LINGUIST List 32.888

Wed Mar 10 2021

Review: English; Discourse Analysis; Historical Linguistics; Pragmatics; Sociolinguistics: Taavitsainen, Hiltunen (2019)

Editor for this issue: Billy Dickson <>

Date: 08-Jul-2020
From: Richard Whitt <>
Subject: Late Modern English Medical Texts
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Irma Taavitsainen
EDITOR: Turo Hiltunen
TITLE: Late Modern English Medical Texts
SUBTITLE: Writing medicine in the eighteenth century. Including the LMEMT Corpus
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2019

REVIEWER: Richard J. Whitt, University of Nottingham


The recent release of the Late Modern English Medical Texts Corpus (LMEMT) by the Scientific Thought-Styles Project at The University of Helsinki concludes over two decades of research, having resulted in two previous corpora of medical writing in the history of English -- the Middle English Medical Texts Corpus (2005, MEMT) and the Early Modern English Medical Texts Corpus (2010, EMEMT) -- as well as numerous other publications. Thanks to the release of LMEMT, detailed and systematic corpus linguistic investigations of scientific/medical writing in English from the fourteenth through the eighteenth centuries are now possible. The present volume, which accompanies the release of this corpus, presents a number of contributions that place medical writing in its sociohistorical context and demonstrate how both qualitative and quantitative aspects of linguistic analysis can be employed in the study of the history of medical writing in English.

The volume opens with Turo Hiltunen and Irma Taavitsainen's ''Towards new knowledge: The corpus of Late Modern English Medical Texts'', which shows how the corpus coverage provided by LMEMT provides a natural continuation from that of MEMT and EMEMT: insofar as is possible, there is a continuity of corpus structure and text categories. At the same time, developments in the field of medicine and the emergence of new genres and categories have also been accounted for. Hiltunen and Taavitsainen also discuss the issue of representativeness in corpus linguistics and see the LMEMT as a 'neat-and-tidy' corpus, one in which much thought and effort has been expended on producing clean text extracts that represent both temporal and thematic coverage of medical writing in the eighteenth century. A number of visualisations are provided to represent both the size of each text in the corpus (within each respective text category), as well as their temporal distribution across the century. The chapter then concludes with an overview of the other chapters contained in the volume.

Chapter 2, ''Sociohistorical and cultural context of Late Modern English Medical Texts'' by Irma Taavitsainen, Peter Murray Jones and Turo Hiltunen, focuses on many of the language-external developments in medicine of the time that prove pivotal in shaping language usage of the period. The sociopragmatic approach, employing an interdisciplinary endeavor between linguistic pragmatics, culture, history, science, and medicine, is a clear driver in the principles surrounding the compilation of LMEMT, and of the Scientific Thought-Styles Project more broadly. Particular to the eighteenth century, there is a discussion of changes in medical practice and writing, with the emergence of scholarly publications like the Edinburgh Medical Journal and the increased emphasis placed on statistics in research. The vernacularisation of medical writing continues apace from the early modern period, although some use of Latin in medical writing remains (as it does to the present day). Some attention is paid to the authors and audiences of medical texts in the eighteenth century, and a discussion of the increasing influence of the Royal Society and polite society on style, with a concomitant decreasing influence of earlier models such as astrology and humoral theory, concludes the chapter.

The first detailed linguistic investigation of the corpus is provided in Chapter 3, ''Topics of eighteenth-century medical writing with triangulation of methods: LMEMT and the underlying reality'' by Irma Taavitsainen, Gerold Schneider, and Peter Murray Jones. The triangulation is one of history, linguistics, and computing. The chapter opens with a discussion of the historical background surrounding eighteenth-century medical writing, specifically on how novel innovations were occurring at the same time as earlier ways of thinking about medicine lingered on. To see how this is realised linguistically in the texts, the authors decide on topic modeling, specifically using Kernel Density Estimates on both the EMEMT and LMEMT, evaluating which topics are prominent in both corpora, as well as common topics across the corpora. This is complemented by a qualitative assessment of both topics and corpus categories. A discussion of how both qualitative and quantitative methods can be synthesised concludes the discussion.

