It’s Not What You Said—It’s How You Said It…

In the introduction to his new book, How Linguistics Can Help the Historian, Dr Anthony Harvey clarifies that his subject is not solely the meaning of words or their translations, but an analysis of ‘not what is expressed in a historical document but how it is expressed’. He then proceeds to wind his way through intriguing anecdotes demonstrating just how revealing this approach can be.  

My favourite of these concerns the Strasbourg Oaths, marking the new alliance between East Francia (which became Germany) and West Francia (now France). The rulers of these two nations, Ludwig I (aka Louis the Pious) and Charles II (aka Charles the Bald), declared their oaths in front of a joint gathering of their respective troops, and documents recording each king’s words still survive today.

The significance of this event hinges on the fact that at this time, in 842 CE, the East Franks spoke an early version of German, and the West Franks spoke a Romance language deriving from Latin that would go on to become modern French. The Strasbourg Oaths survive in both languages. The crux of the story is that the Romance-language document is written phonetically to represent the contemporary pronunciation of the Latin words. The result is a document written in a language that looks like something approaching French as we know it today. However, as Anthony Harvey relates, the reason for doing so is perplexing: why would anyone write this way—the equivalent of writing something like ‘gud nite’ for ‘good night’ in English? The answer is a move intended to reinforce the alliance being confirmed at the ceremony: this strangely spelled document enabled the German-speaking Ludwig to speak his oath in the language of his allies.[*]

So, in addition to its content, the way that this text was written presents invaluable evidence of the pronunciation and development of a language at a specific moment in time. It also presents us with another set of insights entirely. Here we see a nuance of political strategy that, for the modern reader, recalls John F. Kennedy’s 1963 Ich bin ein Berliner speech. In the midst of the Cold War, the American president sought to ingratiate himself with his western German listeners and allies by addressing them in their own language. Indeed, in this case too a document survives recording the words of the phrase written phonetically in order to help the American president correctly pronounce them. It seems the impact of reaching out to a foreign audience in their own language has not faded over more than a thousand years…

I was fortunate enough to have Dr Harvey as a mentor during my last postdoctoral fellowship. At the Royal Irish Academy, he is the editor of the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from Celtic Sources (DMLCS) and, along with Dr Joseph Flahive, is working to produce a complete lexicon of post-Classical Latin words found in writings of individuals in or from the Celtic-speaking territories of the Middle Ages, words that were either unique to these regions or used in distinctive ways in them. My work was not related to the dictionary itself, but I sat at my desk in my corner of our shared office working away on ninth-century manuscripts and Bible commentaries to the happy background hum of a dictionary in progress.

What very quickly became clear to me was that defining the meanings of new words and of words used in new ways in a distant historical context is a particularly challenging and complex job requiring an impressive amount of detective work. Sometimes the task is to identify the nuanced meaning of a word appearing in a new context with only one example to work from! In these cases in particular, where there is a limited amount of evidence, it becomes even more vital to cast about for all the available evidence, whether it appears in other genres, periods, regions, or even languages. As Anthony himself said at the launch of this new work, ‘it is always worth bringing as many disciplines as possible to bear on any question’. The key being that, if you don’t have the knowledge yourself, the mission becomes to find someone who does and to post the question to them!

In observing and occasionally participating in the detective work that is the building of a dictionary, perhaps the greatest benefit to me was witnessing the level of precision that goes into first deciphering and then expressing in English the meaning of each dictionary entry. In fact, my favourite piece of advice from Anthony addressed precisely that: the imprecision of my own writing. Continuing with this post’s theme of ‘it’s not what you said—it’s how you said it’, the piece of advice that continues to adorn my office wall is ‘It is simply a question of paying as much attention to the detail of how you write as you already do to the detail of what you read’. Sound advice for researchers everywhere, I think. (I now self-consciously feel the need to state, as I write this, that all remaining flaws and inaccuracies are, of course, entirely my own—I’m working on it!)

While the book is eponymously directed at historians and has much to offer the academic for consideration, the nature of the examples and Anthony’s engaging narrative are such that it is undoubtedly of great general interest. An aspect that I particularly appreciate is that it does not shy away from providing the Latin text where it is integral to an example—accompanied by an English translation of course. By including the text, rather than just the words central to the discussion, Anthony offers readers the opportunity to investigate it themselves. As the approach offered by TCD’s Tabella online Latin course demonstrates, with a bit of imagination and a few words from a dictionary, readers may find that they can muddle through more of the Latin than they think. 

Although this is tangential to the content of the book, it is very much in the spirit of it, I think: to encourage people to explore with a keen eye all of the available evidence that words, ancient and modern, offer us in search of a better understanding of the past.

[*] A more detailed linguistic discussion of this phenomenon can be found in Wright, R. (1982) Late Latin and early Romance: in Spain and Carolingian France. Liverpool: Cairns (ARCA, 8).

Sarah Corrigan

Dr Sarah Corrigan is a postdoctoral researcher on Dr Jacopo Bisagni's Ireland and Carolingian Brittany: Texts and Transmission IRC Laureate project, working on biblical exegesis in early medieval Brittany.