English – a Scandinavian language?

According to an article I came across today, researchers at the University of Oslo believe that English is descended from Old Norse and not from Old English as it is closer in terms of grammar to the modern Scandinavian languages than to the West Germanic languages such as Dutch and German. They say that Old English or Anglo-Saxon is very different from modern English, and believe that Old English died out while Old Norse developed into modern English, with influence from Old English, which is the opposite to the standard model. English grammar and word order certainly has changed a lot over time.

I’m not sure how they came to these conclusions, but I am sceptical. There certainly was Old Norse influence on the dialects spoken in areas of Norse settlement, such as the north of England, and I’ve heard that north eastern varieties of English, such as Geordie, are phonologically similar to Danish.

Telling tales

Earlier this week I went to a Christmas show entitled Beasts and Beauties in Kendal. It wasn’t a traditional Christmas pantomime, though did include some pantomimesque elements, but rather a series of eight fairy/folk tales from around Europe, including:

The Emperor’s New Clothes or Kejserens nye Klæder by Hans Christian Andersen (Danish)
Bluebeard or La Barbe bleue by Charles Perrault (French)
The Juniper Tree or Von dem Machandelboom a story collected by the Brothers Grimm in Low German
The Girl and the North Wind (Norwegian). This one was originally The Lad who went to the North Wind or Gutten som gikk til nordavinden

It was all in English in various accents with occasional words in the other languages, and was well put together and acted.

It’s interesting to see the original texts of these tales and to discover the ways they start, which tend to be formulaic – the equivalents of the English ‘Once upon a time’. For example stories might start with ‘For mange Aar siden …’ in Danish, ‘Il était une fois …’ in French, ‘Dat is nu all lang heer …‘ in Low German, ‘Det var engang …‘ in Norwegian,

Such stories are usually referred to as fairy tales/stories or folk tales/stories. The word tale comes from the Old English talu (story, tale), from the Old Germanic *talō, from the Proto-Indo-European root *del- (to recount, count), which is also the root of talk, tell, tall and teller, which arrived via Old Norse, as well as the Dutch word taal (speech), the German word zahl (number) and the Danish tale (speech) [source].

Cnaipí & cripio

A story I heard when I was in Ireland featured two characters playing na cnaipí (tiddlywinks) /nə kripiː/ in a graveyard at night. A man who overheard them sharing out the tiddlywinks, saying over and over “one for me and one for you”, and thought they were the devil and god sharing out souls.

When I first heard the story I didn’t know what na cnaipí were, but later disovered that they are buttons or tiddlywinks. The singular of the word is cnaipe /kripə/ or /knapə/* and it means button, knob, key or dot, and can refer to buttons on clothes and to buttons (and keys and knobs) on keyboards and other electronic software and hardware.

* in some dialects of Irish, such as in Ulster and Connemara, cn is pronounced /kr/ while in others it’s pronounced /kn/

Today I discovered some similar-sounding Welsh words, cripio (to scratch) and cripiad (scratch), and wondered if they were related to the Irish cnaipe.

According to Dennis King, cnaipe comes from the Middle Irish cnap, from the Old Norse knappr (button, knob), from the Germanic *kn-a-pp-, from the Indo-European root *gen- (to compress into a ball), which is also the root of the English words knob and knoll, and the Scottish Gaelic word cnap (knob, lump, hillock).

As far as I can discover, there is no link between cnaipe and cripio – their resemblance is a chance one, something you find quite often when comparing languages.

Levees and ganseys

Last night the words levee and gansey came up in conversation and while I’d heard both of them before, I wasn’t entirely sure of the meaning of the former, or the origins of the latter. I did know that a levee had something to with flood prevention and was something you drive your chevy to, and that gansey sounded similar to the Irish word, geansaí (jersey, jumper), though I hadn’t heard it used in English before.

A levee, /lɪˈviː/ or /ˈlɛviː/, is a natural embankment along a river formed by sedimentation, or a man-made embankment along a river or around a field designed to prevent flooding. It is also a landing place or quay; a formal ceremony held when a sovereign gets up in the morning, or an afternoon reception for men at court [source].

Levee in the sense of a man-made flood-prevention embankment is apparently used mainly in American English (especially in the Midwest and Deep South), and was first used in English in New Orleans in around 1720. Other words for levee include levée, dike/dyke, embankment, floodbank and stopbank.

Etymology: the feminine form of the past participle of the French verb lever (to raise), from the Latin levare (to raise), from levis (light in weight), from the Proto-Indo-European root *le(n)gwh- (light, easy, agile, nimble) [source].

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, gansey, /ˈgænzɪ/, is a jersey or pullover and is a dialect variant of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands famous for its knitted sweaters. It is also written gansy, ganzee, ganzey, ganzie & ganzy. This dictionary also has a Guernsey coat, “a thick, knitted, closely-fitting vest or shirt, generally made of blue wool, worn by seamen”, which is also known as a Garnesie, Garnsey or Gernsey.

Another source claims that the word gansey comes from “a word of Scandinavian origin meaning ‘tunic'”. This sounds plausible as the Norwegian word for such a garment is genser [source], though it’s possible that the Norwegian word comes from Britain or Ireland.

