Research in Focus: Mareike Keller

Over a series of blogs we have been learning about the research of our members and others whose research is pertinent to the network’s ambitions. This month we hear from  network member Mareike Keller, of the University of Mannheim in Germany


Mixing languages in medieval England

In a bilingual community you can often observe speakers using both their languages in the same conversation. They may switch back and forth between sentences, between words, and sometimes even within one word. Maybe, if you are fluent in more than one language, you do this yourself, or you have heard bilinguals around you talk to each other like this:

Why make Carol SENTARSE ATRAS PA’QUE everybody has to move PA’ SE SALGA?

Why make Carola sit in the back so everybody has to move for her to get out?

(adapted from Poplack 1980: 589)

In linguistics this kind of language mixing is most often referred to as code-switching. You might be tempted to think that code-switching is a recent development, maybe related to our increasingly multicultural societies. However, this is not so: we have documents from different historical periods and countries showing that code-switching was also practised many centuries ago.

Mareike Keller image for MEMC blg entry

Writing, of course, is different from speaking – but in historical linguistics, written evidence is the only evidence we have. And some of it is closely related to speech, for example sermons written down in Latin and Middle English, which were most probably also intended for preaching to a bilingual congregation. The question that interests me most concerns the differences and even more the similarities between modern and historical code-switching. After about forty years of careful observation of conversations and writing in modern bilingual communities, it is clear now that code-switching is not random, and that there are rules, just as there are for any language. There is no agreement yet on what exactly these rules are, but the most frequent mixing patterns that linguists have discovered hold as well for written texts from 500 years ago.

Just as in modern code-switching, we find that single words can be adapted to the grammar of the language they are inserted to (1), or they can appear as bare forms (2), without any grammatical marking. And we find that, like modern code-switchers, people in the middle ages did not only use words from another language because they had no good word available in the language they were using for the rest of the sentence (3).

(1)        emenda tuum CLOCK-um

             correct your clock

(2)        tuum CLOCK false vadit

             your clock moves incorrectly

(3)        rota huius HOROLOGII est tua miserablilis vita

             the cogwheel of this clock is your miserable life

             (MS Bodley 649, folio 3)

We know that languages themselves are constantly changing. And if you are not a trained medievalist, it might be difficult for you to understand a text that was written in the middle ages. The words and the grammar have changed so much that it needs some practice to read a Middle English text, even though it is, in fact, English. This makes it even more surprising that, from a linguistic point of view, the way languages are mixed together seems to have remained unchanged. In the light of this observation, the current goal of my research project is to describe the grammar of code-switching across time, establishing one more link between multilingual speakers in medieval England and multilingual speakers today.

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