Researching old Germanic languages

What makes closely related languages have a different word order? This is what researchers in the Faculty of Humanities will find out.

This is the beginning of the story of the Norwegian Ottar (Ohthere) who visited King Alfred of England in the late 800s. "British Library MS Add 47967".

What do Old English, Old Norse, Old High German, Old Saxon and Gothic have in common? Well, they are all old Germanic languages, and are now the subject of a new research project at the Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages. The project is led by Associate Professor Kristin Bech.

- Many people have written about and studied these languages, but none of them have compared these languages in this way before. So this is pioneering work, says Bech.

This research is being conducted not just in Blindern. This is an international project, involving a team of researchers from Norway, England, Germany and Sweden.

The project is titled "Constraints on syntactic variation:noun phrases in old Germanic languages”. The researchers are looking at noun phrases to study the similarities and differences between the different languages. The head word in a noun phrase is a noun, and the noun can have various associated elements such as articles and adjectives: Katten ‘The cat’. Den gamle katten (‘The old cat’). Den gamle katten til Per i Sørigarden (‘The old cat belonging to Per i Sørigarden’).

– The reason we are comparing these languages is that, although they are closely related, they still show variation in how they organise the elements in a noun phrase.  We are studying what determines the placing of these elements — the underlying linguistic mechanisms, explains Bech.

Taking today’s language as a starting point

The researchers will also draw parallels to today’s language.

– We look at this in the context of how the languages have evolved in different directions and become what they are today. Today's language is the starting point for going back in time, says Bech.  For example, in Old English and Old Norse, it was possible to have the structure han var en rik mann mektig (‘he was a rich man powerful’), while today it must be rik, mektig mann (‘rich, powerful man’).

The text material used by the researchers is so-called electronic corpora. These are collections of texts that are linguistically annotated.

– Linguistically annotated means that linguistic information has been added, e.g. about parts of speech, case and inflectional suffixes. In this way, researchers can look for different linguistic patterns in them, explains Bech.

Developing a new database

As part of the research project, the researchers are also working on developing a completely new database of noun phrases. This is pioneering work, explains Kristin Bech.

This will be a groundbreaking database of noun phrases, where we can compare the languages in the project. Right now we are determining what type of information we are going to put into the database. This is a rather complex job, where we need to think very carefully about what categories we should include. It is difficult to say right now how extensive the database will be – experience suggests that such linguistic annotation is quite time-consuming. But fortunately I have Alexander Pfaff on board,  a very clever postdoctoral fellow who has already made himself invaluable in the project.

The project started in the autumn and will run until 2020. But the researchers have already made some interesting findings.

– for example, preliminary results show that some parts of Old Norse textbooks need to be rewritten. We can say more about this later, says Bech.

Influenced by historical events

– Language development and historical events are often linked, says Kristin Bech. (Photo: Moment Studio)

Last year, Kristin Bech published her book Fra englisc til English – et språk blir til, which is about the history of English. In the book, Bech explains how historical events such as the Black Death and the Reformation were actually good for the English language.

– In 1066, the Normans invaded England and French became the official language of England. And this was the case for hundreds of years. But then English began to come back. One of the things that contributed to this was the Black Death. With so many dead, those who were left became more important.  The traders and workers became important for getting the country back on its feet again, and they spoke English. French was primarily the language of the upper class, explains Bech.

– In the 1500s came the Reformation and the accompanying dissolution of the monasteries. This was in many ways a cultural catastrophe, because in addition to the fact that buildings were demolished and pieces of art destroyed, books in the classical languages were burned. But it also led to an upsurge in book publishing in English and a reinvigoration of the English language.

A good knowledge of history is therefore important when researching languages.

– Language development and historical events are often linked. You can see history from a slightly different angle if you look at it through language change. But strangely, it seems that people see language history as being a bit specialist and peripheral, while no one believes that history is not important in social research.  It is a bit irritating, sighs Bech.

High coolness factor

Fra englisc til English turned out to be a hit. According to the reviewer Per Egil Hegge, the book is "a sparkling publication". This may be connected to Kristin Bech's passionate commitment to language history.

– My motto is "language history for the people!" Language history has a sky high coolness factor, she laughs.

Being able to simplify is important when writing popular science, and it is not always easy. 

– You can almost never simplify enough. But it is important to find the balance between simplifying and providing pertinent information. As a researcher it can be quite painful to simplify – because you know the world is not that simple. But you just have to accept that pain and put up with it, otherwise you will not reach people, she concludes.

After writing a popular science book about languages, Bech has got a new and attentive audience. The linguist keeps getting invitations to give lectures - whether that be for 600 pensioners or members of the Range Rover Club. She thinks that this is fantastic.

– You reach out to different types of people that you never thought you would reach. For me it is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of the humanities. I can show that something as seemingly specialist as English language history is relevant, and can be linked to our time.

Humour as a tool

Humour is an important tool when she communicates and teaches.

– To me it is very important, but at the same time I am aware that we are not employed as entertainers. Our job is to disseminate knowledge, not tell jokes. And besides, there is actually a limit to the amusement you can manage to squeeze out of non-finite subordinate clauses in English...

– But it makes me happy when I get contacted by people who say they have laughed or chuckled or giggled when reading the book - while at the same time learning something. Then I feel like I've achieved something in my life.

By Toril Haugen
Published May 9, 2018 2:29 PM - Last modified May 9, 2018 2:29 PM