Voices of Earlier English: Robert Robinson reads Shakespeare

In 1617 one Robert Robinson, a kid who matriculated pensioner from Trinity Hall two years before, composed one of the most original works of early English phonetics in "The Art of Pronuntiation" in which he used a script deliberately unrelated to the Roman alphabet to sidestep its limitations. He lived as a schoolmaster in London and apparently fourty years later impressed Charles Hoole (teacher of a grammar school in Lothbury Garden) with the speed with which he taught young children to read. Hoole implies that Robinson was using a technique peculiar to him. He appears to have been poor, but had a good education.

His published essay is a general theory of phonetics, complete with a series of symbols by which he hopes to be able to represent speech (of any language) unambiguously. Essentially, Robinson was trying to create a kind of Early Modern IPA. It is not without problems. His desire for featural elegance led him to express things like tenseness in a roundabout way. In this he was probably influenced not by traditional spelling as is commonly suggested but by the model set by Latin and Greek grammarians. His description of the distinctive features is very original and sometimes quite perceptive. I actually like his category of "lesser obstrict" a lot. He seems to have independently arrived at the rudiments of ideas like place and manner of articulation.

He then used his proto-IPA to transcribe his pronunciation of English and Latin. And in doing so is able to unproblematically represent a few phones that anyone bound to just the Roman alphabet would have a hard time doing. He reports things like optional allophonic devoicing, the fact that his particular dialect had a realization of /kl/ and /gl/ clusters that we would otherwise not know existed in the city of london at that time.

In his deliberate disregard of the Roman alphabet, he allows himself to recognize variety not just among different people but in his own speech. He feels no obligation to transcribe every instance of a word the same way if he doesn't always pronounce it the same way. Unlike Hart and Gil and all the English spelling-centered sources, the phenomenon of free variation causes Robinson no ideological problems. He is the only such witness to proceed in such a descriptivist spirit. His idiolectal transcriptions give us real information about an incomplete merger of *ā and *ai in his idiolect, one which was only partially lexically restricted.

His book did not sell well, and only one copy of it survives.

His proto-IPA is rather clunky and in some ways fails him. His biggest limitation is that he seems never to have really learned to speak any other language. Had he broadened his articulatory experience, who knows what he might have accomplished. In any case it's a shame nobody in his day realized that he was onto something big in featural representation. Despite some of its awkwardness, his script does allow one to build up a fairly well-supported sense of what a young well-educated but clearly sub-elite man might sound like when reading Shakespeare's sonnets which had been published just eight years earlier. Especially since he transcribes his pronunciation of verse-texts in his private papers.

The pronunciation Robinson records himself as using in reading verse is a good deal more...formal than the one I typically use for these readings. Much more sparing in its use of weak forms of function words. He usually gives words like "my" or "I" or  "have" the vocalism associated with the strong forms. And when reading verse he always pronounces the <l> in "should/could/would". Incidentally, this is one guy for whom their/they're were NOT homophones. So I read it in a careful way, quite performatively flat, the way a schoolmaster might when trying to illustrate pronunciation.

So here you go, sonnet 18 in his English.

(If you're wondering why this doesn't sound like David Crystal's "OP", here's a tediously detailed disussion of everything that is wrong with it.)




Historians of English phonology haven't always recognized Robinson's achievement fully. Chomsky and Halle were among the worst offenders. Some of what Robinson has to say conflicts with certain theoretical presuppositions about the way in which important sound changes took place. The thought has often been that Robinson (and Hart, and Gil, and pretty much everybody else) must have been misled by English spelling or failing to properly perceive things that "ought" to be there.

People like Dobson (Robinson's most recent editor), Kökeritz and Cercignani never forgave Robinson for not representing the PRICE and MOUTH vowels as sharing a single centralized onset. Worse still, there is really is no way to make sense of how he sets up his feature grid unless ME /ā/ was not yet /ɛ:/ for him. Otherwise he could put it in a length-pair with ME /ĕ/, while pairing ME /ă/ with pre-rhotic ME /ā/. The very fact that he reports a distinction between ME /ā/ and /ɛ̄/ in pre-rhotic contexts and equates the former with ME /ā/ in free development simply makes an [ɛ:] value for ME /ā/ unlikely unless there is something very peculiar about his rhotic. But a value [æ:] would mean that ME /ā/ and /ai/ were merging to [æ:]. As Tessio said in the Godfather "hell, he can't do that; that screws up all my arrangements". Dobson for his part found it preferable to think that /ai/ could only ever monophthongize one way in the history of English. He had his reasons. Philologists dealing with the history of a national language have sometimes suffered from morbidly severe cases of teleology.

Wolfe and Lass set the point straight: a man like Robinson who could describe his feature grid this way, who could tell that orthographic <cl> in <declines> actually corresponded to [t͡ɬ] in his pronunciation (a feature now restricted to certain moribund dialects outside London), who was so dissatisfied with English spelling that he came up with an entirely new script, was not being blinkered by naive reliance on traditional orthography in his transcriptions. The only influence of orthography, I think, is that sometimes variant spellings elicited different covarying pronunciations when he read text aloud.

Voices of Earlier English: Alexander Gil reads Spenser

Alexander Gil (1565-1635) was a Lincolnshire-born teacher at St. Pauls, whose most famous pupil was probably John Milton. He invented a (quite brilliant) phonetic orthography for English, affording access to his rather conservative reading-dialect.

Gil was over 50 by the time he wrote the Logonomia, and his transcription should be taken as a representation of self-consciously learned and acrolectic pronunciation of the kind cultivated in the later half of the 16th century but old-fashioned at the time he committed it to writing.
Personally to me, it seems rather fitting to read poetry of a self-consciously archaizing man like Spenser in this type of English. This is very easy to do, because (unsurprisingly) the puristic Gil was a big fan of the puristic Spenser, and transcribed enormous amounts of material from the Faerie Queene into his system.

Here, I read stanzas 45-46 from chapter 5 of book 3.

Below is Gil's transcription of same, from the Logonomia Anglica in his section on poetic excellencies:

Unthankful wrech (said hï) iz ðis ðe mïd
With which her soverain mersi ðou dust qujt?
Ðj ljf shï säved bj her gräsius dïd:
But ðou dust mën with vilenus dispjt
Tu blot her onor, and her hevenli ljħt.
Dj, raðer dj, ðen so disloialj
Dïm of her hjħ dezert, or sïm so ljħt,
Fäir dêth it iz tu shun mör shäm, ðen dj,
Dj, räðer dj, ðen ever luv disloialj.

But if tu luv disloialtj it bi,
Shal j ðen hät her ðat from dëthez dör
Mï brouħt? Ah far bï such repröch from mï.
What kan J les du ðen her luv ðerför,
Sith j her dʋ reward kanot restör?
Dj, räðer dj, and djing du her serv,
Djing her serv, and living her adör.
Ðj ljf shï gäv, ðj ljf shï duth dezerv.
Dj, räðer dj, ðen ever from her servis swerv.

Based on the corpus of Gil's transcriptiosn, it is not too hard to (re)construct his phonetic transcription of any passage. For example, the opening of the Faerie Queene:


a ʒentl knjħt was priking on ðe plain
iklad in mjħti armz and silver shïld
whërin öld dints of dïp wündz did rimain
ðe krυel marks of mani a bludi fïld
yit armz til ðat tjm did hï nevr wïld
hiz angri stïd did chjd hiz föming bit
az much disdaining tu ðe kurb tu yïld
ful ʒoli knjħt hï sïmd and fäir did sit
az ön for knjħtli ʒousts and fërs enkounterz fit

and on hiz brest a bludi kros hï bör
ðe dër rimembrans of hiz djing lörd
för whüz swït säk ðat glörius baʒ hï wör
and dëd az living ever him adörd
upon hiz shïld ðe ljk waz âlsö skörd
for sovrain höp which in hiz help hï had
rjħt faithful trʋ hï waz in dïd and wörd
but of hiz chïr did sïm tu solem sad
yit nöthing did hï drëd but ever waz idrad...

Here is a reading, in the same pronunciation, of Spenser's translation of Du Bellay's poem "Nouveau venu qui cherches Rome en Rome".

Just for kicks, here is how Du Bellay's original French poem would have sounded at the time when read aloud.

