Holy Linguists! Part II: Cyril and Methodius, Ælfric of Eynsham, Hildegard of Bingen

Reading time: 15-20 minutes

So, continuing on a theme that nobody asked for but I love, here is the second part of my Holy Linguists! series of blog posts.

Part I looked at three holy heavyweights from the Mediterranean world in the late antique era: Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome and Augustine. This month’s blog post follows the same format, presenting a handful of Christian individuals and their examples of linguistic thinking. This time we’re jumping forward to the Middle Ages. The individuals in question range in their dates from the 9th to the 12th centuries, and in their locations from England to Greece via Germany. Another difference is that, while the previous three were greatly interested in language in the abstract, these new four have each used their thinking for practical ends, such as translation and teaching.

For each one, I give a brief biography, before setting out some of their documented ideas and work on languages that survive for us today, and why I think said ideas and work are cool. I hope you like it, and that it serves as a small contribution to our collective understanding of the rich history of linguists and linguistics.

(Note: once again, letters between /slashes/ refer to sounds, according to the symbolism of the IPA)

Linguists #4 and #5: Cyril and Methodius

Cyril and Methodius in statue form, standing atop Radhošť mountain, Czech Republic. Image from here.

Saints Constantine (later and better known as Cyril) and Methodius stand together here, because they were brothers and collaborators on a very special mission. Born in Thessaloniki in 826 and 815 AD, they rose to prominence as religious and scholarly men within the Eastern Roman Empire, which brought them to the attention of the emperor. They were therefore well-suited candidates for responding to the request in 862 of Rastislav, ruler of Great Moravia, for a missionary expedition from Constantinople that would promote Christianity (specifically of the imperial, eastern flavour) in his territories. These included the modern-day Czech Republic and Slovakia, and parts of Poland, Hungary and Austria. By undertaking this important mission, they would become the ‘apostles to the Slavs’.

With such a large and far-away region, language and translation were key issues of the Cyrillo-Methodian mission from the start. Great Moravia lay to the north of the old imperial borders, beyond the Mediterranean sphere where Latin and Greek were the two major mother tongues and lingue franche. In the Life of Constantine, Rastislav’s original message is supposedly recorded, and he writes that Great Moravia was in need of a bishop and teacher who could teach “in our own language“. This was what Cyril and Methodius had to work with to succeed.

While Thessaloniki would have been predominantly Greek-speaking, and we can assume that Greek was their daily language, Cyril and Methodius were likely already well acquainted with a Slavic language from that area – or rather a Slavic dialect. At this earlier point in time, the differences between what would become the Slavic language family were considerably lesser, and Cyril and Methodius could use the southern Slavic dialect of the Aegean hinterland as a standard language in their work among the Slavs of Great Moravia. It would form the basis for the literary and liturgical language now known as Old Church Slavonic.

But what script would it be written in? The Greek script worked well for Greek, but Slavic sounds were quite different. For instance, they needed two separate letters for the labial sounds /b/ and /v/, a contrast that Greek Β could not provide. Similarly, old Slavic had the sibilants /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ (as in English shoe and genre) alongside /s/ and /z/. It also had nasal vowels, as Modern French does, as well as two very short, yet very important vowels known as the yers. All in all, the Greek alphabet as it was would not do. Tradition tells us that it was Cyril who took up the challenge of creating a more Slavically suitable script and thus produced the (probably) first alphabet for writing down a Slavic language: Glagolitic.

The first page of the Gospel of Mark in the Codex Zographensis. Image from here.

Glagolitic is, in a word, distinct. The origin of many of the forms of its letters is really not clear. Some look fairly Greek, others not at all. All sorts of theories have been proposed; Hebrew צ (tsade) and ש (shin) are two suggested inspirations for the Glagolitic letters Ⱌ (ci) and Ⱎ (ša). This is not impossible, and there is a story in the Life of a miraculous translation, when Cyril read “Jewish and Samaritan words” inscribed on an ancient chalice, to the amazement of all. This may support the idea that Cyril was familiar with Hebrew letters. The possibility also remains though that Cyril simply created new letters deliberately different to anything that had come before. Perhaps he believed that Slavic ought to have its own dedicated script, to put it on an equal standing with Greek, as well as Latin and Hebrew.

