Tips for William the Conqueror fanboys

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OK, the whole time machine thing is over (for now), but along the way, I unaccountably neglected to link to a lovely explanation by Carl Pyrdum at Got Medieval of why Mark Pagel's choice of historical examples was unwise, and why the BBC's elaboration and illustration raised unwisdom to levels of hilarious incongruity rarely seen outside of The Onion: "Tips for Time Traveling William the Conqueror Fanboys". Carl discusses the rest of the British media's response in a later post, "Further Thoughts on Time Traveling".

Meanwhile, I've learned from a reliable source that my first instinct was correct: there is actually a new paper in the pipeline from Pagel. I'm not sure whether it presents relevant new results beyond the material in Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson, and Andrew Meade, "Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history", Nature 2007; but at least it would have provided a scientific focus for the PR circus, if the timing had been a bit different. In any case, whenever this paper becomes available, we'll discuss it.


  1. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 10:33 am

    I read Got Medieval's post and it really is very funny. But I came across the line I don't know how that explanation would jive with the pictures and captions and I am curious if the use of jive for jibe is an eggcorn or is now established.

    [(myl 10:39 3/2/2009) It could also be a simple typo. But the OED entry for jive has 1.b intr. To make sense; to fit in. U.S., with citations from 1943 onward ("1943 Amer. Speech XVIII. 153/2 Doesn't jive, doesn't make sense. 1955 W. GADDIS Recognitions II. i. 308 His analyst says he's in love with her for all the neurotic reasons in the book. It don't jive, man.").

    For both the form with /b/ and the form with /v/, the origin is said to be "obscure: perh. phonetically related to chime". So on that theory, both forms are originally eggcorns, or at least mis-hearings of some kind.]

  2. Got Medieval said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    I typo like a madman, but that was intentional jive, man.

  3. marie-lucie said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

    Got Medieval: great posts!

  4. marie-lucie said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

    I have one small thing to add to Irène's comment in the first link (I was not able to post it there): William the Conqueror did not speak Middle French, he was at least 200 years too early for that, he spoke an early form of Old French.

  5. Geraint Jennings said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

    Of course, us Norman-speakers, we claim him as one of ours.

  6. marie-lucie said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

    GJ, Early Old Norman French, if you prefer.

  7. Dan T. said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

    The conservatism of French, cited in that blog posting, might be more apparent in the written form of the language than the spoken form, as spoken French is rather divergent from its written form, with lots of silent letters at the end of words; presumably, medieval French was pronounced in greater agreement with how it was written.

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

    "Old Norman French" is a bit of an oxymoron. At that time "French" or français referred to the small region around Paris called Pays de France, and this reference survives in toponyms to the present day. (For example the region east of Paris called Brie is divided into a Brie champenoise and a Brie française, similarly the Vexin to the west consists of Vexin normand and Vexin français, and the town where CDG airport is located is called Roissy-en-France to distinguish it from another Roissy, now called Roissy-en-Brie, some 40 km away.) The general term for the Romance dialects of France was roman. It was fortuitous that, as the name France became that of the whole kingdom, the dialect called français grew into its standard language. The French were thus spared a conflict over the name of the language such as those over toscano/italiano and castellano/español.

  9. Nathan Myers said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

    It would be a better world, somehow, were Early Old Norman called "Normansk".

  10. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

    I clicked on the link to the abstract of the Pagel et al. paper, and it's obvious that what they are talking about is not words but etyma. It's nonsense to say that two, zwei, deux, dva and δύο are the same word.

  11. marie-lucie said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 5:19 pm

    Dan T, to read Old or Middle French you pronounce all the written letters. Things start to change at the end of the Middle French period.

    Coby, it depends on what your purpose and your audience is. If you are studying old sources, I agree that it is important to be aware of the dialectal differences, but for a general audience just using Normand or Picard exaggerates the differences for the reader and gives the impression that these were much more different than they were, and also totally separate from French. It's like insisting on the distinction between Mercian and Northumbrian in a general context instead of using Old English. Saying that William spoke Normand, not French can give the misleading impression that he spoke the Scandinavian language of his ancestors.

  12. Geraint Jennings said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 2:38 am

    Of course, saying William spoke French, not Norman, can give the misleading impression that he spoke an ancestral form of modern French, rather than an ancestral form of modern Norman.

  13. [links] Link salad flies through the sky like an eagle in the eye | said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 8:48 am

    […] Tips for William the Conqueror fanboys — Language Log on time travel and (duh) language. With links! […]

  14. marie-lucie said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 9:28 am

    GJ, agreed, but more people know something about French than about Normand. For instance, it is common to speak of the (Old) French component in Middle and Modern English, not of the Old Normand component. ("Anglo-Normand" is not as well known).

  15. marie-lucie said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 9:29 am

    p.s. similarly, it is common to say that the Beatles spoke English, rather than Liverpudlian.

  16. Geraint Jennings said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

    I could understand a comparison between the Norman/French and Scots/English situations, but the Beatles' Liverpudlian?

    In that case, I can only respond that j'sis l'loup-mathîn à d'fenses (I am the walrus). Goo goo g'joob.

  17. marie-lucie said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

    GJ, I meant that comparison as an example comparing a regional to a national language name, where only the latter would be familiar to a large audience.

    Are you by any chance from one of the "Channel Islands"?

  18. Harry Campbell said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 9:59 pm

    Saying that William spoke Normand, not French can give the misleading impression that he spoke the Scandinavian language of his ancestors.

    I'm sure that would be true in French, where normand covers both, but surely English speakers are unlikely to confuse Normans with the Scandinavian types we'd call Vikings or Norsemen. We tend to have them in different mental compartments, I suggest.

  19. Geraint Jennings said,

    March 4, 2009 @ 2:14 am

    @ Marie-Lucie: "Are you by any chance from one of the "Channel Islands"?"

    The link gives a clue!

  20. marie-lucie said,

    March 4, 2009 @ 9:17 am

    GJ, what link? I don't see any link. At least no link shows up on my screen. The clue for me is the sentence you wrote, although I don't know enough to place it more accurately. The other clue is (possibly) your own name.

  21. Faldone said,

    March 4, 2009 @ 9:44 am


    The link is his name. Click on it.

  22. marie-lucie said,

    March 4, 2009 @ 10:59 am

    Faldone, thank you! I remember accessing the site some time ago. Bravo, GJ!

  23. Tanja S said,

    May 8, 2013 @ 5:57 am

    Any comments on the latest paper by Pagel et al? Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia,

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