca of the world because of its inherent qualities. It’s the lingua franca of the world because the previous and current world empires speak it. English is difficult to spell, difficult to pronounce, and is rife with exceptions and special cases.

    1. The Germans have a catch-phrase “Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprace!” (“German language, hard language!”) which I heard incessantly when I was living there. English needs something similar, because despite its somewhat simple grammar its mongrel nature does cause great difficulty for learners.

  26. I think the World now needs a modern lingua franca as well 🙂

    We need a neutral non-national language, taught worldwide, in all nations 🙂 As a native English speaker, I would prefer Esperanto

    Your readers may be interested in…..991452670.

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

  27. I think the World now needs a modern lingua franca as well 🙂

    We need a neutral non-national language, taught worldwide, in all nations 🙂 As a native English speaker, I would prefer Esperanto

  28. You should mention that the whole “English is the language of the common folk” thing is actually where we get our modern day curse words.

    1. A few of the more popular, ‘fuck’ and ‘crap’ for instance, are Dutch loanwords from the Renaissance.

  29. ‘… a language that is better off for being conquered and destroyed.’

    I don’t really like the idea of the ‘destruction’ of language through outside influence. A language is surely only destroyed when it ceases to exist, whereas a surprising amount of Modern English is directly traceable to OE, perhaps most noticeably our pronouns and the extremely irregular verb ‘to be’.

    Also the Anglo-Saxons (or West-Saxons, as much of the later surviving literature is in this dialect) had come to rely much more on word order than declension by the time of the Norman Conquest, suggesting that the language may have ‘simplified’ itself without being ‘conquered’.

  30. What’s particularly irritating about this article, apart from the numerous egregious factual errors and distortions, is the smug, self-satisfied tone in which it’s written. You find Chaucer easy do you? Oh well done you. If the rest of us find it difficult then plainly we’re either “ignorant” or lack “application”, or both.

    It’s really rather irresponsible to hold forth on a topic about which you plainly know very little in a manner which could lead your readers to believe that you are in fact a “prof” and that they should take what you say at face value.

    You should take nothing in this article at face value:

    “more or less banned the native tongue for a hundred years or so”

    – Nonsense. What’s your evidence for this statement? And how precisely should the Normans have achieved this extraordinary feat of totalitarian control?

    “Spoken English was limited to common people”

    – If by “common people” you mean non-Normans then this trivially true. Otherwise it is self-evidently false. Do you have any evidence that suggests otherwise?

    “written English ceased to exist for a while”

    – Absolute nonsense. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle continued to be written until the mid-12th century, and anyway, you cannot infer from a gap in the textual record of Old English that it ceased to be written in this time, only that what was written happens not to have been preserved.

    “was a vastly richer, more powerful”

    – This is close to meaningless without further explanation. If you mean that there are thoughts which could be expressed in Middle English which couldn’t also be expressed in Old English then you are certainly wrong.

    “and easier to use”

    – Who for? It’s extremely well known* that children acquiring their native language have no more difficulty if that language is highly inflected than if it has no inflection at all. Adults learning foreign languages are a different matter of course, but presumably this is not what you’re referring to here.

    “Chaucer wrote in Middle English, the same basic language we use… Old English was a different language”

    – This is laughable. By what criteria do you decide whether two varieties are “the same language” or “different languages”? Is it whether they are mutually intelligible? If so, you should realise that Old English would have been at least as intelligible to a Middle English speaker as present-day English is, making your contention that Middle English and present-day English are “the same language” while Old English is “a different language” untenable.

    etc. etc.

    Next time you choose to hold forth on on a topic in a manner which suggests you know something about it, please make sure first that you do, in fact, know something about it.


    *except perhaps by literary-minded wafflers who think that their writerly pretensions somehow give them an automatic understanding of the science of human language without any need to study the actual facts…

  31. English – “the native tongue” of Britain?

    I think not. Brythonic is the native tongue which later developed into Welsh and Cornish. English was a mere fledgling in 1066, and still is in comparison with the older Celtic languages.

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