Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 28, 2020

Sumer is Icumen In

Although most of us around the world are constrained in our celebrations of summer’s advent to one degree or another, we can, at least, sing its praises.

Sumer is icumen in
Lhude sing cuccu
Groweþ sed
and bloweþ med
and springþ þe wde nu
Sing cuccu

Awe bleteþ after lomb
lhouþ after calue cu
Bulluc sterteþ
bucke uerteþ
murie sing cuccu

Cuccu cuccu
Wel singes þu cuccu
ne swik þu nauer nu

Sing cuccu nu • Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu • Sing cuccu nu

After its relatively well-known first line, some of that 13th century song challenges us.

One Note on the Calendar

Medieval notions of “summer” were different than our astronomically oriented determination that summer begins on the estival solstice. Their “summer” probably began closer to the spring equinox or the first May. Hence, we still have a habit of referring to the solstice as “midsummer.”

No Dictionaries

The nonstandardized state of English spelling in the days of hand-copied manuscripts accounts for much of the difficulty we have reading “Sumer Is Icumen In.” Most of the words are still in use.

Those of us who had at least some exposure to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — written about 150 years after this song was copied down — have encountered some of this now-obsolete spelling.

The song is in a dialect of English from Wessex, west of Chaucer’s London, and much closer in time, vocabulary and grammar to the transition from Old English. The spelling represents local pronunciation, as well as whatever conventions were used by the scribe who recorded it. It was centuries before “standard” English became a notion.

One character, þ — named thorn — was a survival from earlier Germanic roots, including runic writing, and was widely used in Old English. It represents “th,” giving us “groweth,” “bloweth” and “springeth” in the first stanza, then elsewhere.

Pesky Vowels

Spelling vowel sounds has always been problematic in English. To this day, the non-native speaker despairs over distinguishing between, for example, the various pronunciations of “ough” in bough, though, through, rough and so on.

“Sed” is “seed.” You got that, along with its rhyme-word, “med/”mead. “Mead,” though, means a meadow, not a fermented beverage, and “bloweth” means “bloometh.” An “awe” is a ewe, which bleateth for its lamb. “Murie,” of course is “merry.” That may represent a different pronunciation of the word in 13th century Wessex.

Odd Problems

But what do we make of some truly odd words and phrases?

icumen

If summer is coming/arriving, why is it icumen? In Old English, verbs often (scores of them) began with an unaccented ge-, with the G pronounced as “Y.” Typically — not always — that indicated a form of emphatic statement or the sense that the verb had been completed. Generally, that ge- faded out of usage. Our song has a barely surviving unaccented I, a holdover from an Old English word, gecumen (yeh-KOO-man), meaning precisely what we already knew: arriving.

Sprinþ þe wde nu

Read, “Now springs (as in leaves emerging) the woodland.” W, U and V were problems for centuries. They were both consonants and vowels. In this case, W is pulling double duty, and there’s no vowel as we consider them for “woods.” We still call W double-u, and it was often spelled that way, UU. Pronounce the final e on wde: WOOD-eh.

lhouþ after calue cu

Here, we have almost as much fun as we’re going to have in this post — not quite. Read the line aloud as “loo-eth after cal-veh koo.”

The word order isn’t our standard subject-verb-object. In that order, we would write cu lhouþ after calue: “The cow lows (loweth) after its calf.” The poet needed a rhyme for nu, so put cu (cow) at the end. Writers still pull that trick, with mixed results. The line has more of that scribal use of U for V, giving us the unfamiliar form of calf. Cu is an ancient word, present in the earliest known written English.

ne swik þu nauer nu

The next-to-most-fun we’ll have. Almost dead-on Old English, both vocabulary and structure. We just learned nu is “now.” The entire construction’s archaic for us. Today, we’d say, “Now don’t ever stop,” literally, “nor stop thou never now.” More U for V.

Fun With Animals

One charming aspect of the song is that it’s told in terms of nature waking up as summer arrives: cuckoo, ewe/lamb, cow/calf; you’ve figured out bullock and buck — likely a male deer.

The bullock sterteth, meaning leaps; good enough. The buck, however, uerteth. You guessed it, the scribe meant V, verteth. (Read bucke BOOK-eh to make it scan.)