ðou stranʒer, which for Röm in Röm hïer sïkst,
and nöuħt of Röm in Röm percëvst at âl,
ðëz säm öld wâlz, öld Arches, which ðou sïst,
öld palasez, iz ðat which röm Men kâl.
bihöld what rek, what Rυjn, and what wast,
and hou ðat shï, which with her mjħti Pour
Täm'd âl ðe World, hath täm'd her self at last,
ðe Prai of Tjm, which âl thingz duth divour.
Röm nou of Röm iz ðönli Fυnerâl,
And önli Röm, of Röm hath Viktori;
Ne auħt säv Tjber, hästening tu hiz Fâl,
Rimains of âl: O Worldz enkonstansi!
ðat which iz firm, duth flit and fâl awai;
And ðat is fliting, duth abjd and stai.


The kind of speech that Gil transcribes is a formal kind perhaps largely restricted to self-consciously literary reading. He claimed it represented a supraregional southern norm, and that may be so in some sense. But it can hardly represent a kind of aristocratic Koine like British RP or American Mid-Atlantic English in the early 20th century. It is, I think, rather a literary pronunciation in the truest sense of the word. He admits for example that it is normal in speech (in the "common dialect") to say [inuf] rather than [inux] for "enough". He transcribes the word as the latter: <inuħ>.

A pronunciation of this kind must have had currency among the highly letterèd when reading aloud. Gil's *specific* variant of it though is probably not to be taken as representative of a London norm.
In at least two respects, Gil's reading-dialect is at odds with any kind of ordinary speech — even the most elegant. The English he represents appears not to have undergone the VAIN-VEIN merger. This had been accomplished in London by no later than 1350-1400 or so. The rhymes of London poets in the early 1500s show quite clearly that this merger was accomplished in the dialect underlying their speech. The same merger is reflected by Hart in 1551 and in all the work of the London-based phoneticians of the early 1600s who nonetheless distinguish VAIN from VANE. Gil attributes the VAIN-VEIN merger (or at least the pronunciation of "they" as "thay") to what he calls the "communis dialectus", just like the reading of "enough" as "enuff".

The VEIN/VAIN distinction in Gil's dialect however, is clearly not a mirage induced by normative orthography. When spelling implies something at variance with pronunciation, Gil easily represents pronunciation. Gil transcribes metathesis-spawned /u/ in words with orthographic <i> that would eventually join the NURSE lexical set. For example <burd> "bird" a form independently verified in pre-NURSE-merger speech by Gil's younger contemporary, the phonetician Robert Robinson. Other transcriptions such as <fürth, hensfürth> /fu:rθ/, /hensfu:rθ/ "henceforth" (the same vowel as in <dürz>  /du:rz/ "doors") imply strongly that he is basing himself directly on some kind of real pronunciation. And indeed, transcriptions such as <waiħt> "weight" and <ei> "eye" make it clear he is not simply basing himself on spelling on this particular point either. The transcription <rëineth> for "reigneth", if the diacritic is not a printer's error, is especially telling, as to an onset in the higher half of the vowel-space. The pronunciation his spelling implies must have existed in his mouth.

Gil's literary dialect also lacks the WRIGHT/WRITE merger. This had of a certainty taken place in London generally, and featured in the speech of people of the highest status. Queen Elizabeth herself gives evidence that she had this merger (there is no other way to explain her choice to spell "Rhyme" as <righme>). As the rhymes and original spellings of the passage read here demonstrate, Spenser like other aristocrats born in London after about 1550 or so was himself probably insensitive to any such distinction. Gil is in fact the ONLY direct description of its survival after 1600. As with VAIN/VEIN, this may be put down to the fact that Gil's native stomping ground in the East Midlands retained a distinction lost centuries earlier in London itself. (After back-vowels, however, matters were somewhat different: the phonetician Robert Robinson testifies that elegant speech even of young men born in London might distinguish TAUT/TAUGHT in 1617, and words ending in -UGHT are almost never rhymed with anything else by Londoner poets born before around 1610 or so).

Voices of Earlier English: William Harrison on Why Foreigners Can't Learn English

The English language in the 16th century was a bit like Icelandic or Danish in the early 21st, in that very few people outside the British Isles had much practical reason to learn the language, and of those foreigners who bothered trying, fewer still ever really learned it well. Why, after all, would you need English when anybody in England of real importance would know French and/or Latin? As John Florio put it "What think you of this English tongue?.....It is a language that will do you good in England but, pass Dover, it is worth nothing." John Donne, in The Will (written sometime in the 1590s) says "I...give...to them which passe among/ all forrainers, mine English tongue." i.e. nobody on the continent will speak any English to you. Literary works of prose and verse in French by non-native speakers, especially in the Middle Ages but continuing into Renaissance, are fairly common. Even in the 1700s one could find learned Englishmen like Sir William Jones composing verse in French as readily as in English. But I know of only one adult English-learner from continental Europe (Charles d'Orléans) who composed a literary work in English before the 18th century, and his circumstances were extremely unusual. William Harrison (b. 1534) in this passage from his Description of England (1577) describes how adept Anglophones are at learning other languages, whereas foreigners seldom manage to learn to speak good English. To Harrison, the reason why is obvious: English is just harder than other languages, whereas if you speak English that naturally makes it easier to learn other languages. Hard to disagree, no? English could never replace Latin and French as a lingua franca. The very idea is absolutely silly, amirite? I think of this passage in Harrison whenever I hear people spewing asininities about how English is just a really easy language to pick up (with "not a lot of grammar") and is therefore a natural choice as the world's lingua franca

Below are three different recordings of this passage in three different chronolects of English as it was pronounced by the well-read, well-fed and/or well-bred subjects of the crown at different times. Try listening to the first recording, and see how much you get. Then listen to the next two. Then take a look at the text, respelled according to modern norms. (Some time in the early 1600s, the pronunciation heard on the lips of courtiers and schoolmasters became close enough to the modern language that a time traveler would face little difficulty at that point) .

Early-mid-16th century London highborn "Mopsey" dialect, the pronunciation of John Hart. (This type of speech had a MAIN-MEAN merger, but MANE remained distinct. It is not ancestral to the next two) 


Mid-17th century elite speech (the pronunciation of Richard Hodges)

Early-mid-18th century elite speech of the "first British Empire" (the pronunciation of Benjamin Franklin)    

This also is proper to us Englishmen, that sith ours is a mean language, and neither too rough nor too smooth in utterance, we may with much facility learn any other language, beside Hebrew, Greek and Latin, and speak it naturally, as if we were home-born in those countries; and yet on the other side it falleth out, I wot not by what other means, that few foreign nations can rightly pronounce ours, without some and that great note of imperfection, especially the French men, who also seldom write any thing that savoreth of English truly. It is a pastime to read how Natalis Comes in like manner, speaking of our affairs, doth clip the names of our English lords. But this of all the rest doth breed most admiration with me, that if any stranger do hit upon some likely pronunciation of our tongue, yet in age he swerveth so much from the same, that he is worse therein than ever he was, and thereto peradventure halteth not a litle also in his own, as I have seen by experience in Reginald Wolfe, and other, whereof I have justly marvelled.

Voices of Earlier English: Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

Southeast Midland Chancery English ca. 1350-400.

Several people said they'd like to hear Chaucer read in Middle English without the interference from modern phonology (diphthongs, distinction of pale/peal/peel/pail, etc.) heard in most reconstructions. So here you go. I tried, as per usual, to bleed out as much Modern English transfer as I could.

