Not ‘al-’ there

Q: Is the “al-” at the beginning of “although” related to the “al-” of “albeit”?  And what about the archaic “un-” of “unto” and the gradually fading “un-” of “until”?

A: The “al-” at the beginning of the conjunctions “although” and “albeit” is a shortening of “all” that’s seen in some words that were originally compounds.

“Although” originated in Middle English as a compound of the adverb “all” plus the conjunction “though,” while “albeit” appeared around the same time as a compound of the conjunction “all,” the verb “be,” and the pronoun “it.”

(“All” is now an adjective, a pronoun, a noun, and an adverb, but it was once a conjunction too.)

Interestingly, a precursor of “although” appeared in Old English as two words (eal and þeah) with the order reversed, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s an example from Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as early as 725:

“Ic hine sweorde swebban nelle, aldre beneotan þeah ic eal mæge” (“With my sword I won’t slay him, deprive him of life, although I could”). The phrase “þeah ic eal mæge” is literally “though I all could.” Beowulf is speaking here about the monster Grendel.

As for the Middle English compound, the earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a homily written in the first half of the 14th century that warns against the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. This passage refers to worldly pleasure:

“sone is sotel as ich ou sai / þis sake alþah [although] hit seme suete / þat i telle a poure play / þat furst is feir & seþþe vnsete / þis wilde wille went awai” (“Soon it’s clear, I say to you, / this sin, although it seems sweet, / I judge a poor pleasure / That first is fair and afterward foul”). From the Harley Lyrics. The homily is known by its first line, “Middelerd for mon wes mad” (Middle Earth was made for men), or more commonly as “The Three Faces of Men.”

The earliest Oxford example for “albeit,” a vintage way of saying “although,” is from an entry, dated sometime before 1325, in The Statutes of the Realm, a collection of Acts of Parliament in England:

“Also þerase man rauisez womman … mit strenkþe, albehit þat heo assente afterward, he sal habbe þilke iugement þat his iseid bifore” (“Also in that case where man ravishes woman … with violence, albeit that she assents afterward, he shall have such judgment as was said of him before”). From A Middle English Statute-Book (2011), edited by Claire Fennell.

If you’d like to read more about “albeit,” we wrote a post about it in 2017.

The shortening of “all” to “al-” appears at the beginning of other words that originated as compounds, including “almighty,” “almost,” “also,” “altogether,” and “always.” And “al-” is seen at the beginning of some English words of Arabic origin, including “alchemy,” “alcohol,” “alcove,” “algebra,” and “almanac.” (In Arabic, al- is a definite article.)

As for “unto,” we’d describe it as old-fashioned or literary rather than archaic. The term still shows up in contemporary writing, as in this recent example:

“The Skiing Aigners Are a Nation Unto Themselves” (the headline on a New York Times article about the Beijing Paralympics, March 13, 2022).

In the earliest OED citation, which we’ve expanded, “unto” is hyphenated: “Cum nu swiþe un-to him / Þat king is of þis kuneriche / Þu fule man. þu wicke swike” (“Come now unto him, / the king of this country, / thou foul man, thou wicked traitor”). From The Lay of Havelok the Dane, an anonymous tale of chivalry written in the late 13th century.

The dictionary says “unto” was modeled after “until,” with “to” replacing “til.” (The preposition “until” had appeared more than a century earlier.)

And that brings us to your comment about “the gradually fading ‘un’ of ‘until.’ ” As it turns out, “til” appeared by itself hundreds of years before “un-” joined it to form the compound “until.”

In northern Old English, til was a preposition, used as we would now use “to.” The OED’s earliest til citation  is from an Anglo-Saxon inscription on the Ruthwell Cross. The stone cross is in the Scottish village of Ruthwell, which used to be in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.

Here’s the inscription written in Old English runes: ᛣᚱᛁᛋᛏ ᚹᚫᛋ ᚩᚾ ᚱᚩᛞᛁᚻᚹᛖᚦᚱᚨ ᚦᛖᚱ ᚠᚢᛋᚨ ᚠᛠᚱᚱᚪᚾ ᛣᚹᚩᛗᚢ ᚨᚦᚦᛁᛚᚨ ᛏᛁᛚ ᚪᚾᚢᛗ. And here it is, transliterated into Old English script: “krist wæs on rodi hweþræ þer fusæ fearran kwomu æþþilæ til anum ic þæt al bih[eald]” (“Christ was on the cross. Yet the eager came there from afar to the noble one that all beheld”).

