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The Language of History: Part One – Defining the Discourse   Leave a comment

The Language of History: Defining the Discourse

A ‘Preamble’ into Early Modern English:

While searching for reading material on historical discourse, I found a tract from Exeter Cathedral library, written by the antiquarian Howel in 1657, with an enchanting title; Londonopolis; an historical discourse or perlustration of the city of London… Interestingly, the verb to perlustrate means to traverse, survey… to go through and examine thoroughly (Webster’s Dictionary, 1981). The title thus reveals that the identification of the nature of historical discourse as that of surveying the past is by no means recent development. In addition, the use of ‘perlustration’ as a synonym for discourse suggests a close connection in the discipline between the need to investigate and narrate past events. These are regarded the two essential tools, or modes of discourse, to be used in the historical craft.

A British teacher researching into Dual Language Education in Budapest (Ryan: 1991) showed how a choice between these two modes resulted in what he defined as the lecture approach and the concept approach. In the first, the lesson is characterised by what Rod Ellis (1986: 176) called lockstep teaching, in which the teacher controls classroom communication through a series of elicitations of a closed kind or through lengthy informing moves and dominates quantitatively by assigning a large proportion of the talk to himself. Ryan adds that most Hungarian students expect this approach, treating history as a story told by teacher to students. In Hungary, teachers who pioneered the concept approach argued that the only way to ensure that students learnt the language of history in both Hungarian and English was to get them to talk about history. Ryan believed that it was not only possible but necessary to insert descriptive or explanatory concepts into any linear overview of a country’s history. This was precisely what happened in dual-language history teaching in Hungary in the early 1990s, resulting from a real and personalised philosophy among history teachers about their subject. Back in Exeter Cathedral library, I was interested to note how resonantly this view, one which I had also encountered in schools in Wales and more recently in France, seemed to echo that of Elizabethan writers, such as Thomas Blundervill (1574):

I can not tell whyther I may deryde, or rather pittie the great follie of those which having consumed all theyr lyfe tyme in hystories, doe knowe nothing in the ende, but the discents, genealoges, and petygrees of noble men, and when such a King or Emperour raigned, and such lyke stuffe, which knowledge though it be necessarie and meete to be observed, yet is not to be compared to the knowledge, that is, gotten by such observacions as we require, & be of greater importaunce: to the obtayning whereof, I wish all readers of Hystories, to employe theyr chiefest studie, care and diligence.

Blundervill’s second kind of knowledge, that which we might refer to today as the enquiry mode was, he considered, the essential means of enabling the reader of Hystories to gather judgement… as you may be the more able, as well to direct your private actions as to give Counsell lyke a most prudent Counsellor in publyke causes, be it matters of warre, or peace. Readers and observers of history need first to become masters and apprentices in the craft of perlustration, or investigation, to use a more familiar modern English word. By enquiring into past events, historical investigators also equip themselves to learn from such events, not simply about them.

Inter-cultural definitions: a comparative etymology

Interestingly, the Hungarian term ‘visszapillantás’, meaning an ‘historical survey or review’ (Országh, 1985), does not have the metaphorical idea of a study in depth, of a detailed survey or ‘perlustration’ going right down to the foundations of a building (Webster, 1981). It has the sense of a brief, summative overview of past events, with the prefix ‘vissza’ (back) definitely making the view a retrospective one. It does not suggest, necessarily, any connection between past, present and future.

Certainly, in its earliest uses, both in English and Hungarian, history, or ‘történelem’ (from ‘történet’, meaning ‘story’ or ‘tale’), was seen as a simple account of past events. However, the Greek root-word ‘istoria’ also had the early sense of an Inquiry (British English dated form, Cambridge International Dictionary of English, 1995). The sense of history has therefore always ranged from a ‘factual’ chronicle of past events to a narrative explanation of past events prompted by a more detailed inquiry.

Just as in Hungarian word ‘történet’ can be applied broadly to ‘fiction, fable and yarn’ (Országh, 1985), so too the English words story and history were used interchangeably to identify accounts of either imaginary events or of events supposed to be true, a usage which persists in literature and popular culture. However, from Blundervill’s time onwards, the uses of the two words diverged, with history being used to describe accounts of past real events, set down in writing, hence the use of ‘an historical discourse’ to introduce so many early modern tracts. The more generalised sense of history that Raymond Williams (1983: 146) referred to as ‘organised knowledge of the past’, was an extension of this. ‘Historian’, ‘historic’ and ‘historical’ follow mainly this generic sense, as they do in Hungarian.

This established sense of history is undoubtedly the predominant shared meaning both in English and Hungarian. However, in terms of both the discipline, or craft, and discourse, or language, of the subject, it is important to distinguish the sense of history that goes beyond a body of organised knowledge, ‘történelemtudomány’ in Hungarian (Országh, 1985) into the realms of interpretation and explanation of that shared body of knowledge. In simple terms, histories need to do more than simply chronicle or describe past events; they also need to explain them.

This sense is one that emerged with the Enlightenment and treats history as the explanation of human self-development, through a continuous process connecting past events with present and future outcomes. The various choices of interpretation within this process combine to make history a more abstract discipline than others within the Humanities. History, in this ‘modern’ sense, contains at least three competing interpretations of human development; the classic liberal interpretation of Civilisation; the philosophical (Hegelian) interpretation of a world-historical Spirit or Élan, and a more political interpretation of historic forces, originating in the French Revolution and developing with socialist, specifically Marxist political economy. Taking the last of these views first, recent rejections of all forms of historicism have also been at risk of jettisoning the more neutral method of studying the past by tracing precedents of current events. Marx himself, before the emergence of Marxism, stressed this as being part of his approach to history:

Events strikingly similar, but occurring in a different historical milieu, lead to completely dissimilar results. By studying each of these evolutions separately and then comparing them, it is easy to find the key to the understanding of the phenomenon; but it is never possible to arrive at this understanding by using the passe-partout of some historical-philosophical theory whose great virtue is to stand above history.

