Tag Archives: literacy

On the Chancery Standard

And here is a second new entry for the HEL Timeline. Both of these have been exercises in wandering down some new byways: if you have any comments, please append them!

The Chancery (the office of the chancellor) had existed for at least a century and a half before this, but in 1377 a house was officially deeded to the Keeper of the Rolls to house the rolls and the business of keeping these official records. It stayed there until the PRO was built on the site between 1845 and 1895. The “Chancery English” that the office used–though it was variable–can be used as a bellwether for the later medieval development of English. What was the Chancery, and what does its use of English show us?

As deadening as it can be to read, the language of bureaucracy is the language of state (and, today, corporate) power. The growth of the Chancery signifies how English rises from being the third-rate language of the hoi-polloi to attain this status. As Fisher explains, “until the end of the fifteenth century, Chancery comprises virtually all of the national bureaucracy in England except the closely allied Exchequer [that managed the treasury]” (39). Its language came to define the parameters of royal power, including all judiciary functions and those later defined by various offices that answered to the King:

As custodian of the Great Seal, it was the central agency for the administration both of justice and of national affairs. . . . A mass of written petitions to the King and Council for letters of remedy and grants of land and money passed through the Chancery annually [along with] the ensealed writs and charters issued in response to these petitions. . . . The clerks . . . issued the summonses that brought parliaments together and the writs of expenses that sent knights and burgesses home with proof of their claims for wages. Chancery clerks both wrote and received petitions to Parliament and classified and presented them to the magnates who were the “triers” of petitions. They kept the rolls which recorded the proceedings of Parliament and drafted and enrolled the statutes that emerged from these proceedings. Chancery was likewise responsible for the administration of customs, taxes, and subsidies (since these derived from Parliament). All of the most important administrative officials looked to the Chancellor for their commissions of appointment and for authorizations for the most important actions. (42)

In 1400, there were about 120 clerks who worked in the Chancery (43). Documents issued by the Office of the Privy Seal were also copied by the Chancery–which is interesting because that is where Thomas Hoccleve, literary disciple of Chaucer, worked from 1387 until 1425. Hoccleve, after he retired, wrote a Formulary, a book of templates that clerks might use to construct documents.

Since it assumes such importance, its worth noting when and where English appears in it, and the Rolls of Parliament (the Rotuli Parliamentorum), scribed by the Chancery, “may be taken as a yardstick against which to measure the evolution of Chancery Standard” (46). They tell us that Parliament was first addressed in English in 1362, and that it was opened in English in 1363, 1364, and 1381. The first entry written in English was in 1388 for a petition by the Mercer’s Guild; after that, English entries appear in 1397, 1399, 1403, 1404, 1405, 1411, 1414 (twice), and 1421 (twice). After 1422, the accession of Henry VI, English entries become more frequent, and are the rule by 1450 (45-46).

A 2002 essay by Michael Benskin indicates problems with Fisher’s argument, showing that Chancery English in fact varied quite a bit, and that the line between Chancery English and PDE is not as clear as Fisher depicts; the models that fifteenth-century writers looked to did vary (there were regional models, for instance). But it remains true that the Chancery’s use of English provides a measure of the later medieval move away from French and Latin, and the corresponding recognition of the textual (and oral) ability of English to articulate and sustain the mechanisms of power.

See: Fisher, ch. 2, “A Language Policy for England”; Knowles 53-54; Crystal, CEEL 41, 54; Lerer, Inventing English ch. 8; Marilyn Corrie, “Middle English-Dialects and Diversity,” esp. 111-114, in Mugglestone (who cites Benskin’s essay). For copies of the texts, see John Fisher, Malcolm Richardson, and Jane L. Fisher, An Anthology of Chancery English (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1984), though its introduction is superseded by his chapter cited above. On Hoccleve, see Fisher 33-34, and Ethan Knapp, The Bureaucratic Muse (University Park: Penn State UP, 2001), esp. 29-36 on the Formulary.

