Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Week in HEL

Today I do the second part of my week-long History of the English Language lecture that I traditional giving at the beginning of Brit Lit I.

For some reason, the last time Brit Lit I was taught, it was at an incovenient time, so a lot of more advanced English majors did not take it then and are now in what is essentially a sophomore-level class. Even more bizarre is the situation of several student who took Old English, and now have to hear the entire OE period boiled down to about an hour, and will soon read in translation the very same texts they translated for themselves last semester.

These student are now providing me with a running commentary on my week-long HEL lecture, alternately being exasperated when I digress onto side HEL topics that I find interesting (like the contempt St. Augustine had for the Anglo-Saxons), and frustrated when I don't digress into the topics they like.

So, a question for the community -- what's the coolest little HEL factoid out there?


  1. My favorite is a pretty basic one--why we have the word-pairs mutton/lamb, beef/cow, and pork/pig. It's such a vivid example of how language is shaped by social change (and I found it really exciting when I first learned about it!).

  2. Wait, there's a superlative HEL factoid? I find it all COOL! If I must choose, I'd say etymologies. What some of our basic vocabulary means and comes from: why was a doctor in old books called a leech? Cause he used leeches? Why's a cobweb called a cobweb? How do we get from lof, praise, to love, romance? But that's probably not what you're looking for.

  3. Anonymous4:32 PM

    My students giggle when I show them the long, slow degradation of OE stol. Especially the ones who've worked in hospitals and doctors' offices.

  4. My favourite factoid is probably that although 'keel' is often credited as the oldest recorded English word, due to its appearance in Gildas' De Excidio Britonum, it probably doesn't deserve this acclaim because the passage it appears in is probably an interpolation. See Alex Woolf, An Interpolation in the Text of Gildas' De Excidio Britanniae, Peritia 16 (2002), pp. 161-67.

  5. Anonymous8:30 PM

    How about: "Why doesn't English have a distinct second-person plural so that we're forced to squabble about y'all, younz, yous, etc.?"

    I find that starting with the OE pronouns and working into the present, going on a little digression about you/thou (and pointing out why the King James Bible does what it does with you/thou) and ending with y'all, younz, yous, you guys, etc. (which gets participatory really fast) works well.

    It's really a bunch of factoids rather than one, but it usually gets them interested.

  6. I have always found amusing the transition from "an nadre" to "an adder" as well as the relationship between apron and napkin. It makes me wonder if "idiot" used to be "nidiot" or if that's just the way my mom says it...

  7. Anonymous12:02 PM

    Following up on the previous comment: you could talk about "nunnation" and explain where Ned, Nan, Ned, etc. come from.

    Or maybe even.... Nokes!

  8. That in the Futurama era, they have reverted to the Chaucerian axe for ask pronunciation.