Research in Focus: Elisa Ramírez Pérez

Over a series of blogs we’ve been learning about the research of our members and others whose research is pertinent to the network’s ambitions. This month we hear from Elisa Ramírez Pérez of the University of Cardiff.
My research focuses on processes of verbal simplification in the late Northumbrian dialect of Old English. Old English is the term used to refer to the language spoken in Britain from approximately 700 to 1150. It is general consensus to distinguish four dialects in Anglo-Saxon England: West-Saxon, Kentish, Mercian and Northumbrian. Of these four dialects, West-Saxon is the best attested one, since most of the extant Anglo-Saxon texts are written in this variety. It is understandable, therefore, that until quite recently, the study of Old English was largely limited to this variety.
Map from Crowley (1986: 100)

My research, however, aims to broaden the scope of the linguistic study of Old English, focusing instead on the Northumbrian dialect, which was spoken in the kingdom of Northumbria, off the north-eastern coast of Britain. More specifically, I focus on the later stage of this dialect, namely late Northumbrian. Three major texts record the late Northumbrian dialect: the Lindisfarne Gospels, most of the Rushworth Gospels and the Durham Ritual. Although these three texts were originally written in Latin, they were given interlinear, word by word Old English glosses during the 10th century. As a result of this later glossing, we have three medieval bilingual manuscripts, hence my relation to the MEMC network.

A quick look at any Old English grammar book will reveal that the Northumbrian dialect was a rather different variety, contributing to many exceptions to the general grammatical rules of Old English. However, what is most fascinating about the Northumbrian dialect is that it attests early occurrences of many features which are more typical of Middle English grammar. Some examples from the Lindisfarne Gospels gloss include:

  • the first instance of the blanket definite article ðe‘the’:

[1] MtGl (Li) 2.3:

Old English: geherde wiototlice herodes ðe cynig gedroefed węs

Translation: And (the) King Herod hearing this, was troubled.

  • early instances of -s ending for 3rd person singular present indicative:

[2] MtGl (Li) 15.23:

Old English: folet hia forðon cliopas æfter usig

Translation: Send her away, for she cries after us.

My focus is on verbal morphology, that is, I study the structure and form of verbs in the late Northumbrian dialect of Old English. Within verbal morphology, there are also quite a number of Northumbrian features which point towards the direction of Middle English grammar. I specialise particularly on a group of verbs which had a characteristic middle vowel <i> (known as the -i- formative) between the root and the inflectional ending in many of its forms:

[3] Old English: macian > Present-Day-English ‘to make’

Mac       i                      an                               >          make     

root   i form.   infinitival ending                             root

[4] Old English: ic swerie > Present-Day-English ‘I swear’

Ic         swer        i           e                        >                I         swear

pronoun    root    i form.  ending                           pronoun    root

You can clearly see from the examples above that both the -i- formative and the inflectional endings have been lost, since nowadays we only keep the root (with the exception of the 3rd person singular present indicative which adds an -s, as in ‘she makes’). My research is specifically concerned with the loss of the -i- formative, a phenomenon which, although generally classified as a Middle English development, is already widely found in the Northumbrian dialect. Examples [5] and [6] below show the exact same verse from Matthew’s Gospel, the first one taken from the section in the Rushworth Gospels which is not glossed in Northumbrian but rather in Mercian dialect. There you can see that the verb lufigaþ ‘love’ (imperative plural) still maintains the -i- formative. [6], from the Lindisfarne Gospels gloss, has lufas ‘love’ instead, where the -i- has been already dropped.

[5] MtGl (Ru) 5.44, Rushworth Gospels (Old Mercian dialect, 10th c.)

Old English:  lufigaþ eowre fiondas

Translation:   Love your enemies.

[6] MtGl (Li) 5.44, Lindisfarne Gospels (late Northumbrian dialect, 10th c.)

Old English: lufas ge fiondas iurre

Translation:   Love your enemies.

Although my preliminary investigation shows that Northumbrian verbs are more morphologically simplified and, therefore, more similar to Middle English grammar than other Old English dialects, further research is required to understand how advanced this process of verbal morphological simplification was in the Northumbrian dialect. Thus, I am in the process of analysing the language of the glosses to the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Rushworth Gospels (Northumbrian section only) and the Durham Ritual. Furthermore, in order to understand why it is that the -i- formative was lost, I will consider which factors could have triggered this loss. One of these factors involves linguistic contact with Old Norse, the language spoken by the Vikings, where the verbs I am studying did not have an -i- formative anymore. This element of my investigation also ties in with the MEMC network and its research interests.

Durham Ritual
Lindisfarne Gospels, f.27r, beginning of Matthew (foto que yo tomé del facsimile de Senate House)

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