David Gentilcore discusses ''Regimens and their readers in eighteenth-century England'' in Chapter 4, with a focus on the lingering popularity of health regimens during the eighteenth century despite a rise in iatromedicine (chemical medicine) and mechanistic views of human physiology and health. Gentilcore notes a shift in focus from preventative measures (grounded in humoral theory) to actual treatments in health regimens during the period, and there is also an ever-expanding access to such texts due to the bourgeoisie lifestyle. Particular attention is paid to authors George Cheyne and William Buchan. The focus of this chapter is exclusively historical and there is no analysis of linguistic or discursive features (Gentilcore being an historian not a linguist).

Attention shifts to ''Medical case reports in Late Modern English'' in Chapter 5. This contribution by Anu Lehto and Irma Taavitsainen views the medical case report -- which dates back to medieval medical writing -- as a form of narrative, and the Labovian model of narrative (Labov & Waletzky 1997 [1967]) provides the analytic framework alongside models of point-of-view posited by Fowler (1986) and Simpson (1993). Lehto and Taavitsainen show that the medical case reports of the eighteenth century exhibit a conventional narrative structure overall, although they are sometimes interspersed with other genres of medical writing such as experimental reports or advertisements. Narrative point-of-view is shown by an analysis of personal pronouns and discussion of involved vs. detached writing styles, and it is noted that such usage is dependent not only on changes in medical culture, but also the envisaged audience of a text. The emergence of ego-documents and patient tales is also given some attention.

Alun Withey takes up the issue of ''Household medicine and recipe culture in eighteenth-century Britain''. Similar to Gentilcore's discussion in Chapter 4, Withey's contribution is exclusively historical. He focuses on the domestic sphere as a centre of medical knowledge and illustrates how recipes and recipe collections were often passed down from generation to generation within a family. The increasing role of literacy and medical print, particularly popular advertising is given some attention. New innovations in medicine, as well as lingering older practices and beliefs (such as humoral theory and astrology) are also discussed.

Chapter 7's focus is on ''Polite society language practices: Letters to the Editor in The Gentleman's Magazine''. This contribution by Irma Taavitsainen focuses on the linguistic realisation of politeness in emergent lay medical discourse (politeness as generally understood during the eighteenth century). This is a purely qualitative study, and Taavitsaien examines compliments, requests, and acts of thanking in her investigation. She notes how some acts that are overtly presented as one form of politeness (like expressions of gratitude) actually imply another form altogether (like a request). Some attention is also devoted to how impoliteness could be couched in overtly polite discourse.

In Chapter 8, Anu Lehto examines ''Changing portrayals of medicine and patients in eighteenth-century medical writing: Lexical bundles in Public Health, Methods, and case studies''. Lehto's focus here is on corpus linguistic methods of analysing lexical bundles in three different domains of medical writing, and she begins her discussion with a review of the notion of lexical bundles and discusses their applicability to historical texts and LMEMT. Her focus is on the most frequent referential bundles, textual bundles, and stance expressions. She provides an ample amount of quantitative data for the domains of public health, methods, and case studies, and notes that there is a varying prevalence of narrative discourse used throughout the period.

Irma Taavitsainen contributes a discussion on ''Professional and lay medical texts in the eighteenth century: A linguistic stylistic assessment'' in Chapter 9. Taavitsainen explores the different stylistic features of texts aimed at a professional audience on the one hand, and a lay audience on the other hand, by analysing a subcorpus of LMEMT (texts on specific subjects, health guides, periodicals, and Gentleman's Magazine). She homes in on discussions of various topics that were popular during the eighteenth century, such as the emergence of inoculation, sea bathing, and various uses of water. It is shown how texts aimed at a professional audience exhibit clear rhetorical strategies of argumentation and use of statistics as evidence (something new during this period). Lingering practices of extended quotation and citation of other sources presented themselves as well. The lay texts, on the other hand, often exhibited a high usage of 2nd person direct address, a fairy tale style of writing and other methods of storytelling aimed at amusement, a high degree of sentimental expressions, and even some xenophobic and nationalistic discursive strategies. These features are all placed in their sociohistorical context, and Taavitsainen notes that despite these distinctive features, there were quite a bit of overlapping stylistic features as well.

