Q: When you rewind to older states of the language, such as Middle English, most words are unrecognizable and some letters too. Granted, back then French also looked different from Modern French, but the letters were the same.
A: You’ll find Old English even more unrecognizable than Middle English. Here are the first few lines of the epic poem Beowulf from a manuscript at the British Library:
HǷÆT ǷE GARDEna ingear dagum þeod cyninga þrym gefrunon huþa aðelingas ellen fremedon.
A Modern English translation:
What tales we’ve heard about the might of kings in bygone years, the gloried deeds of valor that their brave Dane spearmen wrought.
(The runic letter ƿ [wynn] in that passage sounds like “w.” The runes þ [thorn] and ð [eth] have a “th” sound. The manuscript is a copy from the late 10th or early 11th century of a work believed to date from the early 8th century.)
The earliest French isn’t all that recognizable either. Here are the first two lines of the Séquence [or Cantilène] de Sainte Eulalie, a poem that dates from around 880 and is one of the oldest surviving Old French texts:
Buona pulcella fut eulalia. Bel auret corps bellezour anima
Voldrent la veintre li deo Inimi. Voldrent la faire diaule seruir
Here’s the passage in modern French:
Une bonne jeune-fille était Eulalie. Belle de corps, elle était encore plus belle d’âme.
Les ennemis de Dieu voulurent la vaincre. Ils voulurent la faire servir le diable.
And here’s an English translation:
Eulalia was a good girl. She had a beautiful body, a soul more beautiful still.
The enemies of God wanted to overcome her. They wanted to make her serve the devil.
(The poem is from a manuscript at La Médiathèque Simone Veil in Valenciennes, France. The anonymous author describes the death of Eulalia de Mérida, an early Christian martyr from Spain. Each line includes a couplet separated by a punctus.)
You’re right, though, that Old and Middle French are written in Roman letters while Old and Middle English have some runes among the Roman letters. Here’s a very simplified explanation of why early English has those runes and early French doesn’t.
Both English and French are ultimately derived from Proto-Indo-European, a prehistoric language that has been reconstructed by linguists and that is the ancestor of most European and some Asian languages.
English comes from Indo-European’s prehistoric Germanic branch, the source of those strange characters, while French comes from the prehistoric Italic branch, the ancient ancestor of Latin and the Romance languages.
In the early centuries AD, the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic people used various versions of the runic alphabet (called the Futhark), before adopting the Latin alphabet under the influence of Roman occupation and the spread of Christianity.
However, the Latin alphabet at that time didn’t include letters representing some sounds used by Germanic speakers. So writers of Old English (roughly 450 to 1150) and Middle English (1150 to 1450) supplemented the Roman letters with several runes:
- æ (called an ash), which sounded like the “a” of “cat”;
- þ (thorn), which could sound like the voiceless “th” of “thing” or the voiced “th” of “the”;
- ð (eth), which was used more or less interchangeably with the þ (thorn) for those “th” sounds;
- ƿ (wynn), an early “w”;
- ʒ (yogh), which could sound like “y” or like the “ch” of the German ich. (For instance, “niȝth,” a Middle English spelling of “night,” sounded like “nicht.”)
Here’s an inscription, probably dating from the eighth century, written in the Anglo-Saxon Futhark. It’s carved on the Ruthwell Cross, a stone cross in the Scottish village of Ruthwell, which used to be in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria:
ᛣᚱᛁᛋᛏ ᚹᚫᛋ ᚩᚾ ᚱᚩᛞᛁᚻᚹᛖᚦᚱᚨ ᚦᛖᚱ ᚠᚢᛋᚨ ᚠᛠᚱᚱᚪᚾ ᛣᚹᚩᛗᚢ ᚨᚦᚦᛁᛚᚨᛏᛁᛚ ᚪᚾᚢᛗ.
This is the inscription, transliterated into Old English script, with several thorns:
krist wæs on rodi hweþræ þer fusæ fearran kwomu æþþilæ til anum ic þæt al bih[eald]
And here it is in Modern English:
Christ was on the cross. Yet the eager came there from afar to the noble one that all beheld.
The term “Futhark,” by the way, comes from a transliteration of the first six letters of Elder Futhark, the oldest version of the runes: ᚠ, ᚢ, ᚦ, ᚨ, ᚱ, ᚲ (f, u, th, a, r, k). The ᚦ (called a thurisaz) in Elder Futhark is an early version of the þ (thorn) used in Old English.
Interestingly, inscriptions in Gaulish, the Celtic language spoken in ancient Gaul before Old French, used the Greek alphabet until the Roman conquest in the first century BC, when the Roman alphabet replaced it. Here’s an example from the Musée Lapidaire d’Avignon of a votive offering to Belesama (Bηλησαμα), the Gaulish Minerva:
And this is an English translation by Pierre-Yves Lambert, a French linguist and scholar of Celtic studies:
Segomaros, son of Villū, citizen of Nîmes, offered this sacred enclosure to Belesama.
(Βηλησαμι in the inscription is the dative, or indirect object, of Bηλησαμα.)
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