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On Paying for The New York Times

According to a recent Gizmodo post, there are ways around the soon-to-be-up-in-the-US paywall. I’d note this bit of the post:

The trick here is that any home delivery package includes a full digital subscription. And—conveniently enough—a Monday-Friday home delivery costs you just $3.70/week for the first 84 days, or $14.80/month. That’s less than the cheapest digital plan, and gives you unlimited web, phone, and iPad access.

It depends on where you live; buying just the Sunday paper might cost less. I hate to sound like a commercial, but I believe strongly that there are things worth paying for. This is a great deal–some paper access and all digital access for on-line searches, some of the most fantastic graphics to illustrate the news anywhere on the web (look at these and these about the earthquake and tsunami), and full use of archival tools like the Times Topics.

And you get the print version. On-line is nice, but it does sacrifice at least some of the virtue of serendipity: I at least find that when I read the print version, with full articles in front of me rather than headlines to click on, that I’m much more likely to dip into them than when I just glance over headlines to choose among. I read more and learn more.

This kind of browsing is an example of how patterns of web literacy do differ from patterns of print literacy. A long time ago at the beginning of the internet explosion I remember professors assigning M. Kadi’s article “The Internet is Four Inches Tall,” which punctured the notion that news (and, at the time, the popular use of usenet groups) on the internet would somehow liberate us to read all sorts of diverse points of view–when in fact all it does is to allow us to more solidly confirm what we already know:

J. Individual has now joined the electronic community. Surfed the Net. Found some friends. . . . Traveled the Information Highway and, just off to the left of that great Infobahn, J. Individual has settled into an electronic suburb.

Now, this argument has been debated; here is a much more recent discussion of it. [UPDATE: and here’s another report about a similar point: “Anti-Social Networks? We’re Just As Cliquey Online.”]. One recent fascinating modification of this thesis (I’m relying on reviews here, since I’ve not yet read the book) is in MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s recent Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, in which, according to a recent review, she argues that isolation is a result of how we anthropomorphize technology:

even as more and more people are projecting human qualities onto robots . . . we have come to expect less and less from human encounters as mediated by the Net. Instead of real friends, we “friend” strangers on Facebook. Instead of talking on the phone (never mind face to face), we text and tweet. Technology, she writes, “makes it easy to communicate when we wish and to disengage at will.”

In another review which traces the history of Turkle’s thought about the internet, she was not once so pessimistic. (For a great interview with her, see her on Frontline’s “Digital Nation.”)

It’d be very hard to retain any optimism if The New York Times goes under. It’s cheap, and you’ll be helping one of the greatest papers in the world, with some of the best reporting in the world, to stay afloat.

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Inviting Linguistic Colonization?

This New York Times story today, out of Georgia, becomes an interesting twist on a fight to assert (linguistic) independence. Russia has been the colonial authority in Georgia for decades, and as in many other former Soviet satellites, Russian generations ago became the de facto language of power:

During the Soviet era, the Communists used the Russian language to bind the nation’s far-flung regions, requiring it as the second — and sometimes primary — language from Estonia to Uzbekistan. But since the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago, many of the former Soviet republics have elevated their own languages and marginalized Russian in order to bolster their independence and national identities.

The influence of Russian is retreating. Rather than seek to assert Georgian, however–the most spoken language in the country–Georgia has instead sought English teachers to help to replace Russian:

The goal is to make Georgia a country where English is as common as in Sweden — and in the process to supplant Russian as the dominant second language. . . . Many Georgians older than 40 readily speak Russian, while the young people who have come of age under Mr. Saakashvili are often more interested in English. The government is intent on hastening that trend.

Certainly, especially after the 2008 conflict, problems more directly worrisome than linguistic influence are at stake in the relationship with Russia. The interesting thing about English here, though, is that it seems to be culturally neutral, or culturally malleable to this country’s circumstances, or perhaps even culturally inert–that is, it’s just a tool, not a constellation of cultural influences. The key is its ability to provide economic mobility: it can help to pry off Russian influence and open up economic independence.

I would ask further questions, though, as a student of how language and culture interact: what kind of cultural accessories do the Georgians imagine traveling with English (if any?) Is it a desired cultural influence? (The positive reaction of students to teachers might make one think so–here are some stories by teachers there.) Or is a political balance being struck–so that the key is not precisely the desired influence of English, but just to mitigate the legacy of Russian?

