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Exploring the history of English

Anglo-Norman was the first language of Parliament. Spoken in England after the Norman Conquest, this variety of French has also provided us with a wide array of words that we now view as simply being part of the English language – including such linguistic gems as ‘lettuce’, ‘blubber’, ‘purchase’ and ‘mischief’. But we would be none the wiser about many of their origins had it not been for the Anglo-Norman Dictionary (AND).

Professor David Trotter, head of the department of European Languages at Aberystwyth University, leads the Anglo-Norman Dictionary team. They are currently compiling the very much expanded second edition and, having recently completed the letter ‘M’, are now working on words that begin with ‘N’. The AHRC has been contributing to the project since 2001: funding awards have paid for editors and research assistance, as well as enabling the project team to digitise the AND.

The dictionary is now available online without charge, so the team can update it more frequently and in much greater depth, and anyone who wants can access the resource for free. “It is endlessly correctible,” says Professor Trotter of the AND website, which allows the inclusion of any amount of relevant information, whereas the original printed edition required many resources to be cut down or omitted. “So, if someone searches through the English Historical Review and comes back with a page of new words for a letter we’ve already finished, we can go straight back and add them.”

Sources range from electronic documents to a vast number of paper slips inherited from Anglo-Norman scholar JP Collas, and new material is constantly being discovered. Professor Trotter cites a recent example of a text on the subject of astronomy: “I found words in it that I’m virtually certain we haven’t got such as artike (‘arctic’), aspekt (‘position’), pol ([north or south] ‘pole’). From a vocabulary perspective, some texts are more interesting than others. A text about preparing leather for making shoes would almost certainly contain more in a couple of pages than a few hundred pages of a routine chronicle.”

A lot of early French literature was written in England, “so there is an important section of what would normally be thought of as French literature which was actually composed or certainly copied in medieval England,” he notes. “However, I think its real importance is in the impact on the history of English.”

Take the word ‘lettuce’, for example. “The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) didn’t have much to go on for ‘lettuce’,” says Philip Durkin, the OED’s principal etymologist. “The AND has given us firm evidence that the word was there in Anglo-Norman,” although it was more likely to be referred to as ‘laitue’ then.

The OED is also currently being revised and Durkin says it is hugely exciting to be able to incorporate updated information from the AND, as well as having access to the project team. “It is useful to have access not only to the information, but to the individual researchers,” he explains. “Having that interaction means we can ask questions about the data and whether they have more material that might help us.”

As well as being a highly useful academic resource, the AND is also a fascinating resource for any speaker of English, says Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, an English professor at Fordham University in New York who has used the resource for her own teaching and research in the area of medieval literature. “It is astonishing and fascinating for English speakers to realise how much French they actually speak in everyday life and the AND is invaluable for showing this. You can hardly scroll down any of its lists without coming across words we still use in our English, even if their spelling looks a little odd.”

Dictionaries contain provisional information or, as the OED’s Philip Durkin puts it, they provide a digest of everything that is currently known about a word. It only takes the discovery of one new document to turn a seemingly accurate entry into one that needs updating. In some cases, the AND has revealed new information that extends or contradicts entries in the OED.

For example, Professor Trotter’s team discovered new information about the word ‘blubber’ while debating how to classify a whale, which was incorrectly described as a fish in medieval literature. “We came across the word ‘blobbe’, which seems to be the first attestation of anything to do with blubber in English. It wasn’t thought to have appeared until the 15th century, but the Oak Book of Southampton, which deals with imports and exports, has a reference to it dating from around 1300.”

Determining the meaning of a word is problematic, however. “With modern languages you can verify meaning by asking other speakers, but we can’t do that and sometimes it’s genuinely difficult to work out what a word means,” says Professor Trotter. “This frequently involves some almost encyclopaedic digging and you become experts in all sorts of things for about a day and a half at a time.”

One area that has proved somewhat tricky is the classification of birds. “Literary texts often list lots of birds for effect. One text had a string of birds in a forest that seemed to include a duck and a puffin.” Abstract concepts such as feelings are also difficult to define, while some areas of activity, such as the exact methods of shipbuilding, simply aren’t documented at all.

While some dictionaries omit words if their meanings are undetermined, the AND contains plenty of incomplete entries because it is essentially a work-in-progress. “If a word exists in a dictionary, even with a question mark, a person who thinks they have seen the same word will be more likely to believe it is correct,” says Professor Trotter. “Otherwise, they will almost certainly change it, so you’re consistently correcting words out of existence.”

And there is still so much to find, says Daron Burrows, senior lecturer in medieval French language and literature at the University of Manchester and an AHRC peer reviewer. “It’s terrifying how little we know. The interaction between Anglo-Norman and English really hasn’t been thoroughly studied and you can find something new every day.”

For further information please go to: www.anglo-norman.net

Image- A draft entry for the first edition of the Anglo-Norman Dictionary, in typescript and with handwritten corrections by Professor William Rothwell

Feature by Anne Wollenberg

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