“The first Noel, the angel did say, was to certain poor shepherds
in fields as they lay…Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel.”
—From The First Noel, traditional English Christmas carol
This post was originally intended for the 2017 Christmas season, but had to be postponed due to illness. However, just as “love knows no season”, a good Christmas song need not wait until that season to be enjoyed. And a good investigation into Latin and Romance philology need not wait either. So, now that I have the opportunity, I present this post.
Many English speakers are aware that Noel (or Noël, the French spelling) is used as an alternate name for Christmas. Some of them also know that Noel is used to mean a Christmas carol, as in the song The First Noel. But they may not know the reasons for these usages. I didn’t know myself, until I recently did some research, which then led to writing this post.
In a Christmastime entry “Word of the Day: Noel”, the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, http://macmillandictionaryblog.com/ says under Origin and Usage:
“The word Noel comes from the French word ‘noel’ meaning ‘the Christmas season’ and is a variation of the Latin word ‘natalis’ which in Western Christian traditions references the birth of Christ. The word Noel first appeared in English sometime in the late 14th century as ‘nowel’ meaning ‘feast of Christmas’”. The online edition of the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia lists Dies Natalis [“ day of birth”, D.D.] as the Latin for “Christmas” (“Christmas”, Catholic Encyclopedia, at http://newadvent.org/). This starts to explain how Noel in English is a synonym for Christmas, but doesn’t explain why Noel can mean “Christmas carol”.
On the Christian blog Got Questions, https://www.gotquestions.org/ the post “What is the Meaning of Noel?” tells us:
Every year, people sing songs like “The First Noel” at Christmas, and many wonder what a “noel” is. In French, Joyeux Noel means “Merry Christmas.” Our modern English word comes from the Middle English nowel, which Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defined as “a shout of joy or Christmas song.” The roots of the word are the French noel (“Christmas season”), which may come from the Old French nael. This, in turn, is derived from the Latin natalis, meaning “birth.” Since Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ, it was natural for people to refer to the celebration as the “nativity” or the “birth”.
…In the Middle Ages, several English carols began with nowell, and French carols similarly used noel. Since early songs often used the first word as the title, a “noel” came to refer to any song about the birth of Christ. Because of this, the word now carries the dual meaning of a Christmas song and the Christmas celebration itself.
These blogs help us understand the origin and usage of Noel in English and French, but how did Old French nael (later noel) come from Latin natalis? The answers come from looking first at how natalis developed in Vulgar Latin. Vulgar Latin (Sermo Vulgaris, “common speech”, “Vulgar Latin”, Wikipedia) was the popular, everyday spoken language (The term relates to Latin vulgus, “common”; cf. the Latin Vulgate Bible.) of the Romans and other Latin speakers, as opposed to Classical, or literary Latin. The two registers of Latin existed side by side throughout antiquity. Since it was non-literary, it was rarely used in Latin literature except in comedy and satire, and in some quotations of grammarians disapproving of it. Traces of it are found in some inscriptions, such as graffiti and advertisements. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in A.D. 476, the language continued to be used. By the 9th century A.D., the local dialects of Vulgar Latin had diverged so much that they were regarded as different languages, and the Romance languages were born. (Ibid.)
Returning to natalis, that form is used for both the nominative and genitive cases. The accusative form is natalem. (“natalis”, Wiktionary). The descendant noun forms in the Romance languages typically developed from the Latin accusative. In From Latin to Romance in Sound Charts, Peter Boyd-Bowman tells us:
“The blending of final vowels in Vulgar Latin, coupled with the widespread tendency to drop –M…levelled most of the endings upon which the case system depended….Case distinction…was abandoned in due course. Latin speakers came to use a single form of the word that was usually though not always based on the old accusative.” (142, Synopsis of Vulgar Latin, Supplementary Notes: IV. Gender, Cases, and Declensions, A and B)
So the journey from natalis to noel begins with the accusative natalem. The word went through the following stages (> means “develops into”):
1. Natalem > natale. (Final -m drops.)
2. Natale > natal. (Final -e drops.)
3. Natal > naal. (Medial -t drops.)
4. Naal > nael. (Second -a becomes -e.)
5. Nael > noel. (First -a becomes -o.)
As Boyd-Bowman noted, final -m tended to drop (Stage 1). Concerning Stage 2, the loss of final -e, he writes: “In French all final vowels weakened and tended to disappear at an early stage, with the exception of final -A which survived as [ǝ], the so-called ‘mute’ e…” (Ibid., 18) In Stage 3, the medial (in the middle) -t drops. Bowman noted: “Between vowels T usually remains in Italian but voices to D in Spanish and Portuguese. French has lost it altogether…”. (Ibid., 119)
Modern Romance descendants, except in French, are based on the 2nd stage form, natal: Portuguese Natal, Italian Natale, Catalán Nadal. (“Natalis”, Wiktionary) T.C. Donkin notes the form nadal also occurred in Old Spanish. (An Etymological Dictionary of the Romance Languages, 317 [p. 328 in PDF].) English uses the root natal in medical terms such as prenatal, postnatal, neonatal. Modern Spanish uses some different terms for “Christmas”, Navidad and Natividad. The first is a shorter form of Natividad, and both are descended from an alternate Latin term for “birth”, nativitas (genitive nativitatis, accusative nativitatem). The English “nativity” comes from nativitas also.
The current English and French terms Noel, Noël are based on Stage 5, the final stage. In English, both the form with and without the dotted -e can be used. French uses the dotted form exclusively. In French, the dots over the -e, called a dieresis or tréma, are used to indicate a change in pronunciation. “The tréma therefore indicates that you need to pronounce the letter under it as well as the letter before and after it separately (you will even need to sound the last letter if it follows the tréma).” “All About the ‘Tréma”, http://frenchyourway.com.au/.
Wishing you a Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noël, Felix Natalis (Felicem Natalem), this year and every year!
Works Cited—Opera Citata
“All About the ‘Tréma”, http://frenchyourway.com.au/.
Boyd-Bowman, Peter. From Latin to Romance in Sound Charts. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Kalamazoo College, 1954 (print).
Donkin, T.C. An Etymological Dictionary of the Romance Languages. Chiefly from the German of Friedrich Diez. London and Edinburgh: Williams and Norgate, 1864. PDF ed. from Google Books.
First Noel, The. Lyrics excerpted from version in the hymnal Songs of Faith and Praise. Shape Note Ed. Compiled and edited by Alton H. Howard. West Monroe, Louisiana: Howard Publishing Co., Inc. Copyright © 1994 by Howard Publishing Co., Inc.
Martindale, C.C. (1908). Christmas. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved April 25, 2018 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03724b.htm
“Natalis”. Wiktionary. “https://en.wiktionary.org/w/index.php?title=natalis&oldid=47756752″This page was last edited on 13 October 2017, at 00:31.
“Vulgar Latin”. Wikipedia. http://wikipedia.org/
“What is the Meaning of Noel?” Got Questions. https://www.gotquestions.org/
“Word of the Day: Noel”. Macmillan Dictionary Blog. http://macmillandictionaryblog.com/
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