Crossing the language border

a connection between Old English and Old French?

Every student of Germanic philology and historical linguistics will be familiar with the fenomenon of breaking. This means I don’t have to go in too much detail. To make it short; a select group of Old Germanic languages has the tendency to diphtongize short front vowels to falling diphtongs under influence of following consonant clusters or non-front vowels in the next syllable. The languages in question who show this phenomenon are Old Norse, Old English and Old Frisian. Although all these language may do this as a meance of distance assimilation, the conditions which are needed for breaking to take effect differ among the languages.  The kind of breaking which concerns us here is found in Old English and concerns the breaking of Pre-OE */æ/ > /ea/ under the influence of an immediately following consonant cluster consisting of a liquid and another consonant. Because the resulting diphtongs partook in the Pre-OE phenomenon of i-umlaut we know that OE breaking must predate i-umlaut alltogether. Another thing that is quite clear is that the degree in which the Old English dialects underwent breaking differs significantly. In the case of breaking of */æ/ when followed by a liquid and another consonant the difference mainly comes down to an opposition between the Anglian dialects and the Saxon dialects, the latter one joined by the Kentish dialect. The northern dialects show retraction of Pre-OE */ælC/ > /alC/ in contrast to the West-Saxon development Pre-OE */ælC/ > /ealC/.

Pgmc *haldanan > Proto-West-Germanic *haldan > Pre-OE *hældan > Anglian haldan

Pgmc *haldanan > Proto-West-Germanic *haldan > Pre-OE *hældan > West-Saxon healdan

On the whole, the southern dialects of Old English seem to like breaking better than their northern relatives[1] and West-Saxon and Kentish exhibit the most instances of breaking. Phonetically we may assume that the breaking of the vowel first yielded a diphtong /æa/ and subsequently stressed the contrast by turning it into /ɛa/, orthograpically represented by <ea>. This becomes relevant when we consider a similar phenomenon in old French.

What’s the deal with Old French, you might ask. Well, Old French is amongst the Romance languages quite the odd man out, which is probably due to the heavy influence of second language acquisition by Germanic speakers. This influence was the largest on the lexicon but also greatly affected the morphoponology and syntax of the pre-French Romance language. This is not very surprising if one takes the high degree of diglossia and bilinguality in the Gaulish realm into account.[2] This created a situation in which isoglosses and linguistic tendencies easily moved between the languages spoken by the specific bilingual and diglossal community. For example, the Old High German diphtongization of /ō/ > /uo/ probably originated in the continuum of Romance dialects who all diphtongated Vulgar Latin /ɔ/ to /uo/ or /ue/. Subsequently  this diphtongization wave reached the Germanic speaking realm via Pre-French.

The Old French phenomenon I’d like to discuss with you concerns the Vulgar Latin vowel */ɛ/ which is the reflex of Classical Latin /ě/, this in contrast to Vulgar Latin */e/ which continues Classical latin /ĭ/ and /ē/. In Old French Vulgar Latin /ɛ/ is one of the vowels that are seemingly affected by the vocalization of the Romance velar /l/. The effects of this velar /l/ are visible in the orthography of modern French, because it has remained notoriously conservative.

Vulgar Latin ALBA “white, dawn” > Pre-French /albə/ > Old French (XII century) /awbə/ > Modern French /obə/ <aube>

Vulgar Latin SOLIDARE “solder” > Old French /solder/ > Early Modern French (XVI century) /suder/ <souder>

If one takes Pre-French syncope into account, we can see the development to consist of Pre-French */alC/ > Old French /awC/ and pre-French */olC/ to early modern French /owC/. However, one of the the purported effects of velar /l/ on a preceding vowel which stand out amongst the other effects concerns Vulgar latin */ɛ/. What seems to have happened is that somehow the velar /l/ in combination with the preceding */ɛ/ yielded an Old French triphtong /ɛaw/ or /eaw/ with a dialectal variant in /jaw/ as evidenced by the Modern French spelling <eau> and the Old French spelling <iau>. Modern French has some words continuing the triphtong <iau> which are mainly from Picardian origin, fabiau < *faběllus and depiauter < piau < *pellis. But the usual Old French triphtong is <eau>:

