Tag Archive | Chaucer

‘A Clateryng of Knokkes’: Multimodality and Performativity in “The Blacksmith’s Lament”

Medieval SoundEach of the essays in this month’s “Medieval Sound” forum focuses on sound as it, according to Steve Goodman’s essay “The Ontology of Vibrational Force,” in The Sound Studies Reader“comes to the rescue of thought rather than the inverse, forcing it to vibrate, loosening up its organized or petrified body (70).  These investigations into medieval sound lend themselves to a variety of presentation methods loosening up the “petrified body” of academic presentation. Each essay challenges concepts of how to hear the Middle Ages and how the sounds of the Middle Ages continue to echo in our own soundscapes.

The posts in this series begins an ongoing conversation about medieval sound in Sounding Out!. Our opening gambit in April 2016, “Multimodality and Lyric Sound,” reframes how we consider the lyric from England to Spain, from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries, pushing ideas of openness, flexibility, and productive creativity. We will post several follow-ups throughout the rest of 2016 focusing on “Remediating Medieval Sound.”  And, HEAR YE!, in April 2017, look for a second series on Aural Ecologies of noise! –Guest Editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

The “Blacksmith’s Lament” is late medieval alliterative poem that rails against the disruptive, urban sounds of blacksmiths working late into the night. Catalogued by Rossell Hope Robbins in his 1955 Secular Lyrics of the XIV and XV Centuries, and now broadly anthologized, the poem is a 15th century addendum to a largely 13th century Norwich cathedral priory manuscript, now BL Arundel 292. The manuscript is comprised of Latin, French, Anglo-Norman and Middle English texts, and contains bestiaries, prayers, sermons, romances, prophecies, riddles and alliterative poems. As such, Arundel 292 might be categorized as a miscellany, what Ralph Hanna argues in “Miscellenaity and Vernacularity: Conditions of Literary Production in Late Medieval England,” is a kind of bespoke production that “represent[s] defiantly individual impulses—appropriations of works for the use of particular persons in particular situations” (37). Because each text included in a miscellany reflects one person’s desire to inscribe and compile, there are no “customary generic markers;” instead one finds a rich admixture of hands, images, texts, styles, forms, languages, and histories (Hanna 37). I argue that the inclusion of “Blacksmiths” in this miscellany is congruent with the poem’s own odd relationship to sound. In its multimodal blending of the onomatopoetic and the lyric as well as its consideration of manual labor, the “Blacksmith’s Lament” can be understood as an instantiation of specifically masculine medieval identity.

Modern medieval masculinity. Image by David Williss @Flickr CC BY.

Modern medieval masculinity. Image by David Williss @Flickr CC BY.

Multimodality, Presentism and the Medieval Miscellany

The theoretical concept of multimodality is rooted in late 20th-century critique of semiotic systems. As the New London Group argued in “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures,” “effective citizenship and productive work” in the late 20th and early 21st centuries “now require that we interact effectively using multiple languages, multiple Englishes, and communication patterns that more frequently cross cultural, community and national boundaries” and that we the best way to do so is via methods that accommodate more than mere text (62-64). This engagement with the multiple modes of text, image, and video, among others, makes multimodality an ideal critical tool with which to analyze complex, hybrid compositions.

However, many theories of multimodality privilege a historical lens primarily afforded by 20th and 21st century literacy, dependent as it is on reading and looking (at screens or pages) as opposed to listening (to human voices). Indeed, Jeff Bezemer and Gunther Kress have observed in “Writing Multimodal Texts: A Social Semiotic Account of Designs for Learning” that because images predominate in 21st-century culture, textual “writing is now no longer the central mode of representation in learning materials” (166). In short, writing and images work in tandem to educate. Yet even though they note the different modes of text and image, Bezemer and Kress do not interrogate the fact that both depend on a single sensory ability: sight. Whether or not images have supplanted printed text in pedagogical documents, this assumption of the centrality of visuality as the singular mode of representation—in learning materials and elsewhere—is itself an historical phenomenon—as Walter Ong discusses in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word—one dependent on the technology and dominance of print itself.

