Tag Archives: Old English

Shrove Tuesday and the Perils of Being Male

It’s Shrove Tuesday – or “Pancake Day” as we used to call it back in Lancashire – and as people across the country skip their diets in favor of eating fat flat crepes overflowing with carbohydrates and lipids, I thought I’d offer some non-fattening intellectual sustenance regarding the origins of the phrase itself.

Blueberry pancakes Shrove Tuesday

As you might guess, the reason there’s a specified day is because it’s just one of three days that make up something called Shrovetide, a period running from Quinquagesima Sunday [1] through Shrove Monday and Shrove Tuesday up until Ash Wednesday.

The word shrove comes from the Old English scrifan meaning “to impose penance upon” or “to hear a confession.” It includes the notion of “making things right” as a result of self-examination and recognizing one’s sins. Shrovetide is the beginning of the period known to Christians as Lent, which includes the requirement to undertake some sort of fast or privation [2] as a run up to the celebration of Easter Sunday. Hence the relationship to a penance during this time. This in turn is thought to derive from the Latin scribere meaning “to write.”

The practice of making pancakes seems to have originated in the need to use up all the rich foods such as milk, butter, cream etc. prior to observance of  weeks of fasting for Lent. Hence the other name of “Fat Tuesday” and “Mardi Gras” [3].

Another old custom was the gift of the “Shrovetide hen,” which is mentioned in Bishop Hall’s 16th century work Virgidemiarum where he says, “A Shroftide Hen, Which bought to giue, he takes to sell agen.” Sadly most of these hens ended up on a table and not as a re-gift!

But consider the male of the species and the fate of the “Shrovetide Cock.” This hapless clucker was taken out on Shrove Tuesday and beaten with sticks or hit with stones until it was dead. The “winner” was the person who actually killed it. Sure, both males and females ultimately provided supper but the manner of the cock’s demise seems a little harsh.

So enjoy your Mardi Gras celebrations. Eat, drink, and be merry. And offer at least one toast to the poor Shrovetide Cock.

[1] Quinquagesima is Latin for “fiftieth day” and marks the Sunday that’s 50 days before Easter Sunday, and derives from quinquaginta meaning “fifty.” Breaking this down just a little more, quinque means “five” and the suffix ginta is used to mark cardinal numbers between thirty and ninety. Cunning folks these Latins.

[2] My wife is a theist and attends a local Episcopalian church where the vicar has asked her parishioners to consider giving up plastic for Lent. My wife is OK with the idea of avoiding  packing all her shopping at the supermarket into free plastics bags but is undergoing a severe moral dilemma as regards her daily Starbucks, which has a plastic lid! I suppose she can ask for her drive-through drink to be served without the lid but that’s a potential law suit I’m guessing Howard Schultz is keen to avoid.

[3] For those of us who remember our schoolboy French, Mardi is the French word for “Tuesday” and gras is the word for “fat.” And yes, the French gras and the English grease both come from the same source; the Latin crassus.

Language on the Move: The Case of the Flat Adverb

In a not-so-long-ago ad, Apple asked us all to “think different.” Even longer ago, Elvis Presley asked us to “love me tender. And when I was a wee bairn, my mum used to tuck me in at bedtime with the phrase, “Night night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

I wasn’t a particularly precocious or bright toddler, so my response to mum was simply to smile and stick my head under the covers to check for insects, rather than, “But mum, surely it should be sleep tightly because you’re using the word as an adverb and therefore the correct formation of the word is to take the adjective as the base and use the –ly ending as an adverbial morpheme?” I suppose if I has said that I’d have been called a “clever clogs” [1] and told to “just go to sleep.”

drive slow sign

Adverbs, by definition, are used to describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. With Elvis, if the question to him was “How do you want me to love you,” he should reply “tenderly”; with Apple, if the question was “How would you like us to think,” the reply would be “differently”; and with mum, she should be telling me to sleep “tightly.” We might also find we’re “talking loudly,” “laughing heartily,” “arguing vehemently,” “working quickly,” and “complaining bitterly” whenever the occasion demands it.