What is certain at least is that Cyril did a good job, and that Glagolitic worked very well for Slavic scribes. It had a nice one-to-one correspondence of sound to letter, although admittedly there are some letters whose exact function is unclear to us today. To achieve this correspondence, Cyril (and presumably Methodius and the rest of the mission too) had to think thoroughly about the language that they were dealing with. Sounds had to be considered in the abstract, picked out and compared as individual phonemes, to make a system of writing that could denote them.

Glagolitic has enjoyed popularity down the centuries since, used for both religious and secular purposes, both in and far beyond its original Moravian context. Yet Cyril and Methodius also faced fierce hostility for their alphabet and their use of Slavic in religious services; they had to refute the criticisms of the “triězyčiniky” (‘trilingualists’), who argued that only Hebrew, Greek and Latin had the proper status of liturgical languages.

The wonderful Baška tablet, one of (if not the) oldest text in Glagolitic, found on the Adriatic island of Krk. The language is specifically Old Croatian or Croatian Old Church Slavonic, and even includes the term Croatian! Image from here.

Not long after its creation, Glagolitic soon began to lose favour among writers – not because of the trilingualists, but because of a newer and much Greeker script for Slavic. Used today for writing Russian, Ukrainian, Kazakh, Tajik and many more, the newcomer is confusingly known as Cyrillic, even though Cyril didn’t invent it. It was instead the creation of the mission’s successors, who had by that time been forced out of Greater Moravia and had settled in the Bulgarian Empire. Several Cyrillic letters still had to be taken from their older Glagolitic counterparts though, so Cyril’s hard work lives on today.

Linguist #6: Ælfric of Eynsham

Not a picture of Ælfric! Just an illustration of a lecturer and students from a 13th-century manuscript. Image from here.

Moving over now to England, Ælfric (c. 955 – c. 1010) was a monk, scholar and abbot, born somewhere in Wessex. Frankly, there isn’t much surviving information about him, but a lot of a his written works survive. Having received an education in Winchester from bishop Æthelwold, Ælfric found himself in and contributed to a milieu of great religious reform and intellectual flourishing. He wrote in Latin and Old English, and he used the latter to teach his own students the former.

Ælfric’s Excerptiones de arte grammatica anglice (‘Extracts on the Grammatical Art in English’) was clearly a popular text; thirteen manuscript copies of it survive, which is quite a lot! Possibly the first to be written in English, the Excerptiones is a kind of textbook, which would take the student through the steps of learning Latin, beginning with sounds and letters, then progressing to grammar, categories of word and how meaning works. It is in part a translation of (an abridgment of) the work of the sixth-century grammarian Priscian, but Ælfric put his own spin on things. For instance, he swaps Latin personal names for English ones, presumably to make the text feel more familiar for students.

Nomen is ‘nama’, mid ðām wē nemnað ealle ðing ǣġðer ġe synderlīċe ġe ġemǣnelīċe. Synderlīċe be āgenum naman: Eadgarus, Aðelwoldus; ġemǣnelīċe: rex ‘cyning’, episcopus ‘bisċeop’.”

Nomen means ‘name’, by which we name all things either specific or common. Specific nouns are proper names: Eadgar, Æthelwold. Common nouns are like rex ‘king’ or episcopus ‘bishop’.

Likewise, he uses English place-names!

“Sume synd patriae, þā ġeswuteliað þæs mannes ēþel: Romanus ‘Rо̄manisċ’, Lundoniensis ‘Lundenisċ’, Wiltuniensis ‘Wiltūnisċ’.”

Some are patriae, which refer to someone’s homeland: Romanus ‘Roman’, Lundoniensis ‘of London’, Wiltuniensis ‘of Wilton’.

He also creates his own Old English equivalents for Latin technical terminology, again breaking down concepts into language that his students will better understand. Some are basic, and so may not be the original creations of Ælfric; he uses tīd for Latin tempus ‘tense’ (hence modern tide and German Zeit), cynn for genus ‘gender’ (hence kin), hīw for species ‘form, appearance’ (hence hue), hād for persona ‘person’ and ġetel for numerus ‘number’. Just as grammatical case comes from the Latin verb for ‘to fall’, Ælfric’s term is fyll.

