LINGUIST List 15.2002

Tue Jul 6 2004

Review: Historical Linguistics: Machan (2003)

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  1. Simon Meecham-Jones, English in the Middle Ages

Message 1: English in the Middle Ages

Date: 30 Jun 2004 05:13:41 +0100
From: Simon Meecham-Jones <>
Subject: English in the Middle Ages

Machan, Tim William (2003) English in the Middle Ages, Oxford
University Press.

Announced at

Simon Meecham-Jones, affiliated lecturer, English Faculty, University 
of Cambridge. 

This book is an interdisciplinary study, designed to illuminate what
Machan describes as 'a kind of grey area between linguistics and
medieval studies' (ix). Machan's purpose to recreate some
understanding of historical context as a necessary tool for the
critical interpretation of historical and literary texts -- in
Machan's own words 'I ... have been concerned throughout with
detailing the nuances and complexities of language use in the medieval
period, and with showing how these nuances distinguish the pragmatics
of medieval English from those of the post-medieval period' (ix).

Chapter 1 The Ecology of English. The first chapter acts as a twenty-
page introduction to the conceptual dilemmas the book is designed to
address. Machan presents a wide-ranging discussion of the relationship
of language use to the creation and expression of tropes of identity
from the linguistic status of Angle and Saxon settlers to the
political implications of the use of the Finnish language in the
nineteenth century. He emphasises the importance of 'linguistic
beliefs' and mentions the proposition, (in diverse forms) by Fisher,
Wallace and Turville-Petre that the rise of the vernacular in
late-medieval England be linked to the development of an (at least
implicitly) national/nationalistic model of cultural
empowerment. Having noted that these hypotheses 'to a greater or
lesser extent, make sociolinguistic claims' (p.8), Machan critiques
these claims not by disputing their factual particularities, but by
relating them to a broader theoretical analysis both of the
'development and use of the social meanings and functions' (p.9) of
medieval English and the methodologies of how such meanings might be
studied. Machan takes over from Haugen and Mufwene the metaphor of
'the ecology of a language', that is ''the structured, learned, and
analyzable sociolinguistic relationships that obtain between speakers
and the linguistic varieties they use -- whether channels, registers,
dialects, or distinct languages -- in sustaining particular social and
even natural environments'. (p.10). Machan argues that this model
'diverges markedly from previous approaches to late- medieval
English', and seeks to make it a useable model by stressing the
applicability of the Uniformitarian Principle. The proposition of such
a model is hedged with caveats concerning the ideological and
methodological difficulties in uncovering the 'social semiotics'
enacted through written or spoken discourse.

Chapter 2 The Baron's Wars and Henry's Letters -- language planning
and social meaning. Machan develops the methodology of 'linguistic
ecology' in an extended examination of the unprecedented issue of two
letters in English by Henry III in 1258 as a stratagem in Henry's
contention with Baronial opposition, later dubbed 'the Barons'
wars'. Machan critiques the interpretation by Emerson, Clanchy,
Burnley and others of the choice of English for the letters providing
evidence for emerging 'impulses of linguistic nationalism'
(p.25). Instead he presents a extensive account of the expression of
hostility to 'foreigners' in contemporary sources, using these to
construct an interpretation based on Henry III's 'manipulation of the
foreigner question' (p.58). From this detailed historical
re-contextualization, more theoretical conclusions about the status of
English are then advanced, again using the (nineteenth century) models
of Finnish and Norwegian as a point of contrast.

