2

In the TV series The Last Kingdom a number of place names appear. The series typically shows the Ænglisc spelling of place names, followed by the modern one. E.g. the name old name Wintanceaster morphs into Winchester on screen.

Another such name happens to be Eoforƿīċ (sometimes also spelled Eoforwic, Wiktionary entry), the old name of York. The ƿ in the name is roughly equivalent to the modern English w and the linked Wiktionary page has the IPA transliteration.

Now having a sweet spot for Old Norse stuff, I already knew that York was also known as Jórvík to the Vikings. The constituting part vík - still in use in modern Icelandic, meaning bay - strikes me as a weird choice for a place so far inland. So probably the name was indeed made up by way of folk etymology or for whatever other reasons by the Vikings. It makes much more sense in place names like Reykjavík where the place is tucked into a bay.

But given this coincidence I was wondering how we know today that the last part of the name used to be pronounced /wiːt͡ʃ/ and not /wɪk/ (or even /wik/).

Incidentally the Wiktionary entry for wic lists the following descendants:

  • Middle English: wic, wike, wych
    • English: wick, -wich

And indeed we can find plenty of place names in Great Britain which end in -wich or -wick. And while the former corresponds with the pronunciation used in the TV series, the latter seems equally conceivable.

So how to we know how the place names - in particular certain combinations of letters which may or may no longer be in use in modern English - were pronounced in a certain way, especially when an alternative is fully conceivable given the transliterated spelling? And especially since spelling was highly irregular in those times.


Bonus points for references to freely accessible online material about the origin of English place names. Not everything is as obvious as:

... or perhaps these are deceivingly "obvious"?

1
  • We don't know how they were pronounced. There are no doubt some records from scholars describing pronunciations maybe 200 years ago, but it's hard to go further back than that. And with "-wick" and it's kin it's often difficult to guess whether it comes from the term for "village" or the one for "bay". – Hot Licks May 23 '20 at 21:49
3

Old English had multiple dialects. By convention, words are usually cited in the West Saxon dialect, I think because this served in some time periods as a kind of widespread standard. I think "/wiːt͡ʃ/" is just the form expected according to the rules about how pronunciation usually developed in this standard: it seems plausible to me that other pronunciations such as /wɪk/ or /wik/ may have existed.

The consonants [k] and [tʃ] were originally not distinct, so they can show variability between different Old English dialects

The sounds [k] and [tʃ] are particularly complicated. They were spelled in Old English with the same letter, C, because they developed from sounds that were not originally distinct. Some scholars argue that even throughout the Old English period, the sounds were not actually distinct in the same way that they are in modern English. [tʃ] comes from /k/ in contexts where it underwent a process of "palatalization". But different dialects appear to have had palatalization in somewhat different contexts.

Furthermore, there is speculation that in some dialects, or in some periods perhaps in all dialects of Old English, the palatalized pronunciation of the letter C had not developed as far as an affricate [tʃ], but was instead a plosive that could be transcribed in IPA as something like [kʲ] or [c]. There is no simple way to describe this sound in terms of modern English sounds, but the "ky" sound at the start of "cute" might serve as a rough approximation. In the context of dialect mixing, a speaker of a dialect that used [tʃ] instead of [kʲ] or [c] might hear the palatalized but non-affricated [kʲ] or [c], and perceive it as a non-palatalized [k] sound.

The Wikipedia article "Phonological history of Old English" says that as a general rule, a C at the end of a word became palatalized after the vowel I in the West Saxon dialect. But dialect mixing could easily lead to exceptions to that rule, and we have evidence that such mixing did occur in some way.

The vowel i in Old English usually is long or short according to the etymological origins of a word

With the vowel in -wic, the situation is a bit different. Old English spelling didn't distinguish long and short i as a rule (writing ī is a modern convention for the convenience of modern readers). But as far as I know, there was not much notable variation in pronunciation between long and short i in different dialects of Old English, and we can look at etymologically related words in other Germanic languages to get a good idea of whether an Old English i was originally long or short.

The Oxford English dictionary indicates that English wick, n.2 "abode, dwelling, dwelling-place" (traced back to Latin vīcus) is cognate to German Weichbild and Dutch wijk: the vowels ei and ij clearly indicate an originally long i sound in this word.

The OED entry for wick, n.4 "creek, inlet, or small bay" (traced back to Norse vík, from a supposed Germanic base wῑk-) also shows an etymologically long vowel quality.

Wiktionary seems to instead say that these have the same ultimate origin, explaining the bay meaning as "[arising] by association with harbor towns" (Reconstruction:Proto-Germanic/wīkō).

Although the overall etymology seems a bit of a mess to figure out, it does seem reasonably clear to reconstruct the vowel as originally long.

But Old English may have shortened originally long vowels when they came to be in unstressed syllables

However, one thing that Old English is thought to have had in common with modern English is the potential for reducing vowels in syllables with a lesser amount of stress, such as the second elements of compounds (especially for those elements that came to act more like suffixes). See the note at the end of Alex B.'s answer here.

I don't know enough about Old English stress patterns to say whether that could have applied in Eoforwic, but if it could, that could explain how an originally long i came to be shortened.

2
  • 1
    Your choice of "wick" has multiple origins. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… "Generally wich/wick/wyke indicates a farm or settlement (e.g. Keswick "cheese farm"). However, some of the sites are of Roman or early Post-Roman origin, in which the wich represents Latin vicus ("place"). These vici seem to have been trading-posts. On the coast, wick is often of Norse origin, meaning "bay" or "inlet" (e.g. Lerwick)." There is a better page at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/-wich_town which specifically explains York/Jorvik. – Greybeard May 23 '20 at 23:12
  • @Greybeard thanks for the interesting comment and herisson thanks for a very detailed answer. – 0xC0000022L May 24 '20 at 18:16

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.