Nature 2019 April

A Fuhsaz in the wood, a Moldwarp in the garden and a Sisemūs in the roof!

What words did our ancestors use to name the wildlife we live amongst today? How has pronunciation changed over the past 2000 years? These are tricky subjects to untangle.

In my last Nature Notes I was grappling with how the enigma of time impacted on our senses. In passing I mentioned that as far as tapping into what is available by tapping into living memories, the furthest back one can go is less than 100 years. So first-hand knowledge of how words were pronounced in much, much, earlier times is an ephemeral phenomenon and one which needs some explanation.

If we want to reach back before the early 1900s and discover how words we use today were pronounced we can make use of the work of the many 19th century linguists, a profession that really took off during this era. None better than Jacob Grimm of Brothers Grimm fame, who was central to the discovery that nearly all European languages including Latin, Ancient Greek as well as Sanskrit and importantly English were all derived from a single original language, known as Proto-Indo-European which was spoken between 4500-2500 years ago.

Despite the Greek alphabet and hence the written word not appearing until about 900BC the written form of Old English did not appear until the Anglo-Saxon era from the late 7th century AD. Amazingly through the work of phonologists, who study dialects, and archaeologists it has been possible to determine how words from up to 6500 years ago were pronounced, and later on when words could be written down, how they were spelt.

So what can be revealed about the wildlife? The starting point is the badger. What is particularly interesting is that the oldest known word for the badger is ‘broc’ which is drawn from the Celtic language, ‘Broc’ means grey in Old Celtic and has survived today as the colloquial alternative in modern English as ‘brock’ though most often used these days as a sentimental name demonstrating affection for the badger. The second iconic mammal of the British countryside the fox, linguistically also has an illustrious history. The origin of the name fox originates in the Old English ‘fuhsaz’ which means ‘thick-haired tail’, elsewhere other words have been added such as ‘shining red’. As significant are the words ‘reynard’ for male fox which has its origins in medieval fables and a southern middle-English word ‘vixen’ for a female fox. The mole like the badger and fox has managed to retain its Old English name ‘moldwarp’ into the present-day. The original word literally means ‘soil throwing’ or ‘dirt tosser’! The squirrel drums up polar opposite reactions. On the one hand we have the brash grey variety introduced from north America, which has continued to receive bad press due in the main to the damaging affect they have on trees and more crucially due to its negative impact on the survival of the indigenous red squirrel. The name squirrel is a recent introduction into Middle- English around the time of the Norman Conquest and its origins are from Old French and mean ‘shadow-tail’. This is a case when an Old-English word ‘ācweorna’ which means ‘rodent-like’ or ‘akin to a ferret’. The dormouse has a long association with man and we know to our cost the edible dormouse supposedly arrived as a domesticated animal the Romans kept for food. Certainly, the Romans would have coined this word as in Latin dormire means sleep. Predating the Romans the Old English was ‘sisemūs’ or ‘sleeping mouse’. Often a generic word later becomes specific to one anilal. For example, ‘dēor’ is a very Old English word for ‘beast’ or ‘animal’. In the 800s the Anglo-Saxons adopted the word to include what we call deer today and perhaps by the time the Normans arrived in mid 1000s it became exclusively used following the development of ‘deer parks’ in the Royal Forests.

Changing tack a bit and looking at invertebrates. Today we have the word ‘caterpillar’ in everyday use but it is a relatively modern word that arrived on the shores in the 1400s when a lot of Latin words were added to the language when the word ‘catyrpel’ in writings of Latin and Greek scholars found their way to England. Before this several words could be found like ‘cawelwyrm’ which meant literally ‘cabbage worm’. Meanwhile, the adult of the caterpillar, the butterfly, has an uncertain origin. The word ‘butorflēoge’ which arrived in England in the 11th century could have been a combination word from Greek for ‘butter’ and Latin ‘fifalde’ The latter, in Middle French, became the more familiar word ‘papilio’ meaning ‘to shake’. So we have ‘a butter-coloured shaker’. Unmistakable, the Old English word ‘wyrm’ for worm has managed to survive into the modern-day virtually unchanged though its use by early English speakers was more often attributed to serpents and snakes rather than the much smaller subterranean earthworms. Interestingly, the slow-worm a legless relative of the lizard has retained the ‘wyrm’ suffix. Meanwhile, the word lizard is a much later word derived from ‘lusarde’ a word, originally from Latin, imported via medieval poetry from Europe in the 1400s. This word displaced the much older word for this reptile ‘āðexe’ which continued in use via the Middle-English word ‘eft’ an old word for newt.

Birds played an important role in the lives of the Anglo-Saxons. Doves and pigeons were kept for food by the English elite. Around 800AD the word ‘culfre’ was first used for doves. Their domestication was down to the Romans, who had adopted an Egyptian idea, and who introduced the original word ‘colombula’ as well providing a word for a dovecote or ‘columbaria’ as the methods of domestication. Ducks were another important domesticated animal and in this case the connection with the original word ‘duce’ is as straightforward as it comes. But interestingly, the meaning of the word is an onomatopoeic one, describing as it does the typical actions of the birds to ‘duck and dive’! In contrast it is not at all obvious what bird a ‘higera’ is. It’s an Old English word which has all but disappeared today. Academics argue that its original use was for a jay or a magpie or even a woodpecker. All three are very colourful birds. In the middle ages words from which these three bird names evolved were introduced from France. It is thought this original word just meant ‘swift’ or ‘lively’. A majestic bird in these hills is the buzzard. Once again the earliest word in use was ’mūshāfoc’ and again it’s a collective word for several birds of prey, including, not just a buzzard, but also a short-eared owl, and hen harrier. However, its literal meaning is yet another bird of prey, the mouse-hawk which today we know as a kestrel. The derivation of buzzard was not resolved until the 1300s when ‘busard’ was introduced, drawn from its Latin origins ‘buteo’. Another signature bird for us is the pheasant. The origin of this name also derives from the same period. This time the word ’fesaund’ was introduced from Greek via Latin. However, somewhere along the way there was a mix-up as ‘fesaund’ was, prior to its import, used to denote instead a near relative, the capercaillie!

Overall, it is estimated that over 80% of words in use during the 800s, when Old English was at its height, had disappeared by the 1100s, when Middle English was developing through the import of Old Latin and Norman French words. A further revolution with the substitution of many words took place from the 1500s with the Renaissance in science and literature, brought newly rediscovered Ancient Greek and Latin texts and dictionary. This was the birth of Modern English and was the language Shakespeare and his ilk enriched. The change in our language has been as dramatic in the last 500 years as it was in the first 300 years. I think looking how the Bard has enriched our lexicon of natural history words might be a topic of a future Nature Notes.