People do not depend only on seeing and reading text. They might also participate actively in “listening communities,” wherein one visually literate person reads aloud a text to a group who listens, ruminates over, and perhaps memorizes that text. Medieval “reading” is in fact an aural practice of recitation, memorization and listening as well as textual examination, a hybrid practice dating to the beginning of the medieval. Evidence of this hybrid practice can be found in the opening folio of Corpus Christi MS 61, which features Chaucer reciting Troilus and Criseyde to a royal audience. Studded with images and illuminations, musical notation and marginalia, medieval manuscripts often offer a complex multimodal relationship between graphics and written text, color and music, the visual and the aural.

An example of an illuminated manuscript. Image by Richard White @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

An example of an illuminated manuscript. Image by Richard White @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

Long before print or digital media, “reading” manuscripts required a sophisticated multimodal form of interpretation. Arundel 292 is minimally illuminated, but it too must be understood as a flexible, multimodal form composed for a mouth reading aloud the words on the folio page as well as a group of listeners receiving those words. It offers a heterogeneity that mixes languages, genres, images, hands and modes. Indeed, there is little about this miscellaneous manuscript that might be categorized as using exclusively what Kress defines as “formalized, monolingual, monocultural, and rule-governed forms of language,” given its multilingual, multicultural, multi-genre variety of language forms, none of which take precedence over any other.


Onomatopoeia and the Medieval Lyric

The dependence of poetry upon aural and oral performance complicates the relationship between writing, sound, the body, and the intentionality of “design,” or the deliberate visual arrangement of words, images, and ideas. Like other time-bound, performative aesthetic genres such as music, dance, or theater, poetry exists in the moment of its performance as much as it does on the fixed, static page and only peripherally occupies the written mode. Ancient poetry has been preserved by manuscript and print technology, but the roots of the genre include both oral recitation and memorization. Because it depends simultaneously upon the modes of reading, writing and recitation, both historically and into the present day, poetry might be considered quintessentially multimodal. This is particularly true for medieval poetry, given its use of sound-dependent effects such as alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, meter and rhyme.

Figure 2.

Figure 2 is BS MS Arundel 292, reproduced with permission from the British Library

Edmund Reiss has argued that “Blacksmiths” is the “earliest sustained onomatopoetic effort extant in English” in The Art of the Middle English Lyric: Essays in Criticism (167). But for an onomatopoetic poem that so carefully represents in language the sounds of men engaged in physical labor—from their “clateryng of knockes,” to the ringing exertion of iron on iron heard in “tik.tak.hic.hac.tiket.taket.tyk.tak/ lus.bus.lus.das” and the “stark strokes thei stryken on a stelyd stokke”—”Blacksmiths” is surprisingly unconcerned with its own visual appearance on the page. One turns the page in Arundel 292 and suddenly there is a neat chunk of prose with no other visual indication other than faint hashmark that one is looking at poetry. This is not unusual, for as Ardis Butterfield has recently observed in “Why Medieval Lyric?”, in many manuscripts containing lyric poetry or its traces, “there is no visual fanfare; nothing marks [the poetry] out” (322). Medieval scribes instead often use scripture continua—continuous script—to record the lyric, and “Blacksmiths” is no exception (Fig. 1). In short, “Blacksmiths” looks like prose, but sounds like poetry. Its insistent use of alliterative onomatopoeia, furthermore, suggests the poem might gain performative shape if addressed to both the mouth and the ear.

An aurally derived verbal pleasure, onomatopoeia exemplifies poetry’s general obsession with sound and performativity as it depends on the representational delight of hearing sounds that are the very things that they sound like. Onomatopoeia forces us into a strange ontological space in which a word is at once both signifier and sign. The bee buzzes, in other words; it has no other voice than the sound it creates, and we have no other way to describe that sound but to do so literally. This can produce the sounds of children’s babble as well as the more figurative pleasures found in “Blacksmiths.” The mimetic allure of using words that create the very sound of their own meaning is in many ways embedded in language itself. “Blacksmiths” calls our attention to sound, noise and listening, forcing further reflection upon the relationship between what is textually recorded and what is performed.


Blacksmithing and Masculine Poetic Labor

Salter argues persuasively in “A Complaint Against Blacksmiths” that the poem’s appearance in a priory cathedral manuscript suggests that the speaker’s resistance to blacksmithing may be the result of “older religious attitudes” about night labor and rioting (200). But given the fact that “Blacksmiths” is a poem concerned with labor likely written by a man about other men, I wonder if there is room as well for an additional consideration for the discourses of gender and labor that so consumed the late medieval period and how the poem interrogates these notions. While Salter resists categorizing the poem into any clear genre, noting that the poem is so realistic that it is frequently used as historical evidence [note], “Blacksmiths” draws attention to the lyric experiences and emotional expression of a presumably masculine first person speaker and in so doing might be categorized, as Robbins does, as a lyric.