So why isn’t Apple thinking differently, Elvis being loved tenderly, and I sleeping tightly? Well, it’s all to do with something called flat adverbs and the appeal of the –ly ending.

The commonest way to create an adverb is to take an adjective and add an –ly to the end of it. You have a “hungry cat” and a “thirsty dog” but the former will “eat hungrily” and the latter “drink thirstily.” Similarly your “perfect day” should “end perfectly” and a “generous patron” will always “give generously.” It’s regularity like this that should make the lives of teachers of English easier, and the possibility for artificial intelligence more likely. Alas, consistency and continuity seem to be in short supply when it comes to language. In fact, just when you think you’ve got it all worked out, the lexical world starts to wobble on its axis and, like tectonic plates on a bed of molten rocks, words slide around and rearrange themselves in all sorts of non-standard ways.

Flat adverbs are an example of these slippery words that want to have it both ways – adjective and adverb. It’s like Bruce Jenner wanting not to become just Caitlyn but both Bruce and Caitlyn at the same time! They skip and jump around like frogs on a hot plate, not pausing long enough for anyone to get a grip on which is right or wrong – or perhaps more accurately which is better at any particular time.

One situation where you can take a stab at which to choose in when you’re writing songs or poems and meter is important. When mum told me “Night night, sleep tight,” she was simply adhering to the underlying stress pattern of the phrase, along with the rhyme for night and tight. The form “Night night, sleep tightly” would be judged grammatically correct but poetically wrong. Similarly when Johnny Cash sang about how “the sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home,” using brightly would have buggered up the timing [2], forcing the Man in Black to slip in an extra syllable that really doesn’t want to be there. And try singing “Love me tender-ly, love me do…” to get a feel for why Elvis flattened his adverb.

Our confusion over flat adverbs is comes primarily from those that are identical to an adjective. If you consider the pair fast and slow, the former presents less of a problem because it doesn’t have an –ly form. I can “run fast” (adverb) or drive a “fast car” (adjective) and not worry about whether it’s an adverb or an adjective because there simply is no *fastly. However, although I can drive a “slow car” (adjective) it’s less obvious whether to “drive slow” or “drive slowly.”

As you might suspect, the bastard nature of English also plays a part in spreading confusion [3]. Way back when Old English was the current flavor of the language, changing an adjective into an adverb was done by the addition of a final -e; fairly simple, eh? So if we had the word glaed (OE for our modern glad) then you could add an e to make glaede meaning gladly. So far so good.

If you wanted to turn a noun into an adjective, you could add the ending -lic; again, not to tricky. The word craeft (meaning skill) became craeftlic, an adjective meaning skilful. So guess what you did to say skillfully? Yup, you added the e-ending to get craeftlice.

This meant we had some adverbs ending in a very weak-sounding –e and others with a more pronounced-sounding –lice. Gradually over the years, the weak –e disappeared and the stronger –lice became the slightly weaker –ly. Equally, those adjective ending in –lic also wore down to take on the sound of –ly. By the 14th century, we had adjectives and adverbs ending in –ly but this ending became the more commonly used to mark adverbs. Folks then started adding it willy-nilly to adjectives and this is pretty much how we do things in Modern English.

It’s not surprising that folks have some trouble working out whether adverbs should have an ly at the end or not, and those fossilized flat adverbs don’t make it any easier. Strang (1970) [4] expressed a sentiment that is as true today as it was in the 20th century:

…the sense of unease about adverbs homophonous with an adjective […] has been felt at all periods, and there has been a steady progress from plain to –ly forms (p.273).

Apart from my earlier suggestion that you can use poetic meter to decide which word to use, another guideline you might want to consider is that flat adverbs are more likely to sound right in short, imperatives. So “sleep tight” and “drive slow” are fair enough. As is “think different.” As always, if you’re unsure, use a dictionary or better still an online corpus. But don’t get too wound up about whether to use an ly form of not; if it’s taken a thousand years to get to this point where no-one is sure, you’re not going to find the definitive answer from reading this one blog post!

