Sumer is icumen in!

I haven’t blogged much about the history of the English language, but the arrival of summer is just begging for a quick introduction to something called Middle English. It’s a form of English spoken in the Middle Ages, between the 11th and the 16th century. During that period, Old English underwent massive changes that eventually resulted in Early Modern English – the language of Shakespeare and the King James’ Bible, and from there to contemporary, Modern English.

And what’s the connection with summer, you might wonder? Whenever I hear someone mention Middle English, my first association is a 13th century song known as the Cuckoo Song or Summer has come in, which is the literal translation of its opening line. The author is unknown, but it could have been written by the mediaeval English composer W. de Wycombe.

If you’re a fan of classic folk horror films, you might recall a version of this song from The Wicker Man, a cult classic about a mysterious pagan community living in a remote Scottish village. (If you aren’t familiar with the film, I urge you to watch it; it’s an absolute must and a perfect choice for Midsummer!)

A scene from The Wicker Man

The Cuckoo Song is an example of a rota, or a round – a song in which one singer begins the song, and then another starts from the beginning at a certain point, and then other voices join in at the same fixed intervals. We used to sing similar songs when I went to primary school (albeit not in mediaeval English!) and I always found them confusing – who sings what and when. But they are a lot of fun, after a bit of practice. This one is an example of six-part polyphony, meaning there’s a total of six voices, and it’s the single oldest recorded example of this particular type of music. 

You can try to sing along, I will include a few useful links later on. But first I wanted to discuss the lyrics – not just to celebrate the arrival of summer, but to show you an example of the evolution of the English language through the centuries. 

Let’s see how many words you can recognise at first glance. 

As you can see, only five words look exactly the same as in Modern English: the verb forms sing and is, the conjunction and, and the prepositions in and after. Then there’s a number of words with a different spelling, but still easily recognisable: sumer = summer, cuccu = cuckoo, lomb = lamb, bulluc = bullock, bucke = buck, wel = well, nu = now. It’s the verbs that have changed the most, at least in this example. Let’s compare it to a modern translation and see if we can make out any more words (follow the matching colours for easier orientation): 

Translation made available by Wessex Parallel Web Text

If you know some German, for example, you will instantly detect some common features: 

  • ‘is icumen’, from the first line, is close to modern German ‘ist gekommen’, where the verb to be is used to make the perfect tense for verbs of movement and change of state;
  • þu (pronounced ‘thoo’) = you – Ger. ‘du’
  • the 3rd p. sg. ending -þ [th], as in springþ, sterteþ, uerteþ – the ending -t in modern German

As for content, the song is wonderful in its simplicity. It celebrates the natural world that not only comes to life but thrives during the warm months of summer. You can easily imagine simple country folk singing and dancing to this tune, mindful of all the farm animals they vitally depended on for survival.

If you want to do some singing yourself, have a look at this YouTube video (with lyrics) from the English Folk Project, or this more dynamic rendition performed by Ian Pittaway

Finally, here’s the memorable scene from The Wicker Man, the film I’ve mentioned earlier. The version sung there is a loose modern translation of the original song, and it goes like this:

If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, have a wonderful sumer! (But please contain your excitement and don’t set anything – or anyone – on fire.)

One Reply to “Sumer is icumen in!”

  1. Fabulous read – a masterful examination of an arcane paean written in a glorious old language. Its use in the „modern“ setting of this particular film makes for a chilling juxtaposition and great creepy fun. Additionally, your piece offers a remarkable linguistic analysis of the song’s compositional elements, and is, as always, beautifully written.

    Liked by 1 person

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