Vulgar Latin BELLITATE > modern French beauté

Vulgar Latin BELLUS > modern French beau

Frankish *helma > Vulgar latin HELMU[3] > modern French heaume

The question which should be asked, if this development is to be equated with the other effects of velar /l/ on vowels, is why only the development of Vulgar Latin */ɛ/ is so aberrant. Why was it the only one to yield a triphtong? If it was indeed, as insinuated by Ti Alkire and Carol Rosen (2010) and explicitly stated by Gaston Zink (1986), a bridging vowel between the front element and the back element of a former diphtong, why did pre-French /iwC/ and /ewC/ not triphtongize to /ɛaw/ or /jaw/? Following Edouard Bourciez, I deem it more likely that /ɛlC/ first broke to /ɛalC/ and only after the breaking the liquid vocalized to /w/. So the development of the example given above could be imagined as follows:

Vulgar Latin BELLITATE > [Late Vulgar Latin] /bɛltate/ > */bɛltat/ > [OldFrench] /bɛlte/ > */bɛalte/ >  /bɛawte/ > [modern French] /bote/ <beauté>

Empirical proof for this the /ɛalC/ stage in exactly the form hypothesized is attested in the Bisclavret by Marie de France.

beals chevaliers e bons esteit                       a handsome and good knight he was                       

e noblement se cunteneit                            and he conducted himself in a noble way

The attestation of the precise form <ealC> continuing Vulgar Latin */ɛlC/ strengthens my hypothesis. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to embark on a quest for further nice orthographic representations of this pre-stage, but the example of /beals/ cited above makes it clear that the analysis of the phenomenon by Gaston Zink has become highly tenuous for it doesn’t seem to represent the empirical data.

We can conclude from the text fragment cited above that the development of */ɛlC/ to eventually the triphtong <ɛaw> takes place fairly late. Some other early Old French texts from the late eleventh and early twelfth century still spell <el>, as evidenced by the “chancun de Guillelme”. In in its title it still spells /Guillelme/ instead of later Old French /Guillaume/ (the glide in the diphtong merged with the palatality of /ʎ/ spelled <l> ). In the case of the development of BELLITATE to beauté, we also find a nice example of <el> spelling in this poem:

Il at perdu sun noble barné                             he has lost his noble knighthood

De dulce france la flur e la belté                    the flower and the beauty of sweet Francia

Gaston Zink explains the occurence of the Old French form belté as indicative of the fact that only stressed Vulgar Latin */ɛ/ yielded a diphtong and considers Modern French beauté as a derivate from the adjective beau. However, the protagonist of the poem itself is called guillelme, a perfect continuation of the Germanic name *wilhelm. When we assume that the Germanic word retained its original stress on the first syllable we have another instance of atonal */ɛlC/ which eventually triphtongizes to / ɛawC/. The proper name also shows that the vocalization of velar /l/ probably wasn’t the first step in the triphtongization of */ɛ/, otherwise we would expect to find guilleume in a text from this period.

What strikes me is the fact that these phenomena in Old French and Old English seem to have developed in a parallel fashion, both showing a breaking of a low front vowel to /ɛa/ before a following cluster consisting of an /l/ and another consonant. I think it may be possible that these phenomena aren’t only typologically related but that the one phenomenon might have caused the other due to language contact. It should be remarked that the fact that only Vulgar Latin */ɛ/ breaks in front of a liquid and another consonant neatly lines up with the fact that the Saxon dialects of Old English only consistently break Pre-OE */æ/[4] to /ea/ under the same condition. The difference between /æ/ and /ɛ/ on the vowel triangle is minimal and the allomorphy in the different realms of Anglosaxon morphology may have driven bilingual Anglo-Normans to transfer the Anglosaxon sound change to Old French.  In that the regard, the date at which this development took place in Old French seems suspicious to me, immediately following the onset of Anglo-Norman relations. The English channel,which nowadays separates the Anglophone nation from the Francophone nation, constituted in the early Middle Ages a vital maritime bridge between the two speech communities, for they were ruled by the same elite.