A difference between this and whatever IPA transcription you'd find in a handbook introduction is that /d t/ are dental, and the voiceless stops are MORE aspirated than in modern English. By the latter I mean that aspiration occurs in places where it normally would not in modern speech, e.g. [ɔːpʰən]. The earliest description of aspiration comes from John Hart's manuscript of 1551. With his usual accuteness of perception Hart describes the voiceless turbulent airflow accompanying /p t k/, and relates it to the sound represented by and implies that this is peculiar to the English stops as against their counterparts in other languages. But his examples include not just the usual suspects (, for "pipe", "plum") but also and for "apple", "open". No form of modern English has aspiration in this environment. But Hart's apparently did. Hart's desctiption is also why /d t/ are true dentals in my reading. He states that you pronounce them "by laying of your tongue full in the palate of your mouth, and touching hardest of your fore-teeth". These are unambiguously dentals. (Alveolar articulation, on the other hand, is described clearly a century later by Holder, and then a few decades later we get a few of language-teachers describing the difference between Romance and English /t d/.) Thus [pʰeːrsəd̪ t̪oː ðə roːt̪ʰə]. It seemed the least likely option to be wrong in such matters would be to project Hart's phonology back a century and a half. Certain types of voicing assimilation (e.g. rendered [hað] before voiced consonants and vowels and [haθ] elsewhere) also take their cue from 15th and 16th century sources, on the premise that it is more likely Chaucer's English had them than not.




From the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer (b. 1343, London)

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

Six Degrees of Deuteronomy: the phonological journey of Biblical Hebrew

The phonological journey of Hebrew, from the pre-exilic vernacular of the southern Kingdom, to Yehuda Halevi's literary language. 

I give you six degrees (and two millennia) of Deuteronomy 32:1-6.


Yes, there are a few ways in which this is quite speculative, and I at first hesitated to write and post this. I don't know how well it'll age. Much of the stuff seen and heard here is well supported. I am also filling in a great many gaps. For example, the precise timeline and trajectory of pre-Masoretic *ā is pretty hard to pin down. I think there's enough reason to suspect backing and lowering fairly early on, but no hard evidence for rounding until well into the medieval period. There are those who disagree. 
As with all reconstructions, this is at more than one level hypothetical. In listening to these files you are doing something less like watching a documentary than watching a well-researched work of historical fiction. Don't think I'm trying to put one over on you. At bottom this is a bit of nerdiness for nerdiness' sake, from someone who loves just messing around with language. The aim is to offer a sense of how the reading of Hebrew scripture has varied not just over time and space but also according to social level

Here's the consonantal text of the Hebrew, spaced out in the way that I suspect it was probably originally meant to be :



Alrighty then, here we go:

Pre-Exilic Hebrew:
Gotta start somewhere


(If you are uncomfortable hearing the tetragrammaton pronounced, feel free listen to this recording without the name.) 

My technique was to run the sound-changes backward through the relative chronology, far enough but not too far. Just to a point that seemed appropriate. Early enough to show what the now-lost features of Early Hebrew were like, but late enough to be sure I was avoiding anachronism with this text. (I.e. late enough that you wouldn't have to be an utter fabulist to think that this particular passage already existed in something tolerably similar to what we actually have.) I settled on some time around the turn of the 8th/7th centuries BCE during the reign of Hezekiah. Right around the time when epigraphy shows *aw being contracted to /ō/ in checked syllables (and thus allowing for the עול form to exist and not be anachronistic), setting the stage for the orthography that will match the codification of the Pentateuch. This means a time after loss of /ʔ/ in coda clusters (I.e. when the א was still pronounced in שוא, the nucleus must have still been diphthongal: /šawʔ/. Otherwise, it would've developed to **ō, like in יום /yōm/ from earlier /yawm/.) And yet this passage contains coda /ʔ/ in דשא. The vocalization דֶּשֶׁא shows that in the Masoretic tradition it was somehow not lost in this particular word. While final and postconsonantal /ʔ/ is normally lost (as shown by the development of חֵטְא), the words דֶּשֶׁא (/daʃʔ/) "greenery" and פֶּלֶא "miracle" appear to have gotten their glottal stop rehabilitad (by analogy to the verb, or to a doubly marked plural, or something else) in order to take part in segolization and Blau's Law.  The big assumption simplifying assumption I'm making here is that this is a dialect directly ancestral to that represented in the Masoretic text. (Whence the suffixes like -aw and -éka    

haʔziːnuː haʃʃamajm waʔedabberaː  watʰiʃmaʕ haʔʔart͡sʼ ʔamaraj-pʰiː
jaʕropʰ kʰammatʼaːr likʼħiː     tʰezzal kʰattʼall ʔimratʰiː
kʰaɬaʕiːriːm ʕalaj daʃʔ    wakʰarabiːbiːm ʕalaj ʕeɬb
kʰiː ʃem-jahweː ʔekʼraʔ     habuː godl laʔeloːhajnuː
hatt͡sʼuːr tʰamiːm pʰoʕloː     kʰiː kʰoll-darakʰaw maʃpʰaːtʼ
ʔel-ʔemuːnaː waʔajn ʕawl     t͡sʼaddiːkʼ wajaʃaːr huː
ʃiħħetʰuː loː loː banaw   doːr ʕikkʼeːʃ wapʰatʰaltʰoːl
halajahweː tʰigmóluː zoːtʰ     ʕamm nabaːl waloː ħakʰaːm
haloː huː ʔabiːkʰaː kʼanékʰaː   huː ʕaɬékʰaː wajjakʰoːnenékʰaː

Ca. 250 AD: Popular Reading of Jews in the Roman Empire


(Again, if you are uncomfortable hearing the tetragrammaton pronounced, feel free listen to this version here.) 

Fast forward through the Exile and the Second Temple period to the 3rd century. Hebrew has ceased being anybody's native language, though pretty recently. There are many people who can remember remember hearing Hebrew spoken by their grandparents. What you have here is the pronunciation recorded in Origen's Hexapla except with even more reduction. The lingering nasal-weakening of /m/ after long vowels seemed like a proper touch, and supported by the transcriptions. Like a residual trace of Hebrew's last stage as a native vernacular. Begedkefath spirantization has long ago kicked in. There is heavy vowel reduction, and the native speakers of Palestinian Aramaic using this pronunciation use a dorsal /r/. I went out on a limb to realize YHWH with tha Aramaicism /jahoː(h)/. Note that spirantization is a completely synchronic rule. The resyllabification caused by proclitic ו in ופתלתל ends up despirantizing the first ת.  

haʔziːnuː haʃʃɑːmæ̃jm uʔɪðabbeːʀɑː uθɪʃmaʕ hɑːʔart͡sʼ ʔɪmæʀeː-ɸiː
jaʕʀʊɸ kʰammɑːtʼɑːʀ lɪkʼħiː tʰɪzzal kʰattʼal ʔɪmæʀɑːθiː
kʰɪsʕiːʀĩː ʕaleː ðɑːʃ uxʀɪβiːβĩːm ʕaleː ʕeːsb
kʰiː ʃɪm-jahoːh ʔɪkʼʀɑː hɑːβuː ɣʊðl lɪloːheːnuː
hatt͡sʼuːʀ tʰɑːmĩː pʰʊʕloː kʰiː xʊl-daʀxaw mǝʃpʰɑːtʼ
ʔeːl ʔɪmuːnɑː uʔeːn-ʕawl t͡sʼaddiːkʼ wjɑːʃɑːʀ huː
ʃeːħɪθ loː loː bɑːnaw doːʀ ʕɪkkʼeːʃ uɸtʰaltʰoːl
haljahoːh tʰɪɣmǝluː-zoːθ ʕamm nɑːβɑːl uloː ħɑːχɑ̃ːm
haloː huː ʔɑːβiːx kʼɑːnɑːx huː ʕɑːsɑːx wajɪxoːnɪnɑːx

Later Amoraic Period: Stabilization of the Reading Traditions


Traditions ancestral to the attested medieval Hebrew pronunciations have stabilized at centers of Jewish learning in Eretz Yisrael and in Babylon. The proto-Masoretic scribal tradition is up and running. This is the stage at which Hebrew and Aramaic merge into a single phonological system in Biblical reading. From here on out every sound change affecting one will also affect the other. In this cultivated and careful style, there are ongoing efforts continue to combat vernacular Aramaic influence: resistance to the syncope, to non-tonic centralization, to guttural-weakening (also to dorsal /r/, I think, given the relative chronology of the changes), and to the Aramaized clitics of popular reading styles. The popular reading traditions documented by Christian Hebrew-learners like Jerome and Origen are for the most part now ignored by the Jewish learned. Yet they remain in use, destined to become the ancestors of the various Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions.  
Lemme take a moment to note here that the reason I include this stage because Benjamin Suchard has brilliantly demonstrated that this precise stage of the language — with these specific sound changes — must have existed at some point in the lineage of the Tiberian Masoretes. Though when that was precisely is hard to say. Given the snapshots we have from Christian Hebrew-learners in the mid 3rd and late 4th centuries, I'm inclined to put it nearer the later. The cultivated tradition that produced the Tiberian reading appears to have for centuries resisted changes that were underway in popular Hebrew reading by or before the 3rd century AD.   

