Sumer is icumen in

The picture above shows the first line of a manuscript page (British Library Harley 978, folio 11v). The page holds the text and musical score of the well-known round song Sumer is icumen in (“Summer has arrived”), which is thought to have been composed, or at least first written down, around the middle of the 13th century. The song is written in the Wessex dialect of Middle English.

I won’t bore you by going into the reasons for my searching for the song on Wikipedia, but once I had it presented a little puzzle. The second line of the song is Lhude sing cuccu (“Loudly sing cuckoo”). You can see it in the picture, starting just below the red cross on the music stave. The seventh line of the song is Lhouþ after calue cu (ˈThe cow lows after the calf”). My question is a simple one. What does <lh> stand for? I have looked around and have not yet come up with an answer. Does anyone out there know?

Anyway, on the evidence of the weather of the last few days here indeed sumer is icumen in. I hope I’m not tempting fate by saying this.

3 thoughts on “Sumer is icumen in

  1. In the examples you cite, the Middle English spelling reflects an Old English spelling , which originally represented the sound /hl/. Thus ‘hlude’ may be compared with Old English ‘hlud’ , and the ME verb lhouen was earlier OE hlowan (the Germanic root of which, *hló-, is cognate with the root of Latin clamare).
    It is a matter of debate as to exactly when the /hl/ sound was simplified to simple /l/ in the various English dialects, but we don’t need to worry about that here; for comparison, the OE cluster hr seems to have been simplified to r rather sooner, and of course there is the issue of how conservative any orthography is.
    As another point to ponder, consider the various English words beginning with the spelling , reflecting OE and /hw/, still current in many words but pronounced as simply /w/ in many English dialects, though /hw/ (or [ʍ]) is not rare (e.g., OE hwit, ME white).

  2. Mark,
    Thank you for your clear and helpful explanation. So this dialect of ME may have retained OE hl, presumably a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative/approximant, or it may just have retained the spelling? Strange that the order of the letters was reversed for this, and also for the much longer-lived hw

  3. Just as OE etc ‘hw’ now spelt ‘wh’ may in dialects that retain the distinction represent either [ʍ] or [hw] or [ɦw] or [ʍw] so OE/ME ‘lh’ may have stood for [ɬ] or [hl] or [ɬl] . In fact dropping of the first element of a sequence seems praps a more likely development than a change of fricative to approximant. In Wales today most people are not native speakers of Welsh but they wou·dnt be heard dead saying /la`neli/
    for Llanelli. However, what they do say
    isnt [ɬa`neɬi] but ‘at best’ [ɬla`neɬli] or
    prob·bly most usually /lə`neθli].

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