Episode 102: A Medieval Glossary

In this episode, we explore the notes and translations left behind by scribes in the margins of Medieval manuscripts.  Those marginal notes reveal numerous insights about the state of English in the early 1200s.  Those early glosses and translations also led to bilingual word lists which were the precursor of modern-day dictionaries.


33 thoughts on “Episode 102: A Medieval Glossary

  1. Hi Kevin—

    First—I L♥️VE this podcast!

    But (swcondly)…

    …your French pronunciation kinda makes my ears itch.


    In this episode you pronounce “gentille” as “zhon-TEEL”—the first syllable is correct, but a double L in French is pronounced more like a Y as in Spanish, so it’s actually pronounced “zhon-TEE-ya”

    I haven’t said anything until now because it’s obvious you studied French and I didn’t want to hurt your feelings, but I really wish you would either consult a native French speaker or French teacher/professor to make sure you have the pronunciation down before recording.

    We often can’t really hear ourselves the way others hear us. In France I met a Canadian from Toronto who inexplicably rolled his R’s when speaking French. I have no idea where he learned this, but he insisted he was pronouncing his R’s the French way, even though it was actually the Spanish/Italian way.

    Anyway, please don’t hate me—I look forward to every episode and listen to back episodes all the time, but your pronunciation of French really needs some polishing.


    • I don’t even promise the correct pronunciation of English words – much less FRENCH words. 😉

      I’ve actually addressed this issue in the podcast before. In a podcast about language that touches on so many different languages (both contemporary and ancient), it is almost impossible for me to pronounce every word correctly. If the pronunciation is essential to the theme or main topic of the episode (eg., vowel changes), I try to be as accurate as possible. Otherwise, I get it as close as I can. I took French almost 30 years ago, so my French pronunciation is a bit rusty. And some of the French examples I read in this episode were actually composed the Anglo-French of the 1200s, so the pronunciation wouldn’t be the same as modern French anyway. I’ll continue to work on it, but your ears will just have to itch a little bit as we move forward with the story.

      • I like the diplomacy in this answer: You ears will just have to itch a little bit.

        Agree with this philosophy. I want to know the story of language change through time. Even if he were 100% accurate in all of his French, a scholar in Middle English could say, “My ears itch when I hear you say…” So, I think his attempts at dealing with pronouncing multiple languages is more than admirable.

        • We are not dealing with modern standard French here. We are dealing with a language that only existed in a certain space and time.

          To add on to Kevin’s point, the palatalization of the phoneme /l/ (“l mouillé”) had not occurred in the Norman dialect by the time William the Conquerer invaded and established his rule in England. As a result, many of the loanwords that would later become palatalized in modern standard French still retain the original /l/ sound in English, such as “battalion” and “pavilion”, in contrast to the modern French words “bataillon” and “pavillon”, where the “-ll-” is always palatalized as /j/.

          The word “gentle” is also one of these examples. When it was first borrowed into English from the Norman French, in the form of “gentil,” the letter “l” was pronounced just like the regular /l/.

      • I live in Montreal and speak French every day, and Kevin’s French is good enough for the current purpose. In a polyglot (see what I did there) society one learns to live with all the varieties of language, whether French or English. I’d always rather hear someone try to speak a language than not.

    • Um, instead of criticizing Kevin’s French, perhaps we should all thank him for learning Old and Middle English! After all, English is the main topic here.

    • Well done, all. I would like to add that the “rolled Rs” were a feature of many dialects of French well into the 20th century, so that Canadian was likely imitating a specific French Canadian pronunciation that had maintained the alveolar trill.

      You can actually hear both Rs said by Maurice Chevalier in this song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4E6sEetFfg0
      And you can hear Édith Piaf hit the “rolled R” really hard in this one https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3Kvu6Kgp88

    • @Anonymous Coward Critic “I met a Canadian from Toronto” …
      Speaking as an Australian who worked in the Île de France for 2 1/2 years in the late seventies and then moved to Toronto for 35 years, and as a lover of this podcast (!) I would like to suggest that the Torontonian who rolled his Rs may not have been speaking French.