haʔaziːnuː haʃʃɑːmajm waʔaðabbeːrɑː waθeʃmaʕ haʔʔart͡sʼ ʔamareː-fiː
jaʕroːf kʰammɑːt'ɑːr likʼħiː tʰezzal kʰattʼall ʔimrɑːθiː
kʰasaʕiːriːm ʕaleː ðɑːʃᵊʔ waχaraviːviːm ʕaleː ʕeːsb
kʰiː ʃem-ʔaðoːnɑːj ʔekʼrɑː hɑːvuː ʁoðl leloːheːnuː
hatt͡sʼuːr tʰɑːmiːm pʰoʕloː kʰiː χoll-darɑːχaw maʃpʰɑːtʼ
ʔeːl ʔemuːnɑː waʔeːn-ʕawl t͡sʼaddiːkʼ wajɑːʃɑːr huː
ʃiħħeːθ loː loː bɑːnaw muːmɑːm doːr ʕikkʼeːʃ wafaθaltʰoːl
halaðoːnɑːj tʰeʁmoluː-zoːθ ʕamm nɑːvɑːl waloː ħɑːχɑːm
haloː huː ʔɑːviːχɑː kʼɑːneːχɑː huː ʕɑːsaχɑː wajjeχoːneneːχɑː

Late Ge'onic Period (Early 900s AD): 
Orthoepic Tiberian Hebrew
(spoken) (chanted)
Tiberian Hebrew gets described in Masoretic treatises, and the pronunciation used and propagated by Aharon Moses Ben Asher, vocalizer of the Aleppo Codex, is held to be the best way to read Hebrew. Dorsal /r/ has won the day, as has labiodental vav. Under siege from Middle Aramaic sound-changes that obliterate light syllables, transmitters of the Tiberian reading have lengthened the vowels in all open and stressed syllables, creating overlong vowels to preserve distinctive length in closed syllables for etymological *ē *ō *ū *ī and *ā. Here is also the true birth of shwa and ḥaṭef vowels. Extrametrical epenthetic schwa has developed in various ways in different environments, getting rephonologized by paradigmatic analogy to a full vowel in many instances. The result is an incredibly weird phonology of the kind you only get in languages that nobody is actually generating new sentences in anymore. Tiberian Hebrew is a relentlessly orthoepic dialect, and did not develop for people to use their speaking voice. So for this one, I have included a recording of me chanting the text too. I decided to include the next twelve verses too, for this one. Because...because I think Tiberian is cool, dammit.

haːʔaziːnuː haʃʃɔːmaːjim vaːʔaðabbeːʀɔː vaθiʃmaːaʕ hɔːʔɔːʀɛsˁ ʔimʀeːfiː
jaːʕaʀoːof kʰammɒːtˁɔːɔrˁ liqħiː tʰizzaːal kʰɑttˁɑːɑl ʔimʀɔːθiː
kʰisʕiːʀiːim ʕaleːðɛːʃɛː vaχiʀviːviːˑm ʕaleːʕeːsɛv
kʰiː ʃeːemʔaðoːnɔːɔj ʔɛqʀɔː hɔːvuː ʁoːðɛl lèːloːhéːnuː
hɑssˁuːurˁ tʰɔːmiːim pʰɔːʕɔloː kʰiːχɔldɑrˁɔːχɔːɔv miʃpʰɔːɔtˁ
ʔeːel ʔɛmuːnɔː veʔeːen ʕɔːvɛl sˁɑddiːiq vijɔːʃɔːɔʀ huː
ʃiːħeːeθ loː loː bɔːnɔːɔv muːmɔːɔm doːorˁ ʕiqqeːeʃ wùˑfθaltʰóːol
haːlàːðoːnɔ́ːɔj tʰiʁmaluːzoːoθ ʕaːam nɔːvɔːɔl valoːħɔːχɔːɔm
haloːhuː ʔɔːviːχɔː qɔːnɛːχɔː huː ʕɔ̀ːɔsχɔ́ː vàˑjχoːnanɛ́ːχɔː

Meanwhile in Mesopotamia: 
Babylonian Hebrew
(spoken) (chanted)
Once perhaps the most widespread pronunciation of Hebrew in the Jewish world, this pronunciation — the more chill and less straight-laced cousin of the Tiberian reading — left us a relic in Yemen and nowhere else. Somehow it got cleaned clear out of Iraq, North Africa and everywhere else where it once held sway. Nobody is quite sure why. But I have a theory. Historically, there have often been strong tendencies to emulate whatever they do in Eretz Yisrael in this kind of thing. In the Masoretic period, that involved the export and elevation of the Tiberian tradition. In more recent times the Jerusalem Sephardic melodic motifs achieved some cachet on account of their association with Eretz Yisrael. I have often wondered whether eventual replacement everywhere outside Yemen of the Babylonian system by a five-vowel "Palestinian" system might have a similar explanation. Certainly it can't be sheer accident that the Babylonian reading tradition, which was probably the most widely used in the Jewish world in the 10th century, has only a small holdout descendant in a remote corner of the Arabian Peninsula. There must have been a reason why readers elected to shift from one to the other, and it seems to me a likely explanation is that in the Late Middle Ages after the death of Tiberian Hebrew, people still looked — as Abu al-Faraj, Ben David Hayyuj, Saadya Ga'on others had in the High Middle Ages— to Eretz Yisrael as a reservoir of linguistic authenticity. Even those hostile to Palestinian customs who preferred to follow Babylon in liturgical matters looked to Palestine for linguistic authority. With the Tiberian tradition dead (and never having had many expert readers), the more innovative (probably popular) five-vowel system of Palestine suddenly found itself without competitors on its home turf, and could then be exported much as Tiberian Hebrew had. Never having been ousted by a competitor, its various descendants ruled their local minhag-roosts before 1948 or so. One should also take into account the factor of patterns of migration, which may well also have contributed to the spread of the Popular Palestinian tradition. Especially in ousting the Babylonian tradition from Babylon itself. The realization as I give it is meant to be in a state of slight convergence with the Tiberian tradition.    

hæʔæziːnuː hæʃʃɔːmæːjim weʔeðæbbeːrɔː wθiʃmæːʕæ hɔːʔɔːræsˁ ʔæmreː fiː
jæʕæroːf kʰæmmɒːtˁɒːrˁ liqħiː tʰizzæːl kʰɑttˁɑːl ʔæmrɔːθiː
kʰæsʕiːriːm ʕæleː ðæːʃæː wiχriviːviːm ʕæleːʕeːsæv
kʰiː ʃem-ʔæðoːnɔːj ʔiqrɔː hɔːvuː ʁoːðæl leloːhéːnuː
hɑssˁuːrˁ tʰɔːmiːm pʰuʕuloː kʰiː χul drˁɒːχɔːw maʃpʰɒːtˁ
ʔel–ʔemuːnɔː wʔeːn ʕɔːwæl sˁɑddiːq wjɔːʃɔːr huː
ʃiːħæːθ loː loː bɔːnɔːw muːmɔːm doːr ʕiqqeːʃ wifθaltʰóːl
hælæðoːnɔ́ːj tʰɪʁimlu-zóːθ ʕæːm nɔːvɔːl wiloːħɔːχɔːm
hæloːhuː ʔɔːviːχɔː qɔːnæːχɔː huː ʕɔsχɔː wàjχoːnænǽːχɔː