(Quoted in Carr, 1987: 65).

By rejecting all attempts to produce over-arching philosophies of history, much recent historiography has tended to lead to rather cynical views of past events as chapters of accidents, and tales with little significance for understanding the present. As the somewhat out-of-fashion Hungarian writer Lukács (1962, quoted in Carr, 1987: 66) pointed out, there is a danger, even in a lighter vein, of retrospectively reducing the study of history itself to ‘a collection of exotic anecdotes’. Although such anecdotes certainly have their place, often berated or underrated, in historical narrative, they do not justify its status as a major academic discipline.

A further linguistic dichotomy can be seen by looking briefly at adjectival forms connected with history as a discourse. In English, while ‘historical’ belongs mainly to language about the past, e.g. ‘historical characters’, ‘historic’ is more often used to describe present events and processes, which whilst having their origins in the past, relate more to the future within an overall sense of destiny, e.g. ‘historic forces’, ‘historic moment’ (for which we could substitute the common adjective momentous). As Raymond Williams (1976: 148) pointed out, the generic noun ‘itself retains its whole range, and still, in different hands, teaches or shows us most kinds of knowable past and almost every kind of imaginable future’.

The main point to extract from these definitions, for the purpose of doing history, is that the language of history will be more or less abstract, depending on which philosophy is applied to the subject. Whilst there are five ‘keywords’, based on the Greek root, used to define the study of the past in English – history, historiography, historic, historical, historicism – Hungarian uses at least ten key words or phrases which, through suffixation, convey more precisely the shades of meaning in the continuum from story to inquiry, and from chronicle to narrative.

However, the essential stem is still story, ‘történet’, and it is this sense of history which persists and predominates in Hungarian consciousness, the sense of an inherited shared story, often strongly linked to a notion of national heritage. This story is capable of interpretation and reinterpretation, according to current predominant political philosophy, but this, of itself, does not make it a legitimate historical inquiry or scientific survey. Making or re-making history, mythologizing or re-mythologizing it in order to make it conform to a sense of national destiny does not equate to doing history, any more than following crude historicist models enables us to do justice to the collective memory of the Hungarian people, or any other people for that matter.

The re-mythologizing of Hungary’s past is most evident to guests in the plethora of memorials that have sprung up in recent years both in its capital, and in its provincial towns such as Kecskemét, where eighty per cent of the current population lives. In the town centre, next to the Town Hall, is a memorial to the crown territories lost by Hungary as a result of the Treaty of Trianon in 1921, as a part of the Paris Peace Settlement following the First World War. It takes the form of a huge stone map, with the current geographical form of the Hungary laid over the Big Hungary, or Greater Hungary, three times the size of the present-day country. It is a map of Hungary as it never was, or as it was ‘in a way’, or as some Hungarians would like it to be. The shape of ‘Nagy Magyarország’ is for them one which they stick to the back bumper of their car. It refers to the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when Hungary was part of the Dual Monarchy from 1867-1918. This Hungary therefore never really existed in reality, because it never had these borders as an independent country, but only as part of an Austria-Hungary in which the Austrians were the top dogs, with the Hapsburgs as rulers.



Above: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (scale 1: 4,500,000) in c.1930

This fictional or mythological map of Hungary is based on the borders of Austria-Hungary as shown in Atlas maps, like those above, from before the First World War and after. Books published in Hungarian from the time of the Trianon onwards, refer to the Treaty as an act of betrayal, or treason. They provide examples of the language of interpretation. The maps showing the boundaries as they were before 1914 and then after Trianon show us the facts of the matter, but these facts are then subject to interpretation. Whilst it is true that Hungary lost two-thirds of its land and a third of its pre-war Magyar population, but whether it ever had a right to those areas of modern-day Croatia and other parts of the former Austrian Empire is debatable. Yet today, there are many Hungarians who still believe in a nationalist narrative that would like to see Hungarians living outside the current borders of the country returned to their native nationality and state. This brings it into continual conflict with the surrounding Slavic states about the treatment of the minority Magyars in their countries. All this is part of a modern-day nationalist narrative, based mostly on interpretations of Trianon and not always on the basic factual material, or chronicle, of the events pre-dating and surrounding the Trianon Story.

The problem arising from this approach to interpreting the events of the past is that it is the shifting sands of these interpretations, rather than the bedrock of solid evidence, which end up being set, not simply in text, but in symbolic tablets of dead stone monuments. A real historical narrative, the diamond in the rough, can only be exposed through the hard labour of chipping away at the stone which helped to form it through the pressure of real causes and catalysts, the relevance and purpose of which are not always apparent, often falling discarded in order to reveal the essential core of the gem, the narrative.

Humanistic principles and perspectives therefore apply especially to studying History, which does not have its own technical language, but does require the development of abilities to enquire into, to discuss, to debate and to narrate past events. Whilst rules of evidence and scientific objectivity have their place in guarding against the dangers of over-interpretation and mythologization of the past, an approach which becomes overly dependent on them is no more helpful than to understanding the past than the one which concentrated on facts, facts, facts, in Victorian times.

More recent philosophies of history, formed in relation to linguistics, reaffirm the usefulness of narrative tools in crafting histories, asserting as they do that stories about the past are created by historians through interpretation, rather than having a life of their own. This understanding of history as a narrative discourse with the people of the past people is of primary importance to the task of interpreting their stories, and therefore deserves further investigation.