      Your Torontonian might have been speaking Québécois, which is based on French but is not the French I learned by ear in Paris. As I now live in Bonavista Newfoundland, I am looking for an excuse to visit the Territorial Collectivity of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, just to see how well I do there.

      My French-speaking wife and I were derided by waiters in Montreal when we ordered meals in French, even though I spent 2 1/2 years ordering meals in French in Paris and nearby towns.

      I have revisited the Île de France (2014 and 2016) and in conversation I have been mistaken for a Frenchman, the legacy of my time there 1978-80, so I know that my spoken French is good. In the bus in the Île de France I can understand everything the two ladies behind me say, but in the bus in Toronto, only about a half of what they say; I put this down to listening to Québécois!

      Now, to complicate matters i was born in Lancashire and when i was ten years old we emigrated to Western Australia, where I was bullied into speaking Orstry-Lee-Anne at school.

      It’s a fact: I have been reading and writing English for 70 years, speaking and understanding English longer than that, but I cannot understand some of my neighbours here when they get going, and they are speaking English as she is spoken to Bonavista. (And note there the use of “to” rather than “at” or “in”)

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MHB32ll7Ce8 This clip doesn’t even come CLOSE! Some of the folks here, speaking English, can’t understand some of the other people here, also speaking English. This in an isolated town of 3,800 souls.

      I leave it to other Australians here to explain why someone with red hair is nick-named “Blue”, as in “Oh, you should speak with Blue”.

      With the very best wishes.

  2. Thanks for yet another fascinating podcast. Interesting explanation of the common double wording, love knowing this.

  3. Just finished listening … some of the legal concepts like “breaking and entering” do not mean the same thing. Speaking as a lawyer. Breaking is the act or acts of gaining entry, entering is the act of physically entering.

    Likewise, a gift is not the same as a bequest in a will. The different terms for how the writer of the will uses for how they dispose of their property actually have legal signifigance in America. Additionally, a person is not an heir until the person who has granted them something in their will is actually dead in modern American common law.

    As you said, lawyers have to be careful about what they say both verbally in the courtroom or to their client and what is written in a contract because it can cause major problems for everyone.

    • Hi Carrie. Good points. The main reason for including the list of legal phrases was to illustrate how English common law often paired an Old English word with a Latin/French word. In many cases, the two words have become distinct over time. Another example is “assault and battery” which are actually two distinct acts. They often take place together, but you can have one without the other. “Devise” and “bequeath” are also technically two distinct kinds of testamentary gifts – the former a gift of real property and the latter a gift of personal property. But again, the technical distinction between a “devise” and a “bequest” occurred over time.

  4. Interesting episode. I wondered why we said things like ‘greetings and salutations’.

    Thanks for making the show, from a meager patreon donor.

  5. For anyone who’s curious about what the glosses looked like, I’ve just added an image to the the Wikipedia page for The Tremulous Hand of Worcester. There are better images out there that show the actual tremor, but I can’t find any in the public domain to post of WP.

  6. Am I the only one who finds the song Alouette a little cruel? Supposedly the poor thing was to be defeathered in revenge for waking people up. In French, the expression “au chant de l’alouette” is equivalent to “at the crack of dawn”.

    “Au Chant de l’Alouette” is also a traditional, I believe Acadian, song in which a person is sent out to harvest food “au chant de l’alouette” and instead stomps on a quail.

    The Montreal Alouettes is a professional football team in Canada.

  7. hi Kevin. Just a comment on the word “spell”. Here in the north of England when you have a tiny piece of wood or something similar in your skin we say that you have a spell in your skin. I’ve no idea how that came about – perhaps it’s another Scandinavian word handed down to us from when we were under Danish rule.

    • The word “spell” as splinter goes back to late Old English. According to the OED, the Old English form of the word was “speld.” Old Norse had the exact same word, so it seems that Old English borrowed the word from the Vikings.

  8. About the word “crisp,” I almost never hear the word used to mean curly or brittle. Rather, I hear it used as a way to describe a burnt object, like “burnt to a crisp.” Crispy tends to be used to mean something more than “singed,” but less than “charred.” I suppose the way someone says that food is crisp, meaning brittle and crunchy, can be a used like you said, but I almost never hear it used that way otherwise. If I’m wrong, please tell me. Thank you!