The final linguistic investigation is provided by Jukka Tyrkkö in Chapter 10, ''The symptom comes of age: Sign semantics from Late Middle to Late Modern English''. Tyrkkö's focus here is on 'signifier terms' used to indicate what is now known as the symptom (terms such as mark, token, sign, accident, prognostic, indication, and of course, symptom) in a number of corpora (MEMT, EMEMT, LMEMT), as well as in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Historical Thesaurus of English (HTE). The behaviour of these terms in different genres of text, as well as the specific developments undergone by individual signifier terms, is explored in detail. There is a heavy quantitative angle complemented by qualitative analysis in light of the sociohistorical context (vernacularisation of medical writing, professional vs. lay audiences), and Tyrkkö concludes by exploring how the term ‘symptom’ ultimately became the word of choice we now use today.

Chapter 11, ''LMEMT Categories'', provides a systematic discussion of each of the corpus categories found in LMEMT. Each subsection (written by a different member of the compilation team) contains a discussion of the chronological distribution of texts, an overview of the texts featured in the corpus, details of specific authors and intended audiences, prevalent discourse forms and genres (including common linguistic and rhetorical features), original compositions vs. translated texts, and an historical overview of continuity in beliefs and practices vs. new trends that emerged during the eighteenth century. The subsections of the corpus are general treatises and textbooks (discussed by Irma Taavitsainen); specific treatises devoted to diseases (Maura Ratia), methods (Anu Lehto & Irma Taavitsainen), therapeutic substances (Carla Suhr & Irma Taavitsainen), and midwifery (Päivi Pahta); medical recipe collections (Anu Lehto & Irma Taavitsainen); regimens (Carla Suhr); surgical and anatomical texts (Jukka Tyrkkö); public health (Anu Lehto); scientific periodicals: the Philosophical Transactions and the Edinburgh Medical Journal (Turo Hiltunen); and general periodicals: The Gentleman's Magazine (Irma Taavitsainen).

The final chapter (Chapter 12) is the ''Manual to the LMEMT corpus'' by Turo Hiltunen and Jukka Tyrkkö. Here, Hiltunen and Tyrkkö discuss how exactly texts for the corpus were procured and in what formats they are provided, i.e. plain text (with UTF-8 encoding) and XML (TEI compliant). They then provide a helpful discussion of XML and focus on what particular tags were used in the corpus, both in the metadata of each file and in the text itself.

Besides these chapters, a catalogue containing bibliographical information of each individual text in the corpus is provided alongside your standard reference sections (primary and secondary sources) and index. The LMEMT corpus itself, provided on CD-ROM, contains the 'Digital Edition' of the corpus (XML encoded) alongside the 'Unannotated Version' (plain text format). A spreadsheet containing the list of texts in the corpus is also provided, as is a digital version of the corpus manual (Chapter 12 in the volume).


The LMEMT corpus is certainly a welcome addition to the resources available for historical pragmatic investigations, particularly in the arena of scientific/medical writing in the history of English. The categorisation of texts is sensible, and the corpus itself is nicely curated and certainly ''neat and tidy'', insofar as much care has been taken to provide clean copies of the text that are free of digital ''noise'' (such as the presence of nonsense characters that can appear during the digitisation process). The XML files are encoded to an appropriate degree of specificity. LMEMT makes a perfect complement to the extant MEMT and EMEMT corpora, allowing for the systematic study of four centuries of medical writing -- four centuries in which numerous sociocultural and historical developments led to profound changes in the discipline. The subcategorisation of texts also allows for more specific investigations of particular fields of medicine (such as surgery), and the resources provided by the corpus and accompanying volume serve as handy references that can point the user towards materials above and beyond the corpus itself.

The contributions to the LMEMT volume provide a nice showcase of the possible range of investigations facilitated by the corpus. Some papers take a purely qualitative angle, while others marry qualitative textual analysis with quantitative statistical insights. A particular standout here is Chapter 3 (by Taavitsainen, Schneider, and Jones), in which the results of topic modeling are quite seamlessly placed in their sociohistorical context via more qualitative textual analysis. Lehto and Taavitsainen's contribution on medical case reports and narratology (Chapter 5), on the other hand, provides an alternative picture of how the corpus can provide source material for a purely qualitative analysis, especially one in which the topic may preclude straightforward corpus searches from being carried out. Chapter 11 provides harmonized discussions of the particulars associated with each of LMEMT's textual categories, and the inclusion of the manual (Chapter 12) in the volume is a helpful guide on the more technical aspects of the corpus' composition and use.

