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22.08.10 Amsler, The Medieval Life of Language

22.08.10 Amsler, The Medieval Life of Language

In combining, to a different degree, history, literary studies, sociology, philosophy (of language), and linguistics, this book provides a strongly interdisciplinary approach to the use of interjections and discourse markers in medieval texts and in writings about grammar by several medieval scholars. As for linguistics, the author’s perspective includes observations and theories from several subfields of this discipline, namely sociolinguistics, semantics, pragmatics, and to a very slight extent also theories from forerunners of modern grammatical theory amongst medieval scholars. The parts of the book that deal with the history of linguistics focus on the writings of some forerunners of the functionalist branch of linguistics, such as Speculative Grammarians, and also mention scholars who do not directly belong to the history of linguistics, but have contributed to the concepts of language sciences, for example the philosopher Roger Bacon.

The book consists of eight chapters, two of which are the introduction and a closing chapter called “One More Thing” which gives some general final remarks from the author’s perspective. In what follows, I will summarize the chapters, including remarks concerning certain parts of these chapters, and then move on to some general comments on the whole book.

In “Introduction: Where is Medieval Pragmatics?,” the author suggests a rather creative distinction between three different kinds of historiography of linguistics; the postulation of the third kind of historiography of linguistics is unclear to me since it refers rather to the historiography of literary studies. The author feels that one should “include literature or primary documents in social history” (12), which may hold for social history, but not for the history of linguistic theory as such. Also, according to Amsler, “among historians of linguistics, pragmatics has been underrecognized” (12), which is only partly true, given that this subfield of linguistics is included in historiographies of the functionalist branch of linguistics, especially grammaticalization theory. This is symptomatic of the fact that, in this book, linguistics is sometimes mixed up with literary studies, which is a separate field of study. As for the statement that “I am thinking of the history of linguistics, linguistics, literary studies, rhetoric, philosophy--the objects of study are primarily verbal” (13), I wonder how linguistics--being language science--could not focus on verbal data, since this is its object of investigation. Much of what Amsler is missing in the existing histories of linguistics is actually there, or really absent simply because it belongs to the history of literature and not to the history of linguistics. Also, the author repeatedly speaks of “medieval linguistics” and “medieval pragmatics,” though linguistics, including pragmatics as a subfield of linguistics, was not a discipline on its own before the nineteenth century.

A very serious issue in this chapter and the book in general is that the author, though he mentions that there are formal and functional approaches in linguistics (e.g., p. 15), never explains what it means for a scholarly theory to be functional or formal, nor does he make clear that in his book he follows mainly the functional approach, and, thus, focuses on external language. It is just not clear if Amsler follows the functionalist perspective on purpose or not, nor if he is even aware of the controversies between the formalist and the functionalist approaches in linguistics, but it is clear from the general perspective that Amsler has on linguistics--given the choice of the scholars whose theories he discusses when giving his historiography of linguistics, from the fact that Amsler (15) seems to be astonished that the Neogrammarians did not refer to extraverbal contexts, and, last but not least, from his sometimes incorrect use of syntactic terminology when it comes to form and function--that he is not taking a formalist perspective. Amsler’s belief that “for communication and language analysis, context is everything” (26) confirms his functionalist perspective on the topic.

Chapter 1, “Medieval Pragmatics: Philosophical and Grammatical Contexts,” summarizes the theories of language and meaning from of Roger Bacon and Peter John Olivi and introduces sign theory. The concepts modus, actus and conceptus are introduced, and there are a lot of Latin quotations from the respective scholars.

Chapter 2, “Interjections: Does Affect Have Grammar?,” deals with medieval grammarians and their observations about interjections and their use. Though the author gives “grammatical theory” as a keyword for this chapter, the perspective in this chapter is again a very non-formal, and in many aspects in fact sociolinguistic, view, which is also interesting but should be made clear before the chapter starts. Also, when it comes to the history of linguistic categories, it is not true that “from the Middle Ages to the present, interjections […] have enticed linguistic exploration by challenging linguistic categories” (86). There are very clear ideas among linguists about what is included in the category of interjections and what is not. Just because this word class is missing in earlier contributions to language studies does not mean that this very same word class is a challenge for the other linguistic categories.

What might things make even more confusing for a reader who is not familiar with linguistic terminology is that the author not only fails to distinguish between form and function throughout the whole book, but also uses syntactic terminology wrongly when it comes to form and function, such as when he says “grammatical form or function as a word or phrase” (94), since both word and phrase are notions of form in linguistics. Further, there is an error in defining “discursive shading” as a “key […] syntactic feature” (114) since this is not a syntactic, but rather a pragmatic feature. There is a severe misuse of some syntactic terminology throughout the whole book.

Chapter 3, “Allas Context,” finally introduces the definition of pragmatics, and I wonder why this definition is not provided earlier in the book. Insisting on the belief that linguistics always takes context into account (103), the author again ignores the formalist branch of linguistics, thus failing to distinguish between formalism and functionalism in linguistics. Chapter 3 also introduces the Gricean maxims, though without explaining them. Also lacking explanation and definition are the terms “interjection” and “discourse marker” since in no part of the book does the author give a definition of these notions nor does he make clear that “interjection” refers to syntactic form whereas “discourse marker” refers to function rather than form.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 investigate and discuss the use of interjections and vague language in the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer, Bernard Gui, William Thorpe, and Margery Kempe, stating that these authors were strongly aware of the pragmatic aspects of language. When reading these chapters and also after reading the whole book, I wonder why it is so striking that Chaucer’s Miller, Gui, Thorpe, and Kempe had “metapragmatic awareness,” since all speakers with a canonical, healthy command of their mother tongue know about the pragmatic aspects of linguistic utterances. “Metapragmatic strategies” (232) are a core feature of communication and it is clear that these strategies were also used by speakers and writers in the Middle Ages. All of these chapters do also deal with theories and observations within contemporary pragmatic theory. On page 144, Amsler suddenly includes observations about phonology which are not really related to the rest of the chapter.

Chapter 7, “One More Thing,” is the final chapter and summarizes some parts of the book while introducing new notions like “alternate hegemony” as well. The conclusion that “contemporary pragmatics is a broad interdisciplinary field comprising linguistics, philosophy of language, cognitive studies, and more” (241) is misleading and wrong, since pragmatics is a subfield of linguistics and not an interdisciplinary approach in between other fields of research. Another untrue statement about the history of linguistics and the discipline itself is the statement that “medieval pragmatic theory was a revolution in grammatical analysis” (244). In linguistics, “grammar” refers to phonology, semantics, and syntax, but not to pragmatics.

To conclude, this book is of course interesting and informative, and the interplay of scientific branches is always an interesting adventure. Amsler provides an extensive contribution to innovative ideas in interdisciplinary writing, a collection of thoughts on and assumptions about language use for specific purposes in the medieval period, taking a viewpoint which combines several subfields. On the other hand, this book is missing a clear structure in this interplay and a chapter where the linguistic theory and terminology is introduced instead of scattering this information all over the book without really defining, for example, Gricean maxims. As for the organization of single chapters and subchapters, there are no subchapter numbers, nor are there summaries at the end of the single chapters, neither translations of the early English parts, nor numbering of examples. Also, I would have found a summary chapter, and more fine-grained, more detailed subchapter organization and headings helpful. The title of the book is also misleading since it suggests a focus on linguistics, but actually the focus is equally on linguistics and literature if not even more on literature than on linguistics, and those parts that aspire to deal with linguistics deal partly or mostly with literature.