I want my Yogh

There is a glyph in Middle English called the yogh.You can see a manuscript version of a yogh here. The yogh was used almost exclusively for Middle English in England, but it lingered through the eighteenth century in Scotland. The yogh, along with the thorn, another of the four special medieval English characters, is used in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Orfeo, two core texts for my dissertation.

Unfortunately, there is no yogh in Unicode. There should be; the other Medieval English characters are represented in Unicode. I’m not sure why there isn’t yogh, but there’s a very good discussion of why there should be a yogh in Unicode by Michael Everson.

I’m not alone in my desperate craving for a proper Unicode yogh; you can see some of the efforts others dealing with manuscripts on the web have had to make in order to substitute for the yogh. Here’s a scholar trying to present an edition of the Ormulum, and here’s the wonderful online edition and facsimile of the Auchinleck manuscript. Both of these examples (and I could give many more) are substituting other characters for the yogh. This sort of substitution is really not a long-term solution.

We need a yogh, in Unicode.

Phallic Poultry in Middle English, for the Price of a Song

Excited by the news that Apple today added 1,000 new Classical albums to the iTunes Store, and the fact that I’ve a $20.00 iTunes gift certificate, I spent some time browsing in the store. I found new versions of King Orfeo and Tam Lin, both of which I’m writing about in the dreaded dissertation, and then I spotted this:

I Have a Gentil C**K.

I was a little amused by the **; the song, based on the fifteenth century Middle English lyric from British Library MS Sloane 2393, is, after all, about a rooster. Even though people with Middle English and dirty minds (like me) will read it as something quite other, the poem ostensibly describes a medieval English rooster, complete with blue legs. You can hear a .wav sample of the song here, though you will likely regret it, unless you’re a true fan of “authentic” medieval music. The song is from the album The Chaucer Songbook: Celtic Music and Early Music for Harp and Voice (the album is halfway down the linked page), from Carol Wood et al.

Why Apple felt the two ** were necessary is beyond me. The poem is quite short so you can read it yourself, and take advantage of the helpful annotations by Eve Salisbury
here (scroll all the way to the bottom of the page; it’s the last poem). Personally, I’m pretty sure Chaucer had the lyric in mind when he had the Nun’s Priest describe Chantecleer; the effictio is specific enough that antique poultry afficienados have identified the breed of chicken. But, yes, it’s a very phallic sort of rooster, what with him being all night “in my lady’s chamber,” and all.

But it’s not worth two asterisks. Really. Dare I hope that a new generation of medievalists will download the song, then learn Middle English in order to understand the bawdy joke, consequently developing a life-long love of Chaucer?

If you’re curious, you can get iTunes yourself, Mac OS X or Windows, the software’s free. Download iTunes

Proto-Celtic and the 15th Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference

The paper topics, and some .pdf abstracts, for the November 7-8 2003 15th Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference are up here. I always try to attend, even though I only understand about 5% (on a good day) of the presentations. This year I’m especially looking forward to Professor Joseph Eska’s “The New Look of Proto-Celtic.” You can read a .pdf abstract of Eska’s talk here. Looks like I better start reading . . .


David Chess of the very readable Chess Log writes (at the bottom of a long entry):

Placename o’ the day: “Torpenhow Hill”. “Tor”, “Pen”, and “Howe” all mean “Hill”, so the name means “Hill Hill Hill Hill”. *8)

Tor, pen, and howe aren’t exact synonyms. A tor is a specific geographic feature, a high peaked hill, Glastonbury Tor is the best known one. Torpenhow is a village in Cumbria, set on a high hill. Tor is often used to refer to a rocky outcrop on top of a hill, and it’s not unusual for the outcrop to really be a pile of stones put there in earlier times. The American Heritage Dictionary entry for tor suggests that Old English torr may be a Celtic loan word. The second edition of the OED etymology for tor offers Welsh twr, with a grave over the w, Old Welsh twrr “heap, pile” as in Mynydd Twrr, the old name of Holyhead Mountain, Rhys [with a circumflex over y]. The OED adds that tor is likely cognate with Gaelic tòrr “hill of an abrupt or conical form, lofty hill, eminence, mound, grave, heap of ruins.” The entry points to related words in Irish, namely tòrr “to heap up, pile up, bury,” torraim “I heap up,” and the Scots Gaelic derivative, torran “little hill, knoll, hillock,” Irish torrán “heap, pile, hillock.”