[1] I’m something of a fan of the UK cartoon series Peppa Pig, and in an upcoming post I’ll explain in some detail precisely why but for now, just take this as a snippet of information that gives you a peek into what makes me tick. In several episodes, the phrase “clever clogs” is used, and although I had to explain this to my American family, folks over in the UK have no difficulty with it. And why not, seeing as it appears to have been around since 1866 at least! Joseph Wright’s 1898 English Dialect Dictionary also includes the phrases “clever-breeches,” “clever-clumsy,” “clever-dick,” “clever-head,” and “clever-shanks.”

[2] When I was a kid in the 1960s, the word bugger was a swear word that would get me a clip round the ear for using. In the hierarchy of swear words, bugger was about as profane as bloody, with bloody hell being a tad more shocking. In the more liberal 21st century, bugger and bloody are now little more than quaint Britishisms, especially to the American ear because they never crossed the Atlantic as curse words. It’s a little known fact – but allow the Dudes to enlighten you! – that the word bugger comes from the Latin Bulgarus, which means Bulgarian, and was used to refer to a group of 11th century heretics who came from Bulgaria. As often happens when people talk about any group with which they disagree, the orthodoxy ascribed certain “practices” to the Buggers, one of which was sodomy. By the 16th century, the word was being used to describe anyone who committed the crime of buggery (engaging in sodomy), and by the 19th century it was being used as a general term of abuse or insult. By the end of the 20th century, it had become less profane and could also be used in a more affectionate”blokish” way, such as “He’s really quite a decent bugger when all’s said and done.”

[3] An interesting article on the development of the ly-ending in English and its parallels in other languages is:

Hummel, M. (2014). The adjective-adverb interface in Romance and English. In P. Sleeman, F. V. d. Velde & H. Perridon (Eds.), Adjectives in Germanic and Romance (pp. 35-72). Amsterdam and Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.

There’s also some information in the highly entertaining book:

Burridge, K. (2005). Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further Observations on the Tangled History of English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Strang, Barbara M.H. (1080). A History of English. London: Methuen.

But Why Are Irregulars “Irregular?”

The English language is a glorious bastard child. Like the English themselves, its words and grammar are the result of the promiscuous and incestuous interbreeding that has been going on since the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes decided that they’d like an island vacation rather than sprawl out topless on the beaches of 5th century Europe – just as their current descendants do. Add to the mix the vocabulary of the Picts and Scots, along with a smattering of the ancient Welsh and Irish, and you’ve got yourself a language that turns out to be more wanton and debauched than a Roman orgy hosted by Caligula in a particularly creative mood.

As a result of this linguistic licentiousness, speech pathologists and English Language teachers find themselves having to teach a host of irregular, eccentric, and downright capricious words and grammatical structures. And there’s no finer example of this than something we call “the irregular verbs.” In fact, the very name “irregular verbs” tells us all we need to know; that here is a bunch of words so odd that we’ve just given up on them and tossed them into a huge bucket labeled “irregular.”

Irregular verbs cartoonOccasionally, you might hear the uncomfortable question…

“But Miss, Miss, Miss, why is it went and not goed? Why is it saw not seed? And why can’t I say taked instead of took?”

As pragmatists, 99% of us will just say, “Because it is” and then focus on the job at hand – teaching the exception to the rule. But 1% of us – and I count me as “one of us” – really does wonder “But why IS it went and saw and took rather than goed and seed and taked?” After all, when we invent a new verb such as to google or to tweet, it only takes a few weeks until folks have googled and tweeted or maybe even Facebooked. We know the rules; we apply the rules; we’re done!

Well, much as we all like to think we are hip, modern, trendy, and capable of being innovative game-changers who think outside of the box and shake up current thinking, as far as language goes, we’re tied to our undeniable linguistic history – the ghosts of the philological past are still haunting our etymological present. And like prehistoric flies trapped in amber, some of the words we use are really just fossils from an earlier age.