Medieval Andalusi Hebrew:
The old popular traditions of Hebrew reading re-emerge as knowledge of, and access to, the Tiberian tradition grows ever more difficult to acquire, and immigration patterns eat away at the reach of Babylonian Hebrew. The popular, subelite five-vowel type of Hebrew reading that survived under the radar of the literati during the early Middle Ages ultimately became ancestor of every modern Hebrew liturgical dialect in current use outside of Yemen.       
haʔazinu haʃʃamajim waʔaðabbera waθiʃmaʕ haʔɑrˁesˁ ʔimre-fi
jaʕarof kammɑtˁɑrˁ liqħi tizzal kɑttˁɑl ʔimraθi
kisʕirim ʕale ðeʃe waχirbibim ʕale ʕeseb
ki ʃem ʔaðonaj ʔeqra hábu ʁoðel lèlohénu
hɑssˁurˁ tamim paʕulo kiχul dɑrˁɑχaw miʃpɑtˁ
ʔel ʔemuna weʔen ʕawel sˁɑddiq wajaʃar hu
ʃiħeθ lo lo banaw mumam dorˁ ʕiqqeʃ ufθaltól
halaðonaj tiʁmalu zóθ ʕam nabal walo ħaχam
halohu ʔabiχa qanéχa hu ʕaseχá wàjχonenéχa


Some Linguistic Sobriety from Ibn Ḥazm of Cordoba

"Some people labor under the impression that their language is superior to all others. This makes no sense. The aspects of superiority are known: things are superior either by the work they do or by selection. But languages do not actually do work, and there is no scriptural testimony about the preference of one language over another. The Almighty says: “We have not sent a prophet except using the language of his community so he can explain things to them”, and also: “We revealed it only in your language in order that they may remember it”. With these words God informs us that He only revealed the Qur’ān in Arabic to make the Prophet’s community understand the message. Here, Galen was in error when he said: “Greek is the most superior language, because other languages resemble the barking of dogs or the croaking of frogs”. This is ignorant hokum. Anyone who hears a foreign language he does not understand regards it in the same way as Galen does other languages."

وقد توهم قوم في لغتهم أنها أفضل اللغات وهذا لا معنى له لأن وجوه الفضل معروفة ، وإنما هي بعمل أو اختصاص ولا عمل للغة؛ ولا جاء نص في تفضيل لغة على لغة ، وقد قال تعالى : {وَمَآ أَرْسَلْنَا مِن رَّسُولٍ إِلاَّ بِلِسَانِ قَوْمِهِ لِيُبَيِّنَ لَهُمْ فَيُضِلُّ اللَّهُ مَن يَشَآءُ وَيَهْدِي مَن يَشَآءُ وَهُوَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ } وقال تعالى : {فَإِنَّمَا يَسَّرْنَاهُ بِلِسَانِكَ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَذَكَّرُونَ } .فأخبر تعالى أنه لم ينزل القرآن بلغة العرب إلا ليفهم ذلك قومه ﷺ لا لغير ذلك ، وقد غلط في ذلك جالينوس فقال : إن لغة اليونانيين أفضل اللغات لأن سائر اللغات إنما هي تشبه إما نباح الكلاب أو نقيق الضفادع . قال أبو محمد: وهذا جهل شديد لأن كل سامع لغة ليست لغته ولا يفهمها، فهي عنده في النصاب الذي ذكره جالينوس ولا فرق

From the Rosae Nomen: Salvatore the Macaronic

Below is yet another passage I managed to transcribe from the medieval Latin Rosae Nomen of Adso Mellicensis. 
The figure of Salvatore in Adso's tale is an interesting one. Half out of his mind, he appears to speak in a garbled mixture of languages spoken in the various Romance-speaking regions he has lived in, as well as Latin. For example "Diavulu" is from central Umbrian, and "Smoardir" (to gnaw) appears to be from some Rhaetian dialect. 
Adso is a native speaker of an Alemannic or Bavarian variety of Middle High German, and of course knows Latin as well. He mentions elsewhere having heard a little Occitan and learned a smattering of a couple Italian Romance varieties, but is unfamiliar with the orthography normally used to write any of these down. Salvatore's speech as recorded in Adso's manuscript thus contains a lot of Romance words whose written form has been improvised by a Middle High German speaker accustomed to writing Latin. 
Many times Adso, in reporting Salvatore's speech, will fall back onto Upper German scribal habits to give a rough phonological spelling of a Romance word whose connection to its Latin cognate is not obvious. By which I mean not obvious to Adso. After all, Adso is unaware that the Romance languages have any historical relationship to Latin at all. Sometime after the diglossic relationship between (what speakers called) written Latin and spoken Latin was severed in the 9th-10th centuries to become a bilingual one between written Latin and spoken Romance, the very idea of any kind of historical relationship between the two disappeared. The fact that Romance languages come from Latin was not realized by scholars until the 16th century, and it took a while to become a matter of uncontroversial consensus. (Dante, who died six years before the date of Adso's story, appears to have believed — as would many others after him — that the Romans too used Latin in educated and written discourse, but spoke something else in quotidian contexts. So natural was the role of Latin in his own day that he failed to apprehend that it had not always been so.) 
Adso's manuscript, as it happens, furnishes us with the earliest attestation of the German idiom "unter der rose" when he responds out of shock in Middle High German vernacular, inducing Salvatore to declaim some verse in the same language about the dangers of confessing your heterodox beliefs to anyone.

Ille plasma retro nos erat specie monachus, quamquam tunica sordida et scisa eum assimulauit uagabundo, et uultus eius prebebat figuram non dissimilem monstris quos nuperrime uideram in capitulis. Nunquam in uita mihi contigit, uelut multis confratris mei, a Diabolo uisitari. Credo autem Aduersarium Nostrum si olim mihi apparet, diuino decreto prohibitum ne naturam suam plane celet quamuis se assimulare homini optasset, haut aliam speciem induturum esse preter illam quam mihi prebuit ipso tempore collocutor noster. Caput eius derasum fuit, set non per penitenciam quin per consequenciam remotam cuiusdam uiscidi eczematis. Frons adeo depressa fuit ut si capilas in capite ullas habuisset, confuse sint superciliis densis et hirsutis. Rotundi fuerunt illius oculi e quibus pupille ostendebantur paruule ac mobilissime. Quorum obtutus utrum innocens esset an malignus nescio, set forsan utroque per uices et momenta diuersa uersabatur. Nasus eius tali nomine dici non potuit, nam tantum fuit ossum quod incipiebat inter oculis set ascendendo a uultu iterum subsidebat in duas cauernas obscuras, nares amplissimas et hirtas. Bucca ad nares per cicatriculam coniuncta, lata fuit et informis, plus ad dexteram quam ad sinistram distensa. Inter labrum superius inexistens et inferius prominens ac carnoso, eminebant innormiter dentes nigri, acuti uelut canis mordices. 
Iste homo subrisit (uel saltem sic credidi) et digitum quasi ad admonendum leuans dixit: 
<Penitenciagite! Retinete en uisiun lu dragun ki es uenidur per rodegarla animam tuam! La morz e sübre nos! Pregi ke uiena lu papa seinte e deliwre nus deu mau de tuz li pecaz infernali! Ai ai, te pleizt kizta nigromancia deu seniwriws nostre Jesu cristo fiwl lui dumneseo! Ed anco dschueiz mes douz e plaseir mes dulurs... Cauete omnes ne sabir e pudir per sagrement dunaz al diauulu! Il sempro me aguaidat in alcuno anglu per me smoardir la cargania. Mai Saluatore nun es idiote, kel sap cum es e tei uœls nella swa testa. Desnaturat son li franzes che deu afar dieu disun nu, ma bonum e lu monasterium e hic se mania e se ruoga dominum. 
Nu kre ka la mort
Digus piws em port
Aueir ni arnei
Mas lus faz ke fei.
e lu reste nu uaut stercus in latrina. Ed amen amen ueritatamente. Nu?>
Hic ego, momentaliter mei oblitus, elocutus sum uulgariter <waȥ?> (id est, <quidnam?>)
Statim siluit, tunc oculis me tacite scrutatus respondit <tiu...uidetur ses Alemanz...>. 
Cui ego <ia> (id est <ita, recte dixisti>)
Et ille <io nu sape lu teu parladure ma alguno me diget isto olim ueritatamente, memento et tu!
Wann du hast ketzerie getuon,
daz niht fiurpruevung kum darvon
under der rosen halte dich,
nuor in din eigen herze sprich.>
Que omnia fere significant nostratim <Si quid heresis fecisti, ne ignis iudicium ob eo patiaris, teipsum sub rosa teneto, noli eloqui nisi cordi tuo>

Why Are Vampires So Stupid?

