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The statistics of Old Norse spelling

Our graduates study a wide variety of subjects. Here, Tam Blaxter (2013) explains his work on Old Norse.

DN I.7What are you studying?

The broad area that I work on is the relationship between language and society. In recent years there has been an explosion of interest in this area. As part of this, several people have made predictions that the grammatical structures of languages are affected by the ways in which societies change. For example, they have proposed that in a society where there is a high proportion of second-language speakers, the structural features of the language are simplified and the less useful grammatical structures are gradually lost. I’m looking at Old Norse as a good test case of this hypothesis.

What does this research entail?

There is a set of documents called the Diplomatarium Norvegicum, which are a collection made up mostly of records of land sales and rent disputes. They are written in Latin, German and Old Norse; in fact this collection contains all of the written Middle Norwegian that exists. There are about 18,000 documents in total, of which about 13,000 are in Old Norse.

The whole lot was digitised by the Norwegian government in the nineties and they have not really been used since. I spend a long time sat at my laptop in the Graduate Parlour looking at these, as well as plenty of time at the University Library getting interlibrary loans of obscure Norwegian Master’s theses, and very little time in Norway itself!

Linguistics is on the boundary between the humanities and sciences. This project is about collecting quantitative data, so there is a lot of playing with statistics and databases. I have selected 7,000 documents and am researching a number of the linguistic changes that they record. One is the simplification of the ‘th’ sound, which became ‘t’ in Old Norse at around this time. I have chosen three common words in which this sound appears and am tracking the 45,000 instances of these words in the texts to see where and why the spellings change.

IMG_20150114_160536Do you have any idea yet what your conclusions might be?

What I expect to see is that simplification of the language begins in areas where there are lots of second-language speakers, although it will also be interesting if this isn’t what I find!

There was one city in Norway at the time that belonged to the Hanseatic League, which was essentially the world’s first multinational corporation trading. They spoke German and so, in that city, up to fifty per cent of people would have spoken Norse as their second language.

I expect to see that simplification of the language happens in this city first and then spreads out as the wealthy Hansa merchants travelled to nearby cities and, eventually, to the countryside, where people would have started to imitate their language. I am lucky because all of my documents are dated, which is rare for medieval texts. They say things like: ‘This was written on the third Sunday after Whitsun in the thirteenth year of the reign of this King.’ They also often have place names on them. This means that I can track the changes geographically and also across time.

How did you originally become interested in this subject?

It might be a clichéd answer, but I read Tolkien when I was nine or ten and got really into the linguistic side of that. I heard that Tolkien was a philologist, which is a rather old-fashioned term for someone who studies the historical linguistics of European languages, so I did a degree in Linguistics at the University of Essex and a Master’s in Philology at the University of Oxford before starting my PhD here at Pembroke.

Tam’s first paper, which focuses on the research he did as part of his Master’s, was published last month. If you want to discover more both the representations of female speech in medieval stories from Iceland, you can find the paper in the Nordic Journal of Linguistics.

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