Episode 79: Anarchy

In the years after Matilda’s return to England, the country descended into chaos and civil war. This period is known by modern historians as the Anarchy. The events were recorded by a scribe in Peterborough who wrote in an early form of Middle English. In this episode, we examine these events through the entries in the Peterborough Chronicle. We also explore several new pronoun forms which appear for the first time in these passages.


33 thoughts on “Episode 79: Anarchy

  1. Hi – I submitted an accent sample, though because I’ve lived overseas a bunch, I’m not really a “genuine” example of my accent, but hopefully you’ll find it useful!

    • Thanks for the contribution. I add all of them to my database for future use. I like to have lots to choose from when preparing future episodes.

  2. Kevin, you started out strong, but the podcast really has gotten ever better. Really nice — this episode especially.

    I didn’t discover this podcast until you were to Episode 70 or so. But it was so intriguing that I went back to the beginning and listened all the way through — as I exercise, hike, do yardwork or do chores. You have such a clear and interesting concept, with such a great mix of linguistics and history and culture. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of history podcasts (as well as Yale, Stanford lectures) of the late classical period onward through the medieval — and I have gotten a better sense from you of everyday life experiences, technology, culture and values than I have from anybody else. Bravo!

    I should add that I myself am an academic so my standards are probably not too low. I was also a nerdy kid who studied linguistics on my own — although my eventual literature degree didn’t involve much linguistics — so some of the material you cover could seem pretty obvious to me. But I have ended up learning a lot from you. I had never fully realized before the extent of Scandinavian influence on English. Nor was I aware of how many words that seem like basic English were actually derived pre-Conquest from Latin.

    One question that’s been bugging me. You regularly refer to the (not sure of spelling here) Angelcyn (?) (Angle Kyun) in referring to the people we call the Anglo-Saxons in Britain. But, at a certain point not long before the Norman Conquest, that term seems to go away — and I believe is replaced by references to the “English” — where before I don’t recall anyone using that term. I know it’s a bit late (I only arrived to the podcast recently), but perhaps you could tell us about how that came about.

    Anyway, this is a great public service and you deserve support. Besides the patreon feed, I’ll make sure to speak well of the podcast in iTunes and other forums.

    • Thanks for the flattering comments about the podcast. I’m glad you’re enjoying it as much as I enjoy putting it together.

      With respect to your question, I discussed the development of terms like “Anglecynn” and “Englisc” in “Episode 32: The Oldest English.” I would recommend that you that check out that episode. The term “Englisc” was in use as a descriptive term for both the people and their language before the term “England” came into use. “Engla-land” came into use for the political entity around the year 1000. “Anglecynn” died out soon after that.

  3. Thoroughly enjoy your podcast and have learnt a great deal about our language from it.
    Not sure if this is the place to ask, but I’ve noticed you use a contraction with the words “couldn’t, didn’t, wouldn’t.” In fact, any negative that ends with a “dn’t”
    Like a good number of modern Americans you drop the “d’ so it sounds like di’unt, wu’unt.
    is this an evolution of the language?
    In 50 years will we all be using that form?
    Love your work, keep it up!

    • That is just my accent, and it is actually quite common in the US. It is similar to the pronunciation of “Latin” as “La’in” – or “mountain” as “moun’in.” There is a tendency to drop that medial ‘t’ or ‘d’ sound in many English dialects. (See Cockney “bottle” as “bo’uhl.”) It is a pronunciation shortcut (or laziness), but I can’t say that it will be considered standard in the future.

      • It is laziness, as you alluded to. I teach in a Midwestern American prison (English, naturally); earlier, I had also chaired group homes for the developmentally disabled (DD). I am continually astonished at how *similar* poorly educated, street-raised criminals’ dialects coincide with the cognitively impaired.

        On behalf of the DD, one extends all sympathy and compassion to individuals who are aspiring to do the best that he or she can. On the other hand, the criminal sub-strata seems to consider it a point of pride to blur consonant clusters, drop the -s from all present tense verbs, and especially mangle (or drop altogether) the verb /Be/.

        I do battle every day.

        • When I say “laziness,” I simply mean linguistic laziness – the natural tendency of human beings to find an easier way to pronounce words with certain sound combinations. It is one of the major factors behind regular sound changes. And, of course, just to be clear, it has nothing to do with physical or personal laziness.

          • We’ve already had a chance to dialogue on this topic. But I am certainly glad that you did not mean anything physical or personal about laziness. I really wasn’t accusing you. I was just angry about the potential implications of “laziness,” if a listener misunderstood or twisted that term to disparage speakers of particular dialects of English. I was a bit too sensitive and too critical on this issue. I enjoy this community of language enthusiasts and you do a great job of offering valuable feedback when listeners post questions.