Definitions of Discourse and The Historian’s Craft

In general modern English usage the word discourse refers to formal communication in speech or writing (Cambridge International Dictionary, 1995). In linguistic terms, it refers to ‘larger units of language such as paragraphs, conversations, and interviews’ (Richards, Platt and Platt, 1992: 111). The word can be translated by at least three words in Hungarian the noun ‘értekezés’ usually refers to a formal piece of writing on a particular, serious subject, whereas ‘eszmecsere’ refers to the semi-formal talk/ interchange of ideas, a dialogue perhaps. The noun ‘társalgás’ is used to refer to informal conversation or ‘chats’ on particular topics.

Historical discourse is characterised fundamentally by its dependence on written forms in both primary and secondary sources. In this sense, the important distinction for the historian is not to be drawn so much between spoken and written forms of discourse, but between formal ‘acts’ of narration and interpretation, whether these are conveyed in writing, in a dissertation or essay, or in speaking, through a lecture, seminar or presentation, involving dialogue and discussion. Such events clearly need distinguishing from less formal conversation and talks. In other words, we need to examine the distinctive register and style of language used in historical communication, whether spoken or written. It is in this sense that I use the term ‘historical discourse’ to indicate the use of language involved in any serious study of the past, though not necessarily only those undertaken by professional historians. Indeed, the fact that the vocabulary used is indistinct from that used in Standard English make it a craft that engages many educated individuals with the motivation to investigate the past, provided they have the right tools and know how to use them.

Dialogues between Present and Past: Historiographical debate 

Although E.H.Carr’s (1987) widely-read and therefore influential work, ‘What is History?’, was originally ‘delivered’ as a series of lectures in 1961, Carr’s work is still worth reading as a starting point for any discussion on the discourse of history, because it contains many interesting and useful insights into the relationship between history and language. His answer to his own question helps us to move towards a view of history as a distinctive discourse:

The historian is of his own age, and is bound to it by the conditions of human existence…the very words he uses – words like democracy, empire, war, revolution – have current connotations from which he cannot divorce them. Ancient historians have taken to using words like ‘polis’ and ‘plebs’…this does not help them. They, too, live in the present …the historian is obliged to choose…the use of language forbids him to be neutral… History, then, in both senses of the word – meaning both the inquiry conducted by the historian and the facts of the past into which he inquires – is a social process in which individuals are engaged as social beings. The reciprocal process of interaction between the historian and his facts…the dialogue between present and past, is a dialogue not between abstract and isolated individuals, but between the society of today and the society of yesterday.

(Carr, 1987: 24-25, 30, 55).

The idea of historical discourse as a dialogue between the historian as a contemporary social being and the society of yesterday is one which is worth pursuing, particularly in the light of Carr’s suggestion that past peoples are not simply passive objects for historians but are somehow actively engaged in metaphorical conversations with them.

More recent writers on the nature of historical discourse (White, 1978, 1987; Jenkins, 1995) have taken up this theme; at the same time criticising Carr for his advocacy of history as a social science. There are major differences in the types of language that the historian uses to approach the past from those used by a physical scientist. Lecturing on objectivity in history, Carr himself pointed to the complexity of the discourse and called for a new model of historical understanding. In the post-modern era, something approaching this new model has been worked out, based on a linguistic approach, making particular use of discourse analysis.

Towards a new model of historical discourse: The Metahistorical.

The basis for this new model can be found, originally, in the work of Hayden White (1978, 1987). A more recent survey and summary of his complex and extensive work has been made by Keith Jenkins (1995). White himself built on the work of Richard Rorty, who was concerned to bring about the collapse of boundaries between discourses and to enable them to engage in the construction of meaning and the problems of representation (Jenkins, 1995: 4). What certainly has collapsed is what Jenkins refers to as ‘history in the upper case’, the classical liberal view that we have already touched on. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘Whig’ view of history, of which Jenkins remarks that nobody really believes that particular fantasy any more.

The new model philosophers of history point out that no discourse simply grows organically, spontaneously, without nurture or cultivation. In this case, historians cultivate their field and construct accounts of the past that can be circumscribed by the term historiography. For White, therefore, the historical work is a verbal artefact, a narrative prose discourse, the content of which is as much invented – or as much imagined – as found (Jenkins, 1995: 18-19). Consequently, all historical accounts are ultimately metaphorical and therefore metahistorical. People in the past did not deliberately live their lives as stories, so to see them in story form is to give an imaginary series of narrative structures and coherence to the past that, in reality, it never had. Therefore, we must be careful not to mistake the historian’s narrative of the past as the past’s own form; the story emerges from the historian’s interpretation of past events as recorded in texts and other traces surviving from the past.

At their most explicit, these texts and traces were consciously recorded in chronicle form e.g. in diaries. It is mainly the historian’s consciousness that transforms them into a meaningful, public narrative. In this sense, Jenkins defines the writing of history, historiography, as an act of translation, a carrying over of meanings from one discursive community to another (Ibid.: 24).

In a language-based conception of this process, the extreme textualist view would be that there is no historical reality outside that created by the historian. This view would lead to the dissolution of history as a subject since if texts are seen as reflecting other texts and not reality, historical study cannot be distinguished from literary study, and the past dissolves into literature. However, White does not go this far, arguing that:

Historical events…are events which really happened or are believed really to have happened, but which are no longer directly accessible to perception. As such, in order to be constituted as objects of reflection, they must be described…in some kind of natural or technical language…The description is a product of processes of linguistic condensation, displacement, symbolisation and secondary revision of the kind that inform the production of texts. On this basis alone, one is justified in speaking of history as a text…

 (White: 1989, quoted in Jenkins, 1995: 32).

