Modern Gods

An interesting question was asked on reddit recently that is right up my alley (archive). Sadly, my several month absence from the Internet left me nearly two weeks late to the party, so I’ll discuss it here instead.

Linguistic question for ASH heathens from asatru

All in all, the thread was pretty barren, I’m sad to say, but some did help. Wodgar and /u/CorporateHeathen were the stars.

As always in linguistics, a reconstructed, projected, or outright incorrect form is marked by an asterisk. Chevrons are also used in their standard form; “<” denotes that the lead word descends from the following word, while “>” denotes that the lead word becomes the following word.

In all cases of two modern pronunciations, the first is General American and the second is Received Pronunciation.

Tīw /tiːw/ > *Tew or *Tue /t(j)uː/

The name is fairly simple and predictable. For the same sound shift, consider hīw > hue and nīwe > new. CorporateHeathen did a fine job of pointing this out:

The two spellings are purely orthographic differences, as shown in the IPA. The biggest difference will be seen across the Atlantic: /j/ would be in England, while the sound would generally be lacking in the US.

Wōden /ˈwoːden/ > *Wooden /ˈwʊdən/

Old English <ō> /oː/ split into a few sounds on its march to Modern English. On its own it often became <oo> /uː/, but its environment could cause /ɔ(ː)/ (before <r>), /ʌ/ (occasionally before /ð/, /d/, and /v/), and /ʊ/ (often before /ð/, /d/, /t/, and /k/).

Due to this, /ˈwʊdən/ is the likeliest result, but also possibly /ˈwʌdən/. Assuming the former over the latter, the word is a homonym to wooden “made of wood”.

The issue of Wednesday does pose an interesting question. Had Wōden been the base form, we would have *Wodnesday instead, just as Old English had Wōdnesdæg /ˈwoːdnesdæj/. Wednesday is the result of Old English *Wēden, which would share a root with Old Frisian Wēda and Old Norse Óðinn in the form of Proto-Germanic *Wōdinaz, as opposed to Wōden‘s antecedent of Proto-Germanic *Wōdanaz.

Accepting this otherwise unattested variant, we would have *Weeden /ˈwidən/. This is despite the fact that Wednesday is pronounced with an /ɛ/, but this is a result of two consonants following <e>. This environment always caused <e> to become /ɛ/ later and would not be applicable to the base form.

UPDATE: Thoraborinn takes issue with the above two paragraphs.

Ing /iŋg/ > *Ing /ɪŋ/

Nothing especially changes here. /i/ becomes /ɪ/ in most environments. /ŋg/ always becomes /ŋ/ due to NG-coalescence.

Þunor /ˈθunor/ > Thunder /ˈθʌn.dɚ/ or /ˈθʌn.də/

The noun did not die out and is thus fully known without ambiguity. The intrusive /d/ appeared between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries and is otherwise not predictable.

Frīg /friːj/ > *Frie or *Fry /fɹaɪ/

This one is interesting:

  • Popularly the goddess’s name is written as *Frīge, but this is incorrect. There is no nominative ending for feminine strong nouns with a long syllable (which is either a long vowel or a short vowel followed by two consonants). If this word had a short syllable, it would be Frigu, which is actually attested, but never in this context to my knowledge.
  • Frīge is, however, the genitive form, which is firmly attested in Frīgedæg “Friday”.
  • There aren’t too many words ending in –īg that survive into Modern English, especially once you discount the adjective ending –ig /ij/ “-y” /i/.

Old English <ī> /i:/ very often became Modern English /aɪ/, except when two consonants or /m/ followed, plus some other odds and ends.

/j/ entirely disappeared in this environment. Modern English doesn’t especially like /j/ coming after a vowel at the end of the word.

Spelling is really the issue here. Despite the spelling of Friday, ending a word in <i> just doesn’t happen, nor is <i> often pronounced /aɪ/ on its own. This immediately removes *Fri as an option. In keeping with patterns in orthography and the handful of words with similar sounds, though, *Frie or perhaps even *Fry would be the likeliest outcome.

Eorþe /ˈeorθe/ > Earth /ɝθ/ or /ɜːθ/

The noun did not die out and is thus fully known without ambiguity.

Folde /ˈfolde/ > Fold /foʊld/ or /fəʊld/

All word-final vowels that are not a part of the root syllable were dropped after Old English.

The word survives dialectally and thus has a known modern form regardless.

Sunne /ˈsunːe/ > Sun /sʌn/

The noun did not die out and is thus fully known without ambiguity.

Mōna /ˈmoːnɑ/ > Moon /muːn/

The noun did not die out and is thus fully known without ambiguity.

Ēastre /ˈæːɑstre/ > Easter /ˈi.stɚ/ or /ˈiː.stə/

The noun did not die out and is thus fully known without ambiguity.

Wēland /ˈweːlɑnd/ > Weeland /ˈwilənd/

Despite how predictable this form is, it has instead survived as Wayland /ˈweɪlənd/.

Seaxnēat /ˈsæɑksnæːɑt/ > *Saxneat /ˈsæks.nɛt/

<ea> /æɑ/ typically became <a> /æ/, while <ēat> /æːɑt/ often became /ɛt/ (as opposed to /iː/ when there is no /t/).

Seax did also survive into Modern English as sax. Nēat died out, but was borrowed back into Modern English in its full form as geneat for historical purposes.

Bēow /beːow/ > Bue /buː/

<ēo> /eːo/ often became /uː/ before/w/, written as <ue>.

Frēa /fræːɑ/ > *Frea /fɹiː/

Though often combined with Ing in emulation of the Norse form, there is no direct attestation that this was ever used as a theonym in Old English. It does, however, have a curious usage in Beowulf when Hroþgar is called frēan Ingwine “lord of the Ingwins”.1Beowulf, line 1319. If this usage implies any religious meaning, it is now lost on us. The word is included only for the sake of argument.

<ēa> /æːɑ/ very often became /iː/, usually written as <ea>.

Frēo /freːo/ > *Free /fɹiː/

It is sometimes believed that Freyja existed among the Anglo-Saxons as well, but there is no evidence of this. Personally I believe that the split between what would later be known as Frigg and Freyja had not occurred in the southern tribes at all. The word is included only for the sake of argument, though on even shakier ground than Frēa above.

Without any other conditional changes due to environment, <ēo> /eːo/ very often became /iː/, usually written as <ee>.

The Problem with Frēa and Frēo

Other than not being attested as theonyms, there’s one overarching issue: they would have become homophones, if not also possibly homographs. Had they survived into more modern times at all, the meanings would have probably collapsed together into some general “noble” definition. That alone might have killed the words later anyway.

Truthfully, though, the words were already limited largely to poetry, especially Frēa. The words were probably moribund regardless.

Conclusion

Language is fun! It’s always a delight to see what might have happened in a different word. Amusement aside, it’s not a bad idea to use these reconstructed forms instead. The language changed and that would not have skipped theonyms.

This being said, things are not always predictable, as seen in a few examples above. No one could have predicted Þunor becoming Thunder. This could be equally true for any number of other names. Religion is by its very nature conservative, which may lead to some names being severely delayed for some sound changes, if included at all.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Beowulf, line 1319.

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