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 5.21.10 PM

Beyond a single, reflexive pronoun, “me,” we know nothing about the poet except the evidence of his poetic making—the poem itself. In the poem, there are two literary skills at work. There is narrative exposition and description and there is onomatopoetic mimicry. Both are dependent on verbal artistry and are held together by the tensile patternings of alliteration. Narratively speaking, the poem identifies the blacksmiths by what they look like and what they wield. They are “swarte, smekyd” and “smateryd with smoke,” swarthy dirty men who “spitten and spraulyn and spellyn many spelles,” and “gnauen and gnacchen thei gronys togedyr.” They are addressed pejoratively as “knauene,” and “cammede,” pug nosed knaves, who “blowen here bellewys that al here brayn brestes.” These alliterative lines represent the work of the forge as rhythmic, repetitive, harshly sibilant. Brains might get hyperbolically blown out in blowing the fires needed to produce metal goods, and dissonance is created by the groans and cries and tooth-gnashing of the workmen. The edge of the human blurs into the flame of the forge. Men use “hard” and “heavy hamerys” and “her schankes ben schakeled for the fere flunderys;” they work so long standing near the forge it seems that their ankles are shackled to the sparks. As those fiery images suggests, there is a nightmarish element to the poem. The speaker laments: “sweche dolful a dreme the deuyl it to dryue.” And he uses that infinitive “to dryue” when he begins the poem; the workmen might “dryue me to death with den of here dyntes.” The heavy repetition of the “d” in these lines mirrors the thudding of hammers on hot metal.

Image borrowed from Hasib Wahab @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

Image borrowed from Hasib Wahab @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

It is only in the second line of the text that the speaker identifies himself. He is “me,” an “I” making a poem and speaking to an implied addressee. And in his use of the first person, he might be understood as having engaged in what A.C. Spearing has called “self-pointing,” those moments in late medieval poetry where the poet identifies himself as a poet, in a meta-commentary on vernacular poetry and its performance. Obviously, the poet does not state his profession in this line. But the fact that he speaks in the first person is significant. His is the voice, and the descriptive rage, that drives the poem. Further, the alliterative matrix of the poem’s lines unmistakably reminds us that this is a poem, a work of art, a made thing. The repetition of alliteration is a bending of ordinary language into something clearly and pointedly artificial, a rhythmic joinery that is obviously not prose, and it requires a certain sonic attention. The speaker expresses his frustration in a pattern of sibilants, voiceless palatal consonants and voiced palatal g’s, as well as hard stops at dental and palatal phonemes. Indeed, the poem mimics the sounds of the smith’s labors, placing their calls and cries and bellows within the poem. The smiths “kongons cryen after col col,” and “huf puf seyth that on haf paf that other.” The poem is ostensibly about the speaker being awoken by the night labor of “Blacksmiths.” “Such noys on nyghtes ne herd men neuer,” he says, hyperbolically. In describing this never-before-experienced problem, the speaker creates a smithing cacophony so loud that it overwhelms his own voice.

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 5.20.51 PM

Image borrowed from Hans Splinter @Flickr CC BY.

Image borrowed from Hans Splinter @Flickr CC BY.

The smiths are so loud, so noxious, and I would argue, so much more manly, that they threaten to hijack the poem itself. It is through this sleight of hand, wherein the labors of blacksmithing obscure the poet-cleric’s own small voice, that the speaker makes his implicit argument about masculinity, poetry, and labor. As Kellie Robertson has argued, late medieval writing is concerned with the common profit. Some forms of labor contribute to the common profit while others do not. For the most part, profitable labor is material; it produces actual goods that can be used and sold. And profitable medieval English labor is gendered as almost exclusively masculine, as only men can be masters and authorities. Only men are blacksmiths, and only men are priory scribes. Yet the practice of blacksmithing cannot be separated from materiality. The blacksmiths, however badly skilled the speaker may declaim they are, produce goods to be used for vital purposes. The newly-shod horse will pull the cultour through the fields; the sharp scythe will bring in the harvest; the knife will butcher animals. Moreover, the labor of the blacksmiths is productive even if it is done at night. It can be done as the work demands, all night long if necessary to finish the job. But the clerical poet cannot do scribal work at night without serious consequence. His labor—copying, scraping, blotting, correcting, reading, blotting— depends on daylight, silence, and decent sleep.