Chapter 3 Language, Dialect and Nation.Flanked by the more empiricist
studies of chapters two and four, this chapter provides the
theoretical basis for Machan's attempt to answer the question he has
set himself, 'If Middle English was not a group-defining mediation of
nationalism, I ask, what role did it play within the linguistic
repertoire of late- medieval England?' (p.73). The model developed is
of diglossic (or triglossic) language use, structuring patterns of
social division, evidenced in vignettes and references from an
impressive array of twelfth to fourteenth century primary
sources. Machan notes the presentation of language contact as being
apparently 'unnatural' (p.81), as well as socially situated, and he
reminds us of the prevalence of medieval multilingualism without
pursuing how far evidence of pragmatic multilingualism might undermine
the more structured and hierarchical diglossic model. The chapter
concludes with brief sub-chapters on 'Registers, varieties and
meanings', 'Standard languages and language ecology', and 'synchronic
variation and diachronic change'. The first of these sub-chapters
concludes that 'nothing in the record of Old or Middle English
... implies the kind of correlation between regional variety and
social stratification (p.94), a conclusion which is echoed in the
representation of the limited scope and influence of medieval
processes of the standardization of English. In the final
sub-chapter, Machan considers the role of Lollardy in 'constructing
the status of English' and comes out firmly in dismissing the
importance of this mode of religious discourse, as opposed to 'more
sociolinguistically significant areas such as business ... or
government' (p.107).

Chapter 4 'What's a dialect before it's a dialect?' seeks
todemonstrate in practice the virtues of the 'linguistic ecology'
model through detailed considerations of Chaucer's 'Reeve's Tale' and
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The analysis of the Reeve's Tale
begins with the assertion that 'however much variation in style and
register he may use, Chaucer consistently writes in what modern
linguistics would call one dialect' (p. 112) In reaching this
judgment, Machan contrasts lexical choices with an absence of
significant variation in phonology, morphology and syntax. The Reeve's
Tale is partially distinguished from this pattern, and its more
evident concern with linguistic variation becomes the starting point
for an extended and original reading which marks out linguistic
variation as an index of social ambition. In a brief interlude
'Disorder, disruption, discourse', Machan seeks to extend his
conclusions, using passages from The Parlement of Fowles and other
Canterbury Tales to advance the idea of Chaucer as a writer whose
linguistic conservatism reflected a political conservatism -- ' by
representing a stable linguistic ecology as a reflection of a stable
social order and vice versa' (p.136). This is followed by a reading of
'a courtly sociolect' in Sir Gawain as both a means of affirming class
relationships and, paradoxically, revealing 'their own tenuousness, as
well as that of late-medieval courtly culture' (p.160). Chapter five
'After Middle English'. Machan uses Crowley's 1550 edition of Piers
Plowman as a starting point to draw together evidence for the Early
Modern development of notions of the relationship of language to
nation and cultural self-construction which other critics have sought
to discover, at least implicitly, in the pragmatics of medieval
literary and formal language. Machan redefines his purpose as the
injection of a necessary scepticism, firstly into an understanding of
'medieval England's representation of itself' and secondly into 'the
application of modern sociolinguistic expectations', particularly
those concerned with the discourses of nationalism, 'to the ecology of
Middle English and the late-medieval status of English' (p.177).

There can be no doubt that, in its application of sociolinguistic
methodologies to literary and governmental texts, this volume marks
out a significant position in the debate on the status of English in
medieval England. If the idea of integrating the insights of
linguistic research into literary criticism is scarcely new, this book
is notable in presenting such an approach not as a pious aspiration
but as a practical, and probably necessary, programme for researchers
in Middle English literature, as well as Historical linguistics. In
his insistence both on the achievabilty (with reservations) of such
models of interpretation, and its importance in avoiding post-hoc
ahistorical distortion, Machan makes the case elegantly and resolutely
for the importance of drawing on the repertoire of linguistic analyses
in the elucidation of literary texts, while the 'case-studies' from
Chaucer and Gawain and the Green Knight serve as persuasive
demonstrations of the ways in which such analyses can discover levels
of nuance unrevealed by other models of historical and literary

