III The long seventeenth century

Languages and regional varieties

Sixteenth-century lexicographers tended not to make lists exclusively of words confined to one of the regions in which a given language was spoken, and there was a reason for this. The distinctive vocabulary of a regional variety of a language can only be conveniently isolated when there is a supraregional standard to which it can be compared: ‘standards, by inviting comparison of linguistic forms, enable conceptualization of non-standard varieties’.[1] Such a standard developed very early in China, and so it is that the poet and scholar Yang Hsiung compiled a 9000-character dictionary of regionalisms called Fang Yen 2000 years ago (he died in 18 ad). Not all the language varieties on which he drew were strictly Chinese, but they could all be seen as contrasting with a standard Chinese.[2] But such standards developed much later in Europe. So it was that the dialect lexicography of European languages began 1500 years after Yang Hsiung, and only took the form of free-standing wordlists in the seventeenth century.

Medieval people were certainly aware that a given language might be spoken differently in different regions. In the case of English, for instance, the historian William of Malmesbury observed as early as the 1120s or 1130s that ‘the whole language of the Northumbrians, particularly in York, is so inharmonious and uncouth that we southerners can make nothing of it.[3] This was evidently intended as a statement about two kinds of English: there would have been no need to point out that the language spoken in York was incomprehensible if William had regarded it as actually being a foreign language. William’s words were quoted and expanded upon in a fourteenth-century universal chronicle, the Polychronicon of Ranulph Higden, with the suggestion that contact with other languages such as Norse had led to the presence of ‘foreign chatterings and babblings’ in some varieties of English.[4] The translation of Higden into Middle English by John Trevisa, completed in 1387, expands this further: ‘som vse?> straunge wlafferynge, chiterynge, harrynge, and garrynge grisbayting’ (‘some use strange stammering, chattering, snarling, and grating gnashing of the teeth’).[5] Less impressionistically, fifteenth-century English wordlists sometimes note that a given word is characteristic of one region.[6] The same sort of awareness existed elsewhere, for instance in France, where the difference between French and Occitan was recognized in the eleventh century, and regional division within French was recognized by the thirteenth.[7] But this awareness of difference was a very different matter from identifying the usage of a particular region as an object which could be studied in its own right, and could be documented with respect to its contrast with a national standard.

The question of whether the usage of a given region is best regarded as a variety of a more widely spoken language or as a separate language in its own right is often difficult. In 1605, with the manuscript of Joseph Justus Scaliger’s powerful classification of the languages of Europe before him, the cosmographer Paullus Merula would reflect sceptically on claims about multilingualism such as the identification of Mithridates of Pontus as having spoken twenty-two languages: if one speaks French, he suggested, then of course one speaks Italian and Spanish; if one speaks German, then of course one speaks its innumerable varieties such as Dutch; if one speaks English, one speaks Scots as well. According to Merula, someone who knows these seven varieties knows three languages.[8] His contemporaries would have been more willing to accept the point about English and Scots than the points about the Romance languages and German, as would many of our contemporaries. But whatever their judgements in particular cases, many of them would have agreed that the distinction between distinct regional languages on the one hand and regional varieties of widely spoken languages on the other was sometimes difficult to make, and some of them, as we shall see in the following chapters, made wordlists of both.