One thing I never understood about stories set in universes where vampires are real: why can’t humans just set up a bloodbank to meet vampiric needs? Our bodies are capable of producing so much blood, much more than if you just kill us and drain it all in one go. A single human can produce huge amounts of the stuff if they just give a tiny bit every day.

The whole “vampires need blood and therefore are murderous” thing makes a lot more sense in a pre-modern context where we didn’t know (a) that the human body easily replenishes a complete pint of lost blood within a matter of weeks and (b) just how much blood your average adult is walking around with in their bodies. In modern works, vampires who actually kill or turn a person by feeding on them come off as idiots.

A single human being plus a syringe could probably keep you alive indefinitely, dumbass.

But let's assume extremely high consumption needs, much higher than you find in most vampire fiction. Let's assume vampires need to drink as much blood as adult humans do water: about four pints a day. Even at that extreme, a hundred or so humans giving regular blood would (a) meet your needs comfortably while (b) allowing the humans to lead healthy, normal and happy lives (no one would have to do more than give you a pint of their blood every five weeks.) Given that in most fiction the ratio of humans to vampires is quite enormous, even a need like that should be possible to satisfy without anybody getting hurt.

At bottom, you're a person with a bizarre medical need. Finding willing donors ready to give some blood every few weeks to help you live has just got to be easier than a life of stalking victims, hiding corpses and having to lie to everybody about why you need so much damn sunblock all the time.

Sure, maybe you needed to suck people's blood dangerously back in the 19th century when we didn't know shit about how blood works. But it's time to wake up and check your e-mail.

In the 21st century, it kinda puts a cramp in that “ancient horror” mojo when it turns out you know less about human blood than the average junior high student.‬

Poets in the Qur'an

Some thoughts about the portrayal of poets and poetry in the Qur'an (first released as a mega-thread on twitter)

Why are šāˁir and šiˁr the words for poet and poetry in Arabic?

Etymologically, these two words ought to mean "one who knows/perceives" and "knowledge" respectively. And indeed šiˁr does have the latter meaning, particularly in the fossilized phrase layta šiˁrī "would that I knew, would that mine were knowledge (of)". This usage is quite an old one, and occurs in the transmitted Jāhilī material. For example, the Ḥamāsa attributes to Ta'abbaṭa Šarrā's mother a poem containing the verse layta šiˁrī ḍallatan ayyu šay'in qatalak (would that I knew what thing it was that killed you wrongly).

It is likely that this sense of "know(ledge), sense" is old, and the sense of poetry is a semantic innovation. How and why did this happen? One good place to start looking for an answer is the Qur'ān, which uses the words šiˁr and šāˁir. Interestingly, the Qur'anic voice not only disdains the šāˁirs' (26:224 "The šāˁirs have only a following among the wayward"), but is moved on multiple occasions to highlight the fact that the Messenger isn't a šāˁir. (E.g. "we have not taught him šiˁr, nor would it be right for him. This is only a reminder, and clear Qur'ān" at Q 36:69)

Now, it is vanishingly unlikely that Qur'ān could have been mistaken for šiˁr if the word's meaning were at that time identical to what it means in later Arabic, though this is what is traditionally supposed. In later Arabic, of course, šiˁr "poetry" refers above all else to language that is metrically regulated. So much so that even so esteemed a pre-Islamic poem as the muˁallaqa attributed to ˁAbīd b. Al-Abraṣ might be dubbed "almost non-poetry" (kāda allā takūna šiˁran) on account of its failure to use one of the canonically recognized meters. (ˁAbīd's poem uses a meter that was no longer fully understood by the time of Khalīlians. That's an interesting story in its own right, but one for another post.)

If the audience of the Qur'anic messenger had understood šiˁr in this way, it is difficult to see how there would have been any problem. At minimum, whatever šiˁr meant to the Messenger's audience, it included some kind of linguistic performance close enough in form to the Qur'ān to be mistaken for it.

Ergo it was not restricted to metrical language of the kind found in the qaṣīda. Indeed, it has been speculated by Ahmad Al-Jallad that linguistic performance in quantitative verse was unknown to the Messenger's audience. His suggestion that the qaṣīda tradition has its roots elsewhere is very likely, and the possibility that it may have been originally appropriated from some Old South Arabian language(s) is raised to a mighty height by curious archaeological discovery of a South Arabian inscription — largely undecipherable — which appears to be in monorhymed verse (which I am pretty sure is metrical).

But the fact that the Messenger's audience would use the word šiˁr to describe a performance in Qur'an-like form, with cadenced, rhymed (but not strictly metrically regulated) language, does not actually exclude their knowledge of (and application of the same word to) a metrical verse tradition of the qaṣīda-type. So the question of whether the Messenger's audience was familiar with a qaṣīda tradition is as yet without answer. (I myself think that they probably did know of such a tradition, and if they did not practice it, then it must have been current among the non-sedentary populations of the Ḥijāz. The Qur'anic Messenger is allied with an urban population and views the 'aˁrāb with suspicion and hostility, and Jāhilī verse attributed to town-dwellers is extremely rare.)

So what was this šiˁr of the non-qaṣīda type like? There are justified guesses to offer.

There are Qur'anic passages that shed light on what kind of šiˁr was specifically at issue.

"This is the speech of a noble apostle.
It is not the speech of a šāˁir. Little do you believe.
It is not the speech of a kāhin. Little do you believe."
(69:40-42).

Kāhin and šāˁir are linked by syntactic parallelism, here, and this is not the only place where they lie in close proximity. At Q 52:29 God reminds the Messenger that "By Grace of God you are neither a kāhin nor a madman possessed (majnūn)", and in the subsequent verse the hard-headed are referenced with "Do they say 'He's a šāˁir and we await a foul turn of fate for him'?"

A kāhin is usually thought to have been a kind of soothsayer with some religious function. (Cognates in other Semitic languages often mean "priest" or the like). Many have suggested — rightly, I believe — that the kāhins had a tradition of producing cadenced, rhymed oracular utterances purporting to be the words of the divine, with information about the disposition of the heavens, spelling out what future disasters (or, if proper propitiations are made, delights) lie ahead. It is not hard to see how the Messenger's audience might make the mistake of taking the Qur'ān to be this kind of language. In fact, if anything it would be hard to definitively prove this to be a mistake at all. A true prophet of the Abrahamic tradition would need his Message to explicitly and pointedly distinguish him from those who might well be called "prophêtai" in the pre-Christian sense of thee Greek word.

The Qur'ān does not spell out any formal differences between itself and šiˁr, or between the latter and whatever the kāhins were producing. Rather, the Qur'ān distinguishes itself from these on the grounds of epistemic and technical superiority: the šāˁir and/or the kāhin is a liar who invents things (Q 52:33 et al.) The Messenger does not. His Message really is divine in origin, as proof of which it is stated that nobody can create a single sūra like it (with an explicit challenge to doubters to go ahead and try all they want). But whatever uniqueness is asserted cannot be a generic one. If nothing at all resembling the Qur'an were known to the Messenger's audience, there would be no need for his Message to expressly state what kind of language it was not, nor would there be any earthly sense to the explicit assumption that the Messenger was at risk of being confused with the wrong sort of person on account of his linguistic medium. So, inasmuch as the Message claims linguistic uniqueness, it is a unique excellence rather than unique form.

But the šāˁir and the kāhin are not the same person, though the Qur'an makes a point of distinguishing the Messenger from both. A tradition of non-oracular linguistic art in Qur'anesque form, perhaps involving legendary figures or ancestors, may have also existed and counted as šiˁr. The rhyming habits of the Qur'ān are not haphazard, and Marijn van Putten has shown that they obey well-defined phonological constraints of a kind reminiscent of the "featural rhyme" of Old Irish verse. Such consistently-obeyed formal compositional features do not simply spring into existence out of nothing. This was a type of rhyming whose constraints the Messenger and his audience were already quite familiar with.

