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Linguistic archaeology—how words reveal our history

How Linguistics can Help the Historian| Anthony Harvey|Royal Irish Academy| ISBN:9781911479697|€ 9.50  

Evidence of who we were is wired through etymology

by Anthony Harvey

It took a modification of the Roman calendar to bring September, October, November and December into their current positions as the ninth to twelfth months in the year.  

The alteration was made over two thousand years ago but it left a permanent trace that, even in the absence of explicit historical records, would still have enabled us to work out what the nature of the change had been.  The element sept-  means seven (as in septuplets), oct- (as in octogenarian) means eight, nov- (as in novena) means nine, and dec- (as in decimal) means ten;  so September to December must have begun life as the seventh to tenth months, with the whole sequence subsequently being shifted by two places. 

 It is the etymology, or original meaning, of the names that enables us to deduce this;  in making the deduction we are practising an aspect of what may be called linguistic archaeology. 

 The evidence is objectively there, baked into the names;  it is a matter of recognising it and what it implies, just as an archaeologist may see that a dark stratum points to the occurrence of a fire at a certain moment in a site’s history.

September: shifted by two places in the calendar

French became the élite tongue

Following the Norman conquest of England the élite tongue there became, for several centuries, French;  the English language belonged to the peasants. Those peasants looked after their overlords’ livestock, calling it by the English names that became pigcow and sheep, while their overlords referred to the animals by the French names that became le porcle boeufle mouton.  The overlords’ interest in the animals was in the meat that they provided;  so when the English language eventually borrowed the French words — as porkbeef and mutton — their use was restricted to the culinary sense.  

As was long ago pointed out by Henry Bradley, an early editor of the OED, this means that the animal vs meat distinction embedded in today’s English vocabulary in fact reflects an Anglophone vs Francophone, peasant vs overlord distinction that existed hundreds of years ago in the society where the vocabulary arose.  

This insight is the fruit of applying another aspect of linguistic archaeology: not this time looking at the original meanings of words, but rather identifying and distinguishing the languages from which they have been sourced.  Recognising how much this can tell us is like recognising the importance of archaeological context to the interpretation of an artefact discovered during an excavation. 


Moving further back into English history we come to the viking period, including the time that much of the country spent under agreed Norse suzerainty: a frontier between this Danelaw territory and the Mercian region of England was negotiated to run along part of Watling Street, the straight old Roman road from London to Holyhead.  The division ceased over a thousand years ago, but by then it had been etched permanently into the nomenclature of settlements.  For in the midlands around Birmingham one may to this day notice that small towns and villages located to the north-east of Watling Street — today’s A5 — typically have names ending in ‑thorpe or ‑by, which is Norse, while those to the south-west more often terminate in ‑ton‑ham and ‑cote, which are native to English.   In this case, the linguistic evidence points to a geographical rather than a societal distinction, which mirrors the importance of landscape to archaeological research.  

The dangers of hypercorrection (aka trying too hard) 

Linguistic Archeology

Historians and the interested lay public are increasingly, and appropriately, aware of the value of archaeological investigation to the development and refinement of our picture of times gone by, and of how much material evidence can be brought to light by modern techniques — as witness the popularity of television documentaries about excavations carried out on sites even as recent as World War battle zones, and the revelations made possible by breakthroughs in geophysical techniques.  

There is much less awareness that our everyday linguistic environment, for its part, is similarly littered with spoken or written ‘archaeological remains’ that, analysed and interpreted, can cast light upon events, conditions or situations in the past.  

Doing this can be fascinating for anyone;  for historians it can corroborate conclusions, suggest alternatives, or even open up new avenues of research.  

How Linguistics can Help the Historian began as a lecture kindly invited by the students of NUI Galway’s Cumann Staire history society in 2012, and was susequently developed as a workshop for the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.  The version now published by the Royal Irish Academy seeks to bring examples such as those above to a wider audience;  in doing so it hopes to convey something of the fascination of linguistic archaeology, as well as introducing some of its specific findings.  

Pentecostal Inspiration

The latter are drawn from early medieval Ireland, Britain and the Continent, and are covered in brief sections dealing with curmudgeonly Carolingians;  the West-Brit syndrome twelve hundred years ago;  the dangers of hypercorrection (aka trying too hard);  possible pentecostal inspiration for the Strasbourg Oaths of AD 842;  the reason why Latin should be considered a living language with hundreds of millions of native speakers in the world today;  and why it’s OK to say Celtic if that’s what you mean (an important matter in the light of some currently popular asseverations).  A demonstration is included of how linguistics and radiocarbon dating worked hand in glove on the Liscahane oghams and the souterrain in Co. Cork where these were found in recent times;  it is observed that, in addition to linguistic archaeology, linguistic geology is a useful concept in explaining how spelling systems are established and evolve.                         

A guiding principle in the writing of this short book was the wish to express everything as simply as possible without being simplistic.  It is for its readers to judge whether that aim has been achieved!

Anthony Harvey

Dr Anthony Harvey is Editor of the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Medieval Latin from Celtic Sources (DMLCS) and Project Leader of the St Patrick’s ConfessioHyperstack activity (www.confessio.ie). He has been part of the DMLCS project since 1985 and Editor since 1990. He holds a PhD in early medieval Irish and British linguistics and literacy from Cambridge University’s Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, where he had previously gained his MA, and has lectured and published widely on these subjects as well as on matters of Latin philology. He teaches conversational Welsh informally in Dublin, and has served as Chairman of the Classical Association of Ireland. He is currently on the advisory boards of several scholarly journals and dictionary projects at home and abroad.