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Review of  Scribes as Agents of Language Change

Reviewer: Philipp Brandenburg
Book Title: Scribes as Agents of Language Change
Book Author: Esther-Miriam Wagner Ben Outhwaite Bettina Beinhoff
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 25.2308

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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 court.

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 forms.

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 Europe.

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.