Episode 101: The Birth of English Song

Advances in musical notation allowed the first English folk songs to be preserved in writing in the early 1200s. These songs include “Mirie It Is While Sumer Ilast”  and “Sumer Is Icumen In.” In this episode, we explore the Greek contribution to music, and trace those developments to Medieval England and the earliest songs composed in the English language.


66 thoughts on “Episode 101: The Birth of English Song

  1. Sumer is Icumen In is also the first song written down in the C-major scale, not in an older mode. This makes it the oldest piece of modern music, if great interest to all Western mudic.

    • I would like to hear more on this. My theory of music is pathetic but I have assumed that the C major was the most elementary scale used by Westerners

    • Over-educated music nerd here— just wanted to point out that while in many modern recordings the tune is accompanied in such a manner as to project C major, it can as easily be interpreted in A minor, or rather what at the time they would have thought of as A Dorian, a common transposed form of regular old D Dorian, the favorite mode on the continent and the isles for centuries (kind of the “C major” of its day in that regard).

  2. Enjoyed this episode a lot. One note: “Bleat” (as in the sound a sheep makes) is still in common use in Australian English (and I think British English as well)

      • I am feeling very old even though still in my 50s since many of the ‘archaic’ words requiring explainayion are ones I know, though my kids wouldn’t. It’s fascinating evidence of how rapidly words enter and leave a language even within the span of one lifetime.

        • I agree. I have an extensive vocabulary (no boasting, just a fact), and I was born to older parents (40s in 1961) who were also born to older parents (35 in 1920). Therefore, I have always used words that others found archaic. My kids know most of them, but every once in a while an oldie comes out. The other day I asked my daughter to clean the lavatory. She just about fell over laughing when I explained. I have slight aphasia, in that I will “lose” nouns, so having a bunch to choose from helps a lot!

          This. Is on top of my paetrron wish list, once I get a job again (need VR help bc I’m going blind). You rock!

        • This makes me feel old too. I still use bleat and many other words you talk about and I live in the United States. I’m only 66 but my children use those words, maybe from mom.

      • As an American, I come across “bleat” commonly enough, and not just in poetry or song. I grew up in a suburban environment and learned it early on in school.

        I’m passing on this episode to my friends w/ interests in early music (well, all music). Thanks!

      • Just wanted to point out that bleat is also in very common use in the US (at least in the northeast) when referring to deer. In the state of Maine and many other states the whitetail deer hunt is a very big deal every year. Around here, when you refer to a doe’s call, it’s a bleat.

          • I an also very familiar with “bleat” as a verb used to describe sheep making their distinctive sound. I think of “baa” as onomatopoeia, and “bleat” as the verb—much the same way as “woof” is onomatopoeia for the sound a dog makes, but “bark” is the verb. I grew up in the Deep South.

            These recurrent “but that’s not archaic!” comments are a very interesting aspect of your project here.

            I live in New Jersey now. I have twice gotten “you sound like my grandmother” from colleagues a generation older than me. Once when I said “galoshes” instead of “rain boots” and once when I described a certain type of childish misbehavior by saying, “He just wants to cut the fool.” In both cases I picked up this phraseology from my parents, not from my grandparents, and they weren’t particularly old when they had children, either.

            • My mom was a nurse and so she was the one to “neuter” the lambs each early spring and I was the one that held the lamb in place while she was doing so. True story.

      • Hi K, I’m Australian, up to Ep79 and have enjoyed reading this blog. Maybe this comment is redundant but, while bleat is used here descriptively for the sound a sheep (and by some for a goat) makes, it’s also widely used to describe a person’s speech when they whinge (whine) for an extended period; “listen to him bleating over there”. Thanks so much for the podcast, a friend of mine referred me to it recently and it’s become a bit of an obsession; clearly a labor of love for you.

          • As in , people keep ‘bleating on’ about this !
            Still a fairly common metaphorical use In UK 🙂

            I would say ‘lo’ is is more archaic in UK.

    • In the US too, though I have to ensure I enunciate EXTREMELY well, or people think I’m saying “bleeding”- consonantal merger underway?

      Either way, I use bleat when I talk about my sheep.

      • I grew up on a farm, but I never heard anyone use the word “bleat.” Of course, we didn’t have any sheep, so that was probably why I never heard it. I find that some old words survive in certain fields like specific kinds of farming and various trades where a specialized vocabulary exists.

    • I thought the same thing.
      Anyone who spends time with sheep or goats still uses bleating.
      Also, anyone who works with horses knows that you often have to “get the farts out of them” before they settle down and are less excited

      • What an interesting little tidbit! I gather you’re implying that the song lyric might be a once more commonly used metaphor to describe the behavior of a lively young quadruped of a certain size and build. I’ve read this little poem countless times in literary anthologies. I can’t fully express how fascinating and delightful I find it that this little detail is coming to light in the comment section of this blog.

    • I live in the U.S. and have always understood the word “bleat” to mean the cry of sheep or goat. I am mystified that it is considered archaic.

    • Bleat is also perfectly common in modern American English. It is certainly quite a bit more commonly understood than “low” for a cow’s sound.

  3. Loved it! Very well done. In this episode you’ve combined two of my favorite topics (music and English language origins) and knocked it out of the ballpark! 🙂

    The History of English is now my favorite podcast. Thanks for keeping it going!

  4. Love this podcast and love this episode! I just recently discovered this fascinating treasure trove and am going through the earlier podcasts that I originally missed. Most of my podcast listening is ‘casual’ — I go about my daily business while listening. Not this one! I am at complete attention on every carefully chosen word. Thank you, thank you!