For the Messenger's audience then šiˁr probably could be labeled "poetry" in the Modern English sense if not in the Medieval Arabic sense. They likely knew a poetic tradition, one in which verse-length was not strictly regulated, where rhyme was a matter of assonance rather than being built around repetition of the same syllable coda, and where narrative was a major feature (the qaṣīda tradition is conspicuous for just how rare truly "narrative" passages are). Al-Jallad has brought to light a new Old North Arabian inscription, and offered a fresh appraisal of another, with obviously mythological in nature with thematic connections to North Semitic epic narrative verse, in irregular line-length with verse-constituents bound together by loose rhyming. I would suggest that this kind of language may well have been deemed šiˁr by the Messenger's audience. Its purely formal features have much in common with Qur'anic style, but little if any with the Qaṣīdah.

Which brings us back to etymology. If šiˁr was originally "knowledge" or "sense", then perhaps one stage in its semantic development was "lore to be told" or else "that which is sensed, apprehended." A šāˁir might at one time have been either a "knower of tales" or an "apprehender of things". This is completely speculative, of course.

Many different cultures at different times have known a conceptual slippage between the role of prophet and poet, especially inasmuch as the poet too claimed to be godspoken. Much of what we call "Biblical Poetry" is put in the mouths of prophets. An inspiration akin to, or arising from, madness (or "Jinnic possession") may also be part of the poetic package. We may think of the Delphic oracle speaking Apollo's mind in hexameters, or remember that a possessed "Majnūn" composing Arabic poetry out of unhinged feeling is literally the stuff of legend. The connection between madness, poetry and prophecy is nicely expressed in the semantic development of Norse Óðr or its cognates in Latin Vātis, or Old Irish fáith. The flipside of the seer's insanity is his/her status as sage, one who knows, a repository of material which one is better off for having heard.

Quote from Ibn Khaldun

(Translation by yours truly)

"The poet should avoid not only obscure and arcane words, but also those vernacular words banalized by common overuse. This undermines the poem's eloquence. He should also avoid tropes that have become banalized in common knowledge, as this too undermines eloquence, the poem itself becoming banal and approaching the insipid, as when one says "the fire is hot" or "the heav'ns above". A poem's eloquence flows in inverse proportion to such insipidities, which is why poetry on mystical and prophetic themes isn't usually very good. Only masters can pull it off, and then only with difficulty and in small amounts, for the tropes of such poetry are in such common circulation as to have become banal."

وليجتَنِب الشاعرُ أيضاً الحوشيَّ من الألفاظ والمقعَّرَ، وكذلك السوقيَّ المبتذَلَ بالتداول بالاستعمال، فإنه ينزِلُ بالكلام عن طبقة البلاغة. وكذلك المعاني المبتذلة بالشهرة فإنّ الكلام ينزلُ بها عن البلاغة ايضاً، فيصير مبتذلاً ويقرُبُ من عدم الإفادة كقولهم: النارُ حارةً والسماءُ فوقَنا. وبمقدار ما يقرُبُ من طبقة عدم الإفادة يبعدُ عن رُتبة البلاغة، إذ هما طرفان. ولهذا كان الشِعرُ في الربانيات والنبويات قليل الإجادة في الغالب. ولا يحذق فيه إلا الفحول. وفي القليل على العسر لأنّ معانيها متداولة بين الجمهور، فتصير مبتذَلة لذلك.

From the Rosae Nomen: Advice from William of Baskerville

In illo uultu ab odio philosophie uastato conspexi primum imaginem Antichristi, qui non uenit de tribu Iude sicut simulauerint annunciatores eius, nec de regione ulla longinqua. Antichristus nasci potest ex ipsa pietate, de amore Dei uel ueritatis excessiuo, sicut hereticus nascitur de sancto et indemoniatus de uidentibus. Timeto tu prophetas, Adso, et omnes paratos mori pro ueritate, quia regulatim multos alios ad mortem conducunt secum, sepe ante se, aliquando pro se.
Gulielmus de Basceuilla

From the Rosae Nomen: William and Adso Talk About a Strange Man

I have had the opportunity to copy another fragment from the Rosae Nomen. The MS' owner this time only let me turn to a random page, and after that forbade me to touch the book. The paper she gave me was much smaller, and consequently so is the fragment I was able to copy. As I got home with my notes, several bee-themed firecrackers scared the bejeezus out of me by exploding around the door. I found taped to the door-handle a note saying "Best, Humbert". Heretofore it has been odd, communicating with the owner. But what was this in aid of?
I can't decide what is going on. Am I am the butt of a colossal joke? The human gamepiece participating in some resource-rich eccentric's amusements?
Why won't the MS' owner tell me her own name, why did she choose to send that bizarre email to me of all people, why does that strange car of hers have to pick me up with no warning at the most random of unannounced times?

Iterum nauatam centralem perambulauimus et exiuimus per portale quo intraueramus. Ubertini uerba etiamnunc omnia audiebam meas inter aures zonatim bombizancia. <Iste homo> tandem ausi Gulielmo dicere <est straneus>. 
Mihi <est> inquit <aut potius fuit, in multis modis, homo magnus. Set eandemobrem est extraneus. Solum homunculi angusti et minuti prebent speciem normalitatis. Ubertinus potuisset fieri aut unus de ereticis quos ipse comburi fecit, aut cardinalis Sacre Romane Ecclesie. Satis prope accessit ad ambas peruersiones. Quando de Ubertino fabulo aliquatenus habeo nocionem quod Infernus non est nisi Paradisum ab altero latere uisum>. 
Sentenciam eius haut nactus <a quo> inquam <latere?>. 
<Ah sic> recognouit Gulielmus <primum sapiendum est num exstent latera, et num exstet totum. Set noli animaduertere ad me, et pro Dei eterni fidem noli tu respicere in istud portale> acre elocutus est, mihi in nucham leuem ducens alapam dum me respectum uersabar sculpturas quas introeundo uideram <iam nimium ab illis per unum diem horrepilatus es, Adso.> 

This passage, unlike the previous one, contains dialogue. And dialogue of a most interesting character, too. There is a limit to what can be known of the spontaneous Latin speech of 14th c. medieval monastics, as we have no direct access to that kind of language, though there are documents that seem to have been produced from dictation without rehearsal or revision which may offer something close to it, and much of the dialogue in Adso's MS seems to have something of the flavor of that. It is similar in some fundamentals to the spoken business Latin used sometimes in the early modern period, though with a more profound feel of idiom, and a jargon drawn from the scholastic world. It is particularly full of constructions that will cause Ciceronian fanboys to involuntarily relieve their bowels. The (now agèd) author and narrator Adso is a rather learned monk, more learned than he was at the time when the story takes place (as he elsewhere notes, he did not then know Greek, hinting that matters have changed.) The allusions he indulges in make his learning undeniable. He is familiar with the language of classical literature, and draws on it freely, but it is neither his main stylistic model nor his sole idea of acceptable Latinity, let alone in a document of this kind. The conversational Latin used around the abbey in the text, even by learned men like William and Severinus, is of a workaday, practical type with much syntactic calquing from vernaculars. Thus in this passage we have, on the one hand, spoken parts that contain not only the usual medieval suspects (quando used as a relative with an indicative verb, "quod" as a subordinator with notionem habere for a verb-phrase) but also such medievalisms as extraneus in the sense "bizarre". (Whether the aphaerisis of straneus is intentional or not is difficult to say, but it is not without precedent in MSs from this period.) On the other hand, in Adso's narrative parts, there are medievalisms (nucha, a loan from Arabic) used in the same expression as a specimen of ancientry like "alapam ducere" (to give a smack), followed by the learnedry of "dum me respectum versabar sculpturas" (while I was turning to look at the sculptures) where an accusative supine taking a direct object. These monks' Latin speech is not unsophisticated, uneloquent or broken. No matter that Ciceronians may not have what it takes to handle it.

