All the birds have begun their nests …

These two lines (ll. 3–4) of Old Low Franconian, which we may call “Old Dutch,” together with the Latin text that precedes them (ll. 1–2), date from the 11th century. They are the result of a monk’s attempt to break in a new quill—called a probatio pennae ‘test of a pen’:


               quid expectamuſ nunc
Abent omneſ uolucreſ nidoſ inceptoſ niſi ego & tu
Hebban olla uogala neſtaſ hagunnan hinaſe hic
enda thu uuat unbidan uue nu

3   olla ‘all’; note that the vowel has rounded to o before syllable-final luogalafogala ‘birds’ cf. fowl, Ger Vogel; take olla uogala as the subject of hebbanneſtaſ ‘nests’; take as the object of hebbanhagunnan III a-ginnan past ppl ‘begun’; hagunnan and hebban together work as an early periphrastic perfect, a structure that was becoming increasingly common in this time period; cf. have begun as opposed to beganhinaſe ‘except’ < hit ni sī ‘(though) it not be,’ which omitting the first element is exactly cognate to Latin nisihicik ‘I’ with an excrescent h- (see below)

4   thu ‘thou’—unbidan I on-bīdan ‘wait for’—uue ‘we’ cf. Dutch wij, we

The first interesting linguistic feature of this short text is the masculine a-stem plural endings on l. 3 olla uogala ‘all the birds (nom.)’ and nestas ‘nests (acc.).’ It is rather rare that a West Germanic dialect retains a distinction between these cases in the a-stem plural (Old English uses -as for both, Old Saxon -os, and Old High German -a), and yet the dialect of the scribe appears to use -a for the nominative and -as for the accusative. Hebban olla uogala nestas is especially surprising because the -as ending (generalized in OE and OS) actually reflects the older Germanic nominative, and the -a ending (generalized in OHG) the Germanic accusative, contrary to their usage here. We have obviously caught this dialect in a period when there is significant confusion between which of the inherited endings to use, and when—not unlike the struggle some modern English speakers have in remembering when to use who as opposed to whom!

Something else that is obvious, not only from the Franconian text but from the Latin too, is the scribe’s total inability to decide which words start with h- and which do not. Latin habent ‘they have’ is noticeably missing its initial consonant, written Abent; on the other hand, hagunnan and hic are written with an h- that does not etymologically belong there. We may deduce from this that the scribe did not pronounce /h-/ anywhere (just like the neighboring Romance dialects). Therefore he was forced to memorize—albeit imperfectly—which words were supposed to be written with h- and which were not. Thus, the writing of ic as hic is a classic example of hypercorrection.

Hebban olla uogala nestas hagunnan hinase hic
enda thuuuat unbidan uue nu?

All the birds have begun their nests except me
and you—what are we waiting for now?