Philological Public Service Announcement

Beowulf is in Old English. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is in Middle English.

Every fall, and then again every spring, as various colleges and universities begin their semesters, I see a dramatic increase in the number of people visiting my site after using search phrases like:

  • canterbury tales in old english
  • general prologue old english
  • chaucer old english
  • chaucer angled saxon
  • chaucer anglo-saxon

Old English requires some special effort to read and understand; it really is a different language. Middle English is much closer to our own Modern English, albeit with funny spelling. You can get a good idea of how different Old and Middle English are by looking at the Lord’s Prayer in Middle and Old English. You can hear some Chaucer read in Middle English here, and some Beowulf in Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) here. If you’re curious about learning Old English, take a look at Michael Drout’s nicely done King Alfred’s Grammar Book, and Catherine Ball’s Old English Pages. For those interested in learning more about Middle English and Chaucer, take a look at Larry Benson’s site.

But remember: Chaucer wrote in Middle English.

Beunans Ke Update

If Sara Zettle sent you, I’m especially pleased that I can tell you there’s more news about the medieval Cornish mystery play fragment rediscovered in 2000. Thanks to Alan Hawke, I can tell you that the National Library of Wales has added high quality digital images of both the Beunans Ke manuscript NLW MS 23849D and the Beunans Meriasek manuscript Peniarth 105B, to their Digital Mirror collection. Andrew Hawke adds that Michael Polkinhorn has provided a collaborative translation online here.

Medieval Unicode and Word Processing

I’ve been using Mellel for about a month now for the dreaded dissertation. Mellel is a different kind of word processor; the theoretical model seems to be of text in “streams” rather than in an endless scrolling page. So far Mellel has been quite easy to use, and has super support for scholarly writing and Unicode, including yoghs, thorns, and even medieval Irish and Welsh. I’ve yet to see if Mellel supports the very specific dissertation layout requirements, particularly in terms of footnotes and headers. Mellel also supports Bookends a bibliographic database that “hooks” into various word processors. I’m not very interested in the bibliography/footnote generation features of Bookends, but I’m trying it out as a bibliographic database.

Meanwhile, Nisus Writer Express promises to have footnote and endnote support in its next major update. Nisus Writer Express has a nifty language palette, which makes using multiple languages in one document dead easy, and I quite like the interface (one of the best Cocoa implementations of Apple’s HIG I’ve seen). But much as I like Nisus Writer Express, it strikes me as more appropriate for non-academic writing, as least thus far.

More on the Yogh

You’d be amazed at how hard it is to find information about the yogh. First, I’ve managed to learn that Unicode 4.0 Latin Extended B does indeed have both an upper and a lower case yogh, a yogh is that not an ezh. Take a look, if your browser supports Unicode 4.0 characters: an uppercase yogh Ȝ or U+021C and a lower case yogh ȝ or U+021D. And there are even Mac OS X fonts that support yogh as part of the Unicode character set (I particularly like Junicode). That’s the good news.

The problem is that the only word processor (versus text editor) for Mac OS X that supports the complete Unicode character set, and by “supports” I mean I can use Insert from the Character Palette, or hex encode the character, is Nisus Writer Express. Microsoft Word X does not, since the character is a Unicode character; neither MarinerWrite nor AppleWorks 6.x support Unicode only characters. The problem with Nisus Writer Express is that it doesn’t support footnotes, and the more esoteric formatting dissertations require. Mellel looks promising though, and I have hopes for true Unicode support in Microsoft Word 11. My ultimate plan is to create a custom keyboard layout, so I can easily access the characters I need. But I’m still going to check out LaTex.

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.