12.11.09, Tyler, ed., Conceptualizing Multilingualism in England

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Helen Foxhall Forbes

The Medieval Review 12.11.09

Tyler, Elizabeth M.. Conceptualizing Multilingualism in England, c.800-c.1250. Studies in the Early Middle Ages, 27. Turnhout: Brepols, 2011. Pp. xi, 368. ISBN: 978-2-503-52856-4.

Reviewed by:
Helen Foxhall Forbes
University of Leicester

This volume contains selected papers from a conference held in 2006 which aimed to examine multilingualism and linguistic pluralism, primarily focusing on English culture in the period c. 800-c. 1250 (as indeed the title of the book suggests). In her introduction, Elizabeth M. Tyler explains her decision to focus on England rather than Britain or the Anglophone world, stating that "this stems both from a desire to attend to the relationship between the present and past of the language politics of England and from a recognition that these present politics are different outside of England--in Britain, in the EU, in the Anglophone world, and with regard to global English" (2). A major impetus for the book was the growing contrast between the multilingualism of the Middle Ages and the increasing monolingualism of modern native English speakers, encouraged by the global spread of English and the decision of the Labour government in 2004 to remove the requirement to study foreign languages in the English school system (4-6). This is particularly striking, as Tyler notes, given that England "is becoming more multilingual on a basic societal level" as a result of immigration (5), and especially relevant for scholars of the Middle Ages who are required to deal with multiple languages to access the witnesses to the past. Tyler is also careful to try "to avoid the conflation of English with British," while noting that in order to understand the language politics of English it is also necessary to look beyond England, to see English in other, international contexts (2).

The essays in this volume therefore focus on the English Middle Ages but are not limited to the English world, and by spanning both the Danish Conquest in the early eleventh century and the Norman Conquest in the middle of the eleventh century, they address continuity as well as change in the medieval multilingualism of England in the period c. 800-c. 1250. The articles by Julia Crick and Helen Fulton are of particular interest in exploring the tensions between ethnicity and language. Julia Crick explores how "the English" and "the Irish" came into contact and communicated with each other in a variety of different linguistic contexts, demonstrating the lack of a neat correlation between language and ethnicity as well as highlighting the possibilities and working assumptions that can be brought to bear on such questions even when the evidence is rather limited. Helen Fulton's examination of the different languages spoken in Wales and their changing uses before and after the Norman Conquest likewise shows that the choice of language was much more tightly connected with status or occupation or context than with ethnicity. Nicole Guenther Discenza also notes the importance of languages and code-switching as means of identification for different social groups, but emphasizes just how English and monolingual many of the late ninth-century "Alfredian" translations were, despite their Latin source texts and the multilingual contexts in which they were produced. A similarly monolingual end-product, La Vie de Saint Thomas by Guernes de Pont-Sainte-Maxence, is explored by Thomas O'Donnell, who draws out the significance of Guernes's claim to be writing good Continental French, and examines the way in which he attempted to "translate" Anglo-Norman practices into Continental literature.

English participation in, and contribution to, the wider literary cultures of Europe is considered in the essays by Tyler, Lars Boje Mortensen, and Matthew Townend. Tyler explores the multilingual points of contact revealed by eleventh-century texts such as the Encomium Emmae Reginae and the Vita Aedwardi and the women who commissioned them, emphasizing the importance of multilingualism for royal and noble women, and the educational tradition which allowed them to participate in the Latin literary culture of Europe. Mortensen focuses on Latin history-writing in Anglo-Norman contexts, and how approaches to the Roman past were affected by different perceptions of Latin, while Townend discusses how Cnut was represented and perceived in a range of linguistic contexts, emphasizing that the audiences of texts in different languages were not entirely isolated or separated even as they presented different visions of history. The vibrance of language contact is also drawn out by Samantha Zacher's analysis of the Battle of Brunanburh and the multilingual wordplay which enriches the poem, while Rebecca Stephenson explores how Byrhtferth played Latin and Old English off against one another in his Enchiridion so that English could be used as an acceptable medium for teaching monastic students, as well as secular clergy, about computus. Thomas Bredehoft discusses the use of runic and roman script in Anglo-Saxon verse inscriptions which utilize Old English or Latin, or both, and investigates what biliteral and bilingual inscriptions may reveal about their anticipated readers and observers, while Andrew Taylor considers the audience of chansons de geste in the context of the Austin Canons, arguing that their multilingual audiences were diverse and varied, and that the cultural negotiations of medieval literature were conducted "across a range of shifting and competing languages and dialects" (336).

