Skip to main content

This news post is more than 4 years old

How linguistics can help the historian: Part III

The third part of our weekly series for an interdisciplinary, non-specialist readership, written by Dr Anthony Harvey, project editor at DMLCS.

Curmudgeonly Carolingians

In the first two instalments we looked at what we can deduce by excavating a word down to its original meaning, and also by seeing what language it is in (its ‘archaeological context’ context, if you like). Linguistics enables us to go further, by investigating (as it were) what material it is made of. The reference here is to the individual sounds in a word, and how those sounds are spelled when the word is written down. Exactly because these matters border on the abstruse, it is precisely these that, when systematically decoded, can produce the most revealing historical insights. Several such insights can be gained in connection with the fate of a figure at the medieval Carolingian court who was known as Cadac Andreas, or ‘Battling Andrew’. As this was an Irishman, it seems appropriate enough to introduce him on this particular website; a fully annotated version of what follows was published in the journal Classics Ireland, 9 (2002), pp. 19-27.

This man Cadac Andreas came from Ireland to the royal court of Charlemagne probably sometime around the turn of the ninth century, and had the misfortune that his time there coincided with that of Theodulf of Orleans. Theodulf was a writer skilled in poetic forms and a learnèd theologian, and was the second most distinguished scholar at the court after Alcuin. One particular poem he wrote runs to 244 lines, beginning with praise of the emperor and his family and turning to pithy word-pictures of about a dozen of Theodulf’s fellow courtiers, among whom was the Irishman in question. Against him, Theodulf mounts a clever satirical attack. Here are the relevant lines of his poem (readers who have not studied Latin need not worry, as an English rendering follows immediately):

Hic poenasue dabit fugietue simillimus Austro,
Utque sit hic aliud, nil nisi Scottus erit.
Cui si litterulam, quae est ordine tertia, tollas —
(Inque secunda suo nomine forte sedet:
Quae sonat in ‘caelo’ prima, et quae in ‘scando’ secunda,
Tertia in ‘ascensu’, quarta in ‘amicitiis’;
Quam satis offendit; pro qua te, littera salui,
Utitur) — haud dubium quod sonat, hoc et erit!

… a passage that has been translated along the following lines …

This man shall pay his penalty or flee like the south wind;
however different he may try to be, he is nothing but a Scottus.
If you take away therefrom the letter which is third in the alphabet —
(and which happens to stand second in that, his designation (i.e. Scottus):
the letter that in caelo sounds first, and which in scando comes second,
third in ascensu, fourth in amicitiis; the letter that he stumbles upon often enough; in place of which he presses into service the letter standing for saluus) — then, without doubt, what he says he will also be!

Can we see what Theodulf is saying? If from the term Scottus (meaning a Gael, a speaker of Irish) we remove the letter c, then we get Battling Andrew’s pronunciation of the word. Unfortunately for him, making this change in Latin had the same effect as taking the c out of ‘Scot’ in English — the man was a sot, and his pronunciation meant that he called himself one. But what general peculiarity of his speech led him to commit this particular embarrassing solecism?

If we analyse Theodulf’s criticism carefully, we can see that Andrew’s actual fault was not so much that he failed to pronounce the c in Scottus, but rather (and this comes to the same thing following an s, as in that word) that he sounded the c as if it were (another) s in other words, as what we call ‘soft c’ when it occurs in English words like ‘celestial’ and ‘ascent’ (to use examples related to those given in the poem). Now, readers who do happen to have studied Classical Latin at some stage will know that, in that language, the letter c was always pronounced as a hard [k] sound — so at first sight one might think that Theodulf was mocking Andrew for not being aware of this. However, given his date and location we know that Theodulf would himself have pronounced a Latin c before front vowels (that is ae, e, i, oe, and y) in the non-Classical, soft fashion that resembles s (so this would have applied in the poem’s words caelo, ascensu and amicitiis). No difference from Andrew there, then. But before the other, so‑called back vowels (that is a, o and u), Theodulf’s Latin c would have continued to have its Classical pronunciation, sounding — as in English before these vowels — just like a k. In the poem this would have applied to scando and, crucially, to Scottus itself. What Andrew is being mocked for is pronouncing c in a soft fashion in all environments, including these, and so saying [sando] and [sottus]. Why did he do that? Modern scholarship has tended to go astray on this question …

The West-Brit syndrome — twelve hundred years ago!

… because the modern scholars responsible have tended to assume that Andrew’s problem was something to do with his having had an Irish accent. But closer inspection shows that this cannot be right. First of all, within their own language the Irish were perfectly capable of managing a k-type pronunciation before back vowels. Plenty of Irish vernacular words that reach us from before Andrew’s time show this, such as cam (meaning crooked), cosc (prevention), scáth (shade) and so on, all spoken as if spelled with a k (readers will be able to think of further examples for themselves). But also, then as now, the Irish even had the hard sound before front vowels: the c is pronounced like a k in venerable Irish words such as ciall (meaning sense) and sciath (shield), and always has been. Why should this not have applied to their Latin as well? At the time when Latin was first introduced into Ireland — that is, hundreds of years before the Carolingian period which we have in mind now — all of its occurrences of the letter c, no matter the position, had still enjoyed their original, Classical, hard pronunciation. As there was no subsequent softening of the corresponding sounds in the Gaelic vernacular of Ireland (unlike what happened before front vowels on the Continent, affecting the pronunciation of people like Theodulf), there is no reason to suspect that anything changed in Ireland later. All the evidence is that in Carolingian times a literate, Latinate Irishman would still generally have pronounced all instances of the Latin letter c in a rather Classical manner, retaining the hard sound [k] not only in words like Scottus and scando, but also in all the items in the poem where Continentals like Theodulf had moved on to using a soft sound (as in caelo, ascensu and amicitiis). So why do we find Andrew doing the exact opposite?

The answer is somewhat revealing, and tells us a lot about individuals’ unconscious attitudes towards being Irish: Andrew’s own, but also that of at least one modern scholar who has analysed this poem. We shall pursue this in the next instalment; in the meantime, thanks once more for reading — and do get in touch with the author (, at the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Celtic Latin project (yes, still busy drafting, in spite of the lockdown!)

Read the first article in the series here

Read the second article in the series here

Read the fourth article in the series here

* Main series image: The sub-Roman ‘Venedotis cive’ stone now preserved at Penmachno, North Wales. Until recently the inscription was interpreted as implying that the local kingdom of Gwynedd had taken to issuing its own citizenship in post-imperial times. (Photo by A. Harvey)