This, however, brings us in the realm of historical sociolinguistics and in that respect the hypothesis seems moribund. The Anglo-Norman ruling elite almost certainly favoured the use of Old French and it isn’t very likely that they acquired such a good command of Anglosaxon to allow synchronig sound changes to jump the language border. Finally, the similarity of the phenomena between Old English and Old French is rarely (to my knowledge) noted and is indicative of the necessity for the historical linguist to look beyond the linguistic borders of one’s own specialization. The fact that for most Old Germanicists the publications in French, Spanish and Italian aren’t readily accesible without an academic translation doesn’t improve the situation. And unfortunately, most Indo-Europeanists, who do tend to read a lot of modern languages, aren’t that interested in Romance linguistics, because not much information concerning the Indo-European proto-language can be mined from its historical development. I want to end this article with the contention that the development of the triphtong /ɛau/ in Old French is preceded by a stage of breaking and we therefore may very well speak of Old French breaking, independent of the fact what caused it.  

Bibliography

Ti Alkire and Carol Rosen, Romance languages; a historical introduction (Cambridge, 2010).

A. J. Greimas, Dictionnaire de l’ancien français; jusqu’au milieu du XIVe siècle (Larousse, 1989).

Gaston Zink, phonétique historique du français (Paris, 1986).

Kr. Nyrop, Grammaire historique de la langue française, tome deuxième (Copenhagen, 1960).

E. Einhorn, Old French ; a concise handbook (Cambridge, 1974).

R. Girvan, Angelsaksisch handboek, Oudgermaanse handboeken IV (Haarlem 1931).

Bourciez, Edouard, précis historique de phonetique française,  nouvelle collection a l’usage

des classes III (Lille 1921).

Augustin Speyer, Germanische Sprachen ; ein vergleichender Überblick (Göttingen 2007).

Joseph Wright and Elizabeth M. Wright, Old English Grammar, the sudent’s series of historical and comparative grammars (Oxford 1914).

A. Campbell, Old English Grammar (Oxford, 1959).

Gerhard Rolfs, Vom Vulgärlatein zum Altfranzösischen; Einführung in das studium der altfranzösischen Sprache (Tübingen 1968).



[1] The usual caveat concerning Old English dialectology is in place here, pointing at the fact that OE dialectology is mainly dependent on codological and palaeographical clues to the provenance of specific manuscripts and therefore many assumptions on the phonological representation of graphemes are clouded by different copyists and manuscript traditions.

[2] Although many Oldgermanicists and even Indo-Europeanists tend to shun the Romance languages, the developments in these languages are vital to understanding the linguistic tendencies which were common in the linguistic area of western Europe during the early middle ages. The early middle ages are linguistically characterized by a high degree of diglossia concerning Latin and the vernacular and a high degree of multilinguality concerning the different vernaculars spoken in the different areas of western Europe. Especially in the later days of the migration age, when many nations roamed the former provinces of the Roman empire, not only variants of Germanic, but also of Slavic, Avar and Alan could be heard in the encampments of the barbarian armies.

[3] The fact that Romance probably first latinized the Germanic word for “helmet” before accepting it into their lexicon is evidenced by Old Spanish yelmo.

[4] I am aware of the fact that West-Saxon and Kentish also seem to break /e/ > /eo/ before /lh/, but this breaking isn’t consistently attested in our sources and the conditions for this breaking would scarcely be noted by speakers of Old French because the fricative h /x/ wasnt part of their phonology. Also, if some attempt by Old French speakers was made to break their native /e/ to /eo/ this would be clouded by the subsequent vocalization of the /l/ >/w/ because the two back elements would certainly have coalesced.

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