19 Nov 2007

Why /skop/?

Submitted by Karl Hagen
In his review of Beowulf, Richard Nokes complains in passing of the pronunciation of scop. I presume he's referring to the initial consonant cluster rather than the quality of the vowel, which one could also complain about, although I think that's too subtle a difference to be really annoying.

This was a case of non-intervention on my part. By the time I showed up, everyone working on the movie had adopted pronunciation of various names and terms based on Present-Day English habits. I put my foot down over the pronunciation of Hrothgar as /roθgar/, but I decided to say nothing about /skop/ because there is a good chance that it's a more accurate pronunciation than /∫op/.

Yes, I'm fully aware that Anglo-Saxonists are taught to pronounce most instances of sc as sh, especially in word-initial position. But first, this shift almost certainly hadn't occurred in the early 6th century. And even using later Old English as our standard, if Donka Minkova is right, [∫] may be wrong, or at least innovative, even in late Old English. See Alliteration and Sound Change In Early English pp 130-3 for her arguments that [∫] lacks phonemic status as late as the mid 11th century, although it certainly would have enjoyed allophonic status somewhat earlier. Note particularly her assertion "the cluster /sk/ remained bisegmental in all environments in Old English." (pp. 132-3).

<sc> certainly does assibilate eventually, but if we can't be certain that it changes until the 11th century, I felt perfectly justified in postulating that it was still /sk/ in the sixth.


Just out of curiousity, were you the one responsible for the delightful little "Bee-wolf" reference that Grendel's Mother makes, or was that already part of the script ... and if it was the latter, do you know who put it in there? I know only geeks like me care, but it was a nice touch.

That was in the script at the point I first got a look at it. I know that Gaiman and Avery relied heavily on Heaney's translation, but I can't remember if Heaney mentions that bit or not.

Yet you don't seem to know, that they wrote the script in 1997, when Heaney's translation was not available.

OK, "know" was too strong a word, but the script was revised several times after that, and there are definite similarities. My misplaced confidence came from the remarks of one of the producers to me. Perhaps, though, it was Zemeckis and the production staff who relied upon it.