A coin from the days when English was a tribal language, ill-adapted to Roman letters

Every so often there is a news story about the difficulty of representing some foreign language in Roman letters.  This is especially the case for languages like Chinese which already have a  dedicated script.

Every script or alphabet exists for the purpose of representing the sounds of a language.  At those times when a language has never been written before, the new script will often be adapted from some existing letters.  Sometimes it takes a couple of attempts.  We are all familiar with the creation of the Cyrillic script by Cyril and Methodius, from Greek.

The truth is that Roman letters may be the standard today, but the Roman script was never devised to represent most of the languages that are today written in it.

Bible translators very often create the first written version of some tribal language.  Consequently they struggle with issues such as sounds that do not match any letter.  They end up creating clumps of letters, or using accents or something, in order to cope.

But few of us may have considered that the missionaries to the Anglo-Saxons had to deal with exactly the same problem.

English is not a language which was originally written in Roman script.  It was originally written in runes, which were devised to represent the sounds of the English language.  (We are all familiar with the appearance of English runes thanks to J.R.R.Tolkien.)

English spelling is as weird as it is for several reasons, but one of the reasons is that the English language contains sounds not found in Latin.  One example is the “th” sound, found in “the”.

In runic, “th” was represented by a single character, “thorn”, written as “þ”.  Indeed if you visit Iceland, as I have done, you will see this rune still in use, mingled into Roman script.  The thorn rune was often written with the loop open at the top, looking more like “y”.  This is the origin of such modern curiosities as “ye olde tea shoppe” – the “ye” was originally “þe”.

Few will be aware that there is numismatic evidence of the changeover from runes to Roman.  I owe my knowledge of this to Dr Kate Wiles, who posted a coin and a fascinating explanation to twitter here:

Coin of Offa, issued by moneyer Ecghun. East Anglian mint.  785-793 AD. Type 168.  See here.  Said to be found near Great Saxham, Suffolk, 2017.

This is a coin issued by King Offa in the 8th century, produced by the moneyer Ecghun. You can see on the left it says REX ᛭ OFFA.

On the right is the moneyer’s name, written EXCHVN. Which seems like an odd spelling.

It was made at a time when English was only just starting to be written with the Latin alphabet – previously, it had been written using runes. Latin and Old English didn’t have all the same sounds, though, so there were teething problems when working out how to spell some words.

Latin, for example, didn’t have the ‘dg’ sound we have in words like ‘edge’, so there was no obvious letter that English could use. The end solution in Old English was to use ‘cg’, but that took a while to settle.

Ecghun’s solution in the meantime was to import a rune to do the job – ᚷ is the runic character for G.

So this tiny coin is evidence of the earliest stages of English starting to be written with this alphabet. It’s a combination of two languages and two writing systems.[1]

It’s a fascinating story which doesn’t deserve to be lost in Twitter.  It certainly makes you look at English spelling a second time!  Thank you, Dr. Wiles, for drawing our attention to it!

  1. [1]Dr Wiles gives as a source Martin Findell & Philip Shaw, “Language Contact in Early Medieval Britain: Settlement, Interaction, and Acculturation”, in: W.M. Ormrod &c, Migrants in Medieval England, c.500-c.1500, Oxford (2020).

An email about the letters of Isidore of Pelusium

Isidore of Pelusium was a monk living in the Nile delta in the early-mid 5th century AD, in the times of Cyril of Alexandria.  We know nothing of him except that a collection about 2,000 of his letters – or rather short excerpts from them – was made by the “Sleepless” monks of Constantinople in the 6th century.  It’s never received a critical edition, but the text is actually quite interesting.  It may be a lost devotional classic.

Something over ten years ago – I write from memory – I became aware of this work.  I did so through the marvellous monograph of Pierre Evieux, who also translated the second half of the collection for the Sources Chrétiennes series.  It seemed a shame not to commission some English translations, and so I set out to do so, and I wrote about this here with the tag “Isidore of Pelusium”.  But it was all very hard, and I got nowhere much.  The bits and pieces all over the place that resulted were too much for me to ever collect.

Yesterday I received an email from Ted Janiszewski.  It seems that he and a friend have been looking at Isidore of Pelusium and trying to work out what exists in English.  He wrote:

What we’ve come up with is there are currently 53 numbered epistles in English, either posted to your blog, shared in the comments, or translated in your edition of Eusebius’ Gospel Problems and Solutions:

1–14, 27, 35–36, 78, 97–101, 212, 221, 310–311, 322, 448, 1106, 1214–1220, 1222–1229, 1241, 1243–1246, 1285, 1382, 1582

There are a further twenty unnumbered letters done into English in 1843 by William Roberts, as you mention here – but I haven’t yet checked to see whether there is overlap. A quick Google Books search uncovered translations of a few more fragments – and I’m sure there is more buried out there in monographs and journals. But this now is what we have.