Back in the mid 1990s, Eva Grabowski and Dieter Mindt published a paper [1] that listed the most frequently used irregular verbs. They didn’t just sit in an office and google “most frequently used irregular verbs” but went back to basics and used the data from two pretty big (at the time) corpora: The BROWN corpus of American English [2], and the LOB corpus of British English [3]. Using real data rather than the “best guesses” of lexicographers was a huge step forward. For those of you who like FREE STUFF, you can click below to get a PDF copy of the top 100 irregular verbs by frequency. And why would you want it? Well, if you’re going to teach irregulars, starting with those used most makes a lot of sense.

Link to 100 most frequent irregular versb100 most frequently used irregular verbs

So let’s take the top of the list item, the verb to say, and crack open the amber to extract its etymological DNA.

Old English, and its Germanic predecessors, had more verb forms than modern English. Today, if you invent a new verb, such as to twerk, you only need to add three different endings to make it sound right: +s, +ing, or +ed.

“Miley can twerk, She twerks too much. Yesterday she twerked, I think she’s twerking too much.”

But Old English was a much tougher, with most verbs having around 14 different forms. And some verbs were strong while others were weak. It wasn’t that the strong ones would bully the weaker ones but the strong verbs would change their forms in a much more dramatic fashion than the punier weak ones. A strong verb would change its base form by muscling in new vowels. A commonly cited example of a strong verb is to sing, where you get sing, sang, and sung, with each form differing by the vowel [4]. Similarly ring, rang, and rung, or swim, swam, and swum. In contrast, the reason weak verbs are so-called is because they merely add an ending to their base form rather than man-up and ram those new vowels between the consonants.

I’m over-simplifying a little. There’s something of a sliding scale from “very strong” to “milquetoast weak,” and Old English scholars talk about 7 classes of strong verbs and 3 classes of weak ones. You have to think that with such a complex system, being a grammar teacher back in the 5th century CE must have paid more than it does today.

Having just explained the distinction between strong and weak verbs [5], take a look again at the verb to say. Is it strong or weak? Well, it’s so weak I’m surprised it hasn’t locked itself in a bathroom for fear of being hassled by to begin and to go! All that happens is that a /d/ sound gets added to the base form of /seɪ/, and the vowel changes ever-so-slightly by getting a tad shorter to leave /sɛd/. It’s technically from an Old English Class 3 weak verb that began life as secgan, meaning “to say,” and now has the pitiful pair of say/said left.

Number two on the list of irregulars, to make, is really pretty similar to to say, and so we should skip hastily on to the much more interesting to go, which has the disarmingly bizarre went as one of its forms. Why not, indeed, *goed?

Well, Old English did, in fact, have a *goedeode. But there was also another verb around in the 5th century that meant “to wander around or go slowly,” and that was wendan. You still hear people talk about “wending their way around” but other than that, the word wend is pretty rare. So between Old English and Middle English (that’s between the 5th and 15th centuries) the word oede got pushed out by wend, the past tense of wendan, and the devoicing of that final /d/ sound to a /t/ gave us the now-familiar went. For those who are geekily curious, this is called suppletion in the world of historical linguistics, and it’s where one word is used as the inflected form of another, but where both words come from different origins. Ever wonder why things go from bad to worse – or worst? Suppletion. Or why things go from good to better and best? Suppletion. Hey, it’s not just a verb thing!

Before I wind up this work and wend my weary way to bed, there’s one other question that might still be nagging at you; why is it these particular irregulars that are irregular and not others? Why say, and make, and go, and come, and take, and see…? It’s because of their frequency! When we started shifting from using those many different types of strong/weak verbs in Old English to the more relaxed syntax of “+s,” “+ing,” and “+ed,” the words that were used most  often had a built-in inertia – a resistance to change. We very easily – and perhaps it’s better to say unconsciously – take new verbs like tweet and twerk and add those three endings to them, but if we wanted to change went to goed [6] or see to seed, we’d have a harder time because it just sounds so wrong! So although we know that many new words are coined and used every day, there’s a core of  thousands of other words that are protected from change by a lexical inertia that anchors them firmly into our language and presents a formidable resistance to change.

