LINGUIST List 28.810

Fri Feb 10 2017

Review: Middle English; Old English; General Ling; Historical Ling: Toupin, Lowrey (2015)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 21-Jun-2016
From: Mark Faulkner <>
Subject: Studies in Linguistic Variation and Change: From Old to Middle English
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Fabienne Toupin
EDITOR: Brian Lowrey
TITLE: Studies in Linguistic Variation and Change: From Old to Middle English
PUBLISHER: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: Mark Faulkner, University of Sheffield

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The volume “Studies in Linguistic Variation and Change: from Old to Middle
English” edited by Fabienne Toupin and Brian Lowrey begins with a brief
foreword and acknowledgements, detailing how the twelve papers it contains are
a selection of the forty presented at the Third International Biennial
Conference on the Diachrony of English, held in Amiens, France, in June 2013.
This is followed by a brief introduction, which summarises the purpose of the
volume and the arguments made by the individual papers.

The first section of the book is entitled ‘Functional and Regional Variation
in Discourse and the Lexicon’. It begins with Anna Wojtýs investigating ‘Verbs
of Granting in Old English Documents’, principally ‘sellan’, ‘gifan’,
‘betæcan’, ‘unnan’, ‘becweþan’ and ‘bocian’. Her detailed analysis of a corpus
comprises the 412 legal texts in the Dictionary of Old English Corpus,
collectively totalling almost 90,000 words, and enables her to offer several
corrections to the way this semantic area is presented in the Old English
Thesaurus and Historical Thesaurus of English.

In ‘The Linguistic Image of “sea” in Old English on the Basis of Orosius”,
Agnieszka Magnuszewska takes a cognitive approach, following a methodology
called ‘the linguistic image of the world’, which seeks to describe the
‘language internal interpretation of reality’. We learn from this that to the
Anglo-Saxon translator the sea was large and open, rough and salty, and with
the potential for destructiveness. She closes by stressing the need to compare
the translation’s presentation of the sea to that in its Latin source, and to
other Old English texts.

The rare Middle English preposition and adverb ‘atwen’, first attested in the
fifteenth century, is the subject of Ewa Ciszek-Kiliszewska’s study, ‘The
Middle English Preposition and Adverb atwen’, which provides a detailed
account of its semantics, dialectal distribution and syntax, supplementing the
information in the dictionaries with research based on the Corpus of Middle
English Prose and Verse and Linguistic Atlas of Middle English. She finds it
to be largely restricted to the East Midlands, and particularly frequent in
the work of the Bury monk and poet John Lydgate.

Elena Sasu and Nicholas Trapateau’s ‘Inkhorn terms: Some That Got Away: The
Case of Middle English Words Ending in -ess(e)’ closes the first section of
the book by examining the productivity of the feminine suffix ‘-ess’, present
in PDE words like ‘countess’, ‘princess’ and ‘actress’. Having assembled a
list of 180 Middle English words using the suffix, they observe 52 are hapax
legomena, and that these occur particularly frequently in the Wycliffite Bible
and the works of Lydgate. They accordingly suggest seeing the coinage of these
words in light of the somewhat later controversy over inkhorn terms.

Two articles comprise the book’s second section, entitled ‘Prosodic and
Phonological Parameters’. The descent of PDE ‘made’ from Old English ‘macode’
is Jerzy Welna’s topic, as he goes ‘In Search of the Missing Link, or how OE
macode Became ModE made’. He tests previous explanations by Berndt and Pinsker
against data from the Innsbruck Corpus and finds that several intermediate
steps posited by these authors are not attested in Middle English spelling. He
consequently concurs with the older explanation of Wright that the only
processes involved were the loss of intervocalic [k], followed by open
syllable lengthening.