        • Try reading “Talking Back Talking Black” by John McWhorter, an American academic who teaches linguistics as well as English literature. He also wrote “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue” and in my opinion, as a lay person, is an authority on language. This “criminal sub-strata” might just be an alternative dialect and accent and is marginalized and considered inferior. And the tendency to drop consonants is universal. I hear it in many accents, a sort of glottal stop, and can be used to self-identify as a member of a specific community. I have tried to read everything by McWhorter; he’s an excellent writer and one doesn’t need to have a degree in linguistics to enjoy his books.

        • Kevin explained his use of the word laziness, and Sandra offered some insights to the validity of all dialects, but I have to take the time to say that your (Todd’s) statements are classist and ignorant: all the examples that you site of “bad English” are emblematic of changes that have often occurred in language, and are therefore completely normal phenomena; moreover, your obsession with their status as convicted criminals is especially unsettling and definitively classist (“poorly educated, street-raised criminals”). One extends all sympathy and compassion to individuals who have had to suffer your power over them.

          • Hear hear, Ryan! I wanted to say the same, but you have expressed this much more eloquently than I could. Thank you.

  4. You mentioned that it was “a common belief that toads were poisonous”. I wonder if, at the time, there was a poisonous toad in the British Isles that is now extinct.

    After all, if you come to the tropical / subtropical areas of Australia (or South America, since that’s where they were imported from) you have a high chance of encountering the pest ‘cane toad’ (Rhinella marina, or Bufo marinus, depending on with which taxonomic classification you agree). Being a true toad, this creature has glands that secrete alkaloid poison if it is stressed. This poison can be fatal to humans, although most often it is pets that investigate them and native fauna that try to eat them that die.

    • I don’t know if there was actually a poisonous toad, but it was apparently a very common belief that most toads were poisonous.

  5. What I really am enjoying are the little tid-bits of information that I’m learning. For example, in school, I – like most others presumably – learned that an “n” was added to the word “a” in front of a word beginning with a vowel to make it easier to say. It seems instead, that the “n” was dropped to make consonant words easier to say.
    Thanks again for an interesting episode.

      • I think I read somewhere that “an apron” was actually formed from a misunderstanding about “a napron”. Is this right? It makes sense if you think of “nappies,” what we call diapers.

        • Yes, I actually mentioned that little bit of etymology in “Episode 110: Dyed in the Wool.” I also did an entire bonus episode at patreon.com/historyofenglish about this process where a letter or phoneme switches from the noun to the article or vice versa. Words like “adder,” “apron,” “auger,” “umpire,” and “orange” have all lost their original ‘n’ through this process. This linguistic phenomenon is known by several different names including metanalysis, rebracketing, resegmentation and misdivision.

            • Most etymologies suggest that the name comes from the butterfly’s excrement which resembles butter. Some suggest that it is based on the yellow color of many butterfly wings. Others suggest that it is based on a belief that butterflies ate butter that was left out in the open. I have also heard the “flutterby” etymology. Ultimately, no one knows because “butterfly” is an Old English word without a clear origin or etymology.

  6. Another source of the pronoun “she” could be the simple palatalization of the Old English “hēo/hīo.” I find this explanation more likely since “ȝho” preceded “scho/sche” in Middle English spellings, which of course in turn became “she.” The “ȝh” combination in Middle English made this sound: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Voiced_velar_fricative.ogg

    So, we go from the “h-sound,” to the “ȝh-sound,” to the “sh-sound.”

    • German “sie” is actually unrelated to English “she.” “Sie” developed from the same Germanic root as the Old English word “seo” which meant ‘the’ or ‘that’ in Old English.

  7. I enjoyed the early middle English greatly. Where on earth does one learn how to speak Middle English? Is it all guesswork, how it sounded?
    Anyway, I came here because I wanted to read the transcript while re-listening. There’s no transcript, but no problem. Wikipedia
    has much of the original middle english from this episode.

    • Hi Richard. Scholars have been able to re-create the presumed sounds of Middle English using a variety of techniques. They presume that Old English scribes applied the Latin alphabet to English using the traditional sound of each letter. From there, they closely track changes in spelling conventions to determine how the pronunciation of words evolved. They also look at rhymes and puns to determine which words were pronounced with similar sounds at any given time. They also note traditional sound-change patterns which indicate how one sound evolved into another sound. By comparing the presumed Old English sound to the modern sound, they can estimate how the sound would have evolved over time, and from there, they can estimate how a particular word was pronounced in Middle English. But yes, there is a degree of guesswork involved, and there was also tremendous regional variation in Middle English which further complicates the story. I do discuss all of that in future episodes though.

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