Inevitably, the purpose of this volume attempts an ambitious project
and the confident (if memorable) title risks creating expectations of
the promulgation of a 'general theory of everything' -- an expectation
which Machan pointedly and repeatedly frustrates but which, in its
absence, still makes its presence felt. The sheer scale of the subject
under discussion -- the linguistic beliefs expressed through the use
of English across almost a thousand years of changing social
conditions -- mean that there is an occasional tension between
Machan's precise and perceptive presentation of the specific and the
forging of more general theoretical positions. It is a tension
manifest in the transition from the sustained and imaginative account
of Henry III's letters in English into the central chapter 'Language,
Dialect and Nation.' which, for all its energy and intellectual
fleetness, must be considered the least convincing element of this
volume -- perhaps because the function it attempts to execute is
impossible. In this chapter Machan argues for a diglossic/triglossic
model, using not Fergusson's original model of two forms, higher and
lower, of the same language, but subsequent developments of the idea
of diglossia, figured on an analogous model of different languages
used in a similar division of function. In the thirty pages allowed to
this chapter, there is insufficient space for Machan to consider to
what extent evidence survives that would support a sufficiently
hierarchical model of language use to justify the use of the term

Whereas it seems unarguable that, in the immediate Post-Conquest
period English characteristically fulfilled 'lower' variety functions,
it seems certain, also, that, in differing contexts, Anglo-Norman
fulfilled 'higher' variety functions, but perhaps occasionally 'lower'
variety functions in relation to Latin. Machan suggests in passing,
but lacks space to pursue, the notion that the diglossic model seems
persuasive in analysing twelfth century language use in England, but
unconvincing in interpreting language use in the late fourteenth or
fifteenth centuries. The complexity of 'linguistic beliefs' about the
nature of English, and the changes in those beliefs through the later
Middle Ages, prove resistant to summation in a single chapter. A
further conceptual difficulty, most pressing in the third chapter, but
present throughout the volume, concerns Machan's treatment of 'the use
of English' as a non-problematic concept. It was not his purpose to
consider the morphological development of the language from the West-
Saxon written standard to Chancery English, but the failure to
determine what should be considered 'English' merely sidesteps the
importance of defining the boundaries of what constitutes a language.
The influence of code-switching on the lexical (and morphological)
development of the language is wholly absent from this volume.
Curiously, and presumably for reasons of space, Machan chooses not to
make the expected connections between his study of 'medieval
contextual practice' (p.19) and the growing academic debate on
medieval multilingualism, even though the issues raised by
multilingualism in medieval England are clearly crucial in
establishing a 'linguistic ecology' of medieval English. To give an
example, Rothwell's accounts of the limited geographical currency of
Anglo-Norman are cited in a footnote but the implications of his
conclusions for the diglossic model proposed (could it have been a
South-Eastern diglossia only?) are not pursued.

Similarly, no linguistic ecology of medieval English is achievable
without considering the effects, whether great or insignificant, of
language contact between Middle English and the 'native' Celtic
languages -- Welsh, Irish and Cornish. Machan contentiously includes
Wales, Scotland and Ireland within his conception of 'late-medieval
England' (p.73) but then disregards the importance of these
non-English languages in influencing the status of English, even
though such issues of language must have been acute in English
colonized settlements in Wales and Ireland, perhaps importing a new
diglossic model in which English assumed 'higher' variety
functions. In a book which tackles such a complex set of dilemmas and
developments, it is inevitable that most readers will find conclusions
to dispute and, less often, questions of substance insufficiently
explored. It is unlikely, for example, that every scholar of Lollardy
will assent to Machan's conclusion that 'The Lollard controversies, in
fact, had no impact on the general fifteenth-century increase in
vernacular manuscript production or incipient valuation of English
literature' (p.107). Such reservations should, perhaps, be read as
evidence of the importance of this volume in focusing attention on the
many sociolinguistic difficulties which require sustained academic
consideration, and which impede our reading of Middle English
texts. In the wealth of primary and secondary sources analysed, in the
detailed and subtle interpretation of canonical literary texts and,
primarily, in its insistence on the importance of attempting to
understand the 'linguistic ecology' of Medieval English, Machan's
volume offers an invaluable resource, which will surely provide the
starting point for many new directions in academic research -- and,
with luck, become the first volume in a sequence of such studies.

The reviewer is a specialist in medieval English language and culture. 
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