bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Those damned diphthongs again

Posted in Offbeat observations by bonaelitterae on 26 August, 2008

A footnote to one of my earliest aperçus (or posts, if you prefer a more wooden term). The attentive may remember that I mentioned the humanist re-invention of the diphthong, marking the combination of two vowels which make a single sound by writing both of them or eliding them into a digraph. The generations immediately preceding the humanists, wielding the orthographical equivalent of Ockham’s Razor, would have gone for the simpler option of just dropping the first vowel.

Walking through the streets of Leiden yesterday evening, I came across a playful example of over-correction. It was a poster for a forthcoming concert by the consort or band who call themselves The Mediæval Bæbes. It depicted them — appropriately given their chosen name — with décolletage intended to raise an eyebrow or some such. What caught my attention, of course, were those digraphs. They suggest what one would assume anyway: that their chosen name is self-consciously ironic. Their website takes it further and places a suspension mark — the sign that a word has been abbreviated, leaving our a letter or more, like a circumflex in French — over each of the digraphs. That combination of suspension mark and digraph is surely knowing nonsense.

It should be said that ‘medieval’ in English English (the American version is less open to the possibility) can be spelt with the digraph as ‘mediæval’ — and, indeed, reflects pre-gothic medieval uses: in manuscripts in caroline minuscule, the script before the gothic bookhand, the diphthongs were often marked. From what I can tell, the band’s music reflects various influences, including the Celtic tradition, but, in Leiden, the poster was placed alongside other advertisements for concerts which may interest the Netherlandish community of ‘goths’, an audience which surely would demand the digraph be dropped. But then they would be ‘The Medieval Bebes’, which is hardly alluring. On the other hand, as the ‘ae’ diphthong is pronounced close to an ‘i’, saying ‘bæbes’ could end up sounding as if the speaker had a strong West Country accent.

As a footnote to this footnote, I note The Mediæval Bæbes are appearing at the Maryland Renaissance Festival — one hopes no turf-war would break out between ‘Meds’ and ‘Rens.’ At the Festival, guests are asked to decide which dish they consider most evocative of the Renaissance: the choice includes turkey legs and cheesecakes on a stick.