What doth one do when one verteth? Now the fun.

The Big Controversy

Believe it or not, that single word, verteth has generated a considerable amount of scholarly debate. It seemed to a number of scholars that it must be a previously unknown word, something like sterteth: the buck was leaping or “cavorting.” There was, however, later, a “consonant shift” — the sort of thing that happens in many languages over time.

By the time I was studying Middle English a number of decades ago, the discussion was more or less resolved. Consonant shift made that initial V our present day F sound, from a voiced labio-dental fricative to a voiceless one. That gives us a slightly recognizable word, ferteth.

Yes, friends, in spring, the bucke farteth. Many scholars resisted that reading, but it dates from a more elemental time.

Note: Original 13th century music exists for this song.

521px-Sumer_is_icumen_in_-_Summer_Canon_(Reading_Rota)_(mid_13th_C),_f.11v_-_BL_Harley_MS_978

It is a form of Rota, or round, for several voices. See the Wikipedia link below for other versions, but here’s one recorded by the inimitable Richard Thompson.

I hope you enjoy a safe and happy sumer. Wear your mask, keep your eye on those swimmers in the water at all times, and if you’re out in the wde, don’t feed the animals, including the bucke.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Facsimile of the work held and digitized by the British Library, Harley MS 978. This version public domain via the Creative Commons agreement. No commercial use permitted without express permission.

Sources consulted include The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, Houghton Mifflin, New York 2000; Compact Edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford University, 1971; A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, J.R Clark-Hall, Wilder Publications, 2011. The Middle English Dictionary lhouþ citation at this link; © 2018 Regents of the University of Michigan; Medieval English Lyrics, © R.T. Davies, ed., 1963, Northwestern University Press, 1972 printing. An overview, including notes on the music for this piece, is at this Wikipedia link.


Responses

  1. Made me laugh during a 3 am bout of insomnia! Thank you! Great writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am absolutely delighted you didn’t say, “Your writing was the perfect antidote to my insomnia: Put me right to sleep!” Glad you enjoyed it.

      Like

  2. One consequence of living to a certain age is that the language around you has changed enough that you notice people saying things that you know people didn’t say when you were young. One such change is the increased use of a phrase where a single word was once sufficient. For example, it’s now common to find “drought conditions” used for “drought.” A drought is a condition, so there’s no need to tack on the overt categorization. Another change is the bumping of one word by another that offers no advantage. A common example is “around” displacing “about”. Here’s an article about it:

    https://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Verbal-Energy/2014/1204/We-have-issues-around-this-turn-of-phrase

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed, Steve; that’s an item of discussion in this house. Some pointlessly superfluous such phrases drive us crazy. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re about to begin our boarding process.” Well, we’re boarding. Does it have to be a process? I’ll read the article. I’ve never read anything on this subject. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

    • A great example is the addition of “the” to freeway numbers. It wasn’t like that when I was growing up. It was just “101” and that was it. I noticed it started in the LA area and worked its way up. In other states, such as Texas, that is how you ID a transplant. Also, Texans don’t have “accidents”, they call it what it is “a wreck” and it is quickly taken care of by a “wrecker” not a “tow truck”.

      I was personally injured and plowed into someone from behind that thought it was more important to text than pay attention to her driving in a construction zone. That was NOT an accident, it was a wreck.

      Being a 5th generation Californian, what grated on my nerves the most is “Cali”. Ugh.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. One of my favorites! I always show it to people struggling to learn English:

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I never read this without Ezra Pound’s parody coming to mind. His language is a little edgier, though more comprehensible! Happy summer!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ah, good, you didn’t disappoint me. I thought I might have space in which to squeeze in Ezra’s poem. As usual, I ran long, but I felt confident some astute reader would bring him into the mix.
      What’s interesting is the shift in diction English permits. In the original, “loud sings cuckoo,” the statement’s descriptive, telling us how the cuckoo sings.
      Without effort — but to great comic effect — Pound shifts to a version of imperative, “sing goddam.”
      It never fails to strike me as maybe the funniest thing he wrote, although I’ve never made it through the Cantos.
      Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person


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