In the spirit of Easter, I have decided to look at the animal that has traditionally been on the table at this time. Lambs have long featured in Christian symbolism, from sacrificial lambs of the Old Testament, to Christ as the Lamb of God.
However, our focus today is on the word in English. It is an intriguing tale. Today the word is lamb, and in Old English, it was also lamb, or also lambe, as you will see in the example. Why should this be intriguing, you might wonder.
Well, the thing is that despite its ancient and modern forms being the same, if we go to the intervening period of Middle English, we will find a difference. Let’s take this example from 1398. It comes from Trevisa’s translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s De Proprietatibus Rerum – On the Properties of things. I have mentioned this work before – it is a kind of early encyclopaedia.
Among alle the bestes of þe erþe, þe lomb is þe most Innocent, softe, and mylde.
Among all the beasts of the earth, the lamb is the most innocent, soft and mild.
As you can see in this example, lamb is lomb. It also appears in Middle English as lombbe, loumbe, lomp, lomber. Occasionally, it is also lambre, lambur, lamp. Does the frequent appearance of the /r/ suggest a pronunciation that crept into Middle English, different from Old English, but that was lost again before the modern era? Read on and find out!
Now let’s look at our example from Old English. This comes from the Homilies of Aelfric, dating to around 990.
Hé gefullode ðone wulf and geworhte tó lambe
He baptised the wolf and made it a lamb
The word in this example looks more like what we recognize today. What does this mean? Does it suggest that either the word went through a circle in terms of pronunciation, and gradually returned to the starting point of Old English, or that it remained constant in some dialects of English, and those were the versions that prevailed?
Well, things are not so simple. The plural in Old English was lomberu. This provides us both with the /r/ and the /o/ vowel and it is not hard to imagine how a plural form might come to be used in the singular.
Can we trace the word further back in time? Well, we can, but not very far. A form has been proposed in Proto-Germanic – *lambaz. There are cognates in other Germanic languages, such as Dutch and German, that help to reconstruct this form. But there are no known cognates outside the Germanic languages, and it doesn’t seem to be related to another recognizable root.