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Anatomy of a Word

a hill

The following is part of my coursework in the history of the English language, which begins with a study of Old English.

Hill has pre-Germanic roots in an unknown word backformed as *kulní-s and an unknown Germanic word backformed as *hulni-z which became the Middle Dutch hille, hil, and hul, the Frisian hel, and the Low German hull. Its Old English origin as hyll dates to c. 1000 in Aelfric’s Homilies and is a noun that refers to a rise in the Earth’s surface that is not the height of a mountain. Old English hyll becomes hul and hull(e) in Middle English. Variations in Middle English include hel(l) and hyl before 1500, yll in the 1500s, hil before 1600, and hyll(e) and hille. In c. 1380 hill is used to contrast with a plain (or dale, as in hill and dale) in Herrtage’s Sir Ferumbras. It is in 1667 with Milton’s Paradise Lost that hill is used as a suffix, as in halfway uphill.

Other uses of hill include a figurative use meaning “something not easily … overcome” and appears c. 1450 in Brandeis’ Jacob’s Well, as in “the hills of proud and rich folk.” In 1297, The Chronicle of Robert Gloucester uses hill as a “mound of earth … formed by human or other agency.” In 1572, hill is an embankment around plants caused by hoeing a garden. In 1770, hill refers to the specific ground on which a bird (the ruff, a wading bird) congregates to breed. Questionably, in 1828, hill may refer to heraldic emblems on a coat of arms and is a place on which a building, tree, or beast may stand (called a mount) (“Charge (heraldry)”). A final interesting use of hill is Pearson’s Magazine’s 1897 use of hill as a name for all nitroglycerin factories.

Old English hyll has a short y as in will (“Old English Sounds and Letters”). According to Freeborn, this y in Old English is no longer a vowel in Modern English but was something like the French word mur [myr] (Freeborn 443). It is a high, front, and rounded vowel, like a short and rounded [I] (Kruger). Since the Great Vowel Shift of 1400 (van Gelderen 18) happened just to long vowels (van Gelderen 18), this OE short y was not affected. Thus, the Middle English spellings hul, hull(e), hil, hel(l), hyl, hyll(e), hille, yll, and hill represent regional pronunciations, presumably all short vowel sounds since the Great Vowel Shift did not affect the short y (or other short vowels) in English.

In general, the spelling in Old English for the letter y corresponds to the Modern English pronunciation. Freeborn cites brycg, lyft, and byscan (bridge, left, and blush) to demonstrate how the y sound changed (443-4). Therefore, while hyll has a variety of spellings and pronunciations depending upon region, its change from y to i represents the loss of the Old English sound and the use of the modern [I]. Variations of OE hyll are hyl before 1500, yll between 1500 and 1600, hil and hille before 1600, and the regional variations hul, hull(e), hel(l), hyll(e), and the suffix -hill. The spelling of hyll as hill (cited as early as ?c1200 in the Ormulum (OED)) eventually became the accepted spelling with the pronunciation of the OE y standardizing to the ModE [ɪ] in the Middle English period. This would contrast with the long i sound [i] of the Old English mys mice (van Gelderen 21), which would have undergone the Great Vowel Shift.

The consonants in hyll did not change except the the regional variety yll, where it appears the h- is not pronounced. This indicates the deletion of /h/ in that dialect. Van Gelderen points out that as a liquid /l/ is unstable and may be part of an l / r switch (25). Since the various spellings of hyll maintain the /l/, this l / r switch likely did not occur with this word.

/L/ is a voiced lateral liquid alveolar (van Gelderen 24). This means that /l/ vibrates the vocal chords (voiced), the tongue flattens so that the center of the vocal tract is completely blocked (lateral) (Mihalicek and Wilson 49), the vocal tract is constricted but not “enough to block the vocal tract or cause turbulence” (liquid) (Mihalicek and Wilson 49), and is pronounced at the ridge behind the upper teeth (alveolar). /H/ is a voiceless glottal fricative (Mihalicek and Wilson 49), meaning that /h/ does not vibrate the vocal chords (voiceless), is pronounced deep in the throat at the glottis,which is at the opening of the vocal folds (glottal) (Mihalicek and Wilson 49), and allows air to pass through the vocal chords (van Gelderen 23) but through “a nearly complete obstruction” similar to “air escaping from a punctured tire” (fricative) (Mihalicek and Wilson 48).

In addition to the noun form, hill is also listed as a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary. The first verb form is obsolete except in some dialects and is used after 1240. It is a transitive verb that means “to cover up or protect.” As an intransitive verb, to hill is used for when fish deposit or cover their spawn. It also has an obsolete compound, hilback, referring to clothing covering the back, and the adjective hilled is a derivative that means “covered or armed.” The forms of the verb hill include many of the same forms as the noun but also ME hylien, illen, and hule.

The OED also includes a second verb entry for hill whose etymology is simply the noun hill. It means to make a “heap … or ridge for planting purposes” and was used as early as 1581. It also has a figurative meaning (from before 1618) and a specifically agricultural meaning (from 1577). In 1612 to hill also meant “to surround with hills,” and in 1807 to hill meant “to cover with hills.” An intransitive form of this verb, used beginning before 1552, means “to ascend…a slope” and beginning in 1770 to hill could mean “to assemble on rising ground, as ruffs.”

Many of the various definitions of hill, including the verb forms, are interconnected, demonstrating in but one small word the complexities of orthography, pronunciation, definition, and usage.

Works Cited

“Charge (heraldry).” Wikipedia. 28 Dec. 2016, _(heraldry).

Freeborn, Dennis. From Old English to Standard English: A Course Book in Language Variation Across Time. Second Edition, U of Ottawa P, 1998.

“Hill.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford UP, 2017.*

Kruger, William. “LIN 517: Chapter 4 Old English (Pt. 1).” Class Lecture, Week 3, Arizona State University.

Mihalicek, Vedrana, and Christin Wilson, editors. Language Files: Materials for an Introduction to Language and Linguistics. Eleventh Edition, The Ohio State UP, 2011.

“Old English Sounds and Letters.” Florida International University, /~berklynn/Old_English_Sounds.html.

van Gelderen, Elly. A History of the English Language. Revised Edition. John Benjamins Publishing, 2014.

*This text is not cited since most information regarding the forms of hill and its definitions are all from the OED.

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