In ‘Middle English Poetic Prosody and its Reliability as a Source of Data for
Linguistic Analysis: the Case of Chaucer’, Marta Kołos uses a case study of
8000 lines of Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ to ask ‘whether medieval English
poetry is precise enough in its usage of metre to provide a basis for
linguistic analysis’. She notes that these lines contain 176 places where the
accent does not fall on the root-initial syllable, as the Germanic Stress rule
would predict. She shows that all but three of these exceptions can be
explained if we accept that that ‘syllables which were assigned secondary or
lesser stress in Old English were used in Middle English poetry as either
drops or lifts’.

The book’s final and longest section focuses on syntactic variation and
change. In ‘The Influence of the Grammatical System and Analogy in Processes
of Language Change: the Case of the Auxiliation of HAVE-to Once Again’, Olga
Fischer returns to a paper she published in 1994, where she suggested that the
emergence of ‘have to’ as a modal should be explained with reference to
changes in word order rather than as an instance of grammaticalisation.
Returning to her 1994 data, she shows that a sense of obligation is found in
some Old English examples and that there is no overall increase in the use of
this sense in the Middle Ages, as a grammaticalisation model would predict.
She goes on to develop her 1994 position by using data from the Corpus of
Middle English Verse and Prose to show that analogy was, along with broader
changes in word order, a major factor in the development of the construction.

In ‘On the Status of cunnen in Middle English’, Magdalena Tomaszewska pursues
what Visser called the ‘extremely subtle process’ by which Old English
‘cunnan’ ceased to be a lexical verb and became a modal. Her study, focussed
on the Middle English period and based on the Innsbruck Corpus, shows that the
verb developed properties more often seen in lexical verbs, like a present
participle, even as it developed others more typical of modals.

Xavier Dekeyser’s brief contribution, ‘OE weorþan and Related Process Copulas:
Demise and Rise’, concerns the history of process copulas in English. Old
English used primarily ‘weorþan’, but in Middle English, ‘becuman’, used
rarely as a copula before the Conquest, was increasingly frequent, and was
joined by ‘grow’, and this competition, as well as the morphonological
variation in the paradigm of ‘weorþan’, caused its obsolesence by around 1500.
‘Get’, Dekeyser shows, was an early modern innovation.

In ‘On Two Types of Double Object Construction in Old English and Old
Icelandic’, Yana Chankova examines the syntax of double object constructions
in Old English and Old Icelandic, drawing on evidence from the
York-Toronto-Helsinki Parsed Corpus of Old English Prose and the corpus of
Íslendinga Sögur assembled at the University of Iceland. Noting that, after a
ditransitive verb, Old English typically placed the indirect object before the
direct object (for instance, ‘ic forgeaf þe ðone sceat’, “I returned the money
to you”), Chankova suggests explaining sentences where the direct object
precedes the indirect object as examples of optional scrambling, motivated by
semantic and pragmatic considerations, like end focus. There follows a
detailed generativist analysis of these structures.

Three Old English constructions following the perception verbs hear and see
are examined in Brian Lowrey’s paper, ‘Subjectless Infinitival Perception
Reports in Old English’: VOSI (e. g. ‘ic gehyrde hine … lofian’, “I heard him
praise”), where the subject of infinitive is the object of the perception
verb), V+I (e. g. ‘þonne ðu gehyrst þone Fæder nemnan’, “when you hear the
father named”), where the subject of the infinitive is unexpressed, and V+I
with participal complement (e. g. ‘heo gesegon þa getimbru healice areht’,
“they saw the buildings raised high”). Using what he describes as ‘a random
series of OE prose … and poetry’, Lowrey shows that V+I is rarer than VOSI in
Old English and that, in contrast to V+I with participial complement, it is
almost exclusively used to indicate direct sensory perception of an event. He
also offers cogent reasons for reconsidering Bruce Mitchell’s implication that
V+I is merely VOSI with the ellipsis of the object.

Closing the volume is Susagna Tubau and Richard Ingham’s paper, ‘Some
Historical Notes on English Negation: unethes, almost and hardly’, focusing
primarily on the adverb ‘unethes’, “hardly”. They begin by outlining the
position in PDE, in which ‘hardly’ and ‘almost’ contrast semantically and
syntactically, with ‘hardly’ exclusively occurring with any-series items (‘You
ate hardly anything for breakfast’) and ‘almost’ with n-series items (‘You ate
almost nothing for breakfast’). By contrast, the Middle English adverb could
be used with both. The explanation, they argue, developing Ingham’s earlier
work on the diachrony of negation in English, lies in the loss of negative
concord between late Middle and early Modern English.