This statement does not necessarily contradict other statements already examined about the nature of history; what it does is to provide a definition that serves rather than dominates the methodological purposes of the study of the past. Jenkins’ sets out the four key principles b of the textualist position as follows:

  • All accounts of the past (and the present) come to us textually through some kind of natural or technical language – we might equate ‘text’ in this sense with the historian’s use of ‘source’, whether in spoken or written discourse, or in the form of an artifact or other ‘trace’ of the past;

  • The past cannot express itself – it always needs to be spoken for and constructed. The historian distinguishes between what is historical and what is not and between what is significant, or historic, and what is not;

  • Whether history is considered simply as the past, the documentary record of this past, or the body of reliable information about the past, there is no such thing as a distinctively historical method by which to study it;

  • Historians, whether professional or otherwise, cannot define history as resting on foundations that go beyond textual reality and discourse.

(Jenkins, 1995: 34)

The historian’s sense of a dialogue with the past means that they are able to develop their historiography more in terms of its rhetorical and conversationalist style of discourse, rather than approaching their craft as a narrow academic code or discipline. This should help them to demystify the subject for their apprentices. Brenda Marshall has recently (1992) expressed this transformation in the following terms:

History in the post-modern moment becomes histories and questions. It asks: Whose history gets told? In whose name? For what purpose? … Histories forgotten, hidden, invisible, considered unimportant, changed, eradicated. It’s about the refusal to see history as linear, as leading straight up to today in some recognisable pattern – all set for us to make sense of. It’s about chance. It’s about power. It’s about information…

With this approach, teachers and learners can feel liberated to construct their own texts free from the constraints of orthodoxy and ideology, and in their own terms. Similarly, White has no time for those who define history in neat, constricting terms. He is more concerned with freeing up history to be whatever we want it to be, linked not just with views of the past, but also with visions of the future. However, when pushed, he answers Carr’s question with the answer that it is a narrative discourse, but one which can never quite grasp the past in this form. Reinstating language in the centre of the subject, as opposed to the application of rules of evidence to the historical record, he argues for a re-emphasis on the rhetorical.

(Jenkins, 1995: 140-1).

History as explanation

White’s theory of historical narrative is one which helps both the professional and apprentice historian to process the past, beginning with the relatively unprocessed historical record (archives, relics, records) in order to provide data on which a chronicle can be based and, through further interpretation, a story formed, which may finally be contextualised into a narrative. Historians work from their own narrative, prefiguring and surveying the historical field to discover the primitive elements of the historical record, which they then fashion into historical accounts. To produce an account from the primitive elements, traces or sources of the past, historians use three types of explanation:

  • Explanation by argument; making a choice between an integrative argument, seeking to integrate different aspects, through identified principles, into a macro-theoretical process, and a dispersive argument, depicting the variety and uniqueness of events;

  • Explanation by emplotment; the fashioning of a sequence of events into a narrative of a particular kind, chosen from the literary forms of romance, tragedy, comedy and satire providing the main modes which convey the myths endowing human processes with meaning;

  • Explanation by ideology; the commitment to a form of knowledge leading to generalisations about the past, chosen from conservative, liberal, radical and anarchist perspectives.

Forms of historical language

In addition, and perhaps most importantly in terms of developing a new model of historical discourse, White borrows from modern linguists and literary theorists to argue that this discourse contains four turns of phrase, or figures of speech:

  • Metaphor;

  • Metonymy; i.e. using the name of one thing to stand for that of something else with which it is associated, e.g. ‘lands belonging to the crown’ or ‘demanded action of the City Hall’.

  • Synecdoche; i.e. making the part stand for the whole (‘fifty sails’ for ‘fifty ships’), or the whole stand for the parts (creature for person).

  • Irony.

We can make use of these in our investigation into historical language by referring to them generically as figurative forms in order to distinguish them from the three forms of metalanguage, which we might summarise as follows:

  • Key historical concepts, which are widely-shared, applied broadly and sometimes controversially as a means of referring to past events, e.g. Revolution;

  • Archaisms, which are usages of language in past texts that are not usually encountered in present Standard English texts;

  • Historical terms, which are generally recognised expressions referring to events, movements etc. They were used contemporaneously and have remained in usage, e.g. Luddite (Cook: 1998).

Thus, historical discourse employs specific literary metalanguage, together with the use of key concepts, terms, and the interpretation of archaic language.

Chronicles and Narratives: Metalanguage and meaning

Exploring historical metalanguage also helps to distinguish stories and narratives from chronicles. Whilst chronicles are chronological arrangements of events and people, which may or may not follow a particular theme, in stories these events are organised into a process of happening with a beginning, middle and end. In a story, events are given a hierarchy of significance, so that the sequence of events is related to social and cultural processes, with some elements in the story receiving more emphasis than others, as in the following chart (capitals indicate significance):

Fig.   Hierarchy of significance

  1. A b c d e ……   A is the ‘explanatory factor’

  2. a B c d e ……   B ……………………………………..

  3. a b C d e ……   C ……………………………………..

  4. a b c D e ……   D ……………………………………..