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On Language Murder

I posted last month about a dying language, and the problem of language death.

Well, it’s not just in the far reaches of northern India that they’re dying, or in the refugee communities of modern cities. We are also killing them off in our universities. The problem is not that a language will die (this is not really a problem for French or German), but the value our culture places on the ability to think in other languages–and, correspondingly, all that travels with this loss, among which one might list brain plasticity; a growth in political, economic, and cultural parochialism; and specifically for scholars of literature, a lack of understanding that the metaphors we think by, often subconsciously, are culturally contingent.

I have two connections to this here. The first is to commentary on the death of the language programs at SUNY Albany: here is commentary from the Chronicle (7 Nov. 2010), and here is commentary by Stanley Fish from The New York Times.

Second, here is a blog post by David Crystal mentioning two plays about endangered languages: one by Kamarra Bell Wykes called The Mother’s Tongue, and a second by Julia Cho entitled The Language Archive.

This is rapidly developing into a syllabus for a course on the subject. Does anyone know of a course (or a part of a course) that has made this a focus?

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The First Alphabets

A new exhibit at the Oriental Institute in Chicago is called “Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond”; here is a discussion by The New York Times. According to the review,

The show demonstrates that, contrary to the long-held belief that writing spread from east to west, Sumerian cuneiform and its derivatives and Egyptian hieroglyphics evolved separately from each another. And those writing systems were but two of the ancient forms of writing that evolved independently. Over a span of two millenniums, two other powerful civilizations — the Chinese and Mayans — also identified and met a need for written communication. Writing came to China as early as around 1200 B.C. and to the Maya in Mesoamerica long before A.D. 500.

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On plagiarism

There’s a lot more to be said about this. I’ve written about this before. An article today in The New York Times discusses more implications:

[Susan D. Blum] in the book My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture . . . argued that student writing exhibits some of the same qualities of pastiche that drive other creative endeavors today — TV shows that constantly reference other shows or rap music that samples from earlier songs. . . . She contends that undergraduates are less interested in cultivating a unique and authentic identity — as their 1960s counterparts were — than in trying on many different personas, which the Web enables with social networking.

There’s much to say about what cut-and-paste plagiarism reveals, for instance, about memory and learning: if the web becomes the repository of information–which we preserve in browser bookmarks, or applications such as Evernote or Instapaper–we don’t just find it convenient, but need to use the web to write, since we’ve outsourced our memory to the apps we use to recollect our tracks through it.

The web may also very well be ruining our attention spans; Henry James takes time and patience. Perhaps we have lost much–look back at High Fidelity, for instance, for a glimpse of the creative mixed tape before the advent of iPods and Pandora. This argument (and I think it’s a valid one), though, has the disadvantage of only looking back; we will not return to a pre-web world.

And I’m not sure that what is happening here is entirely a new thing. I’ve often noticed how pastiche can define poor student writing, but that’s not new. Is not the self-made mixed tape also pastiche–made out of listening, as Rob Gordon says, to thousands of songs about heartbreak that we inevitably use to define how we react to heartbreak? Have we not always sampled from models to script how we are supposed to act as teachers, or students, as parents, when we drink [“Anthropologists Craig MacAndrew and Robert B. Edgerton observed, ‘Persons learn about drunkenness what their societies import to them, and comporting themselves in consonance with these understandings, they become living confirmations of their society’s teachings'”], on our wedding day, or at a funeral?

I’m not entirely convinced that the struggle to create an original, uninterpellated self is much different than it ever was. I would not disagree, however, that omnipresent, easily accessible media and text has certainly made it much, much harder. Yet again: isn’t this search much of what literature is about? Perhaps that’s the challenge we face now as teachers of literature–to continue to show how stories define this search?

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Persuasive and Public Writing

Another blog from my department is here. Its writer, Neil Cosgrove, is especially interested in the rhetoric of public discourse and argument, the language of the public sphere. Much of the blog, then, is about the social contexts in which writers work, inside and outside of classroom. The posts are substantial; please take the time to read and contribute.

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