Until is a very human word.
According to the online Apple dictionary, until emerged from the confluence of und and till, two individual words with their own unique origin. The second word and later syllable is older; till once meant “to” in Old Norse, existing in print for several hundred years before the word until appeared in English texts.
Today, till is accepted as an informal, synonomyous substitute for until; and so I wonder:
How did till evolve into until, and why did it become the more formal version?
English may not have the French je ne sais quoi, nor a sing-song sprezzatura like Italian; but it is words like until that show English’s nuance, evolution and beauty. Until’s very existence is the result of several overlapping cultures that invaded and settled England over time: Latin speaking Roman soldiers intermingled with indigenous Celts. Their Celto-Roman prodigy were pushed west into Wales after the Anglo-Saxons arrived, bringing the Old English language to the island.
Since English unexpectedly evolved into a language spoken on a global scale, its historic eccentricities have presented modern challenges. For instance, since English is found within programming languages in computer systems, computational logic sometimes has trouble processing the human element found in words like until.
Here, until confounds.
In A History of Until, three computer scientists from the University of Verona elaborate on the difficulty of until as an operational word in computer programming. As their abstract states:
The programmers state the paradox in the abstract: until’s definition is at once “existential and universal”, which confuses computer logic. An additional Google search confirms that until has a complex meaning: the two root-words, und and till, have the same meaning yet separate origins. As such, Google defines until as a doubled word with a duplicate meaning.
In the diagram below, Google states that till is rooted in Old English rather than Old Norse, yet stills means “to.” The data also shows that it is und which is Old Norse and means “as far as.”
Although the Verona research addresses the problem from computational perspective, perhaps a more overarching approach for improving computer logic and artificial intelligence may be found in the annals of human history. After all, if the historic complexities in English present computational obstacles, perhaps studying this human element that escapes artificial intelligence will allow programmers to be more effective. This is the quoi beyond data.
I ask once more:
Why did till evolve into until? What was the logic behind until? Was there a need for this word, or was the need created from the combination? Whether both root-words are Old Norse or not , the historic cross-culture contact between the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings may provide some insight, assuming the necessary documents survive.
We know that Old English predates Old Norse in Britain. The Old English speaking Angles and Saxons arrived from contemporary Germany and Denmark around 400AD. Theirs is the language found in Beowulf.
Although Old Norse and its Vikings speakers came later, their established Kingdom in 800AD does little to explain why these words would be doubled, nor does their history explain why a doubled word would become a more “formal” version later on. As till existed in print for hundreds of years prior to until, could it have been old-fashioned to use the Anglo-Saxon word? Was the motive to change some kind of vanity or reconciliation between cultures? Und-till. Un-till. Untill. Until.
A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine! From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, Lord!
Complicating the theory that until emerged under the Vikings in Britain; Google defines until as a word with a Middle English origin, spoken between 1160–1500AD. Even if we can confirm that und is in fact Old Norse and may have been used in Britain during this reign, Viking conquest could not have created until as Sweyn II of Denmark, the last Viking to have put his boots on British soil, was defeated in 1069AD, one-hundred years before scholars classify Middle English. Unfortunately for the victorious Anglo-Saxons, invasion did not end with vanquished Vikings.
Arriving at Hastings in 1066, the Normans are likely the answer for until’s emergence; a parallel group of Vikings who settled in France almost three-hundred years before reaching Britain. In the time the Normans spent settling in France, they adopted the continent’s old French, imbuing it into their own Old Norse and thus creating the Norman language that helped shape Middle English. These Normans, or North-men, defeated the Anglo-Saxons and their King Harold, conquering Britain in 1066 and their lineage remains today in the British aristocracy. It is very likely that Norman influence created until as they had created Middle English, the language found in Chaucer.
This evolution is best exemplified in England’s north, as the city-name York changed in tandem with each stage of conquest. What was once the Roman Fortress of Eboracum became Eoforwic, an Anglo-Saxon trading port. In the ensuing Viking period, warriors took over Eoforwic and the port became the bustling city of Jorvik. With the Vikings expelled and Norman arrival, the once-fortress-turned-port-then-city became York.
While the Norman Period explains und and till’s confluence, it does little to provide insight as to why they were combined. When the Normans defeated the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings, they made certain to remain in an elite class of their own thereafter. One way to ensure their supremacy was to use their native Old French in political and legal copy on the island. The conquered Anglo-Saxon peasants could not read Old French and many fell into feudal Britain’s lowest class as a result.
Until may very well be a haughty Norman stamp on the English language, a lingustic symbol of power. The logic is unclear, although I suspect a study of Old French would help reveal more, shedding light on Norman motivations if deliberate. Complicating this research is that scant literature from the period survives. For example, by the time Chaucer emerged, until was already in use:
It is apparent that more study is needed in order to understand the logic of until. Although the motive behind it remains a mystery, the logic of until is an example that shows the English language’s beauty and the nuance of the human mind.
This post first appeared on Medium, March 16th, 2016