LINGUIST List 25.2308

Mon May 26 2014

Review: Historical Linguistics: Wagner, Outhwaite & Beinhoff (2013)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 18-Oct-2013
From: Philipp Brandenburg <>
Subject: Scribes as Agents of Language Change
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

EDITOR: Esther-Miriam Wagner
EDITOR: Ben Outhwaite
EDITOR: Bettina Beinhoff
TITLE: Scribes as Agents of Language Change
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Language Change [SLC] 10
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Philipp Brandenburg, Universit├Ąt Frankfurt am Main

How languages changed and evolved in the past can only be observed if these
languages were written down. Scribes, here defined as ''all producers of
texts'' or ''the literate, that is, the actively literate, those who write,
and not just those who write for a living'' (4), have an impact on what we
know of the earlier history of languages. The conference held at Cambridge in
April 2011 that led to this volume goes further and scrutinizes the active
role of scribes in the process of language change. The majority of
contributions focus on medieval times and the British isles, but earlier
periods and other geographical regions are also included.

CHAPTER 1. An introduction by the editors, ''Scribes and Language Change''
(3-18), defines core notions and summarizes the contributions. These are
arranged into three parts: ''From spoken vernacular to written form'' (19-96),
''Standardisation versus regionalisation and de-standardisation'' (97-238),
and ''Idiosyncracy, scribal standards and registers'' (239-323).

Do scribes have an impact on the development of a given language? The question
is seldom asked and difficult to answer. And it is hard to test for such an
impact. So the book certainly fills a gap in linguistic research. One is,
however, tempted to assume beforehand that scribes make little or no
difference. At least, an individual scribe first has to be read to make any
impact whatsoever on the speech community. An active role of scribes in the
development of languages seems to be heavily restricted by the community's
willingness to follow their lead. But the fifteen contributions assembled in
this volume pursue the case against such assumptions.

CHAPTER 2. Mark A. Williams, ''Biblical Register and a Counsel of Despair: Two
Late Cornish versions of Genesis 1'' (21-37), documents a case-in-point of
scribes who consciously tried to take an active role in language change. When
Cornish was on the verge of extinction John Keigwin and John Boson tried to
revitalize the language by translating the bible into Cornish. But their
struggle did not succeed and only few passages were ever translated. The
result is, nevertheless, an intriguing case of language documentation.

CHAPTER 3. Markus Schiegg, ''Medieval Glossators as Agents of Language
Change'' (39-69), stretches the notion of language change to include change in
status. The earliest written records of Old High German include dry-point
glosses. ''Such glosses,'' Schiegg explains, ''are not written with feather
quill and ink but carved into the parchment with styli, small instruments made
of iron or wood'' (44). These glosses are almost invisible marks that teachers
would add to a Latin manuscript to help their own memory without, at the same
time, being detected by their students. But to adorn an otherwise Latin
manuscript with glosses in German, though certainly a change in status
(''Verschriftlichung'', 59), cannot be considered a case of language change in
the ordinary sense of the word.

CHAPTER 4. Roger Wright, ''How scribes wrote Ibero-Romance before written
Romance was invented'' (71-83), poses the interesting problem of late Latin
orthography. What is usually considered a deteriorated form of post-Classical
Latin Wright explains as a way of writing the current vernacular with Latin
morphology. These texts were then never meant to be read as Latin, but to be
pronounced and read aloud as the current vernacular. The scribes impose a
backwards-oriented orthography on a living language.

CHAPTER 5. Anja Busse, ''Hittite scribal habits: Sumerograms and phonetic
complements in Hittite cuneiform'' (85-96), adds a case from the Near East.
The Hittite cuneiform writing system, basically syllabic, includes logographic
components from Sumerian. Hittite scribes had a choice between either Hittite
syllabic or Sumerian logographic writing, the latter either with or without a
phonetic complement. Apparently, the continued use of Sumerograms reflects a
perceived need for internationalization of communication at the Hittite royal

CHAPTER 6. Terttu Nevalainen, ''Words of kings and counsellors: Register
variation and language change in early English courtly correspondence''
(99-119), analyses letters from the electronic Corpus of Early English
Correspondence. At a time when neither the language nor its orthography was
stable, members of the royal family and their secretaries tended to preserve
conservative forms, whereas upwardly mobile merchants tended to use innovative

CHAPTER 7. Florian Dolberg, ''Quantifying gender change in Medieval English''
(121-158), deals with changes in medieval English gender assignment. In his
view, gender assignment changed from being basically lexical determined in Old
English, where a word denoting a sexless referent could have any grammatical
gender, to a referential gender system in Middle English, where males had
masculine, females feminine, and sexless referents neuter gender. Contrary to
earlier studies, Dolberg disconfirms the existence of an ''intermittent''
(155, he probably means: intermediate) stage of confusion in this process.

