LINGUIST List 15.2037

Fri Jul 9 2004

Review: Hist Ling: Machan (2003) -- revision of 15.2002

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

Message 1: English in the Middle Ages

Date: 05 Jul 2004 02:47:33 +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' (p. 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' (p. 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 Two 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 Three 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 in Norman and
Angevin chronicles 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 Four 'What's a dialect before it's a dialect?' seeks to
demonstrate 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 choice 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
'diglossia'. . 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 (or
inadvertently) 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, not
least 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). Similarly, Machan's assertion that Chaucer's
poetry articulates the poet's longing for a stable linguistic ecology
seems incomplete and lacking secure foundations in the absence of any
discussion of The House of Fame, a poem which might be said to be
explicitly engaged with the nature and consequences of linguistic
ecology. 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.

Simon Meecham-Jones. MA. (Oxon), Ph.D (University of Wales,
Aberystwyth). Since 2000, affilated lecturer, English Faculty,
University of Cambridge. Lecturer, tutor, examiner, assessor for
(variously) courses in 'Varieties of English', 'History of the English
Language', 'Language for Literature', 'Medieval Latin Literature'.
Visiting lecturer Royal Holloway (University of London) & Middlesex
University. Publications and Research Interests in Chaucer, Gower,
Medieval Latin Lyric poetry, Language and Cultural Contact in Medieval
Britain. Co-editor (with Dr. Ruth Kennedy) 'Writing the Reign of Henry
II', publication date January 2005 (Palgrave New York).
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