  5. a b c d E ……   All facts can be seen as leading up to E                                                                                                                                                      

Present meanings and Past tenses

Thus, if historians simply recorded the facts as they found them in the traces of the past, they would merely be chroniclers. In simple linguistic terms, they would need (in English) only the past simple tense to describe a sequence of random, unrelated events, rather like in the keeping of a Journal or Diary. However, there is a distinction to be drawn between the grammar of past tenses and the semantics of the past. Historians find the simple chronicle of the past, but they provide it with the semantics; its meaning, its significance. Historians of the Dark Ages in Britain will not simply follow the order of events set out in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, nor will they accept unquestioningly the significance given to some events compared with others given by the contemporary chronicler. In changing such priorities between past chronicler and present narrator, they frequently (unconsciously or subliminally) also need to change the tense structures relating past events. For instance, in line 1 above ‘A’ may be represented by the past simple as the main explanatory factor. However, in line 2, where it is not the main explanatory factor, but is an event that occurred in previous chronological order, it might well be related to the main event through the use of the past perfect.

Figurative language and discourse

Since history has no generally accepted technical language, the historians have to use the techniques of figurative language and discourse, in which the four turns of phrase are set.   They recognise that there is a fictitious element in all-historical narrative. They are able to find in the theory of language and narrative itself the basis for a more subtle presentation of what historiography consists of than one which simply tells the apprentice historian to go away and find the facts and then write them up in such a way as to tell what really happened (White, 1978: 99).

Figuring out the chronicle into a story raises questions such as what happened next? and how did it all come about in the end? Questions such as what does it all add up to? or what’s the point of it all? have to do with the structure of the entire sequence of events considered as a completed story and call for a synopsis with other stories that might be found in the chronicle. White therefore uses a linguistic theory, the theory of tropes, to underpin his argument that history is a craft, not a science, having specific techniques but no technical terminology. Indeed, a quick survey of a dictionary of historical terms (Cook, 1998) reveals that there is no discrete lexis, syntax or grammar, as is the contrasting case with, say, Physics and Chemistry.

The historian makes the past familiar through abstract language, closely related to ordinary educated language, in which tropes are the figures of speech used to figure things out (White, 1978: 94). As in ordinary speech, for example, rhetorical questions are what the historian often starts an inquiry with, and they then dominate the ultimate narrative. In this sense, they prefigure the narrative. After all, past events cannot figure themselves out, so historians identify and describe subjects in the past, thus making them objects by their use of language. The figuring out is then done through various modes of explanation by argument, emplotment and ideology, referred to above, so that, in both senses of the word, figurative language works to relate past events to each other and to the present.

Configuring the past: some examples

Some brief contextual exemplification of these figures of speech is necessary here. The phrase ‘the saviours of humanity – the working class’ may convey the idea that the working class represents qualities of human dignity. However, the essence of humanity is not taken to be identical to the working class (synecdoche), nor is there any implicit negation of the explicit (irony). Therefore, it is a metaphorical, or representational statement. An example of metonymy would be the reduction of individual acts of resistance to colonialism as giving meaning to third world nationalism. Synecdoche is figuring out in the opposite direction, from whole to parts, e.g. ‘all history is the history of class struggle’ (Marx and Engels, 1848). In this case, each and every act of class struggle is treated as particular expressions of the general and a whole-part relationship will always be found and imposed. In irony, the statement about the working class above could be delivered or written in a certain way in order to convey the opposite of its apparent representational meaning.

Through metaphorical language, therefore, historians intervene in the past and invent history, introducing their own fictional interpretation to the arrangement of the facts. Historical problems are ones which historians both create and solve. In identifying problems, they configure the past, constituting the concepts which are used to identify and explain the evidence, itself produced from the traces of the past. A commitment to a particular mode of discourse in this process is what accounts for different interpretations of the past. The process can therefore be summarised for students in the following ten-fold sequence, modified and simplified from White (1978):

  1. The field of inquiry is located with reference to the traces of the actual past (archives, sites) and choice of period;

  2. The evidence is extracted according to an ideological interpretation which defines a question or problem in relation to it;

  3. This interpretation interacts with figurative forms of discourse, e.g. metaphor;

  4. The plot is chosen, from literary styles e.g. comedy, tragedy (emplotment);

  5. The main theme, or argument, is developed from and through the plot (explanation);

  6. The traces are worked up into a chronicle, a ‘time-line’ of events;

  7. A story form emerges which is interpretative, answering the questions set at the beginning of the inquiry;

  8. The story is transformed into a narrative, based on the evidence but related, through imaginative configuration, to both current and historic cultural forms and myths (e.g. ‘Albion – the Island Nation’, ‘Hungary – under the heel’);

  9. The narrative becomes an intelligible, consumable artifact, a secondary source;

  10. The product is itself processed, the consumers being its readers.

This approach is useful to historians and their apprentices in two ways; it assists them to think critically about accounts of past events, and it shows them how the discourse works. The emphasis on figurative language as the core of the subject helps to identify key discourse markers for further research. Moreover, the assertion that written historical texts are closely related to ‘ordinary educated speech’ lends justification to an examination of oral discourse as well as written text. However, rather than prescribing forms of historical discourse for identification, there is much to be said for the investigator following an ethnographic approach, describing past peoples and societies as much as possible in, and on, their own terms.


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Early Modern English: The Fifteenth Century   Leave a comment

Above: The Pastons’ House in Norwich (photo rights: A J Chandler, 2015)

The East Midland Dialect:

It is usually possible to make sense of late Medieval documents written in the east Midland and London dialects because they provide the basis for Standard English as written today. The fifteenth century was a period of transition to modern English (MnE), so we talk of the period from about 1450 as marking the development of ‘Early Modern English’ (EMnE).

