Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Free Variation and Other Myths: Interpreting Historical English Spelling

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Free Variation and Other Myths: Interpreting Historical English Spelling

Article excerpt


The paper considers the interpretation of orthographic variation in Middle English texts, focussing on the question to what extent it is justifiable to use such variation as phonological evidence. It is suggested that all written variation, except when directly conditioned by orthographic context, is the result of clashes between two or more linguistic systems. This hypothesis is tried out on a text with notoriously variable spelling: the version of Lazamon's Brut found in London, British Library Cotton Caligula A ix.

1. The problem: Making the dead speak

This paper is an attempt to combine two pursuits that have so far largely been kept separate: the reconstruction of early English phonology and the study of Middle English texts in the tradition of the Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English (McIntosh, Samuels and Benskin 1986, henceforth LALME). The LALME methodology is based on studying the written language in its own right, without reference to the spoken mode; this restriction is essential for the initial analysis and classification of Middle English scribal texts. However, if we wish to produce an account of the Middle English language, including phonology, that takes advantage of the enormous advances in the field made possible by LALME, it becomes necessary to combine the two approaches. It is such a situation, relating to work on the Middle English Grammar Project, (1) that underlies the concerns of the present paper.

Grammars of Middle English, especially comprehensive ones meant for scholarly reference, have not appeared in large numbers. One reason is, it may be assumed, the linguistic variability of Middle English. While variation between texts makes the period an interesting one for linguistic study, it also makes writing a grammar a complex task. The variation within texts has been seen as an even more fundamental problem. As most Middle English texts were copied and recopied by scribes, it has been common to assume a kind of Chinese Whispers effect, every copyist contributing to an even more complex mixture. (2)

To produce a Grammar of Middle English at the present time is a task very different from that faced by earlier grammarians. While modern database technology does not speed up the collection of data, it makes possible much more powerful ways of searching and analysing them. In addition, there are numerous giants on whose shoulders we can stand, and important methodological advances have made possible a more efficient use of the available data. These advances are, above all, connected with LALME and its daughter project, the Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English (henceforth LAEME). (3)

The methodology developed in connection with LALME has revolutionised Middle English studies in at least two respects. First of all, it has radically changed ideas about scribal contamination. It was shown by Angus McIntosh (1963 [1989], 1973 [1989]: 61) and, later, in a seminal account by Benskin and Laing (1981) that Middle English scribes were capable both of copying quite faithfully and of translating into their own dialect. At the same time, the development of variationist linguistics has changed ideas about variability, making it a natural and analysable aspect of language.

Secondly, the LALME methodology was based on the direct study of written language in its own right. This was found to show regionally significant variation, independent of speech, and accessible without the conjectures required in historical phonology. (4) On this basis, it was possible to build up a typological framework that allowed the localisation of more than a thousand Late Middle English texts, (5) each shown to be dialectally consistent.

It might seem to be a straightforward matter to combine these resources with database technology, and to produce a full description of Middle English based on electronic searches. As far as describing Middle English orthography is concerned, the procedure is indeed relatively simple, assuming that enough time and manpower are available for entering the data. …

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