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Review of  Studies in Linguistic Variation and Change: From Old to Middle English

Reviewer: Mark Faulkner
Book Title: Studies in Linguistic Variation and Change: From Old to Middle English
Book Author: Fabienne Toupin Brian Lowrey
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English, Middle
English, Old
Issue Number: 28.810

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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.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781443875424
Pages: 250
Prices: U.K. £ 47.99
U.S. $ 81.95