  5. I’m absolutely loving this podcast!

    As a fan of medieval history; word etymology; the history of the English crown; and music of all kinds, this podcast really gets to me.

    Not sure if anyone knows this already, but the second episode of “The Adventure of English” contains samples of both “Miri it is…” and “Sumer is icumen in”. I heard both of those songs for the first time there and got excited when I realized you were talking about them.

    Oh and I also knew what bleat meant.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks for the note. I watched “The Adventure of English” series many years ago around the time that I started the podcast. I had forgotten that those songs were used in that series.

  6. Thank you for your podcast. As I get my seminary choir ready for their Christmas Concert, I was inspired to include, “Edi Beo Thu Hevene-queene” in our repertoire.

    Ron Prowse

  7. I found your podcasts and have listened to almost half of them in the past two days.
    Very interesting, informative, and entertaining!

  8. Kevin, I continue to find your podcast deeply inspiring. Thank you!

    I had a thought about the uncertain word “uerteþ” (“verteth”). Could it bear any relation to modern German “fahren”, meaning “to go” (as in to travel)? I don’t know yet if there’s a tangible etymological link, but in the context of the lyric (the buck’s action) this interpretation would make sense. The third-person singular of “fahren” is “fährt”, and as you mentioned in this episode modern German conjugations parallel several of our English conjugations, especially in the older words; and the voiceless “f” in the modern German word would parallel the voiced “v” in the southern Middle English dialect of the song. Just a thought… ?

    • Interesting theory. I haven’t come across that proposed connection before. I should note that the Old English version of “fahren” was “faran.” We still have remnants of that word in Modern English. Someone might ‘fare’ on a long journey. A traveler is sometimes called a “wayfarer.” And a sailor is sometimes called a “seafarer.”

    • Several years ago when in Norway I saw road signs that translate, in part to “slow down” (literally “take off speed”. The operative words in Norwegian are “passe farten”. You might imagine that causes some giggles for the English speakers.

      So, I thought that in the song it might mean that the buck begin to “speed” around.

  9. Pingback: Grammar Logic and Rhetoric

  10. Are you familiar with P.D.Q. Bach? It’s a series of spoof classical music pieces and performances by Peter Schikele (see http://www.pdqbach.com), based on the fictional ne’er-do-well (where does that phrase come from?) composer son of Johann Sebastian.

    Listening to “Summer is Icumin in” I immediately recognized that Professor Schikele ripped it off for “Summer is a Cumin Seed,” one of the songs in the Oratorio “The Seasonings.”

  11. Enjoyable as ever. I sang “Summer is a’coming in” as part of a school festival in the late 60s. As a round with hundreds of voices, the memory still raises goosebumps.

    Here in NZ, “bleat” and “low” are used (at least among my generation) – certainly I have never heard an adult use “baa” or “moo” as a verb unless speaking to an infant.

    Another point a “bullock” certainly doesn’t mean a “young bull” these days but rather a castrated male cattle beast.

    • Yes, as some of the other replies above suggest, the word “bleat” is still in common use. I received quite a bit of feedback about the continued use of that word.

  12. What a great episode! Thank you Kevin!

    I’m a musician and music academic and wanted to leave this link here to one of my favorite arrangements of both Mirie it Is and Sumer is Icumen In, here also layered with a traditional tune to Burns’ The Highland Widow’s Lament in Paul Giovanni’s brilliant score to The Wicker Man:

  13. Is it possible that the ‘buck’ being referred to is a male hare and that it means that the bucks were fighting? It’s something that would fit with the Cuckoo better than a farthing stag I think.

    • I’ve never heard that theory, but since no one knows the meaning for certain, I suppose it’s possible.

      • its just my theory 😉 it occurred to me after seeing some hares ‘fighting’ in a field the other day. The ‘Mad March Hare’ is a herald of spring in the same way Cuckoos are and in a way that farting deer is not.

  14. Are the I in Ilast and Icumen just vestiges of the Germanic ge prefix that marks most past participles? Also I note that the auxiliary is is used with the verb of motion as happens in both French and German, but no longer in English.

    • Yes, the ‘i’ in “Icumen” is derived from the Old English prefix ‘ge-‘, and I think the ‘i’ in “Ilast” is derived from the same prefix. I discussed the evolution of that prefix from ‘ge-‘ to ‘i-‘ at the beginning of ‘Episode 104: Prefix Preferences.’

  15. Jan 27, 2021

    Dear Kevin

    I listened to episode 101 Birth of English Song about a year ago. I tried to hear the Gregorian chant recently but the video is no longer available. I have searched the web using “assisi” and “laud” along with ‘gregorian chant” but I cannot find the song. Can you help me? Do you know where I can hear this music? Could you email me the full title so I can search the web for it? Thanks for any help.

    Sharon Bannon

    • Thanks for contacting me. I’m afraid I don’t have an answer. I simply linked to the YouTube video, and that video has apparently been taken down. All I have is the link to the original video, and that link no longer works. It may have been retitled as a different file, so you might find it under a different link on YouTube, but I don’t know that for sure. Sorry I can’t be of further help.

  16. Kevin, is there any etymological connection between “enchant” and “entrance” (ie to fascinate)?

    This is probably outside the scope of this episode (I’m only about 20 minutes in), but I always wonder how “entrance” (where someone enters) and “entrance” (to fascinate) came to have exactly the same spelling despite such different meanings.

    • I don’t think there is a connection between those words. “Enchant” is derived from the root “cantere” meaning ‘to sing’ (the same root as “chant”). But “entrance” is derived from the root “trans” meaning ‘to cross over’ or ‘go beyond’ (obviously the same root as “trance”). I hope that answers your question.

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