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Review of  The Urban Vernacular of Late Medieval and Renaissance Bristol

Reviewer: Geoffrey Sampson
Book Title: The Urban Vernacular of Late Medieval and Renaissance Bristol
Book Author: Moragh Sanne Gordon
Publisher: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke (LOT)
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 29.4014

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Over roughly the period 1400 to 1700, written English evolved from a medium which reflected the features of the spoken dialects of different regions into a system which conformed to a recognized national standard, independent of spoken dialects. The accepted view has been that the standard was based on the speech of London, which for formal purposes (including writing) became influential throughout England. That does not mean that every feature distinguishing the standard language from regional dialects originated in London. To take a case examined in depth by Moragh Gordon, the replacement of –th by –s as third-person verb suffix (‘he goes’ v. ‘he goeth’) is known to have begun in the North of England. But the suggestion has been that it became current in London at a period of heavy migration from the North to the capital, and only then spread from London to the rest of the country.

The author points out that this London-centric model of the standardization process has recently been challenged by a number of scholars, notably Terttu Nevalainen. Her aim is to discover whether the revisionist view can be supported by an analysis of writing produced in the city of Bristol in the relevant period.

Bristol is a likely place to look for possible non-London influences on the emerging standard. At various times from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century it was regarded as England’s second city, in terms of population and/or wealth. Moragh Gordon quotes statistical analyses which suggest that among eighteen provincial population centres in the late Middle Ages, Bristol was one of those whose dialect was least similar to that of London, but its “interaction and linguistic influence potential” was second only to Coventry. For most of English history Bristol was the chief Atlantic-facing port (Liverpool, which eventually usurped that role, only began to be a significant port towards 1700). If one sets aside very early voyages by Scandinavians, Bristol was the port from which Europeans discovered North America – that continent was named after a fifteenth-century sheriff of Bristol, Richard Americk, who is mentioned in a different connexion in this book.

The book is a Utrecht University doctoral thesis, produced within the framework of a wider research project which aims to study the processes by which standard written languages emerge through data from four cities in different dialect areas of England. None of these is London (the other three are York, Coventry, and Norwich), which seems to imply that those steering the project are sympathetic to Nevalainen’s “revisionist” model; Moragh Gordon makes clear that she favours it.

The book is structured as follows:

Chapter 1 introduces the research, and the contrast between received and revisionist models of English standardization.

Chapter 2 describes the subdiscipline of historical sociolinguistics, and a particular research resource, the Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English, which was valuable for Moragh Gordon’s work.

Chapter 3 considers what is meant by the phrase “standard language”, drawing attention in particular to a distinction between reduction or elimination of variation as an objective phenomenon, and adoption of a prescriptive linguistic mindset: these developments may go hand in hand, but need not.

Chapter 4 examines the social structure of late mediaeval and early modern England in general, and Bristol in particular.

Chapter 5 looks at the nature of education, literacy, and the institutions which could potentially have fostered linguistic standardization in the relevant period.

After some general discussion of corpus linguistics, Chapter 6 describes the data sources used for Moragh Gordon’s research, which consist mainly of City Council ordinances, and letters. These are very different genres, with letters likely to reflect a less formal, more speech-influenced style than ordinances; the author points out that it is unfortunate that the available corpus of letters dates only from 1548 onwards, while time and resource limitations meant that in order to cover the earlier period adequately she was unable to use ordinances dating from after the sixteenth century. This creates problems about disentangling historical development from genre contrast. But such problems are inevitable in real-life research, and Moragh Gordon is very fair in repeatedly drawing attention to them. The chapter explains how this material was digitized and marked up for her research purposes, using Text Encoding Initiative conventions.

The next three chapters analyse the three linguistic variables selected as windows onto the standardization process:

Chapter 7: the grammar of relative clauses, which changed greatly, in complicated ways, over the Middle and Early Modern English period;

Chapter 8: the morphology of third-person verb forms, including the ‘goeth’ and ‘goes’ types already mentioned, together with other variants that once existed;

Chapter 9: the orthographic issue of how the interdental fricative was spelled, whether as the modern <th>, as the letter thorn, as <y>, or in other ways.

Chapter 10 summarizes the author’s conclusions.