In reality, the transition has its identifiable origins in the East Midlands dialect of the early fifteenth century. Margery Kempe (c. 1373-1439) was from King’s Lynn in Norfolk, who gave up on married life as a result of her mystical experiences in order to devote herself to pilgrimage. In the 1420s, she dictated a book describing her visions, temptations and journeys. As the text was dictated, it provides reliable evidence of ordinary speech at that time. The dialect is east Midland, but we cannot tell how accurate the scribe’s reproduction of Margery’s speech actually was, especially as the only surviving manuscript was copied in mid-century. Here is her description of her marriage in verbatim translation:

When this creature was twenty years of age or something more she was married to a worshipful burgess of Lynn and was with child within short time as nature wills. And after that she had conceived she was in labour with great fevers till the child was born and then what for labour she had in childbirth and for sickness going before she despaired of her life, thinking she might not live…

The opening of the book is shown in facsimile below, and given in transcription here:


Here begynnyth a schort tretys and a comfortabyl for sinful wrecchys, wher in thei may haue gret solas and comfort to hem, and vryndyrstonyn the hy and vnspe cabyl mercy of ower soueryn Sauyowr cryst Ihesu whoe name be worschept and magnyfyed wythowten ende. That now in ower days to vs unworthy deyneth to exercysen hys nobeley and hys goodnesse.

The Pastons were a prosperous family who also lived in Norfolk (see photo above). A large collection of their letters written between the 1420s and 1500s have survived. The letters cover three generations of the family and are a valuable source of evidence for historians as well as students of language development. Much of the period was troubled by the political upheavals of the Wars of the Roses, reflected in the letters. As well as letters from Agnes Paston to her husband William, the collection includes a valentine letter from Margery Brews to the third generation John Paston, written in 1477, partly in rhyme. They were married later that year:

…and if ye commande me to kepe me true where euer I go

iwyse I will do all my might zowe to love and neuer no mo

and yf my freendys say that I do amys thei thei shall not me let for to do

myn herte me byddys euer more to love zowe truly ouer all erthely thing

and yf thei be neuer so wroth I tryst it schall be bettur in tyme commyng

no more to yowe at this tyme but the holy trinite hafe yowe in kepyng and I besech zowe that this bill be not seyn of non erthely creature safe only zour selfe…

…be zour own MB

(Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, Norman Davis (ed.), OUP, 1971)


The London Dialect:

William Caxton was the first English printer, setting up his printing press in London in 1476. It began a revolution in the production of books, which no longer had to be copied individually by hand. Of course, copying did not die out completely, and Caxton was more than just a printer of other people’s writing. He also translated and edited many of the books printed, providing a large number of prefaces and commentaries.

In 1482, Caxton printed a revised text of Trevisa’s 1385 translation of Higden’s Polychronicon. This provides an excellent example of some of the changes in the language which had taken place over the hundred years between the two editions. Caxton found Trevisa’s language old-fashioned and out of date, as he said in an epilogue:

William Caxton a symple persone have endeuoyred me to wryte fyrst overall the sayd book of ’Proloconycon’ and somewhat have chaunged the rude and old Englyssh, that is to wete certayn wordes which in these dayes be neither vsyd ne vnderstanden.

Caxton’s modernised version of John of Trevisa’s description of the languages of Britain shows some interesting differences with the original texts. It illustrates the lack of standardisation in Middle English and the way in which differences in the dialects of ME were reflected in writing.

A standard form of a language develops in a nation or society only when the need becomes evident and pressing. The invention of printing was one factor in the complex of political and economic changes in England by the end of the fifteenth century, which led in time to acceptance of the educated London dialect as the basis of Standard English.

One of Caxton’s problems as printer and translator is clearly illustrated in a famous story that he tells in the preface to his translation of a French version of Virgil’s Latin poem The Aeneid, called Eneydos. A revolution in communications was brought about by the printing of books. A book might be bought and sold anywhere in the country, but which dialect of English should the printer use? For example, there were at least two words for egg, the one in OE and the other from ON. The story is about the difficulty of asking for eggs for breakfast, but for Caxton it illustrates the problem of choosing a language in translation:

Loo what sholde a man in thyse dayes nowe write, egges or eyren?

This was just one of the problems that needed to be resolved in the agreement of a standard literary form of English over the next two centuries. If you examine Caxton’s language in detail, you notice that he did not devise a regular spelling system, and that many of his decisions about spelling and grammar were already out of date by the 1480s. Below is a very short example of Caxton’s printing. It is an advertisement, dating from about 1478, from Caxton’s edition of the Sarum Ordinal, the book of church services for Salisbury:   


If it plese ony man spirituel or temporal to bye ony pyes of two and thre comemoracios of salisburi use enpryntid after the forme of this preset letter whiche ben wel and truly correct, late hym come to westmo nester in to the almonesrye at the reed pale and he shal haue them good chepe

Supplico stet cedula

In 1485, Caxton published a noble and joyous book, entytled ‘Le Morte Darthur’. He described it in these words:

… a book of the noble hystoryes of the sayd Kynge Arthur and of certeyn of his knyghtes after a copy unto me delivered. Whyche copye Syr Thomas Malorye dyd take oute of certeyn books of frensshe ad reduced it into Englysshe.

Malory made his translations and adaptations from French while in prison. He wrote the following at the end of one of the books making up the collection:

And I pray you all that redyth this tale to pray for hym that this wrote, that God sende hym good delyveraunce sone and hastely. Amen

Malory died in prison in 1471. Caxton’s printed book was the only known version of Malory’s legends of King Arthur until 1934, when a manuscript was found in the Fellows’ Library of Winchester College. It was not in Malory’s own hand, but more authentic than Caxton’s book, which has many alterations and omissions. Below is a facsimile of the opening of the fourth story, The War with the Five Kings, in the first of the manuscript books, The Tale of King Arthur:


The first six lines of the facsimile were written by the principal scribe, while the rest was written by a second scribe. Not only is the handwriting clearly different, but so too is the spelling.

