Speke Englysch, dammit

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From John Trevisa's 1385 translation of Ranulph Higben's Polychronicon (from version here):

…by comyxtioun and mellynge firste wiþ Danes and afterward wiþ Normans, in meny thynges þe contray longage is apayred, and som vseþ straunge wlafferynge, chiterynge, harrynge, and garrynge grisbayting..

…by mixing and mingling, first with Danes and afterwards with Normans, in many cases the country's language is impaired, and some use strange stammering, chattering, snarling, and grating gnashing of teeth.

For some context, see this set of lecture notes by Stephan Gramley.


  1. chips mackinolty said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 9:46 am

    630 years of prescriptivism? Certainly 630 years of "gnashing of teeth"!

  2. Boris said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 10:08 am

    Does it come in the IPA?

  3. Martin Ball said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 11:07 am

    @Boris – sorry, no; IPA hadn't been invented then ;)

  4. Robert Coren said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 11:24 am

    I have to say that I find the word wlafferynge strangely attractive.

    [(myl) The OED has wlaffe, v., "intr. to stammer; to speak indistinctly", with the etymology

    Old English wlaffian, of imitative origin. Compare Middle English blaffere, blaffoorde ‘traulus’ (Promp. Parv. 37).


  5. Chris McG said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 11:46 am

    Why "stammering" not "waffling" though…

  6. Chris Waigl said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 11:57 am

    *Love* wlafferynge, chiterynge, harrynge, and garrynge.

  7. James said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 12:16 pm

    Since we are discussing our favorite word… I have to say 'comyxtioun' speaks to me and I don't know why. Some examples:

    "sorry for the comyxtioun up?"

    "you never comyxtioun work with play"

    Maybe it doesn't work for most instances… But it is my favorite.

  8. Richard Hershberger said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 1:18 pm

    Off topic, but I have been looking forward to seeing Language Log's response to this:


    Don't disappoint me!

  9. Ralph Hickok said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 2:43 pm

    From the link to The Atlantic article: "it" doesn't sound like the first syllable of "item".

    Could that be because the first syllable of "item" is "i"?

  10. Zubon said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 2:46 pm

    Note the Oxford comma, of which Ranulph Higben was also a staunch defender. History has lost any views he may have had about uptalk.

  11. Y said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 2:52 pm

    Cicero, in Brutus, 258: “…practically every one, unless his life was passed outside Rome, or some crudeness of home environment had tainted his speech, in those days spoke well and correctly. But lapse of time has brought about some deterioration in this respect both at Rome and in Greece. For as to Athens, so to our city, there has been an influx of many impure speakers coming from different places. It has created a situation which calls for a purge of language and the invoking of theory as an objective control or touchstone, not subject to change like the easily distorted rule of common usage." (Loeb translation)

    [(myl) Indeed.]

  12. Dan Curtin said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 2:53 pm

    I nominate "grisbayting" as word of the year for 1385!

  13. Adrian Morgan said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 5:01 pm

    Those lecture notes touch on a lot of interesting material I didn't know … I believe I would quite like to see the lecture.

  14. Daniel said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 5:06 pm

    @Richard Hershberger

    Thanks for sharing that article. I actually kind of agree with it in that the way we spell in English is holding kids back from learning.

    I, too, would love to see Language Log's analysis of the matter.

  15. Robot Therapist said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 3:26 am

    Yeah, is that really true about "friend" and "busy"? Damn those Belgians!

  16. Matt McIrvin said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 6:56 am

    "Printers choosing long spellings because they're paid by the line" is one of those things that sounds too neat to be true, like those folk etymologies that claim everything is an acronym. Is it?

  17. Suburbanbanshee said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 10:53 am

    Spelling doesn't hold English speakers back. It's a great deal easier to learn to read, understand, and spell words than to get enough exposure to how these new words are pronounced.

    For example, I knew and could spell the word hors d'oeuvres for at least ten years before I found out that the "horz dovers" and canapes that kept showing up in books were the exact same thing as my mom's "orderves." I just thought they were all synonyms for the same things.

    If we wanted it to happen, pretty much every kid could read novels before kindergarten. Since many people in our society assume that children shouldn't learn to read before kindergarten or first grade, and since many people do not read to their kids (or in such a fashion that the kids can see the words on the page), kids mostly don't learn until they are taught. Of course reading is harder if you have less exposure and practice. So of course most kids don't develop the skills if they're not given the chance. Sheesh.

  18. Ray Girvan said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 12:12 pm

    I'd translate "harrynge" as "aaaar-ing", as in Talk Like a Pirate.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 12:40 pm

    Suburbanbanshee: Spelling is a lot easier for you, not for everybody.

  20. Jtgw said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 3:39 pm

    Higden would have supported bilingual or Spanish-language education for young Hispanics, I imagine.

  21. AB said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 4:48 pm

    Reading a little further, it seems the declining quality of foreign language instruction in English schools has also been a source of worry for 630 years. How much worse can it get?

  22. Sybil said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 8:41 pm

    Coming in this late, pretty much everything I want to say has been said.(And more.) I admit to also having a strange attraction to "comyxtioun" But without copy-and-paste, I would have died about there. I'll dream it, without being able to reliably spell it.

    But was there ever a more perfect LL post? I ask you.

  23. A long decline | US Times said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 11:06 am

    […] has been removing worse ever since. In 1387, Ranulph Higden, a Benedictine priest and historian, found a culprit in denunciation mixing: “By commiyxtion and mellyng, furst wiþ Danes and following wiþ Normans, […]

  24. Bathrobe said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 9:23 pm

    From Merriam Webster:

    Definition of COMMIXTION

    1 obsolete : commixture 1, 2
    2 Roman, Scots, & civil law : commixture 3

  25. Bathrobe said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 9:26 pm

    Oh, yes, there is an etymology:

    Origin of COMMIXTION

    Middle English, from Late Latin commixtion-, commixtio, from Latin commixtus + -ion-, -io -ion.

    COMMIXTURE is defined as:

    1: the act or process of mixing : the state of being mixed
    2: compound, mixture

    Origin of COMMIXTURE

    Latin commixtura, from commixtus
    First Known Use: 1567

  26. Michael Watts said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 6:05 am

    "with" uses a thorn, "the" uses a thorn, but "things" is spelled with a TH. Anyone know why that is? Did the English of the time distinguish voiced and unvoiced fricatives, and if so did "with" and "the" use the same kind?

  27. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    February 15, 2015 @ 1:02 am

    Am I reading "som vseþ" right, as equivalent to modern *"some uses"? Did "some" used to be singular? Or was the third-person plural conjugation different in 1385?

  28. Chas Belov said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 3:25 am

    @Anschel Schaffer-Cohen: I'm reading "som vseþ" as "some useth" which today would be "some use" where "use" is a verb.

  29. Robert Coren said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 11:29 am

    @Chas Belov: I think that's Anschel's reading as well (it's certainly mine), hence the question: Did "some" take a singular verb Back Then?

  30. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 9:00 pm

    @Chas Belov: I realize that "use" is a verb. But "-þ" (or "-th") is the archaic equivalent of modern "-s", which is the third-person singular conjugation. So my question, as Robert Coren said, is whether "some" was singular.

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