Other terms are a bit more complicated; they’re probably his own literal translations and calques of the Latin, and the inventiveness and the many connections to modern words make them quite charming.

Latin termÆlfric’s Old English termModern English term
praesens tempusandwerd tīd
‘present time’
present tense
praeteritum tempusforðġewiten tīd
‘gone-forth time’
past tense
futurum tempustо̄werd tīd
‘toward time’
future tense
indicativus modusġebīcniendlīċ ġemet
‘pointing-out mood’
indicative mood
imperativus modusbebēodendlīċ ġemet
‘commanding mood’
imperative mood
subiunctivus modusunderðēodendlīċ ġemet
‘under-joining mood’
subjunctive mood
optativus modusġewīsċendlīċ ġemet
‘wishing mood’
optative mood
consonantessamod swēġende
‘together sounding’
activa verbadǣdlīċe word
‘deed verbs’
active verbs
passiva verbaðrо̄wiendlīċe word
‘suffering verbs’
passive verbs

By coming up with these translations, Ælfric demonstrates his knowledge of how the underlying systems of language work. Concerning sounds, he would teach his students that:

“Sо̄ðlīċe on Lēdensprǣċe synd þrēo and twentiġ stafa … of ðām syndon fīf vocales, þæt synd ‘clypiendlīċe’: a, e, i, o, u; ðās fīf stafas ætēowiað heora naman þurh hī sylfe and būtan ðām stafum ne mæġ nān word bēon āwriten.

Ealle ðā о̄ðre stafas syndon ġehātene consonantes, þæt is ‘samod swēgende’, forðan ðe hī swēġaþ mid ðām fīf clypiendlīċum.”

So, in Latin, there are twenty-three letters … of which five are vocales, that is ‘calling’ sounds: a, e, i, o, u. These five letters display their names by themselves and without these letters no word can be written.

All the other letters are called consonantes, that is ‘sounding together’, since they make a sound with the five vowels.

We can recognise here the important idea that vowels are the core around which a syllable is built, while consonants are sounds that work only in conjunction with vowels, standing on either side of the syllable core as either its onset or its coda. What Ælfric has set out in Old English wouldn’t seem out of place in a phonetics and phonology lecture today.

There’s a term for what Ælfric is doing here, as he considers, translates and passes on this information about language from ancient times: he’s doing some linguistics.

Linguist #7: Hildegard of Bingen

12th-century illustration of Hildegard of Bingen. Image from here.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) was, in brief, an awesome woman of varied and incredible talents. As well as performing the duties of the day job (being a Benedictine nun and abbess), she was a writer, scholar, composer and mystic visionary. She was only recently canonised as a saint in 2012, when she also gained the status of a doctor of the Church. Hildegard was born in Bermersheim vor der Höhe, today in the German state of Rheinland-Pfalz, and in her long life she lived and traveled all over the Rheinland, both as a member of monastic communities and as an independent preacher.

Several surviving works are attributed to her, perhaps most famously the Scivias, in which she recounts a set of visions, which are of a powerful intensity in their themes and imagery, accompanied by illustrations that feel very modern, timeless even.

Less famous but still extremely cool is a work that survives in two manuscript sources and that reveals Hildegard’s thinking as a linguist. Hildegard of Bingen had her own private language. According to the version the Wiesbaden Riesencodex, it is named “Ignota lingua per simplicem hominem Hildegard prolata” (‘an unknown language produced for the simple woman Hildegard’). The lingua ignota has its own unknown alphabet to match, the twenty-three litterae ignotae.

Though called a language, the lingua ignota is essentially only a list of vocabulary – not that this diminishes the achievement, since Hildegard created a thousand words for it! There is nothing to accompany the words in the way of grammar or phonology, so we must presume to pronounce the written words how we think a Middle High German speaker of that time would have pronounced them. The words are also all nouns, all apparently without variable grammatical endings that would show differences in case, gender and number. Schnapp (1991) sees in this absence of grammar a link to the medieval idea of a perfect, primitive language, such as the one which was first spoken in the Garden of Eden.

“It seems to envisage a state of absolute linguistic plenitude, in which names and nouns simply radiate their meanings and interconnections, without ever having to decline into the carnivalesque world of pronouns, verbs, predicates, modifiers or adjectives.”