    • I usually defer to the Oxford English Dictionary on matters of definition and etymology. The OED provides the following definitions for “crisp”:
      (1) Of the hair: curly.
      (2) Having a surface curled or fretted into minute waves, ripples, folds or wrinkles.
      (3) Applied to some fabrics: perhaps of crape-like texture. (Obscure)
      (4) Apparently = Smooth, shining, clear. (Obscure)
      (5) Brittle or ‘short’ while somewhat hard or firm in structure (usually as a good quality); said esp. of hard things which have little cohesion and are easily crushed by the teeth, etc.

    • That’s surprising. In UK usage, the most common meaning of crisp is brittle and easily breakable. For examples, “crisps” are what Americans would call “chips” (which also has a different meaning.

  9. Regarding the word “tholamodnessa” or “tholmoodness”. I recognized it straight away as a Norwegian word that is extremely similar – “tålmodighet” consisting of “tåle” (to withstand) and “modighet” (bravery) – together, they mean patience today, which can be the bravery to hold out or withstand psychologically.

  10. Really enjoy this podcast. Sometimes it can be a little hard to pull myself away. Does ‘each and every’ represent the same type of English/French redundant pairing covered in this episode?

    • The words ‘each’ and ‘every’ are both native to English. ‘Each’ was used in Old English, and ‘every’ evolved in early Middle English as a combination of ‘ever’ (aefre) and ‘each’ (aelc).

  11. There’s a sociological mystery implied in this episode. It seems to me rare for a language spoken by the the parents of a high status class (in this case the noble French) to *not* be spoken by their children. Intuitively, upper-class children (then and now) would typically be reprimanded when they used lower-class words, much less an entire language.

    I can easily think of cases where the reverse occurred, i.e. when children of a lower-status family end up speaking the language of the higher status. For example, the various native languages of Spain (Catalan, Basque, etc) were suppressed by dominant outside authority (Castilian Spanish) leaving the Catalan/Basque children of the mid 20th century unable to speak their parent’s language. But in this episode we have the reverse: children of a noble class *losing* the ability to speak the language that presumably had the higher status (at least in the eyes of their parents) in this case French. What sociological structure would cause this?

    Here’s a theory: Wealthy families throughout history (and today) tend to hire or enslave domestic servants who, one logically assumes, are local, poor, and less educated than their employers/enslavers. Was French lost by the children of these noble families because those children were actually raised by “the help” to use a modern term?

    If the above theory is true this implies fascinating family dynamics within these linguistically divided households. Just imagine the intrigue when there was some dispute. If a servant is accused of some malefeason the children would naturally side with the servants since, after all, they speak their language — ie the children would be more likely to be sympathetic to the side of an argument they could understand. You can imagine the resentments that must have been built up by parents who would have felt angry at the servants and their own children with whom they could barely communicate! All that intrigue would make a great setting for a medieval version of Downton Abbey. Ha!

    • It seems to me that this issue was addressed in earlier episodes of the podcast, when it was emphasized that most of the invading Normans were men, and as a result there were many marriages between a Norman man and an English woman. It is a rare child that doesn’t learn the language of his or her mother, and when the vast majority of people in the society speak only the mother’s language, there would be many other opportunities to hear and use it. And punishing a child for occasionally using the language of the child’s own mother—and a useful language to boot—seems pointless and likely to create a lot of unnecessary domestic tension and strife. I think most “high status” parents in that situation would have no real concerns as long as the child was fluent in the “high status” language as well.

    • It’s an interesting idea, and it reminds me of the first recorded entry for the Southern US term “y’all” in the OED. In a letter for the early 1800s, it is recorded of white children in the South that they “learn from the slaves some odd phrases;..as..will you all do this? for, will one of you do this?” The implication is that those children were raised by (or at least regularly in the presence of) slave labor in the household. So yes, children of the high status classes do sometimes pick up the speech habits of those who actually raise and take care of them.

  12. Pingback: Ancrene Wisse: the earliest extant use of the word “private” in written English – Centre for Privacy Studies

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