The Art of the Fishing Communities website, “Ganseys (Guernseys), Jerseys, Aran and Fair Isle are names given to fishermen’s knitted pullovers that were universally popular in the 19th and early 20th century. Each fishing village had its own pattern and within the local pattern there were small variations, and sometimes names, that identified the family and individual.”

The Irish word for jersey or sweater, and also the island of Guernsey, is geansaí /gʲansiː/, sounds similar to gansey and possibly comes from the same source. The word is also found in Manx – gansee and in Scottish Gaelic – geansaidh.

What do you call a knitted woollen top?

Jumper, sweater, pullover and jersey, and indeed gansey, are all used in the UK, and I normally say jumper.

Bellies, bags and bellows

Yesterday a friend asked me whether bellyache was considered rude or vulgar, and whether tummy ache or stomach ache were preferable in formal conversation. I thought that the word belly might be seen as vulgar and/or informal by some; that stomach ache might be better in formal situations, and that tummy ache tends to be used by and with children. Would you agree?

Belly comes from the Old English belg (bag, purse, bellows, pod, husk), from the Proto-Germanic*balgiz (bag), from the PIE base *bhelgh- (to swell), which is also the root of the Old Norse belgr (bag, bellows) and bylgja (billow); the Gothic balgs (wineskin), the Welsh bol (belly, paunch), the Irish bolg (abdomen, bulge, belly, hold, bloat), and the Latin bulga (leather sack). The English words bellows, billow, bolster, budget and bulge also come from the same root [source].

In English belly came to refer to the body during the 13th century, and the abdomen during the 14th century. By the late 16th century its meaning had been extended to cover the bulging part or concave convex surface of anything. In the late 18th century some people in England decided that belly was vulgar and banished it from speech and writing – replacing it with stomach or abdomen. [source].

Wire twists

The electricians have been rewiring my new house this week and finished today, so I thought it would be interesting to looking the etymology of the word wire.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, wire comes from the Old English word wir (metal drawn out into a thread), which is related to the Old Norse word viravirka (filigree work), the Swedish word vira (to twist), and the Old High German word wiara (fine gold work).

Going further back we find that the Proto-Indo-European root of wire and wir is *wei- (to turn, twist, plait). This is also the root of the Old Irish word fiar (bent, crooked – cam in Modern Irish); the Welsh word gwyr (bent, crooked); and the Latin viere (to bend, twist).

The Proto-Indo-European Etymology dictionary gives the PIE root of wire as *chislom.

There are quite a few idiomatic expressions involving wire, including:

  • the wire – another for the telephone, and the name of a TV series
  • down the wire – right up to the last moment
  • get in under the wire – to accomplish something with little time to spare
  • get one’s wires crossed – to misunderstand
  • pull wires – to exert influence behind the scenes using personal connections, etc – also ‘pull strings’
  • wire in – to set about (something, especially food) with enthusiasm (not one I’ve come across before)

Does wire feature in equivalents of these expressions in other languages, or in other idioms?

Wind eyes and eye doors

Earlier this year I decided that after many years of renting rooms, flats or houses it was time to buy my own place. After viewing quite a few houses and flats, I chose one at the beginning of May and last week I finally picked up the keys, after months of going back and forth between estate agents, solicitors, financial advisers and banks. Friends had told me of their nightmarish house-buying experiences, so I had an idea of what to expect, and while it has taken quite a long time, it all went more or less smoothly.

Some of the vocabulary used in the house-buying process includes:

  • Property – a house, flat or other dwelling
  • Viewing – to view or have a look at a property you’re thinking about buying or renting
  • Offer – a price offered by the buyer to the seller, usually via an estate agent. This is often lower than the asking price and several offers might be made before one is accepted.
  • Purchase a property – you can say you’re buying a house, but the preferred ‘official’ term is purchase a property
  • Conveyancing – the transfer of legal title of property from one person to another – this is normally what your solicitor does, though it is possible to do it yourself.
  • Searches – checks normally carried out by your solicitor on things like planning restrictions and permissions for the property you’re purchasing.
  • Gazumping – when a seller decides to reject a buyer’s offer, after initially accepting it, in favour of a higher one from someone else.
  • Exchange – when contracts for the buyer or purchaser and the seller or vendor are exchanged. Up to this point either party can withdraw from the transaction.
  • Completion – when the conveyance process is completed – normally a week or so after exchange, though in my case exchange and completion happened on the same day.

Before I move into the house next month I’m having some work done, including rewiring, replacement of windows and doors, and the installation of a new bathroom. The windows and doors man came today to measure the windows and doors that will be replaced. One word he used, reveal, mystified me at first, but I now know it is the outer side of a window or door frame or the jamb. The word jamb comes from the Late Latin gamba (leg), via the Old French jambe (pier, side post of a door).

The word window comes from the Old Norse vindauga (“wind eye”), which replaced the Old English words eagþyrl (eye-hole) and eagduru (eye-door). The word fenester, from the Latin fenestra, was also used in English until the mid 16th century.