The clerical poet, like the speaker of “Blacksmiths,” is engaged in “immaterial labor,” to use Italian Marxist Maurizio Lazzarato’s term, which, as he explains in Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics is “labor that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity” (133). Clerical poetic labor is abstract, one of inscription, composition and performance. Within the material economy of the later middle ages, poetic labor produces nothing of concrete value. Making, inscribing and reciting poetry, in the words of Harry Bailly, “doost noght elles but despendest tyme” (VII.931). “Blacksmiths” thus asks: what does it mean to make poems—immaterial, multimodal, performative things that are not things at all—from within society where material production is consonant with masculine virility?

The sequestered clerical maker and scribe, scratching away in the silent priory, might have been furious over being disrupted by the athletic, kinesthetic activities of the blacksmiths. The poem might be read as a kind of homosocial lament about what men’s work is and what it means. To write is to not engage in more busily productive, material labor, and the anxiety around what writing is and what it does can also be seen throughout late medieval poetry. The workers make noise and heat deep into the night, producing metal goods. But the maker of the “Blacksmiths” offers a poem that represents the “Blacksmiths”’ loud labor and that also serves as evidence of his own “travaillous stillness,” in the words of Hoccleve (RoP l.1013). In doing so, he calls attention to his own skill as a maker of verse. His labor, however immaterial, can verbally represent noise and sweat and physicality. His prosopoeia is a contribution to the common profit, in that he can make you see and hear the blacksmiths long after their hammers have been laid away. And his hastily composed poem has outlasted even the best-made medieval horseshoe.

Image borrowed from Peter Grima @Flickr CC BY-SA.

Image borrowed from Peter Grima @Flickr CC BY-SA.

To conclude, I’d like to point out that it is no wonder that “Blacksmiths” is set in the dark, and that the speaker himself cannot see his tormentors but only hear them. Because it is out of this darkness that the speaker can name, and in doing so—as Daniel Tiffany observes in Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife and Substance (97)—call attention to his own aesthetic power. As Martin Heidegger has argued in Poetry, Language, Thought (73), naming is “the lighting of what is,” and I wonder if verbal naming is in itself a wonderful kind of literary power. To name is to point out to another, to claim, to damn. To point out, however obliquely, who you might be and how your work might be remembered.

Featured image “Succor” by Walter A. Aue @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

Katharine Jager is a poet and medieval scholar.  She is associate professor of English at the University of Houston-Downtown, where she teaches medieval studies, creative writing, literature, and composition.  Recent publications include essays on aesthetics in Chaucer’s Sir Thopas (Medieval Perspectives) and masculine speech acts in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Medieval Feminist Forum, forthcoming); and poetry in such journals as Found Magazine, Friends Journal, The Gettysburg Review, Commonweal and the anthology on the religious lyric Before the Door of God (Yale University Press).  She was for many years co-author with Jessica Barr of the Chaucer chapter for the Year’s Work in English Studies (Oxford), and is currently editing the interdisciplinary volume Vernacular Aesthetics in the Later Middle Ages: Politics, Performativity, and Reception from Literature to Music, to which she is also contributing an essay on lyric aesthetics, manuscript placement and the texts of 1381 (Palgrave’s New Middle Ages series, forthcoming).

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“All their ioynts & properties”: Orthography and Sound in Early English Poetry

Medieval SoundEach of the essays in this month’s “Medieval Sound” forum focuses on sound as it, according to Steve Goodman’s essay “The Ontology of Vibrational Force,” in The Sound Studies Reader“comes to the rescue of thought rather than the inverse, forcing it to vibrate, loosening up its organized or petrified body (70).  These investigations into medieval sound lend themselves to a variety of presentation methods loosening up the “petrified body” of academic presentation. Each essay challenges concepts of how to hear the Middle Ages and how the sounds of the Middle Ages continue to echo in our own soundscapes.

