A Feast for Nuncles

By the time A Feast for Crows came out, George R. R. Martin was over a million words into his series A Song of Ice and Fire. So you’d think by then Martin would have exhausted most of his vocabulary. But a new word pops up in Feast so glaringly you’d have to be blind to miss it: Nuncle. Everyone starts tossing around the term, including characters who had stuck exclusively to ‘uncle’ previously. All in all, Feast has about 40 ‘nuncles’, compared to over three hundred uses of ‘uncle’ in the previous books, without a single ‘nuncle’.

So what gives? Well, for one thing, Martin’s later books suffer a bit from lack of editorial oversight. The phrase “as useless as nipples on a breastplate” also crops up a few too many times in Feast and A Dance With Dragons. A descriptive passage about ascending the Wall gets repeated verbatim later in the same book. People start referring to hours of the day as “The hour of the wolf” or “The hour of the owl” when they had never done so in any of the previous books. These little motifs are jarring, mostly because of how much they set the later books apart stylistically.

But the real root of ‘nuncle’ is part of a fantasy tradition that stems from J.R.R. Tolkien: being a language nerd. While Tolkien fabricated entire languages (and basically created the field of conlangs), Martin’s nods to linguistics are a touch smaller–he tends only to give us a word here or there in Dothraki or High Valyrian. But there are other little linguistic touches, and ‘nuncle’ is one them. The word nuncle (which is an actual archaic word) is an example of rebracketing. Rebracketing simply means a short phrase that’s transformed over time because it’s easy to mishear. So ‘mine uncle’ gets heard as ‘my nuncle’, and over generations, ‘nuncle’ becomes a word that can be used outside of that phrase.

Rebracketing happens a lot more than you might think. Ewt and napron are archaic words that through rebracketing (“an ewt, “a napron”) ended up as newt and apron. Adder, umpire, and auger all arrived the same way. Another example that shows Martin is up on this sort of thing is Ned, the nickname Catelyn gives her husband. It’s short for “mine Eddard”, which also happens to be the reason Ned is a nickname for people named Edward. Nickname, by the way, comes from “an ekename”, an Old English word.

Martin also invokes a similar linguistic change for House Karstark, who grew out of the Starks who lived in the castle Karhold. Over years, ‘Karhold Starks’ simple became ‘Karstark’. And while it’s impossible to know if the word ‘maester’ was pronounced┬álike our word ‘master’ hundreds of years before Aegon’s Conquest, it is certain that Martin understands how words evolve over time, and is making a sly nod to the word master. It’s Martin’s inability to resist this sort of thing that led to A Feast for Nuncles.

Want to see more from this author? Follow him on Twitter at @TLmberwolves, and look for him on episode one of Coddcast: Though All Men Do Despise Us on Sunday, May 22nd.

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