CHAPTER 8. Merja Stenroos, ''Identity and intelligibility in Late Middle
English scribal transmission: Local dialect as an active choice in
fifteenth-century texts'' (159-181), questions the notions of standard and
standardization. In two studies she elaborates on local differences between
manuscripts from Barnston and West Midlands. Idiosyncratic spellings, though
''dysfunctional in terms of national usage'' but occasionally useful ''in
distinguishing between homonyms'', were employed ''as high-status forms partly
because of their difficulty'' (177). And they also reinforced group identity.
Stenroos argues against defining the notion 'standardized' from hindsight in a
way that ''forms that came to be part of the later standard would be defined
as 'standardised''' (163).

CHAPTER 9. Ben Outhwaite, ''Lines of communication: Medieval Hebrew letters of
the eleventh century'' (183-198), discusses documents from the Cairo Genizah,
most prominently letters of Ga'on Solomon ben Judah (11th century). The
material shows that Medieval Hebrew, contrary to common belief, was
flourishing as a living language. Even when a scribe's native language was
Arabic, the ''language of the Hagri'' (188), dealing with halakhic subjects
triggered code-switching to Hebrew. But after the 11th century, when
communication in Hebrew had experienced a peak, usage of Hebrew sharply
declines in subsequent periods.

CHAPTER 10. Geoffrey Khan, ''The historical development of early Arabic
documentary formulae'' (199-215), observes a change of style in Egyptian
documents during the first three centuries of the Islamic era. Whereas in the
Umayyad period the writer used wordings that distanced him from the reader, in
the Abbasid period he presents himself as virtually in the reader's presence.
Khan argues that this change was not drawn from a Greek tradition, but ''was
introduced into Egypt by officials trained in the eastern provinces'' (211).

CHAPTER 11. Nicholas Zair, ''Individualism in 'Osco-Greek' orthography''
(217-226), argues against the idea of a unified system for writing the Oscan
language in the Greek alphabet. The evidence adduced shows that Oscan scribes
instead used the Greek alphabet in an intuitive, ad hoc manner.

CHAPTER 12. Stefan Reif, ''How a Jewish scribe in early modern Poland
attempted to alter a Hebrew linguistic register'' (227-238), scrutinizes the
case of Shabbethai ben Isaac Sofer, a Polish scribe (16th/17th century) who
struggled to alter the existing standards of writing Hebrew. Dissatisfied with
the Hebrew language used in contemporary rabbinic literature, Shabbethai used
his expertise in Biblical Hebrew to point out errors that had crept in in the
course of time. His approach gives the lie to those who assume that
'enlightened' thoughts were more at home among Jews in Spain than in Eastern

CHAPTER 13. Alexander Bergs, ''Writing, reading, language change: A
sociohistorical perspective on scribes, readers, and networks in medieval
Britain'' (241-259), analyses letters written by the Paston family from
Norfolk between 1421 and 1503. Female family members were illiterate and
dictated their letters to scribes. Bergs begins with a thorough review of
theoretical approaches to language change and concludes from evidence in the
letters that the scribes' ''influence at least in the domain of morphosyntax
may have been fairly limited'' (242), because ''scribes did not (always)
compose letters in their own style, but actually paid attention to the forms
that the author used'' (250).

CHAPTER 14. Esther-Miriam Wagner, ''Challenges of multiglossia: Scribes and
the emergence of substandard Judaeo-Arabic registers'' (261-275), deals with
an exclusively epistolary register. Judeo-Arabic, an Arabic sociolect written
in Hebrew alphabet, displays a mixture of hypercorrect forms that mark it as
literary and of vernacular forms that produce a feeling of intimacy between
sender and addressee of a letter. The scribes here were merchants who fostered
this register in order to facilitate relations with their business partners.