So next time you’re focusing on teaching the irregulars, just remember that you’re also providing a small but fascinating lesson on the history of the English language!

[1] Grabowski, Eva & Mindt, Dieter (1995. “A corpus-based learning list of irregular verbs in English.” ICAME Journal 19, 5-22.

[2] Francis, W. Nelson, Kucera, Henry, & Mackie, Andrew W. (1982). Frequency analysis of English usage : lexicon and grammar. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[3] Hofland, Knut, & Johannson, Stig (1982). Word frequencies in British and American English. The Norwegian Computing Center for the Humanities, Bergen, Norway: Longman.

[4] Using vowel variation as a form of morphology is called ablaut. It’s from the German prefix ab- meaning “out of” or “away from” and laut meaning “sound.” So it refers to that notion of taking a sound away and replacing it with another.

[5] In today’s era of political correctness with the insistence on not hurting anyone’s feelings – ever, I can see the day coming when there will be pressure to re-define strong and weak verbs as robust versus relaxed. In that way, verbs like to chant and to hum no longer have to feel threatened by to sing.

[6] As every parent knows, kids will, in fact, quite happily “regularize” irregular forms when they are learning to talk. It is not unusual for kids to actually use irregular forms like went before they use regular, but erroneous, forms like goed. This overregularization is, in a sense, a good thing because it shows that a kiddo is learning to apply the more common rules of morphology – even if the words are technically wrong.

Thanks to eagle-eyed reader Mark Durham, we made a couple of corrections to the original text on 5/14/15; n two instances. we originally published tweak and here instead of twerk and hear. Both of these illustrate that relying solely on the built-in WordPress spell checker has some risks. It is, of course, better than not using it at all, but because both tweak and here are “good” words, the spell checker happily leaves them alone. So the teachable moment is “treat your spell checker as a friend who offers suggestions but not necessarily all the answers.”

Why Scarves are important to Speech Pathologists

In a recent poll of Speech and Language Pathologists  (The #SLPeeps Top 10 SLP Gifts) held by the folks at LessonPix, the number one object of infinite desire was… the scarf! Talk about stereotypes fulfilled. Tragically, this Dude was one of those who voted for the scarf, and readily admits to having a small collection of the things (you have to match with your coats and jackets – duh!) so perhaps it’s not necessarily surprising.

University of Lancaster UK Fylde College scarf

My new scarf

Of course, the other factor that may be biasing the results is that the poll is taking place just as the weather is becoming peppered with snow and the temperatures are falling faster than Mitt Romney’s post-election popularity [1]. So the stores are currently filled with more scarves than Santa has elves.

And so speaking of scarves and elves

One of the standard areas of concern for SLPs is teaching plurals. To be more accurate, teaching the phonological realizations of a morphological process that creates plural forms from a singular morpheme base. I toss that in because some folks seem to think that the Dudes are trivial, unprofessional, and simply out for a good time. That may have some veracity about it, but we are very aware that not everyone who reads this blog is, in fact, an SLP. So our role is to entertain and educate a broad church, and to promote the idea that SLPs are more than middle-class gentile ladies who wear scarves with twin-sets and pearls. Well, OK, so we do wear scarves…

Therapeutically speaking, we can use the scarf as a way of teaching a rather limited set of weird plural forms, namely those nouns that end in an /f/ sound when singular but turn into a /vz/ when plural. Here’s the list;

calf – calves
life – lives
thief – thieves
elf – elves
loaf – loaves
wife – wives
half – halves
self – selves
wolf – wolves
leaf – leaves
shelf – shelves

There are ongoing discussions about dwarfdwarfs/dwarves, with linguists typically coming down on the side of dwarves but Disney still insisting on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” – and you don’t mess with the Mouse unless you want a law suit in the mail [2].