Schnapp 1991: 23

The vocabulary is organised thematically; there are terms for plants and herbs, for animals, for time, for the religious and secular worlds, for the parts of the body. Hildegard doesn’t shy away from certain aspects of life; meginz is her word for ‘feces’, fragizlanz means ‘vulva’ and creveniz means ‘penis’. The overall impression is that the vocabulary of the lingua ignota is very different and meant to be unique, but connections can be made as to its sources of inspiration; some words resemble similar words in Middle High German, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Fronix ‘brother’ and iur ‘man’ somewhat resemble Latin frater and vir for instance. Diuueliz ‘devil’ must have been inspired by Latin diabolus and medieval German diuvel. Thankfully we don’t have to rely on such fairly flimsy connections to understand the lingua ignota; Hildegard provides us with translations.

Its purpose is unclear. Hildegard’s goals in creating the lingua ignota may have been anything from simple intellectual experimentation to providing an alternative language for everyday life. We do have evidence that the vocabulary was indeed used in some liturgical hymns, scattered among the usual Latin of the lyrics. We also have the testimony of Hildegard herself, who wrote in a letter to the pope that God had instructed her “to form unknown letters and utter an unknown language”. If we accept this account, then it gives us both evidence that the lingua ignota was meant to be used and a motivation (a divine one at that).

However, what I personally want to highlight and conclude with are Hildegard’s ideas about how language, specifically her own, works. Although the form of the words may be mysterious, we can still tell that Hildegard had an appreciation for the processes of word composition and morphology. She uses prefixes and suffixes, and creates compounds like hilzpeueriz ‘stepfather’ and hilzmaiz ‘stepmother’ through the addition of single elements like hilz- (or nilz-, it’s hard to read). One word in the language can be derived from another; peueriz ‘father’ seems to be the origin of the word for ‘patriarch’, peuearrez, with some as yet unclear suffix added to build the latter from the former. Hildegard also plays with association and metaphor. From luz ‘light’ comes luzeia ‘eye’ as the recipient of light. Similarly, apples are round just as eyeballs are round, and luzpomphia ‘eyeball’ is literally ‘eye-apple’. The internal logic of Hildegard’s language attests to someone very familiar with different languages, and accustomed to thinking linguistically.

13th-century illustration of Hildegard’s second vision in the Book of Divine Works. Image from here.

So, there you have them: four more saintly scholars learnèd in language. While much of their lives, experiences, beliefs and motivations may feel unfamiliar to us today, they are at least historical examples of how we humans like to (and sometimes have to) think about language, not just use it. These four are each cases of people grappling with language to achieve some end, and recognisably being linguists as a consequence.




  • Higley, S. L. (2007). The Riesencodex Lingua Ignota with Additions from the Berlin MS. Hildegard of Bingen’s Unknown Language. The New Middle Ages. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Maddocks. F. (2001). Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age. Doubleday.
  • Marsden, R. (2015). Learning Latin (from Ælfric’s Excerptiones de arte grammatica anglice). The Cambridge Old English Reader. 58-65. Cambridge University Press.
  • Schnapp, J. T. (1991). Virgin Words: Hildegard of Bingen’s Lingua ignota and the Development of Imaginary Languages Ancient to Modern. Exemplaria 3(2). 267-298.
  • Walker, N. (2018). Aelfric’s Grammar, the First Grammar Book Written in English.

Images from Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise stated.

3 thoughts on “Holy Linguists! Part II: Cyril and Methodius, Ælfric of Eynsham, Hildegard of Bingen

    1. I’d like to add that luzpomphia ‘eyeball’, literally ‘eye-apple’, doesn’t appear odd at all when you consider German Augapfel, MHG ougapfel and OHG oug(a)aphul. German uses the same metaphor, and the word is very transparently composed of Auge/ouge/ouga ‘eye’ and Apfel/apfel/aphul ‘apple’—and apparently already very old, since Old High German was spoken/written during Ælfric’s time (c. 750–1050 AD) 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Dutch “oogappel” used to mean that too but it’s now only used in the figurative sense of “apple of one’s eye”, i.e. “beloved person”.


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