There follow brief biographies of the contributors, but no index.


This is a varied collection of papers, touching on many aspects of the
semantics, syntax and phonology of medieval English. As the title indicates,
the approach is broadly variationist. All make extensive use of corpora. The
presentation of data and examples is often lavish. The contributors range from
PhD students to emeritus professors, and the reader who works his way through
the whole volume will undoubtedly learn a great deal. Nonetheless, the volume
is susceptible to criticism on two grounds.

First, despite the subtitle, the collection is not significantly concerned
with the transition from Old to Middle English. Four of the papers (Wojtýs,
Magnuszewska, Chankova and Lowrey) focus synchronically on Old English, seven
synchronically on Middle English, and only one (Fischer) on both Old English
and Middle English. This is a shame, for as the editors state in their
introduction, the transition from Old English to Middle English is perhaps the
‘most intriguing period in the history of English’. It is also a shame since
the material the different papers cover would have had much to tell us about
this transition.

For instance, at least some portion of the ostensibly pre-Conquest legal
documents examined by Wojtýs are post-Conquest forgeries. More, though of
pre-Conquest origin, survive only in post-Conquest copies, and have been
subjected to some form of linguistic updating (one might note the French
loanword ‘seint’ that appears in the mid-eleventh-century Bury document quoted
on p. 10). Categorised according to date of composition and date of witness,
her documents would therefore provide a very sophisticated corpus in which to
examine the development of Old English into Middle English, and the responses
of scribes who were speakers of Middle English to earlier forms of the
language. Ciszek-Kiliszewska’s paper could have made more of the fact, which
she notes, that pairs like ‘atwen’ and ‘betwen’ occur also in Old English.
Dekeyser might have made it clearer that ‘becuman’ is, according to the
Dictionary of Old English, first attested as a process copula in three texts
from the transitional English of the twelfth century, and therefore putatively
an innovation of that period. ‘Old English’ and ‘Middle English’ are helpful
abstractions, but too often they can strait-jacket our thinking about the
longue duree history of English.

A second issue with the articles in this collection is that the translations
from medieval English texts are uneven. While many are accurate and elegant,
some are less than fluent and others are positively misleading. To take just
one brief example, on p. 153, ‘we sculen cunnen gemyndelice & mannen eac
seggen’ is translated as ‘we shall know by memory and men likewise say’.
Leaving aside whether it is best to translate the modal ‘we sculen’ in this
way (I would prefer ‘we must’), ‘mannen’ is clearly dative, so the sentence
must mean ‘we must know by memory and also tell men…’, an exhortation to learn
and pass on the ten commandments. While reading of Christ ‘in the dessert’ (p.
156) rather than than in the desert and of Æthelgifu bequeathing Leofsige the
younger of her two swans (p. 15) does raise a wry smile, there is a serious
point here. As Fischer’s article elegantly and persuasively shows, overhasty
translation of medieval English can create bad data that fundamentally skews
the picture of the feature being studied. More extensive, thorough peer review
would have helped eliminate some of these problems here.

This is nonetheless a valuable collection of essays. It evinces a pleasing
commitment to collecting and analysing the widest possible range of evidence,
and for revisiting and revising the ex cathedra statements of dictionaries and
grammars on this basis. Specialists in the historical linguistics of early
English with an interest in any of the topics covered by the papers will
certainly want to consult it. But it will take a different conference, and a
different volume to understand how we got from Old to Middle English.


Formerly lecturer in Medieval English at the University of Sheffield, Mark
Faulkner will take up a post at Trinity College Dublin in September 2016. His
research concerns English language and literature in the long twelfth century,
and particularly the transition from Old to Middle English.

Page Updated: 10-Feb-2017