There are twenty pages of appendices, giving for instance a detailed list of the documents included in the research corpus.


Doctoral theses and published books have different audiences. A dissertation must assure examiners that the candidate has taken due account of prior research, so it will contain a long “literature survey”. Also, it needs to establish that the candidate is personally a competent researcher, hence it will include considerable detail on techniques used. When a book is offered to the general academic public, readers hope to take for granted that the author knows his business, so these aspects are less important: readers expect to be given an impression of the intellectual background into which the book is claiming to fit novel insights, and some idea of how those insights were achieved, but they are not going to be making a decision about awarding a degree, and they will not want to read lengthy material designed only to demonstrate the author’s prowess. Conversely, readers of a published book expect it to offer some positive advance on the current state of knowledge (otherwise, why read it?), but that is less important for a doctoral thesis. No-one can know ahead of time what findings will emerge from research on a particular topic, and a doctoral candidate will normally be working under time constraints: if his original topic proves less promising than hoped, it may be difficult to switch direction – and examiners are seeking to establish that a candidate is a competent researcher, it would be unreasonable to penalize a candidate for being unlucky in choice of topic.

For these reasons, when a newly-fledged PhD offers his thesis to a commercial publisher, the publisher will usually ask for it to be adapted for this new purpose.

The book under review is not published commercially – it is issued by the author’s university department; and it is clearly identical to the dissertation which earned the degree. (It even includes the formal title page identifying the “rector magnificus” of the university, and a twelve-page summary of the whole, both in the Dutch language.) This is perhaps regrettable. Moragh Gordon’s intended readership is presumably people interested in the history of written English, or the process of language standardization. For such readers to assess the reliability of her quantitative analyses, it will be relevant that she used machine-searchable copies of the documents studied, and perhaps that these were marked up using Text Encoding Initiative conventions (if the readers know of the TEI and are aware of its authoritative standing). But I wonder whether readers will want details about the software systems used to facilitate creation and exploitation of TEI markup. (Someone might be interested in this if he plans to engage in similar research – but, by the time a book like this is written, passed by degree examiners, published, distributed, and read, that software is very likely to have been replaced by more up-to-date systems.)

Similarly, a reader who is not knowledgeable about corpus linguistics would doubtless welcome a paragraph or two explaining something about it. But I am not sure that potential readers of a book like this will have much use for pages of abstract discussion of what makes a corpus satisfactory, including almost philosophical consideration of an alleged distinction between corpus linguistics as a “field” or as a “methodology” – particularly since the practical constraints on Moragh Gordon’s research gave her little choice about what to include in her corpus of Bristolian writing, whether or not the result came close to meeting ideal criteria.

Another kind of shortcoming which is more acceptable in a PhD dissertation (particularly one written in English at a Continental university) than in a published book is English-language errors. Here, for instance, ‘borrows’ appears for boroughs, there are many poorly-placed punctuation marks, and at one point English grammar seems to be misunderstood in a way that affects the point being discussed. Moragh Gordon illustrates ambiguity between “restrictive and non-restrictive” relative clauses by quoting an example, “And I send you a copy of the warrant that they were arestyd by”, and claiming that the cause of the arrests might have been “the warrant”, or alternatively the “copy of the warrant”. But this is essentially a question of whether the relative clause is attached to “warrant” or to “copy” as antecedent; “restrictive” v. “non-restrictive” scarcely comes into it.

A related problem is limited knowledge of English history and institutions. There are idiosyncratic spellings of place-names (New Castle, Scar-borough), and one passage seems to say that recorded trade figures may have been misleading because they omitted goods smuggled between Bristol and Wales: I am fairly sure that customs duties were never levied on trade between England and the Principality in the period in question, if indeed they ever had been. The author explains the role of the mayor of Bristol by giving as one of his main functions that of royal escheator. I had to look up what that means (an escheator was the officer responsible for implementing the king’s entitlement to the estates of individuals who died without heirs); but although organizing royal income streams was an early function of mayors, I can hardly believe that this particular category of income was as central as the author makes it sound.

