Research in Focus: Peter Stokes

Over a series of blogs we’ve been learning about the research of our members and other whose research is pertinent to the network’s ambitions. This month we hear from Peter Stokes of King’s College London.

Multilinguism – Multigraphism

My focus is a little different from that of most of the other members of the network. Rather than focusing on multilingualism, namely the use of different languages in a given culture, my research is on multigraphism, that is, one culture using different styles of writing or even entirely different alphabets. This is common in today’s multicultural society: if you look at street signs or newspapers in different areas of large cities, you might find writing in the Latin alphabet (used for English and most other Western European languages) but also in Chinese, or Japanese; in some countries you can find Cyrillic and Latin alongside each other; or you might see Hebrew and Arabic; Greek and Latin; and so on. However, this is not a new phenomenon. Multiculturalism is as old as human culture itself, and examples of multigraphism can be found throughout history as well:

  • We find Greek, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew being used together in places like medieval Sicily, such as the famous quadrilingual tombstone from Palermo discussed and illustrated here.
  • We find manuscripts in Greek, Latin and Hebrew written possibly in France as shown here; this particular manuscript is also discussed in an article by Judith Olszowy-Schlanger and Patricia Stirneman.
  • We find many different mixes of writing systems in the materials from Dunhuang, where many different people met along the Silk Road. Examples are available from the International Dunhuang Project, where you can search for manuscripts by language.
  • There are manuscripts in Hebrew and Chinese from the Kaifeng Jewish community in Henan province, China, for instance Ohio, Hebrew Union College MS 926 or the Chinese Torah discussed in a blog post from the British Library.

I could go on. In fact, just like multilingualism, once we start looking for multigraphism, we find it everywhere.

It raises lots of interesting questions, too. As a palaeographer, my research is in the history and development of handwriting. I am interested in questions like these:

  • Why are letters shaped the way that they are? When did different alphabets and different styles of writing develop? How can we use that to help understand where and when a given document was written?
  • Why do different cultures use different alphabets or writing systems? What do these choices tell us about these people, their beliefs and their interactions with other cultures?
  • Is it possible to tell from somebody’s handwriting whether that person learned to write first in Chinese or in Mongolian? In Latin or in Devanagari? (There’s a very interesting video addressing this last case for typefaces here.)
  • Is it possible to detect ‘accents’ in people’s handwriting, in the way that we can in their spoken or even written language?

Why are these interesting questions? Because they allow us to learn new things about history, and, most importanty, because they tell us about ourselves. Writing is everywhere, whether in books or newspapers, on street signs or on food packaging, on our phones or on our computers. It’s fundamental to much of our communication, and most of what we know about history, but also the way that we write influences what and how we communicate, and it also says things about us. The style of writing I use is partly based on where and when I learned to write, but it also has a political element as something like German Blackletter shows.

To give an example, look at this sample of a manuscript:

Cambridge, Trinity College, O.2.41, 87r (detail). See the full manuscript online here.
This image is copyright the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Licence.

As a palaeographer, I can see immediately that the style of writing here is very distinctive and was used only around the end of the eleventh or start of the twelfth century. I can also see that it is particular to people who learned to write in England. In fact, the sample shows writing in two different languages, Latin and Old English. This is what it says, if I transcribe it into modern type:

hit gesealde ædgare cyninge un besacan eal
swa hit his yldron ær mid feo gebohten
and se fore specena cyningc hit gesealde go-
de and s’c’e Æðeldriðe his saule to alysetnesse.
Anno d’nicȩ incarnationis n’gentesimo septua-
gesimo sc’ipta e’ hȩc carta his testib’ consentienti-
bus quor’ inferius nomina caraxantur.
Ego Eadgar rex p’fatam donacione’ concessi.
Ego Dunstan dorou’nensis ȩccl’ȩ archiep’s c’signaui.

If you look carefully, you can probably make out the letters from Anno d’nicȩ onwards fairly easily. However, notice that in the first four lines, the scribe wrote some letters in a different way compared to the last five lines. For instance, compare the s in gesealde (line 1) with the one in incarnationis (line 5). Similarly, the r in ædgare (line 1) is very different to the way we write this letter today, whereas the one in incarnationis is very familiar to us. There are several other letters that change in this way: look in particular at the different shapes of d, g, f, and h (you will have to look closely for this last one!).

There is also another difference between the two parts. Look closely at the spaces between the words and between letters. Notice that the words in the first four lines have very large spaces compared to the second part. Notice also that these four lines are less regular and consistent in the spacing. In fact the scribe who wrote this also put some spaces in the wrong places (gesealde is written as ges ealde in line 1, for example). But again these irregularities and errors in spacing are all confined to the first four lines.

So, what does this tell us? One possibility is that the sample was written by two different people, with the first four lines by one person, perhaps not a very experienced scribe, and the rest by someone else. However, the details of the script are too consistent, and it seems clear to me that only one person was involved. How do we explain this division, then? Well, there is another aspect here: language. As mentioned above, the first four lines are in Old English, and the rest are in Latin. And I’ve told you already that this was written in England early in the twelfth century. In this period it was normal to use different forms of some letters depending on the language, using one set of letter-shapes for English and another for Latin. This scribe has followed this principle very closely. However, it seems clear to me that the scribe was familiar with writing Latin but not very comfortable writing English. I think the irregularity and problems of spacing in the English are because the scribe was writing slowly and was not sure about the text, stopping often to check, and not really able to remember even short phrases, whereas the Latin seems much more fluent. So we have a scribe, in England, early in the twelfth century, happy writing Latin but not happy writing English, maybe not even understanding English very well, but who knew the English style of writing. This seems very likely to be an Anglo-Norman monk, then, and we figured all this out just from this little bit of handwriting. That’s detective work for you!

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