‘Recovering the Earliest English Language in Scotland’

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John Thomson’s Atlas of Scotland, 1832. Available at: http://maps.nls.uk/atlas/thomson/455.html

This week (24th October 2017), the Centre had the pleasure of welcoming our very own Professor Carole Hough (University of Glasgow) who gave a fascinating talk on ‘Recovering the Earliest English Language in Scotland’. Professor Hough, who is a Professor of Onomastics within the School of Critical Studies, is currently heading the Recovering the Earliest English Language in Scotland (REELS) project , which is funded by The Leverhulme Trust and based at the University of Glasgow. Alongside her colleagues Dr. Simon Taylor, Dr. Eila Williamson, Brian Aitken and Dàibhidh Grannd, Professor Hough is using place-names to investigate the Northumbrian dialect of Old English and its development into Older Scots. Focusing on Berwickshire, over the course of the project’s three-year lifespan (2016-2019), the team will collect and analyse all place-names within six parishes which line the Anglo-Scottish border, publishing the results as a printed volume within the Survey of Scottish Place-Names. Alongside this, the team are collecting major settlement, hill and river names throughout the county, and will make the results freely available as a searchable web resource.

This seminar was therefore an excellent opportunity for Professor Hough and her team to share some of their fascinating findings. Professor Hough prefaced her discussion by informing the audience that only 269 headword entries within the ongoing Dictionary of Old English currently identify Old Northumbrian forms. This is largely due to the scattered and fragmentary nature of surviving textual evidence for Old Northumbrian. Therefore, the potential in analysing place names is massive. This largely untapped resource could provide invaluable data which could quite literally re-invent our understanding of Old Northumbrian’s linguistic features, as well as illuminating the dialect’s links to Older Scots, Old Norse and southern varieties of Old English.

Over the course of the paper, Professor Hough provided us with a number of examples, and the ways in which we can break down these place-names in order to access the meanings behind them. Animal names are excellent illustrations of the words which can be gleaned by employing such a method, as they rarely appear within the surviving corpus of written source material. The Northumbrian words for wolf (*grǣg) and jackdaw (*cā) are examples of such.

Professor Hough and her team have a particular interest in uncovering the earliest uses of Old Northumbrian (seventh century). In order to access these, the research team have paid particular attention to the changes in the place-names. By doing so, the team have been able to recognise words such as worð (meaning enclosure), which is known to have been replaced by a later Old English word in place-names such as Jedburgh and Cressford, and has now also been identified in Quixwood. Indeed, even this one example shows us how the patterns which the team are uncovering can tell us a great deal about the links between languages and dialects.

Whilst eager to display the team’s successes, Professor Hough was equally open about the difficulties which they have encountered. Some names remain problematic, but fieldwork and local knowledge can provide valuable clues. The team have organised knowledge exchange events in Berwickshire, talking with residents in order to collect modern pronunciations, which of course can only aid the project’s endeavours.

Overall, this was a stimulating and insightful seminar, which was thoroughly enjoyed by all. We look forward to hearing more from the project in the future!

If you want to read more on the REELS project, visit the project’s dedicated website at: www.gla.ac.uk/reels.

Next week we return to the Kelvinhall for the next instalment of Historical Conversations, this time with an Early Modern theme (31/10/17 at 5.30pm). For tickets and more information, visit: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/historical-conversations-tickets-36636178797.

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