The posts in this series begins an ongoing conversation about medieval sound in Sounding Out!. Our opening gambit in April 2016, “Multimodality and Lyric Sound,” reframes how we consider the lyric from England to Spain, from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries, pushing ideas of openness, flexibility, and productive creativity. We will post several follow-ups throughout the rest of 2016 focusing on “Remediating Medieval Sound.”  And, HEAR YE!, in April 2017, look for a second series on Aural Ecologies of noise! –Guest Editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

During the “grammar wars” of the sixteenth century, when some scholars sought to restrict English letters to an “isomorphic” (or phonemic) relationship between sound and spelling, Richard Mulcaster emerged as a champion of a more broad and complex vernacular orthography in his 1582 Elementarie, with profound implications for the growing English language. In particular, Mulcaster’s insight that language is shaped by “custom” bolsters the argument for variety over phonemic standardization; as he writes (in the 1925 Oxford University Press reprint):

letters ca[n] expresse sou[n]ds withall their ioynts & properties, no fuller than the pencill can the form and lineaments of the face, whose praise is not life but likeness: as the letters yeld not alwaie the same, which sound exactlie requireth, but allwaie the nearest, wherwith custom is content (99).

Mulcaster seems to strongly indicate here that we should not expect vernacular orthography to capture sound in any reliable way. Custom – meaning actual usage, etymological roots, and so on, muddies the waters of spelling-based sound. Anyone familiar with Modern English, given its complex conventions and silent, or variably pronounced letters, might agree. Yet as John Wesley notes in “Mulcaster’s Tyrant Sound,” “Mulcaster’s orthography continually oscillates … between a conception of letters as completely divorced from sound, and one that finds sound and sight interacting (not always in conflict)” (349).

Indeed, looking more closely at Mulcaster’s statement, it is possible to discern the specter of a scribe, pencil in hand, attempting to capture the “joints and properties” of a poet’s sound in letters – using different letters depending on the dialectal orthography of the compositional time and space: a listening body making a visual representation of sound.

Image of a scribe by Nathan Adams @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND

Image of a scribe by Nathan Adams @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND

Certainly, we encounter instances of orthographical representations of distinctive sounds in more recent and deliberate dialect poetry. John Hyland, writing on sound and African diasporic poetry in his unpublished dissertation Atlantic Reverberations, notes of late nineteenth- / early twentieth-century black dialect poems that “in a certain way, they are meant to be read and heard as talking machines. The sound technology, in this case, is the poem; it is a construction and a recording of a ‘black’ voice that socially and culturally functions in a manner analogous to the gramophone” (31). [Ed. Note: you can also read his work on Sounding Out! here]. Following this, it is interesting to try to figure out how the text of a poem can gesture toward and suggest a “sound” that belongs to a localized (even stereotyped) body, despite the text’s being mute on the page. New computational linguistic programs can help play back these ancient sound files, but based on my experience in using them with Middle English texts, there is a ways to go in matching their analytic capabilities with idiosyncratic early English spelling to produce satisfying results.

While late medieval English poems cannot be thought of as deliberate “constructions” of a voice in quite the same way as some contemporary forms of black poetry—although portions of Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale, in which “northern speech” is represented through alternate spellings and diction, might be an exception—I propose that we imagine orthography (and by extension, the scribes who implemented it) as a kind of “sound technology” analogous to early sound reproduction devices such as the phonograph. The analogy will break down at certain points, but in suggesting it I hope to answer two related questions: First, to what extent can orthography reliably encode sound (or, to put it another way, offer a score for “decoding” sound)? Second, can we extend back in time the critique of sound technology made by recent “sound theorists,” who tend to focus on texts and technologies from the modern period – and, if so, what can be gained thereby?

A medieval alphabet. Image by Cesar Ojeda @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND

A medieval alphabet. Image by Cesar Ojeda @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND

The answer to the first question is, I believe, a very qualified “yes.” Yes, English orthography can and does encode sound, but like so many things about the English language and its highly idiosyncratic spelling conventions, it’s complicated. The second question leads to an elusive, but promising, framework in which to consider the role of orthography in shaping English poetic sound. In short, I will argue that orthographic profiles act as a sort of “performance” in which spelling collaborates with the sound of language to offer a socio-linguistic context within which to experience a given poem.s

I used SPARSAR, “an expressive poetry reader” developed by computational linguists Rodolfo Delmonte and Anton Maria Prati, to produce audio recordings of three poetic specimens from Middle English: The specimens are: Osbern Bokenham’s “Life of St. Anne,” (ll. 41-64); Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Prologue, (V.709-28); and John Audelay’s “Conclusion,” (ll.1-13). The specimens were chosen with the idea of dialectal variety in mind: Bokenham is associated with Suffolk, Chaucer with London, and Audelay with the West Midlands. According to its creators, SPARSAR uses “prosodic durational parameters” for English syllables developed by the authors with the aim of “evaluat[ing] objective presumed syllable and feet prosodic distribution at line level,” producing a version of a poem that can be read by Text to Speech (TTS) software with “an appropriate expressivity” (73).

