Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Eggys or Eryen?

William Caxton who is credited as setting up the first printing presses in England also helped edit and translate many works. One story he wrote illustrates some of the difficulties he had with the various English dialects of the time. It is the tale of two merchants who knock upon a door and ask to buy eggs…

"And one of theym named Sheffelde, a mercer, cam in to an hows and axed for mete and specyally he axyd after eggys, and the goode wyf answerde that she could speke no Frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry, for he also coude speke no Frenshe, but wolde have hadde egges; and she understode hym not. And thenne at laste a-nother sayd that he wolde have eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she understod hym wel. Loo, what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, egges, or eyren? Certaynly it is hard to playse every man, by-cause of dyversite and chaunge of langage." (Ref)

The confusion comes form the fact that 'Sheffield' was using a Northern dialect (influenced by Old Norse) which gave the word 'eggys'. Eryen which is very similar to modern Dutch 'eieren' was in fact influenced by the Southern Old English dialect. Interestingly Caxton decided to furthermore use the word 'egges'. (Ref p.87 The Story of English, Piercy, London 2012).