When the preposition “until” appeared in Middle English, it meant “to” or “unto,” roughly the same sense as the Old English til. The term is derived from the Old Norse und (under) and the Northumbrian til (to). This is Oxford’s earliest citation:

“Forr whatt teȝȝ fellenn sone dun off heoffne. & inn till helle” (“For what they soon fell down off heaven and unto hell”). From the Ormulum (circa 1175), a collection of homilies written by an Augustinian monk who identifies himself as Orm in one place and Ormin in another. The word “until” is written as “inn till,” “unntill” and “inntill” in various parts of the Ormulum.

Around the same time, the words “til” and “till” showed up as conjunctions meaning up to a certain time, action, event, and so on. (The OED includes Old English and early Middle English examples of “til” among its citations for “till” as a preposition and a conjunction.)

The first OED citation for “til” used in the conjunctive sense is from an 1154 Middle English document in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“dide ælle in prisun til hi iafen up here castles” (“he put them all in prison until they gave up their castles”). The passage refers to King Stephen’s arrest of several bishops, one of them the Lord Chancellor, in 1137.

The dictionary’s first citation for “till” used this way appeared a few decades later: “Fra þatt he wass full litell. Till þatt he waxenn wass” (“From when he was very little till he was grown”). From the Ormulum (c. 1175).

In the early 13th century, “until” took on a similar sense as a conjunction. The first OED example is from the Middle English Harrowing of Hell, an anonymous manuscript that the dictionary dates at sometime before 1250:

“lucifer, here y þe binde, / schaltow neuer heþen winde / vntil it com domesday” (“Lucifer, here I bind thee. Never shall thou wend to heaven until Doomsday comes” (published in the Middle English Harrowing of Hell, and Gospel of Nicodemus, 1907, edited by William Henry Hulme).

In the 14th century all three terms—“until,” “till,” and “til”—appeared as prepositions with the same sense (up to a certain time), according to citations in the OED.

The first “until” example is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1325: “Fra adam tim until noe” (“From Adam’s time until Noah’s”).

The earliest “till” citation is from a chronicle written around 1330 by the English monk Robert Mannyng: “Fro Eneas till Brutus tyme.” And the first “til” example is from The Last Age of the Church (1380), by John Wycliffe: “Fro Crist til now.”

The terms are prepositions when followed by a noun or noun phrase (“I’ll be busy from noon till three o’clock”), and conjunctions when followed by a clause. (“Can you stay until the office closes”).

The use of “til” as a preposition or a conjunction died out in Middle English, but “till” and “until” have continued to be used that way, and both are now considered standard English.

However, two questionable variants of “till” appeared in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the apostrophized “ ’till” and “ ’til.” The apostrophe was apparently added in the mistaken belief that “ ’till” and “ ’til” were contractions of “until.” But as we’ve shown, “until” is an expansion of “til.”

The earliest “ ’till” example that we’ve found is from the announcement of a court-decreed sale of 110 acres of land, four slaves, household furniture, and livestock to satisfy a debt of  “seventy two pounds, fourteen shillings and [e]leve[n] pence, with interest from the 8th day of May, 1788, ’till paid, together with the costs and expenses of the said decree.” (The Virginia Argus, Richmond, Feb. 14, 1797.)

And this “ ’til” example appeared a dozen years later in an Indiana newspaper: “The Thebans were indebted for their victories over the ’til then unconquered Spartans, as much to some new manoeuvres which had been introduced into their tactics and which they had practiced with unwearied assiduity” (from The Western Sun, Vincennes, Aug. 11, 1810).

As for today, all ten standard dictionaries that we regularly consult include “until” and “till” as standard English terms meaning up to a certain time, event, etc., though some note that “until” is more common at the beginning of a sentence. None include “ ’till,” though a few recognize “ ’til” as an informal variant

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Not ‘al-’ there