Bruce O'Brien and Stephen Baxter explore the importance of translation and linguistic adaptation and negotiation in legal contexts, with O'Brien focusing on law codes and Baxter on the multilingual contexts which contributed to the Domesday inquests. O'Brien shows that etymological translation of legal terms was generally avoided, and that the original language of a legal term frequently retained its authority in English legal texts between 1066 and the end of the twelfth century, but that these terms do seem to have been current rather than archaic. Baxter's article aims to open debate about the multilingual background to the production of the Domesday Book, showing that the different circuits through which the surveys were conducted resulted in different choices of terminology; in at least one case, Baxter suggests, terminology was created for specific circumstances in England as a result of the multilingual processes by which and in which the commissioners operated. Roger Wright examines the importance of oral as well as written multilingualism in the context of Abbo of Fleury's teaching at Ramsey and the texts which he wrote for the monks there, as well as what Abbo's texts reveal about the pronunciation of Latin and Greek by native speakers of English and Old French, and the difficulties they faced. Scribal interactions with different languages are discussed by Orietta Da Rold and Mary Swan, in an examination of one leaf from a twelfth-century manuscript, Cambridge, University Library, Ii.1.33. The main text of this leaf is a copy of Aelfric's Old English Life of St. Andrew, but there is a marginal note in slightly later English as well as a note in Old French at the bottom of the page, both drawn from Latin sources and both, according to Da Rold and Swan, written by the same scribe. This article is particularly interesting for the methodological issues it raises in approaching hierarchies of languages and the ways in which scribes dealt with multiple languages as they read, wrote and used books in the Middle Ages in England.

For the most part the book is immaculately presented and has very few typographical errors, although one unfortunate error which was not caught has changed Roberta Frank into Robert Frank (212). There are also a couple of places where slightly more editorial revision would have been welcome, such as the statement at the beginning of Roger Wright's article which seems (rather bizarrely) to suggest that in 985, Ramsey was the only Benedictine abbey in England ("In 985 Oswald of York, who had studied at Fleury in the 950s, asked Fleury if they could send a teacher to the monastery of Ramsey, the only Benedictine abbey in England at the time, which Oswald himself had founded in the 960s in an isolated part of the Fenland between Cambridge, Huntingdon, Peterborough, and Ely," 105). The quality and relevance of some of the contributions is also rather variable: for example, parts of David Trotter's article on Anglo-Norman linguistic variation in fact stand rather outside the chronological period defined in the title, and some of his essay seems to draw quite heavily on his earlier work. In places the length of time between the conference and the final published volume is also evident: the URL for the revised catalogue of Anglo-Saxon charters (The "Electronic Sawyer") given in the list of abbreviations is long since out-of-date (see now http://www.esawyer.org.uk), and (for example) Bredehoft's analysis of the Solomon and Saturn poems contains no reference to Daniel Anlezark's edition and discussion published in 2009.

There are also places where the articles within the volume could perhaps have been more closely linked together. For example, where Crick briefly discusses multilingualism in Wales (219), there seems to be no reference to Fulton's article which explores precisely that topic; likewise, cross-references between Tyler's and Mortensen's articles are lacking where both discuss the so-called Loire poets and their influences (185-186, 319). Even more striking is that the careful conclusions of Da Rold and Swan with regard to the changes in English over the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and how far scribes or readers distinguished between "Old English" and "Middle English" in this period, appear to have made no impact at all on Trotter's article, where a fairly firm distinction seems to be drawn between Old English (which he calls "Anglo-Saxon," rather archaically) and Middle English. Trotter also barely mentions Old Norse, although the importance of Old Norse in the transition from Old to Middle English is of course very well-known and specifically discussed in the article on social network theory and linguistic change by Juan Camilo Conde-Silvestre and Ma Dolores PĂ©rez-Raja.