A diplomatic MS transcription:

Rosae Nomen

Below is a transcription of the beginning of a medieval manuscript which I was permitted to view. Directly above the main text on the first leaf the name Adso Mellicensis is written under a stylized rose. Stirred by a whimsical afflatus of I know not what, I bestow on it the title of Rosae Nomen. I transcribe the MS, without altering spellings and without apology for the syntactic vagaries of late medieval Latin, or at least as faithfully as technology allows. The MS, written in assured blackletter minuscules (with the occasional words written rather inexpertly in Greek), is shot through with a rich array of sigla which cannot be easily represented in the fonts available to me on this blog. Enormous though the MS is, the scribe clearly felt the need to economize writing space as much as possible. Here's a picture of what a faithful diplomatic edition would look like:



At any rate, the owner of the MS permitted me to view it only over the course of a single day in the confines of her library's reading room, where I was supervised at all times (sometimes by her, more often by a rather loquacious guard in her employ) and supplied with only a single sheet of legal-sized paper on which to transcribe material. Though I was told I was free to make and distribute further copies if I wished, the single sheet was clearly meant to limit the amount I could copy. Using the the smallest and most condensed shorthand I could summon to my pen, I compressed as much text as I could onto the one sheet. What I was able to transcribe I give below. I have exhorted her to allow me another day with it, if only to transcribe another page's worth, but she has remained adamant, and will only allow me to see it when so instructed by its previous owner, a man she refers to only as Humbert. I do not know when or if I will see the book again, or what circumstances she will insist on if I do.

In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat aput Deum et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc erat in principio aput Deum, et omnis fidelis monachi fuit diatim repetere uno humili psallenti sono illum unicum euentum immodificabilem cui ueritas asseri potest incontrouertibilis. Set uidemus nunc per speculum et in enigmate, et ueritatem non uidemus antequam omnibus signanter in conspectu manifestetur nisi phragmentis carptim (eheu quam illegibilibus) in errore mundi istius. Debemus ideo uix silabatim fidelia signacula eius efferre etiam ubi nobis apparent opscura et uelut intexta uoluntate summum attentissima ad malum. 
Hodie ad uite peccatoris mee occasum perueniens, canicie tamquam mundus senescens, opperiens ut in sillenciose deserteque diuinitatis abisso perdar, particeps lucis inenarrabilis ab angelorum inteligencia fluentis, iam corpore egro et grauato hac in celula charissimi monasterii Mellicensis constrictus, paro huic pergameno mandare testimonium de mirabilibus terribilibusque que accidit ut in iuuentute conspicerem. Nunc omnia que audiui et uidi in scripturam redigam uerbatim, quin ex eis designacionem coligere conar, quasi ita ut subcessoribus meis uenientibus in hunc mundum (nisi Antichristus primum aduenerit) signorum signa relinquam in quibus exerceatur oracio ἑρμηνεύματος. 
Mihi Dominus eterne rei conditor graciam concedat ut transparens perhibeam testimonium de gestis in abbatia cuius de nomine equum est et pium dehinc tacere, sub finem anni domini MCCCXXVII quo descendit Imperator noster Ludouicus in Ytaliam ad Sacri Imperii Romani dignitatem restituendam, iunxta Altissimi consilia et ad confusionem usurpatoris scelesti, simoniaci, eresiarche qui in Auennione sacro apostoli nomini uerecundiam intulit (dico animam peccatricem Iacobi Cadurcensis quem impii sub nomine Iohannis XXII reuerebantur.) 
Vt ea plenius comprehendam quibus me innodatum habui, forsitan oportet primum memorare de rebus extremo seculo excurrente gestis, cum ut tunc me eas uiuente accipiebam, tum ut nunc eas memini aliis istoriis aliquantulum post auditis auctas, si quid est in me memorie que etiamnunc tot euentus confusissimos philatim renectere capiat. Nam, ut mihi iamdudum dixit amicus quidam (de quo postea tractaturi sumus) <libri semper alios libros reuocant; non exstat fabula nisi fabulam narrat iam narratam>. 
Illo seculo ineunte Papa Clemens V cum ipse sedem apostolicam ad Auennionem transtulisset Romam reliquit predam ambicionibus dominulorum localium; deinde est Sanctissima Vrbs gradatim in circum uel lupanar transformata, luctacionibus inter seniores dilaniata. Misera illa ciuitas, armatis cateruis oppugnata et seuitie predacionibusque subiecta, respublica dicebatur set haut erat. Ecclesiastici e seculari iurisdicione elapsi scelestorum greges ducebant latrocinando cum gladiis in manibus et preuaricando et commercia inpiissima ordinando. Quemnamadmodum impediri quominus Caput Mundi iterum fieret meta, ac recte, eius qui studeret choronam Sacri Imperii suscipere et dignitatem restaurare dominii temporalis quod Cesarum factum fuerat totum?
Itaque anno MCCCXIV quidam V principes electores Teutonici in oppido Franconefurde Supremum Caput Imperii elegerant Ludouicum Bauaricum. Eodem autem die ex aduersa Meni ripa Comes Palatinus Reni et Archiepiscopus Coloniensis similliter Fridericum Ducem Austrie elegerant eandem in dignitatem. Ita fuerunt imperatores simul duo sedi unice, ac Papa unicus imperatoribus duobus. Que causa profecto motus attulit permagnos in mundo. 
Duos post annos in Auennione, nouus Papa electus est Iacobus Cadurcensis, senex LXXII annos natus qui, ut superius diximus, nomen Iohannis XXII sibi sumsit. Placeat celo ne pontifex maximus quisquam dehinc nomen adeo bonis inuisum suscipiat. Ille Francicus Regi Francie deuotus (cuius corrupte terre homines  semper suis rebus consulere inclinant, ac nequeunt totum orbem aspicere patriam spiritualem) Philippum Pulcrum contra Templarios subleuauerat, quos criminum turpissimorum (meo quidem iudicio iniuria) ipse rex accusauit qui, conscio istulo ecclesiastico renegato, eorum possessionibus potiretur. Interea se inseruit Robertus Neapolitanus qui ad propriam dicionem manutenendam peninsule Ytalice persuaserat Pape ut neutrum imperatorum teutonicorum agnosceret. 
Anno MCCCXXII Ludouicus Bauariensis concertatorem Fridericum uinxit. Iohannes, unum imperatorem plusquam duo timens, uictorem excommunicauit. Ille inuicem Papam tanquam hereticum denunciauit. Oportet etiam referre ut eodem anno capitulum Franciscanorum generale conuenit Perusie ubi minister generalis Michael Cesenas, instancias accipiens Spiritualium (de quibus dicendi iterum infra occasionem habebimus) pro re fidei doctrineque proclamauit pauperitatem Christi, qui nihil cum apostolis suis possederat nisi in usu facti. Hec autem resolucio dignissima ad uirtutem et puritatem ordinis custodiendam Pape quam maxime displicuit, qui fortasse in ea creuit racionem qua omnia periculo adducerentur que affirmauerat, imperio ius Episcopos eligendi negans et sedi apostolice peculiare imperatorem inuestire asseuerans. His et similibus commotus, Iohannes proposiciones Franciscanas anno MCCCXXIII condempnauit in epistula decretali <Cum Inter Nonnullos>.
In illo uestigio temporis, ut opinor, Ludouicus in Franciscanis, iam Pape inimicis, socios uidit probabiles. Illi, pauperitatem Christi affirmando, quodammodo nociones imperialium theologorum, uidelicet Marsilii Patauiensis et Iohannis de Ianduno, ei confirmabant. Tandem nonnullos menses post que hic enarro, pactus est Ludouicus cum Friderico, et postquam in Ytaliam descendit Mediolani choronatus est.
Ita breuiatim res se habuerunt quando ego, iuuenis nouicius Benedictinus monasterii Mellicensis, de pace claustri subito demptus fui a patre meo qui in commitatu Ludouici pugnabat.  Optimum ei uidebatur me secum ferre ut Ytalie mirabilia scirem et  Imperatoris choronacioni Rome adessem. Illum autem adsedium Pisarum curis militaribus opsedit funditus. 
Ergo solitarius homo relictus, inter Thuscie ciuitates uagantem uitam agere cepi partim ex ocio, partim ex desiderio discendi. Set rudis et indisciplinata hec libertas, ut opinabantur parentes mei, non decebat adolescentulo ad uitam contemplatiuam deuoto. Secuti igitur consilio Marsilii qui me diligere ceperat, tutelam mei committere iudicarunt doctissimo Franciscano fratri Gulielmo de Basceuilla tunc inituro opus quod se ad ciuitates famosas abbatiasque antiquissimas perduceret. Que cum ita essent, factus sum Gulielmo scriba et discipulus simul, quod nullatenus me unquam penituit, quia comes eius plurima conspexi condignissima tradendi, ut nunc facio, eorum memorie qui post nos uenturi sunt.