Howe is derived from Old Norse haug-r, “mound, cairn,” and, according to the second edition of the OED, is related to Old Teutonic hauh– meaning “high.” The word howe in English is usually used to refer to an artificial hill, a tumulus, or barrow.

Pen is Welsh, and it usually means not hill but “head.” It’s cognate with Gaelic “cen,” which also means head. (Those of you who wish to mind your Ps and Qs, or P-Celtic and Q-Celtic languages might want to read this FAQ on the Celtic languages.) The OED describes it as a Brythonic Celtic word

frequent in place names in Cornwall, Wales, and other parts of Britain, as Penzance, Penmaenmawr, Penrith, Pencaitland; in some localities, esp. in the south of Scotland, used as a separate word in names of hills, e.g. Eskdalemuir Pen, Ettrick Pen, Lee Pen, Penchrise Pen, Skelfhill Pen, etc.; rarely as common noun, “the pen”.

Pen, in Welsh, also means “top” or even “chief, supreme” as in the Welsh title of the first branch or tale of the mabinogi, Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet, wherein the first line tells us “Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet a oed yn arglwyd ar seith cantref Dyuet,” Pwyll, chief [or prince] of Dyfed, was lord of the seven cantrefs of Dyfed.”

What we have then in Torpenhow is not just the use of three words meaning “hill” in three languages once used in Britain, but three words for special kinds of hills, hills that are marked by being artificially created, as barrows, homes for the dead, or that are marked by stones as somehow important, hills that stand out. The curious accident of speakers of all three language finding the hill name worthy is enough to make one wonder why. I am reminded of the Welsh word gorsedd, cognate with Irish síd, hills that have close associations with the otherworld, so much so that the fairy hills in Ireland have lent their name to their inhabitants, the Sidhe. At the same time, it may simply be that the hill was a very visible and thus easily identifiable landmark, much like the Abenaki word for such small stand-alone mountains, Monadnock, known to geologists as an inselberg.

Tolkien on Beowulf

There’s a SlashDot story that links to a story about the discovery by Professor Michael Drout (yes, he of the Wormtalk blog) having brought to light an unpublished and hitherto unknown translation of Beowulf by Tolkien. Drout has already edited and published Beowulf and the Critics.

I can see, from the SlashDot story and other things I’ve seen on and off line about Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, in part because of the films, that I need to write an FAQ about Tolkien and languages, particularly the Celtic ones. Give me a couple of days, and I will.

Gaelic Nova Scotia

The New York Times has an article on the resurgence of interest in Gaelic in Christmas Island, Nova Scotia. (You’ll likely have to register to read it). As the article makes clear, the earlier Scottish settlers of Nova Scotia, and their descendents, commonly spoke Gaelic until after World War 1.

My first Gaelic book, a present in my early teens, was a “teach yourself” pamphlet with cassette tapes that came from Nova Scotia. Today there’s a wide variety of Nova Scotia Gaelic and Celtic cultural resources on the net, starting with the Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia. And there’s still Gaelic and Celtic culture elsewhere, for instance, Cape Breton’s Gaelic College. Fortunately there are already some attempts to preserve and continue Gaelic culture, particularly the music. The Library of Congress for instance has made available recordings and transcripts of Gaelic songs sung by Mary McDonald in 1931. And in Iona, Nova Scotia, ther’s the Highland Museum, a “living culture” museum that celbrates and preserves Gaelic culture in Nova Scotia.

In Dúil Bélrai

Dennis King has created “In Dúil Bélrai“, an antique term for a glossary. In this case, a new English – Old Irish glossary in the form of a searchable database, with over 5,000 Old and Middle Irish words, with a little Early Modern Irish mixed in. Dennis King writes to the Old Irish List “We’re still tinkering with it and adding new vocabulary, but we invite you all to give it a try.”