by Caroline Bergvall

An unexpected tripping into English-language history. A poem in which noping is where nothing was. Audio recording by Graham Williams. Animation by Ciarán Ó Meachair.

“Noping” was produced in partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, as part of Triple Canopy’s contribution to the exhibition Postscript: Writing after Conceptual Art, curated by Nora Burnett Abrams and Andrea Andersson and on view from October 12, 2012, to February 3, 2013. “Noping” was also published as part of Triple Canopy’s Internet as Material project area, which receives support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, the Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts.

I went looking for my Nordic roots in the English language and found this sign:

A p attached to a long stick, or a type of hoop.

Apparently my Norwegian folks were island pastors and sea traders from the southeastern part of the country. Would they have used such a tool? Perhaps as a walking stick, or as a cleat for tying the rope around once they’d docked their boat, but not as a written sign. At any rate, I only know about my ascendants until the early nineteenth century, by which time this runic sign, the thorn sign, would already have fallen into disuse in both the Norwegian and the English writing systems. It would already have been found mainly on the red-painted slabs of raised rune stones that litter both the surfaces and the geological depths of Swedish and Norwegian landscape:

Here shall these stones stand, reddened with runes.

One such rune stone was uncovered in a Swedish car park in April 2009. The news made the rounds of Scandinavian online papers (here from the Local, April 24, 2009): “The runestone first surfaced in the autumn when church authorities in Vallentuna excavated an area around the church in order to lay new cables. But the historical artefact’s runic inscriptions were covered in mud and earth and the rare find went unnoticed for several months.”

One car park often leads to another. At the time of this writing, September 2012, newspapers and newsrooms here in England have gone wild over a crooked skeleton with a large gash in its skull, unearthed at a large archaeological dig beneath a car park in the city of Leicester. Although there are still some doubts about this, it is thought that this may be the deformed remains of the reviled Renaissance king Richard III. Said a member of the archaeological team to the Guardian: “We’ve taken teeth out under clean conditions from which we’ll try and get DNA.”

The teeth, along with the jaws, provide the scaffold to the most complex speaking sounds; it is one of their other remarkable features that they are the hardest material in the human body and can be preserved even when bones are not. In terms of archaeological forensics, their enamel and calcified tartar deposits provide a treasure trove of information for ancient human identification.

The thorn sign was one of only two signs from the runic alphabet (the other being the wynn) adapted into the Anglo-Saxon alphabet. It was healthily put to work until the tenth century, persisting for another four hundred years before the thornless German letterpress used by Caxton and others finally put a stop to it in the early fifteenth century. As no dedicated letter was cast, the digraph th came to replace the thorn. The same digraph also replaced the eth, a character of Irish origin. These exchanges removed from written English the distinction between the voiceless thorn of þeckthick—and the voiced eth of fæðmianfathom. Written English no longer marked the subtle difference, as it had done (with some interchangeability) in Old English, between these two spoken th sounds.

The thorn is a voiceless stop, an unvoiced fricative, also called an interdental fricative because it is produced with the tongue between the upper and lower teeth, not just against the back of the upper teeth. The tongue pushes from between the upper and lower teeth to emit and interrupt a breath-like whistling and creates unvoiced friction between the teeth and the air. This stop is quite a muscular event. It demands a highly controlled placement of the tongue and then a sudden and strong push of outbreath interrupted at the teeth. No sounding, just a stream of air. Famously, the sound itself is one of the things that makes English so difficult to get right. One could speculate that this sheer difficulty would apply some sort of pressure on the anatomy. Indeed, perhaps it is in part responsible for the extraordinary look of the English dental apparatus. It is at any rate no wonder that this difficult theta sound finds so many substitutes, often voiced ones, among late learners of the language and in its many developmental language variants.

Just one last thing on the exhumation of the regal skeleton: In 2005, after many years of research, John Ashdown-Hill, a historian and genealogist, telephoned one Joy Ibsen (no relation) to inform her that her DNA results made her indisputably the sixteenth-generation niece of the dreaded king, and the only carrier of his DNA. As she has now died, it is her son, Michael Ibsen, a furniture maker, who has been invited to be present at the dig: “I really hope it’s him,” said he. As the DNA being tested is passed through the female line, it really is a bummer that Michael’s sister, who has no children, is the only one capable of passing it on. Once she’s gone, þæt’s it.

My interest in the thorn comes not only from its stubborn, slightly alien presence within the Latinate alphabet adopted by the Anglo-Saxons after the Norman conquest in the eleventh century. It is also an indice of what remains for me an unreadable, largely unpronounceable historic language. It is a mysterious and tantalizing marker of the now completely buried linguistic and inscriptive reality at the root of the English that I write and speak. The trajectory of the thorn reflects the many contingencies of writing. For centuries, it was a useful figure in Old English manuscript culture, before landing in the political upheaval and technological revolution of early print. Interestingly, along with the thorn comes a western-Germanic glossary, later in part supplanted by the Anglo-Normans’ French and Latin. When dwelling in the world of the thorn one finds oneself surrounded by an English tongue steeped in a strong western-Germanic glossary, later in part supplanted by the Anglo-Normans’ French and Latin. It is remarkable how a large proportion of the most common words used today in fact comes from this early Germanic pool.

I start small. I start with one sign. Instead of going to language class, I decide at my peril to engage with an associative reading of the sign. Soon, I become convinced that the thorn is a root sticking up from the ground of language.

Its a fine day you step on to the top soil of your strata you trip over some þing nearly makes you fall over

From this simple associative imagery to the visual and sonic narrative I proceed to compose, there is but one stumbling step.

you look down but cant see any þing for a few days this continues youre walking along enjoying the air the light the traffic the vast city around you whatever your foot trips on some þing you catch yourself look down but no theres no þing there

As I’m a stickler for small historical facts pertaining to graphic history, you also need to know that the slightly raised full stop punctuation I use in the written section reproduced here is as it might have appeared in an Old English manuscript. Punctuation was erratic, often not used, and scribes made do with just a very few visual devices to mark syntactical and section breaks. This raised dot was one of them.

a few days later its a fine day youre walking in a pensive mood a lively mood a stressed out mood a sad mood no matter your foot gets caught on some þing

This research into the thorn has provided a dive, a tipping over, a clinamen; it engineers in my work an accidental descent into the enduring power of Old English and its accompanying spelling.

The following is a visual representation of the translation and tranformation of a word in Bergvall's poem. (Note: The animation moves slowly at first, then more quickly.)