The first significant lexicographical record of English regional vocabulary belongs to the sixteenth century, in other words to the first century in which a standard supra- regional variety was clearly emerging. Unlike Yang Hsiung’s Fang Yen, however, it is oriented towards the past, being dispersed in a pioneering dictionary of Old English, the ‘Vocabularium saxonicum’ of Lawrence Nowell, which was compiled in the years before Nowell’s disappearance in 1567. Nowell came from Lancashire, in the northwest of England, and noted in 173 of the entries in his dictionary that a given Old English form had a reflex which was in use in Lancashire but was not part of the standard language.[9] The point that regional usage might preserve old words which had not survived in general use is not entirely obvious: the Anglo-Dutch antiquary Richard Verstegan made the opposite argument in 1605, claiming that the oldest words were those in the most general use (likewise, modern reconstructions ofProto-Indo-European are based on evidence in multiple attested languages).[10] This appears, however, to have been a minority position in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where we find a number of references to the survival of early stages of a language on the outer geographical margins, or the lower social ones, of its use. For instance, the Anglo-Saxonist William Lisle remarked before 1637 that he saw vestiges of early English surviving in Scots.[11] Likewise, Gilles Menage wrote in the dedicatory epistle of his Origines de la langue frangoise of 1650 that the etymologist must study ‘the language of peasants, among whom languages are preserved for longer’.[12] Along the same lines, before 1667, the physician Stephen Skinner drew on Lincolnshire usage in his etymological dictionary of English.[13] He identified a number of Lincolnshire words, such as adle earn’, blink ‘make beer a little sour’, hack ‘rack for fodder, and shan ‘disgrace! Amper ‘swelling’ he identified as Essex usage, barken ‘farmyard’ as Wiltshire, and nesh ‘somewhat delicate’ as Worcestershire. This was the most thorough account of English regionalisms which had been undertaken in any dictionary, and once again, its object was historical. Indeed, in his observation that Scandinavian words were more common in northern and eastern English than elsewhere, and that this corresponded to the distribution of Danish settlements in Anglo-Saxon England, Skinner helped to open up the field of historical dialect geography.[14] Before 1671, the Irish antiquary Dubhaltach Og Mac Fhirbhisigh (Duald MacFirbis) judged that ‘there was not one word so obscure in Ir[ish] MSS. but was usualy practised in som corner of Ir[eland] or Scotljand],[15] To give one last example, in 1686, the poet and jurist Johann Ludwig Prasch wrote that highly civilized people adopt new words readily,

but the local market, the inns, the remote dwellings and backwoods, which neither want nor receive far-fetched embellishment, have retained much from the ancients. Here the original Germania lies hidden; in these slag-heaps the remains of ancient gold are still present.[16]

We shall meet Prasch again in the course of this book. The first maker of regional wordlists to whom we shall turn, however, is the English naturalist and theologian John Ray, who was the first person to compile a dictionary which surveyed all the regional varieties of a European language. As we shall see, his interests were not primarily antiquarian or etymological: for him, dialect words could be studied in almost the same way as locally occurring flora.

  • [1] Machan, English in the Middle Ages 98. 2 Harbsmeier, Language and Logic 76-7.
  • [2] 3 William ofMalmesbury, Gestapontificum (2007) 1: 326 (lib. iii cap. 99.4), ‘tota lingua Nordanhimbrorum,
  • [3] et maxime in Eboraco, ita inconditum stridet ut nichil nos australes intelligere possimus’; translationibid. 1: 327.
  • [4] Higden, Polychronicon (1865-1886) 2: 158 (lib. i cap. lix), ‘peregrinos . . . boatus et garritus’.
  • [5] Higden, Polychronicon (1865-1886) 2: 158; Modern English translation from Corrie, ‘Middle English’ 116.
  • [6] Stein, ‘Emergence of lexicology’ 31.
  • [7] Lodge, French: From Dialect to Standard 96-8; for the low proportion of the early modern populationwho actually spoke standard French, see ibid. 192-206.
  • [8] Merula, Cosmographia 209, ‘Callens Hebraeam, Graecam, Latinam, sum Trilinguis . . . accedenteGermanica, etiam cum infinitis suis Dialectis, inter quas Belgica, quatuor vere teneo: si comitenturGallica, Italica, Hispanica, quinque; quod qui unam, reliquas fere noverit, juvante praecipua Latina: quumdenique nec Anglica nec Scotica desint, quod haec ab illa parum abeat; sex’ Cf. Scaliger, ‘Europaeorumlinguae’ 272.
  • [9] Marckwardt, ‘Unnoted source of English dialect vocabulary’; see also Considine, Dictionaries in EarlyModern Europe 167-8.
  • [10] Verstegan, Restitution 197.
  • [11] See Considine, Dictionaries in Early Modern Europe 164.
  • [12] Menage, Origines sig. e1r, ‘le langage des Paysans, parmy lesquels les Langues se conseruent pluslonguement’.
  • [13] For Skinner, see Considine, ‘Stephen Skinner’s Etymologicon, esp. 128, from which the examples aretaken.
  • [14] Skinner, Etymologicon sig. C3v.
  • [15] Reported by Roderick O’Flaherty, letter of 21 July 1704 to Edward Lhuyd, in his Letters 232-41 at 240.
  • [16] Prasch, Dissertatio de origine Germanica Latinae linguae 28, ‘Macellum tamen, tabernae, villae inac-cessae, et aspera rura, quae ornatum peregrinum nec cupiunt nec capiunt, multum a prioribus retinuere.Hic prisca latet Germania: in his scoriis resident reliquiae veteris auri.’
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