A collection of letters and memoranda of the Cely family, written in the 1470s and 1480s, gives us authentic handwritten evidence of London English a century after that of Thomas Usk’s, and contemporary with the Paston letters. The Celys were wool merchants, or staplers. They bought fleeces in and sold them to merchants in Calais and Bruges. The letters and accounts provide historians with primary evidence about the workings of a medieval English business, and give students of language examples of late medieval commercial English, as well as evidence of the speech and writing habits of the London merchant classes of the period.

The collection contains letters written by forty different people. Most are from two generations of the Cely family, father and sons. Like the Paston letters, they show that there was as yet no standardised written English. The spelling is not good evidence for the pronunciation of spoken English, partly because we do not know the sounds given to each letter, but also because the spelling of each of the authors was so irregular. Individual writers show many inconsistencies of spelling. The following text is not a letter, but a note of political events and rumours in the troubled times leading to the deposition of Edward V and the accession of the Duke of Gloucester as Richard III. The first five items are written as facts; the rest, beginning with if are rumours. As jotted down notes, they are not always grammatically clear:

There is great romber* in the realm, The Scots has done great in England. (The Lord) Chamberlain is deceased in trouble. The Chancellor is disproved* and not content. The Bishop of Ely is dead.

If the King, God save his life, were deceased. (If) the Duke of Gloucester were in any peril. If my Lord Prince were, God defend, were troubled*. If my Lord of Northumberland were ded or greatly troubled. If my Lord Howard were slain.

From monsieur Saint John

(*romber = disturbance/ upheaval; disproved = proved false; troubled = molested.)

Lord Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain, had been executed in June 1483. The Chancellor was Thomas Rotherham, Archbishop of York. ‘My lord prinsse’ was the Duke of York, Edward V’s brother. The Earl of Northumberland and John Howard were supporters of the Duke of Gloucester; ‘movnsewr sent jonys’ is a pseudonym, to disguise the name of Sir John Weston, from whom George Cely got the rumours.


Dennis Freeborn  (1992), From Old English to Standard English. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

The Development of Middle English   Leave a comment


Above: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Peterborough) for 1137, written c. 1154.

The Transition from Old English to Middle English:

Before the first printing press was set up by William Caxton in 1476, many copies of books were lost. The more popular books, re-written many times, like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, have survived, although Chaucer’s original manuscripts have been lost. Other works are known through a single surviving copy.

The writings of most early modern authors, from Shakespeare onwards, were prepared for printing in modern editions by editors who almost always converted the original spelling and punctuation into modern standard forms. For example, an early edition of Henry IV Part I printed in 1598 contains the following words spoken by Falstaff:

If I be not ashamed of my soldiours, I am a souct gurnet, I have misused the kinges presse damnablie. No eye hath scene such skarcrowes. Ile not march through Coventry with them, that’s flat.

It contains several unfamiliar features of spelling and punctuation, some of which, like souct gurnet, obscure meaning for the modern reader. It probably means ‘soused’ which has two meanings in modern English, both ‘soaked’ and ‘preserved’ in salted water or ‘pickled’ in vinegar, as in ‘soused herrings’. When we work out that gurnet may mean ‘gherkin’, we begin to make some sense of the phrase. The policy of modernising the spelling and punctuation of old texts which began with the eighteenth century dictionaries has obscured the regional spellings which still existed from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century and the gradual development of a recognisably standard form of spelling in English. Shakespeare, for example, was from Stratford, literally at the crossroads of these dialects, which also explains, in part, his lexical variety. However, few of his plays were printed and published during his lifetime, since they were first written to be performed rather than read. So while the original spellings of Chaucer’s ME manuscripts of 1390s survive into printed text, those of Shakespeare’s manuscripts in the Early Modern English of the 1590s do not. All printed versions of old texts compromise in reproducing the originals, but original handwritten scripts and facsimiles are often difficult to decipher.

The most important change in manuscripts from OE to ME, for example in The Peterborough Chronicle, is found in the absence of many of the inflections of OE, mainly by their reduction in sound. This led to a greater reliance on word order and the more frequent use of prepositions to show the meanings that might formerly have been conveyed by suffixes. The word-for-word translation of the entry for 1137, written in 1154, reveals this transitional phase:

I ne can ne I ne can tell all the

horrors ne all the pains that they caused wretched-men in this land… that lasted the nineteen winters while Stephen was king… ever it were worse and worse…

…then was the corn dear… flesh and cheese and butter… for none ne was in the land…

Wretched-men died of hunger…

…where so one tilled… the earth ne born no corn… for the land was all ruined… with such deeds… they said openly that christ slept and his saints…

Such and more than we can say… we suffered nineteen winters for our sins.

Another noticeable change was the inclusion of a small number of words, significant in their frequency, which were adopted from ‘Anglo-Norman’, the form of Old Northern French spoken by the Normans in England. Most typical are words like castel and prison, but other words which seem to have been adopted into English by the late twelfth century include:

Abbat, capelain, cancelere, cardinal, clerc, cuntesse, curt, duc, iustice, legat, market, prior, rent, serfise, tresor.