CHAPTER 15. Ivar Berg, ''Variation in a Norwegian sixteenth-century scribal
community'' (277-290), presents a case of code-switching between Norwegian and
Danish. Although for political reasons Danish was the language of
administration, Norwegian continued to be used in certain contexts. The more
formal a text was, the more likely it was written in Danish, if not in Latin;
the less formal it was, e.g. in purely administrative documents, the more
likely it was written in Norwegian. The native Norwegian scribes actually
improved their ability to produce Danish under these circumstances.

CHAPTER 16. Dmitry Bondarev, ''Language change induced by written codes: A
case of Old Kanembu and Kanuri dialects'' (291-323), presents an illuminating
case from Africa. In Nigeria and neighboring countries in the 13th to 14th
century (Old) Kanembu became the standard language for exegesis of the Qur'an.
A modernized variant of Old Kanembu, called Tarjumo, is still used for the
same purpose, despite the fact that the modern day vernacular in the region is
Kanuri. ''Paradoxically, even though T[arjumo] is entirely incomprehensible to
the ordinary public, ... the purpose of T[arjumo] is to explicate the meaning
of the Qur'an in language understandable to Kanuri speakers'' (301). It is as
if Biblical Hebrew were commented on in Latin in oder to meditate its meaning
to an English-speaking audience. And ''wherever O[ld] K[anembu]/T[arjumo] is
practiced it becomes one of the factors for language maintenance and change
(even though the literary form is unintelligible to the ordinary speakers)''
(319). It exercises a prescriptive and conservative force on the development
of present day Kanuri. For instance, when ''the speakers simplify semantic and
pragmatic statuses of the subject referents marked by [the subject marker]
'ye' in transitive constructions'' (319), they are advised by the literate
elite educated in Tarjumo to apply grammatical rules instead that are apt to
Tarjumo but alien to Kanuri. Compare the split infinitive unduly shunned in
English merely because in Latin the infinitive is a single word form. This
paper provides a new perspective on comparable situations in other languages.

The outcome of both the conference and its published proceedings, as far as I
can see, is that scribes cannot without qualification be considered agents of
language change. The only indisputable cases of scribes actively and
successfully influencing language change are documented by Wagner (chapter 14)
and Bondarev (chapter 16), while clearly unsuccessful efforts are provided by
Williams (chapter 2) and Reif (chapter 12). The outcome is then negative, but
this is not a flaw of the book. In the humanities as well as in the sciences a
negative result can be as enlightening as a positive one. However, editors and
contributors, with the exception of Bergs (chapter 13), do not appear willing
to admit that their data require a negative answer to the initial question.
There is a general tendency among the authors and editors in this volume to
exaggerate the role of scribes in the process of language change. To me it
seems that their shared overestimation of scribes stems from the scribes'
preeminent role in language documentation, whereas their influence on language
change is but marginal. Assertions to the contrary inevitably stretch the
notion of language change to include change of status (chapter 3) or even
change of style (chapter 10) that do not affect the grammatical structure of a
language. Nevertheless, the data gathered in this book are highly intriguing
and should inspire further research.

The volume is carefully edited. Very few typos have crept in: read ''extent''
(52, l. 13), ''one is'' (63, l. 6), ''going to be'' (80, last l.), ''it does
not differentiate number; and in the neuter'' (135-136), ''doubt both'' (178,
l. 15), and ''has shown'' (306, l. 18). The bibliographies on pages 157 and
274 lack the items Stenroos (2008) and Ferguson (1959), respectively. A useful
all-in-one index facilitates easy access to the contents (languages and
subjects) of the book.

Ferguson, Charles. 1959. Diglossia. Word 15. 325-340.

Stenroos, Merja. 2008. Order out of chaos? The English gender change in the
Southwest Midlands as a process of semantically-based reorganisation. English
Language and Linguistics 12(3). 445-473.

Philipp Brandenburg specializes in grammar and grammaticography of Ancient
Greek and Latin. He works as a teacher and offers seminars on ancient
philosophy at the University of Frankfurt. His current research focuses on
General Syntax, Varro's 'De lingua Latina', Plato's 'Cratylus' and Aeschines
of Sphettus.

Page Updated: 26-May-2014