There are, unfortunately, a few weaknesses that detract from the volume's efficacy as a companion to an excellent resource. The most glaring one is the ordering of chapters in the volume. A detailed discussion of the exact structure of the corpus in terms of textual categories does not come until Chapter 11; yet the preceding chapters proceed under the assumption that the reader is aware of the overall corpus structure and the particulars of each subcategory (regimens, public health, methods, etc.). Some attention is given to this in Chapter 1, although it is insufficient to truly appreciate the results of linguistic investigations that follow. The editors would have done well to choose a structure similar to the one of the volume that accompanied EMEMT in 2010: historical background to the corpus, corpus description, specific studies. As things stand, the reader would be wise to skip immediately from Chapter 2 to Chapter 11, and then return to Chapter 3. In addition, the historical chapters by Gentilcore (Chapter 4) and Withey (Chapter 6) provide essential background knowledge to the textual categories under discussion, but they are interspersed among linguistic investigations and should probably have been presented alongside one another (but after a detailed presentation of the individual textual categories).

One piece of critical information curiously absent from the corpus description is that of word counts, both in terms of textual categories and individual text files. Chapter 1 provides visualisations that give a general idea of the size of texts, but this lacks specificity when it comes to providing qualitative results in one's own studies, and such information is necessary for running statistical texts. The manual (Chapter 12) promises that such information is available in the Excel file that accompanies the corpus, but this is not the case (at least in the version that came with my copy of the volume and CD-ROM). This information is also not provided in the metadata of the XML-encoded files, as also seems to be suggested in the manual. In the EMEMT volume, some of this information was at least provided in the corpus description (Chapter 11 in the LMEMT volume), and it would have been nice if that had been the case here as well.

My final critique does not necessarily involve the compilers of LMEMT and editors of the accompanying volume, who have done an excellent job putting this corpus together and demonstrating how it can be used effectively; rather, the way it which the corpus is distributed could prove problematic in the near future. The use of CD-ROM is, in my opinion, quickly becoming outdated, seeing that some computers (or at least laptops) no longer even provide a CD-ROM drive. Such a mechanism certainly made sense during the release of MEMT in 2005 and even EMEMT in 2010, but it is not optimal nowadays. The corpus compilers, and indeed the publisher, need to urgently investigate more state-of-the-art mechanisms of delivering these corpora to the end user (perhaps online via license keys?). It would also be helpful to make these corpora available at an institutional level so they could be used more readily in teaching and student-led research projects. Aside from the risk of damage or loss, one physical copy of a CD-ROM on a library shelf is insufficient for such purposes.

These critiques aside, the LMEMT corpus achieves what the compilers intended: it presents a excellent sampling of eighteenth-century medical writing and, alongside MEMT and EMEMT, provides continuity of corpus coverage from the medieval through the late modern English periods of medical writing in English. It is not only an indispensable resource for those interested in historical pragmatics and domain-specific language usage in the history of the English language, but also those interested in the history of medicine. The studies presented in the volume showcase the diverse range of topics and methodologies that can be pursued with what is relatively a small, yet ''neat-and-tidy'' corpus; the papers also make clear there is much left to be explored.


Fowler, Roger. 1986. Linguistic Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Labov, William and Joshua Waletzky. 1997 [1967]. Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience. Journal of Narrative and Life History 7. 3-38.

Simpson, Paul. 1993. Language, Ideology, and Point of View. London: Routledge.

Taavitsainen, Irma and Päivi Pahta. Eds. 2010. Early Modern English Medical Texts. Includes CD-ROM of Early Modern English Medical Texts Corpus (compiled by Irma Taavitsainen, Päivi Pahta, Turo Hiltunen, Martti Mäkinen, Ville Marttila, Maura Ratia, Carla Suhr, and Jukka Tyrkkö). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Taavitsainen, Irma, Päivi Pahta, and Martti Mäkinen. 2005. Middle English Medical Texts. CD-ROM. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.


Richard J. Whitt is an Assistant Professor of Linguistics in the School of English at The University of Nottingham. His current research focuses on an historical sociopragmatic investigation into the first three centuries of vernacular medical writing in English (1500-1800), particularly in the fields of midwifery and women's medicine. He has previously worked on compiling German-language historical corpora (GerManC, GeMi) and evidentiality in English and German.

Page Updated: 10-Mar-2021