Episode 94: From British Legend to English King

The first version of the King Arthur legend to be composed in English is found in Layamon’s 13th century poem called Brut.  In this episode, we explore Layamon’s version of the story, and we examine how the text reveals certain changes in the English language during that period.  Specifically, we look at new English words documented for the first time in the text, as well as grammatical and phonological changes reflected in the manuscript.


16 thoughts on “Episode 94: From British Legend to English King

  1. Hey Kevin,

    so I have an edition of the Arthurian Sections of Layamon’s Brut and I’ve been trucking through that lately. I get super excited though, when I see an Old/Middle English word that has since fallen out of use in modern english, but super disappointed when I can’t find any traces of it persisting in either English or other related Germanic languagues.

    Basically, what I want to ask is, if there’s a resource where one can look up an instance of an Old/Middle English word and see what words (in various languages) it survives in, or has ‘influenced’.

    Hope that’s clear! Love the podcast. Got me through well over a year of commuting to school for 1+ hours.


    • Hi Adam,

      I am not aware of a specific resource as you describe. If you find one, let me know because it will make my research a lot easier!

      You can always check out Wiktionary.org which is a free resource with lots of etymological links. Etymonline.com is another great free online resource. But neither of those resources are really what you describe. However, those resources can help you to identify the Proto-Indo-European root of the word you are researching (if there is a PIE root), and from there, you can use a dictionary of Indo-European roots to identify surviving cognates. I recommend The “American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots” by Calvert Watkins to help locate surviving cognates.

      • Kevin,

        I’ve made pretty frequent use of Wiktionary in the past, indeed its a great resource. But hey, thanks for the hot tip! American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots… sounds like something that would appear on my holiday wishlist 😀

  2. I theorize that we have “rich” today because the English poor probably constantly complained about the rich, and we have “poor” today because the French rich probably mostly constantly put down the poor.

    Just my opinion, but it seems logical. Even today groups use their own omenclatures to criticize other groups they disdain. Pro-choice or pro-life? Gay or homosexual? Ugly or beauty challenged?

    And they last thing any group wants to do is show respect to the other by adopting their self-appellation.

  3. Although the English word “rich” has Anglo Saxon roots, French also has the word “riche” presumably of Frankish roots so it might be that the use of the use of the word “rich” in English was affected by the fact that French uses an almost identical word.

  4. I find it interesting that the Saxons are rendered the ‘bad’ guys again and again in this text even though it’s rendered in Saxon-based words. Was there revisionist history going on because of the story’s original composition in French?

    • The legend of Arthur emerged in the Celtic regions of Britain and Brittany. To the Celts, the Saxons were definitely the bad guys. So I think that Arthur was always viewed as the Saxons’ nemesis. Layamon just maintained the general narrative of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin version and Wace’s French version. They all portrayed the Saxons as brutal invaders. Layamon’s version was written in English, but most of the literate people in England were of the noble class, and probably claimed at least partial Norman ancestry. I don’t think they really thought of themselves as Saxons. They may have been starting to think of themselves as “English,” but that term was no longer synonymous with “Saxon.” I would also recommend checking out “Episode 30: The Celtic Legacy” for a more detailed discussion of how the Celts and Normans viewed the Saxons.

      • In episode 30, you discuss John McWhorter’s theory that the present tense verb we commonly use (for example, “I am listening”) derives from Celtic—it’s unlike Old English verbs and unlike any other Indo-European languages, which use the simpler basic form (“I listen”). In the current episode on Layamon’s 13th century poem Brut we find the first written documentation of this apparent shift. Isn’t that an awful long time for this shift to occur—from the first contact between Anglo Saxons and Celts in the 5th century? Or maybe it occurred earlier but just now worked its way into written documents.

        • Great point! I don’t really have an answer. I guess you could contact Professor McWhorter since it is ultimately his theory. (He actually hosts the Lexicon Valley podcast.)

  5. In minute 38- a guy gets thrown into a bog. When i die, i’ve asked a friend of mine in Denmark to throw me in a bog.

    Was this bog throwing common during this era and are these the mose people/bog people? i had thought that they were from an older time than this.

    • Sorry, I don’t know how common ‘bog-throwing’ was in the 13th century. The Arthur legend was set in the distant past even during the time of Layamon, so it is possible that ‘death-by-bog’ was seen as an ancient form of punishment. Of course, the story also contains many contemporary features (like knights and castles), so perhaps that punishment was still common even in the 13th century.

  6. Re admiral/admirable. The Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), much-beloved and pinned over by Nabokov BTW, is a nice reversal. It used to be known universally as the “Red Admirable”

  7. Lots of mentions of apparently new Norse influence, even this late. Is it because the influence is just now showing up in writing? Or because the West Midlands dialect was taking over and it had more Norse influence than the others? Or were the viking’s great grandchildren still speaking their grandmother tongue? ….Or something else entirely?

    Excellent episode by the way!

    • It’s mostly a case of the Norse influence finally starting to show up in the surviving documents. I touched on this at some point in the transition from Old English to Middle English, but most surviving Old English documents were composed in the Wessex literary standard which had very little Norse influence at all. That standard was wiped away after the Norman Conquest, so when English writing finally re-emerged, the writers wrote the way they spoke, and many of them were now using Norse words in the eastern and northern part of the country. So there is a sudden jump in the percentage of Norse words in those early Middle English documents.

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