It is particularly disappointing that these points of contact and resonances were not explored further given that Tyler rightly notes in her introduction that the study of multilingualism requires collaboration to be truly effective (12). It is difficult to get a sense from the articles of how far discussions at the conference itself informed or influenced what is now presented in the volume, but (perhaps unsurprisingly) the book reads more like a collection of articles around a theme than Tyler's suggestion of a collaborative volume. This is a pity because it means that ultimately the volume does not entirely come across as a coherent collection, despite containing some interesting contributions and despite the shared focus on multilingualism. This is not helped by the absence of any form of combined bibliography or an index to the volume, both of which would have been useful. Tyler notes in her introduction that "no one definition of multilingualism has been adopted or imposed" (10) but many of the contributions also show little attempt to engage with or to define what multilingualism meant beyond assuming a common understanding of situations in which more than one language was used. It is a pity too that the significance of the image represented on the cover of the book is never discussed: the cover reproduces the "portrait of the scribe Eadwine" from the Eadwine Psalter (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R 17.1, f. 283v), a book which contains the psalms in three Latin versions and in English and Anglo-Norman, as well as illustrations, commentary, and prayers. This would perhaps have been an interesting place to start in the conceptualization of multilingualism, but only the article by Da Rold and Swan ever really comes close to exploring this kind of conceptualization in detail.

The origins of the book as the proceedings from a conference rather than as a series of commissioned and collaborative essays are also felt in the absence of some topics which might have been desirable in a volume on multilingualism in England: dialect receives short shrift, for example, and some interesting contexts of multilingualism are absent, such as the use of the vernacular in Latin liturgical contexts. In my opinion, Tyler is correct to assert that "[t]he chief contribution of this volume lies in simultaneously bringing together the study of multilingualism with interdisciplinary scholarship studying both sides of the Norman Conquest" (12), but even so, for the most part these essays present and discuss a series of more or less discrete multilingual contexts rather than the volume as a whole "conceptualizing multilingualism" as the title claims.

Here it is perhaps worth reflecting too that even within the UK the monolingualism highlighted by Tyler in her introduction is a particularly English problem. Language politics in the areas of the UK beyond England have ensured that bilingualism (if not multilingualism) in official documentation is a key priority, so that (for example) it is possible to find information in Ulster Scots about the switchover to digital TV in Northern Ireland, such as a leaflet noting that "Thir wittins can be gotten in Erse an Ulster Scots an aw" ("Yer guide tae the cheege-ower": see http://www.digitaluk.co.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/71784/DG31101719_1c_Ulster-Scot_3Mth.pdf, accessed August 2012). And in fact, sometimes this insistence on the use of multiple languages at an official level only serves to highlight how superficially this bilingualism or multilingualism extends, as in the notorious case of a sign produced in Swansea in 2008 which read in English, "No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only," and in Welsh, "Nid wyf yn y swyddfa ar hyn o bryd. Anfonwch unrhyw waith i'w gyfieithu," which translates as "I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated'' (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/7702913.stm, accessed August 2012).

Multilingualism and language politics were clearly important issues in the Middle Ages as they are in the present, and the articles in this collection which point towards areas for future research and discussion, such as those by Baxter, and by Da Rold and Swan, are thus especially valuable. This book is therefore perhaps the first step in opening up a discussion to which it might be hoped that current collaborative research programmes will also contribute, as for example The Lexis of Cloth and Clothing Project (http://lexisproject.arts.manchester.ac.uk/, accessed August 2012), which aims to "investigate the complex relationships between vocabulary, artefact and image" in the study of cloth and clothing in Britain, c. 700-c. 1450.

In particular, a more collaborative dialogue which integrated discussion of more modern issues with those faced in the Middle Ages would be useful in identifying (for example) how far multilingualism might be a medieval (or ancient?) or modern concept or problem, an interesting question identified in the original call for papers (see for example http://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/node/14275, accessed August 2012) but which does not feature significantly in the volume itself beyond the brief comments in Tyler's introduction. In the Middle Ages as today, as Tyler and Fulton both note (5-7, 145-146), multilingualism is found often in contexts of privilege while it is the poor who may remain monolingual, although particularly in the context of migration and immigrant communities this is of course not always the case. But the issue of access to language-learning, especially with regard to the learning of classical languages in schools, is itself essential in considering the future of medieval studies. Here, perhaps--especially in the UK, where the peanut-counters in the Treasury are increasingly obsessed with funding only research which has easily measurable economic advantage--medievalists may have most to gain by stressing the significance of multilingualism and language politics in the past as well as in the present.

Article Details

Author Biography

Helen Foxhall Forbes

University of Leicester