I was wondering: you mention here (ten years ago today! how time flies) and again here that you commissioned letters 15–25. Did those ever come through?

I have written back to tell him that 15-25 never arrived.  My email box reveals that a gentleman named Mark Genter was working on them, and then everything went silent.

What I did find was a translation of 102-116, made by a gentleman named Clive Sweeting, but never placed online because he never received the payment we agreed.  I think after 10 years that it doesn’t matter, so I will do so in a bit.

Rather nice to hear about all this again!


Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram imperfectus liber (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis: Unfinished Book) – online in English

Dr Isabella Image has kindly written to me and offered to make available her translation of Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram imperfectus liber (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis: Unfinished Book = CPL 268).  Dr Image has worked on several academic translations, so it is very nice indeed to have this one made available.  She has also kindly made the result public domain, so please circulate it freely.  Here it is:

The footnote and formatting is my responsibility tho.

I have also added the files to Archive.org here.

A very literal translation already exists on the web here, at Google sites.  The Patrologia Latina text may be found online here, and indeed also Italian and Spanish versions.

Dr Image adds:

You’ll want to know my credentials: my classics BA & MPhil were at Cambridge and my patristics DPhil was at Oxford. I’ve published Augustine translations before (with Walsh & Collard) and also my doctorate (on Hilary of Poitiers).

It is very good news indeed to have this.  Thank you!

UPDATE 16 Sept 2023: Four different works by Augustine are listed in the Clavis Patrum Latinorum.  These are CPL 265, De Genesi contra Manichaeos; CPL 266, De Genesi ad litterarum l. xii; CPL 267, De Genesis ad litteram l. xii. Capitula; and this work, CPL 268, De Genesi ad litteram imperfectus liber which he abandoned.  He wrote still other works on the Hexameron and the Heptateuch.

A number of English translations exist of all of these confusingly-named works.

  • St Augustine, On Genesis, tr. John E. Rotelle, in: The Works of St Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, part 1, vol. 13, New City Press (2006), ISBN 1-56548-175-5 and 1-56548-201-8.  This contains CPL 265, 266 and 268.
  • St Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, tr. John Hammond Taylor, in: Ancient Christian Writers 41 (1982), 2 vols, ISBN: 0-8091-0326-5 and ISBN: 0-8091-0327-3.  This contains CPL 266 only.
  • St Augustine, On Genesis: Two Books on Genesis Against the Manichees and On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis, an unfinished book, tr. Roland J. Teske, in: Fathers of the Church 84 (1991).  This contains CPL 265 and 268.  ISBN 0-8132-0084-9 and 0-8132-0088-7 (pbk).

From my diary

My apologies for the lack of blogging.  It’s not for lack of material to blog about!  I have a folder of items that I want to talk about, and it seems to get longer every week.  Which is nice, really.  What I don’t have is any time.  I’m sitting at my computer in my study, working from home remotely and dialing into a workplace that I have never physically visited.  After a long day of work, the last thing I want to do is sit down at the same computer.  I can’t work on any of my translations.  It’s also hot, and remote working and zoom meetings are more tiring than you’d think.  So … silence.  But I’m still here and anyway… it’s summer.  Don’t we all have outdoor things to do?

I’ve had a couple of interesting emails, relating to earlier blog posts.  I will post these when I get the chance.

The Covid-19 lockdown has affected my attempts to obtain information about the Roman fort in the sea off Felixstowe, because the record office is shut.  I have been trying to get this information for over a year now, and in my experience that means that it won’t ever arrive.  But you never know.

I had an email from the Hotel Nerva in Rome, where I have often stayed, offering discounts.  I would truly like to go back to Rome, although not in August, obviously!  But travel is really out of the question while the plague rages.

So nothing of interest is happening here, and of course I have nothing to write about.

I’m on contract until the end of September, when I shall have to consider whether to continue.  My current client is foolishly pushing its staff to return to the office during September, where their health and lives will depend on whether the low-paid and poorly-treated cleaning staff, comprised mainly of illegal immigrants, take sufficient care in performing their duties or not.  It is not a gamble that I should care to take!

Normal service will resume when I get some time!