The problem with TTS software is that it produces monotone outputs that fail to account for prosody, let alone expressivity. SPARSAR, I hoped, would “level the playing field” between differing orthographies in the poems, from an analytic standpoint: “the poem is translated into a phonetic form preserving its visual structure and its subdivision into lines and stanzas. Phonetically translated words are associated to mean duration values taking into account position in the word and stress” (Delmonte and Prati 74). Yet textual analysis of poems in Middle English is challenging precisely because of orthographical variation, and this holds true for SPARSAR as well. Before SPARSAR could recognize the speech of the poems, I had to run them through a “normalizing” program—VARD, although Morphadorner offers a similar service—thus in some ways defeating the purpose of testing orthography’s ability to encode sound, as well as muddling SPARSAR’s fine-grained prosodic analysis.

Audelay first with and then without SPARSER.


Audelay for VARD. Image used with permission by the author.

Thus, for example, in the second line of my selection from John Audelay, “Here may ye cnow hwat ys this worlde,” I replaced “cnow” with the modern “know” (thus losing the /k/ sound), “hwat” with “what,” “ys” with “is,” and “worlde” with “world.” One easily discerns the loss of information with respect to not only sound, but also scansion (the inflectional “e” ending). SPARSAR also does not account for the Great Vowel Shift in reproducing Middle English pronunciations. For how this would change the pronunciation of some words, see Simon Horobin, Does Spelling Matter? (2013).

The recordings produced by the resulting SPARSAR files are, then, a record of failure with respect to my project. But they are instructive failures, nonetheless, and I include them here alongside the “raw” TTS recordings of the poems to illustrate my point: orthography is a key way of encoding sound, yielding both geographic and temporal sonic data. Moreover, such failures – and they are inevitable to a certain extent in any digital analysis of pre-modern English – point out the urgent need to work ever backwards and include ever more variant spellings in software databases. I am reminded of the comical difficulties that iPhone’s Siri software has in deciphering Scots English, though in that scenario the trouble is not necessarily with orthography, but accent.

Imagine, however, Siri attempting to decipher an accurately voiced reading of a Robert Burns poem based on its textual appearance.

Echoing Mulcaster’s statement on orthography, Ralph H. Emerson writes in “English Spelling and Its Relation to Sound” that “alphabetic spelling … [can] be a kind of backbone that supports the flesh and muscle of all the phonetic and phonemic variants in different dialects and idiolects” (260). The problem, as Mulcaster would point out, is the matter of those phonemic variants, a point Emerson concedes: “Western orthography … is largely a tale of how people have squeezed as many values as possible out of the very short Roman alphabet” (262). As Simon Horobin writes, the phoneme /r/ is pronounced differently in England even among different speakers of Northern dialect; the various realizations of /r/ that do not alter meaning require the designation of an “allophone”: [r] (21). In order to encode all the various pronunciations, we would need further phonemic symbols. At the risk of oversimplifying several hundred years of the development of spelling conventions in English, the desire for a less arbitrary connection between letter and sound is at the heart of the debates and attempted reforms in which grammarians like Mulcaster were involved.

Bokenham first with and then without SPARSER.

Bokenham text for SPARSER. Image used with permission by the author.

Bokenham for VARD. Image used with permission by the author.

Yet as much as Mulcaster argues for an orthography freed from “tyrant sound,” as Wesley notes, his arguments keep circling back to sound’s importance. Wesley writes, “Despite his claims regarding the ‘heard’ Z and its subjugation to the ‘sene’ S, the sound of Z creates a variety of problems for Mulcaster; in fact, its sound means Mulcaster must adjust the appearance and frequency of various other letters” (348). The reason for this is the complex set of rules in English regarding how letters interact with and influence each other in shaping the sound of a word. A more systematic analysis of these rules is precisely what allows Emerson to argue that orthography can, in fact, encode sound in English. He writes, “almost any dialect can be described as a plausible and usually predictable realization of the spelling, one word at a time” (265). Emerson describes a “four-step process” for this spelling-based description, which begins with “segment[ing] the spelling into elemental graphemes”; then “assign[ing] the segments their proper graphophonemes, that is, their abstract but systematically universal protovalues.” The next step “shows how the graphophonemes are phonemically realized in particular circumstances within individual dialects.” The example Emerson gives is “hair,” which segments into “H + AI + R, or //her//” (265). From this, he argues, we can reliably derive all the variant pronunciations of “hair.” To complete the process, a litereme is needed; e.g., the litereme <<s>> matches the phoneme //s// but also provides the “natural characteristic spelling” that expresses the “s” and “soft c” in English (266). Emerson concludes,