Historically, these “irregular” plurals come from a “regular” source – Old English. You see, one of the common plurals in OE was the ending “-as,” and so you would talk about one wulf or wif (wolf and wife [3]) but two or more wulfas or wifas. But there was also a rule in existence that said that all fricatives (such as /f/ or /s/) would become voiced (change to /v/ or /z/) when they were stuffed between two other voiced sounds, which includes vowels. So seeing as the /f/ in wulfas and wifas sat between vowels, they were pronounced as /’wulvæz/ and /’waɪvæz/. Finally, over time, the final unstressed vowel was dropped leaving /’wulvz/ and /’waɪvz/.


But the fun doesn’t stop here, oh no! Just to keep the excitement going, the word scarf doesn’t come from the Old English and wasn’t around with the wolves, wives, elves, leaves, or sheaves, and didn’t make an appearance in the English lexicon until the middle of the 16th century. It’s not absolutely certain, but odds are that scarf comes from Old Northern French escarpe meaning “a sash” or “a sling for a wounded arm.” At that time, folks did talk about wearing scarfs but in the 18th century, it became mor fashionable to wear scarves, the plural swap being influenced by those old Old English “irregulars.”

Using my old friend, the Corpus of Historical American, I was able to produce the following graphs that show how scarfs declined as scarves ascended.

Use of the word scarf over time

“Scarfs” over time

Use of the word scarves over time

“Scarves” over time

As a confirmatory check, I also did a Google N-gram search:

The words scarfs and scarves over time

“Scarfs” and “scarves” over time

We could stop here and say “so that’s why you should teach scarves and not scarfs” and be done with it, but there’s just one more wonderful little quirk of English I’d like to point out.

“My dog is a hungry wee beastie. Whenever I give him some food, he scarfs it down as if he’d never eaten before.” So why doesn’t he *scarve it down?

Well, when the word scarf appears as a verb, it comes from a completely different place. It is, in fact, a variation of the word scoff, which is in turn a slang word for “to eat voraciously” or “to devour hungrily.” This word made its appearance at the beginning of the 19th century and so it’s subject to the rules of Modern English grammar, not Old English. When you add the third-person verb ending of “s” to scoff, it becomes plain old scoffs, and in Modern English, the final sound takes on the voicing of the preceding sound, hence /’skɒfs/.

So there you have it! SLPs love scarves because they remind us about phonological processes that change words over time, processes that changed the pronunciation of plural and verb morphology, and even about the history of the English language.

Or maybe we just like the colors…

[1] I’m not given to engaging in political discussions but yesterday I drove past a gas station here in Ohio where the price of a gallon was $2.98, and less than a month ago I was listening to Republican pundits prophesying how gas prices would rocket if Obama were elected. They were so sure, certain, positive, and adamant about the truth of the assertion that there are only two conclusions to draw from their pontificating; either there were wrong (in which case they are no smarter than anyone who can scrawl an “X” on a ballot so not worth listening to) or they were lying (in which case they are lying bastards and will be first against the wall when the revolution comes.) If there’s a third alternative, let me know.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, a linguistics scholar, argued for the use of dwarves, and all his works use that. But the venerable Oxford English Dictionary acknowledges the words dwarfs as a plural, thus queering the pitch even further. Way back in 1862, Ernest Adams wrote The Elements of the English Language and noted that the forms dwarf/dwarves seemed to be in free variation, but that “in modern English the form in f is preferred” (p.39).

[3] Before someone smacks me over the head with very heavy copies of Beowulf or Caedmon’s Hymn, I am aware that since Old English was first spoken, there has been a Great Vowel Shift that changed the pronunciation of many words. So in my example of /’waɪf/ should really have had the long “eee” vowel, /i/ and been /’wif/ if we’re going to be more accurate. However, whether the vowel is /aɪ/ or /i/, the rule that changed /f/ and /s/ to /v/ and /z/ would still have applied.