(abbot, chaplain, chancellor,… clerk, countess, court, duke, justice, legate,… service, treasure.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of these words were either part of the lexis of administration and law, conducted mainly in Norman French, or that of the Church, conducted in a mixture of Latin and French. Another important source for the shift in the language after 1150 is the book called Ormulum, written by an Anglo-Danish monk named Orm. At the beginning of his book, he explains why he wrote it:

This book is called Ormulum… Because Orm it wrought… (= made)

I have turned into English… (The) gospel’s holy lore… After that little wit that me… My Lord has lent…

(Word-for-word translation)

Orm goes on to tell future readers, and to warn future scribes, that he had attempted to write correctly every letter and word in English. Not surprisingly therefore, his spelling is consistent and represents a conscious attempt to reform the system of recording sounds, relating each sound to a symbol. For example, he introduced three symbols for ‘g’ to differentiate the three sounds that it had come to represent, and substitutes ‘wh’ for ‘hw’ in OE, providing forerunners of ‘who’, ‘whose’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘why’ and ‘when’ in Modern English, and ‘sh’ for ‘sc’ in OE, providing ‘shall’ for ‘sceal’ and ‘Englissh’ for ‘Englisc’. In word-for-word translation, here is an extract from Orm’s rendering of Luke’s nativity verses concerning the appearance of the angel to the shepherds:

An angel came from heaven’s land… in a man’s form…

To shepherds there where they that night… watched their folds.

The angel came and stood them by… with heaven’s light and brightness…

And immediately as they saw him… they became very afraid.

And God’s angel them began… to comfort and to encourage…

And said to them thus on God’s behalf… with very mild speech…

Ne be ye not afraid of me… but be ye very blithe …

For to-you is born now today… saviour of our sins…

A child that is Jesus Christ… that know ye for truth …

Ye shall find a child… in swaddling-clothes wound…

And it is in a crib laid… and there ye it may find.


And soon at once they went forth… to Bethlehem’s city…

And found Saint Mary there… and Joseph her husband…

And also they found there the child… where it was laid in crib …

And soon at once they made-known forth… among Jewish nation…

All that they had heard of Christ… and saw well with eyes.


And our lady Mary took… all that she saw and heard …

And laid it all together always… in very thoughtful heart…

All that she saw and heard of Christ… whose mother she was become.


Above:  The original text of  The Shepherds at the Manger, Ormulum, late twelfth century

Orm’s twenty thousand or so lines of verse are important evidence for some of the changes in the language that had taken effect by the end of the twelfth century in his part of the country. He lived in northern Lincolnshire, now South Humberside, so he wrote in the East Mercian dialect, like the authors of the Peterborough Chronicle continuations. His main objective was to teach the Christian faith in English, and the verses were to be read aloud. His system of spelling was therefore designed to help the reader to pronounce the texts properly. What is especially noticeable is the number of letters he wrote as double consonants. His lines, however, are not great literature, since according to his purpose, they are absolutely regular in metre and therefore monotonous. He is therefore often overlooked even in the limited canon of ME literature, though his writing is very valuable to students of the language.

All present-day dialects of English, including the regional accents in which Standard English may be spoken, can be traced back to the dialects of the ME period (c. 1150-1450) in their pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. There was no standard form of the language then, and the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation varied from one part of the country to another, even within distances of twenty miles. Differences in spelling, punctuation, vocabulary and grammar in manuscripts are first-hand evidence of varied usages and forms of pronunciation, and of the changes which took effect over the period. When this evidence is examined systematically, knowledge of the probable dialectal region in which a text was written can be deduced.


Geoffrey Chaucer, writing in the 1390s in the southern Mercian, or London dialect, used the new form of subject pronoun, which by his time had been ‘borrowed’ by the Northern dialect of ME from ON and had spread southwards, but did not become completely assimilated into the Southern dialect until the beginning of the fifteenth century:

And thus they being accorded and ysworn

However, he used the older forms for the object and possessive, as in:

And many a lovely look on hem he caste

Men sholde wedden after hir estaat

The vocabulary of the northern text, Cursor Mundi contains a number of words derived from OE. It was written in the North of England in the last quarter of the thirteenth century. It consists of thirty thousand lines of verse, retelling Christian legends and Bible stories. The following couplet is one indicator of its Northern origins. In the ME original, wrong (in the southern Mercian dialect used later by Chaucer), is ‘wrang’, loth is ‘lath’ and ‘angry’ is ‘wrath’, all three retaining the long /a:/ vowel:

Wrong-doing is loth to hear of justice

And pride is angry with humility

An example of the East Midlands dialect in ME from the thirteenth century worth examining is the only surviving manuscript of the medieval Bestiary, which was based on the belief the animal and plant world was symbolic of religious truths – the creatures of this sensible world signify the invisible things of God. Later scientific knowledge revealed that some of these things were not true of the real animals described, while other animals, like the unicorn, phoenix and basilisk are purely imaginary, the stuff of myths, legends and Harry Potter books! Here is the description of the eagle’s flight in modern word-for-word translation:

Show I wish the eagle’s nature…

How he renews his youth

How he comes out of old age

When his limbs are weak

When his beak is completely twisted

When his flight is all weak

And his eyes dim…


A spring he seeks that flows always

Both by night and by day

Thereover he flies and up he goes

Till that he the heaven sees

Through clouds six and seven

Till he comes to heaven.

As directly as he can

He hovers in the sun.


The sun scorches all his wings

And also it makes his eyes bright.

His feathers fall because of the heat

And he down then to the water …

Falls in the well bottom

Where he becomes hale and sound

And comes out all new …

The variety of ME can be seen in that there were many possible spellings for the same word, according to the period and the dialectal area in which a particular manuscript was copied. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary has the following twenty-seven spellings for ‘shield’ from Old English to Modern English:

scild, scyld, sceld, seld, sseld, sheld, cheld, scheld, sceild, scheeld, cheeld, schuld, scelde, schulde, schylde, shilde, schelde, sheeld, schield, childe, scheild, shild, shylde, sheelde, schielde, sheild, shield.



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