To describe how spelling encodes sound in a particular language is simply to chart the relationships between segments on these different levels … the litereme is the key: THAT is what everything else is really standing for, spellings and sounds and graphophonemes alike. (The letters themselves can be thought of as archiliteremes, with <<C>>having the reflexes <<k>> and <<s>>, <<A>> having <<ā>> and <<ă>>, etc.) … The simple universal phonology of written English gives birth to the infinite particularities of spoken English. (267)

Fortunately – for the purposes of looking at orthographically expressed Middle English variants, “present orthography still represents the pronunciation of Middle English” (Emerson 267). Unfortunately, though the letter-to-sound relationship in Middle English is much closer, we cannot be sure what those pronunciations were. But we can guess, and orthography is our best (perhaps only) clue.

From letters to sounds. Image by Michael Summers @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

From letters to sounds. Image by Michael Summers @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

The notion of “suggested” pronunciation is indeed where sound studies offers a compelling model for considering the relationship between poem and scribe, and how the former is recorded orthographically by the latter. Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past proposes to construct a “history of sound” that troubles the notion of “face to face” communication as being more “authentic” than sound reproduction technologies, adding, “This history of sound begins by positing sound, hearing, and listening as historical problems rather than as constants on which to build a history” (22). As medievalists know all too well, scribes and scribal variation in the copying of texts constitute a rich field of study when it comes to the question of textual “authenticity.”

Intriguing in light of such variation is Sterne’s idea of “transducers, which turn sound into something else and that something else back into sound” (22) – for which we might read orthography as a kind of technology with “moving parts” that work in concert to reproduce sound, as outlined above. More intriguing, perhaps, is Sterne’s description of the development of “audile technique,” a “practice of listening” that he bases on a study of “virtuosic and highly technical listening skills” during the nineteenth century and the advent of the telegraph, phonograph, and telephone. Sterne writes that with audile technique:

listening became more directional and directed, more oriented toward constructs of private space and private property. The construct of acoustic space as private space in turn made it possible for sound to become a commodity. Audile technique did not occur in the collective, communal space of oral discourse and tradition (if such a space ever existed); it happened in a highly segmented, isolated, individuated acoustic space (24).

In this context, Chaucer’s famous admonition to his scribe “Adam” becomes all the more charged and suggestive (650 in The Riverside Chaucer). We must certainly think of medieval scribes as early practitioners of “audile technique,” taking advantage of orthography as a tool by which to turn sound into a commodity in the form of manuscripts for various occasions and audiences.

Chaucer first with and then without SPARSER.

Chaucer for SPARSER. Image used with permission by the author.

Chaucer for VARD. Image used with permission by the author.

Rethinking medieval texts in this way leaves us with a collaborative sonic performance in which the particular orthographies of the scribes help to pull an author’s text into a certain sound-space, even if it is inexact and in some sense inauthentic. Our ability to “hear” that space, to share it, is limited by our limited mapping of the incredibly multiform ways that English was uttered, and how those utterances were scored on the page by poets and scribes. Wesley notes the importance of discipline to Mulcaster’s educational-grammatical program as set forth in the Elementarie; discipline also hovers over the listening bodies performing audile technique for the sake of increasingly commodified sound spaces described by Sterne. English letters resist such discipline, sliding around various orthographies depending on time, place, poet, and scribe. In order to begin to use programs like SPARSAR to recreate, however tentatively, the sound they encode, we must loosen the standardizing discipline of our technology in parsing letters of the past.

Featured image “Mixed Media Painting” by See-ming Lee @Flickr CC BY-SA

David Hadbawnik is a poet, translator, and medieval scholar. His Aeneid Books 1-6 were published by Shearsman Books in 2015. He is the editor and publisher of Habenicht Press and the journal kadar koli, a co-editor of eth press, which focuses on creative interactions with medieval texts, and associate director of punctum books. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor of English at the American University of Kuwait.

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