There are also some straightforward mistakes. At more than one place, a reference in the body of the text to a displayed numbered example gives the wrong number. Perhaps the example numbering was changed to keep it sequential as the text was revised, but the references in the body of the text were not always changed in step. Easily done.

A good English-language publisher will employ a copy-editor to find and eliminate flaws like these, or many of them. But a PhD thesis is meant to be all the candidate’s own work.

Still, these shortcomings are minor. Readers who find that a book goes into detail that does not interest them can skip. Much more important is how well this book does at discovering the implications, for ideas about language standardization, of the data examined.

I would say that Moragh Gordon does an excellent job of investigating quantitative relationships between her Bristol data on three areas of language variation, and the ways in which those areas evolved nationally. At the same time, her findings give us little reason to doubt the traditional, London-centric account of the standardization process.

If Bristol data were to support Nevalainen’s idea that provincial centres may contribute elements to a national standard, that would presumably have to mean that some forms which at one stage were distinctive properties of Bristol English later became part of the standard. The only hint I find in the book of anything like that relates to the spelling of the interdental fricative. We are told that “Bristol was relatively early in adopting <th>”. Data for the South of England generally, including London, show thorn as the majority form until 1500, whereas in the Bristol data thorn “was a minority form as early as the first half of the fifteenth century, and it declined rapidly in the second half of the fifteenth century”. As far as it goes, then, this might suggest a possibility that the <th> spelling could be a Bristol contribution to modern orthography. However, the next page offers further figures which make this seem unlikely. Although the ratio of <th> to thorn in Bristol council ordinances is as high as 85% to 15% in the second half of the fifteenth century, by that period in the general Southern England data the proportion of <th> is almost 100%. Is it plausible that a new norm would approach completeness earlier at the national level than in the particular place from which it emerged?

On the other hand, there are cases where the book finds that some feature which became part of the standard developed in Bristol pari passu with the rest of England. In Old English, wh- words were not used as relative pronouns (they were only interrogatives), and “zero relatives” (as in modern “The man I saw”) were rare special cases; and when wh- words developed uses as relatives, rather counter-intuitively ‘who’ acquired this role later than ‘whom’ and ‘whose’. In Moragh Gordon’s Bristol letters she finds that ‘who’ and zero relatives were establishing themselves at frequencies “surprisingly similar” to the figures quoted by another scholar for national data from trial records and plays.

Furthermore, much more often, our author finds that frequencies of innovating variants in Bristol lag behind London figures or national figures. With respect to ‘goes’ v. ‘goeth’, for instance, she quotes findings that the –s form began to establish itself in London in the fifteenth century, began to decline there early in the sixteenth century, but then made a rapid come-back by 1600. In Bristol she finds that the –th form was the only one used before 1600, though by 1700 it had been entirely replaced by –s.

Presumably, cases where a provincial centre is conservative with respect to some language variable cannot support Nevalainen’s revisionist model. And, overwhelmingly, that is what Moragh Gordon finds for the variables she examines. Bristol and London lie on opposite sides of England, and Bristolians may have felt independent of the capital (they still do), but Moragh Gordon herself quotes a historian of fifteenth-century Bristol as writing “Bristol was in many ways under London’s shadow”.

Perhaps because the weight of her findings turns out to run contrary to the idea she hoped to confirm, in the concluding chapter the author redefines her aim: rather than referring back to her earlier hypothesis that the standard did not emerge from one place, she now says that her aim was “to identify the processes that are involved in linguistic standardisation in an urban setting other than London” – that is rather different, and compatible with the evidence presented.

It may well be that Dutch PhD regulations require successful theses to be published unaltered – I know some European countries have this rule. But, belonging as I do to a nation where that is not obligatory or even commonly done, I find it unfortunate that the manuscript could not have been rethought for some extent for publication purposes.
Geoffrey Sampson graduated in Oriental Studies at Cambridge University in 1965, and studied Linguistics and Computer Science as a graduate student at Yale University before teaching at the universities of Oxford, LSE, Lancaster, Leeds, and Sussex. After retiring from his Computing chair at Sussex he spent several years as a research fellow in Linguistics at the University of South Africa. Sampson has published in most areas of Linguistics and on a number of other subjects. His most recent book is ''The Linguistics Delusion'' (Equinox, 2017).