The Massachusetts Medievalist on A World Without “Whom” and the Undergraduate History of the English Language class

Yes, the Massachusetts Medievalist is at that point of the semester when reading a book about language usage feels like a guilty pleasure — but this is a very funny, very informative book about contemporary language.  While I suspect I am not Emmy Favilla’s ideal reader (since I am a middle-aged medieval studies professor who does not use most forms of digital media), I found her work to be immediately relevant to mine; it will shift the tone of my History of the English Language (HEL) class in spring 2018.

Cover of Favilla's "A World Without 'Whom'"

The creative writing major at my university requires the HEL class; the class can also count as elective in the English major. My teaching is largely socio-historical rather than technical: we don’t learn the International Phonetic Alphabet and we spend only a few weeks on Old and Middle English. Indeed, many of my HEL students have never thought about the concept that our language has a history at all, and a big part of my job is to get them to realize how our language’s history affects their daily lives and communications. Discussion about the linguistic impact of the digital revolution permeates the course, and Favilla has provided a myriad of useful examples to illustrate this lightning-fast language change.

Throughout the book, Favilla emphasizes two guiding principles: respect and clarity.  She provides excellent, specific advice about “How to Not Be a Jerk” (the title of chapter 4); for example, use “marriage equality” instead of “gay marriage” and “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people.” Instead of trying to adhere to archaic rules about punctuation, she advocates punctuation that simply makes meaning clear: do you mean “I love your sister Drew” or “I love your sister, Drew”? She wants whom to become extinct, simply because it’s not needed for clarity in standard English, and explains the evolution and nuances of the new use of because as a preposition (as in because science)(163).

I know that my students use because as a preposition; they are more accustomed to singular they than I ever will be; they use emojis more than they use footnotes. Favilla’s work will help me contextualize these language changes that they know, that they are experiencing in real time, within the broader history of the language as a whole. For instance, English language users have been turning nouns into verbs for over a thousand years – so Favilla’s example of person as a verb  (as in “I immediately forgot how to person”)(211) is just a recent example, so recent as to sound awkwardly amusing, of a linguistic trend that also includes OE beag (n., crown) and beagian/begian (v., to crown).

Favilla has provided the most recent chapter of the History of the English Language along with some interesting sign-posts as we head into a world without “whom.”

Flavilla, Emmy J. A World Without “Whom.” New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.

The Massachusetts Medievalist thinks about labor pain and a medieval manuscript

This week, the Massachusetts Medievalist road tripped to Yale’s Beinecke Library to see “Making the Medieval English Manuscript: The Takamiya Collection in the Beinecke Library.” (Nota bene: the exhibit closes on 10 Dec!) While there are many stunningly beautiful and interesting items in the exhibit, I want to focus on Takamiya MS 56, which the catalog officially terms a “prayer roll” but is also described as a “‘birth girdle,’ which, if worn, would protect women in childbirth” (Gathering 29). It’s a long, thin strip of parchment, about five and half feet long and only three and half inches wide. Its use was quite literally as a girdle or belt, wrapped around a woman in labor to protect her and the child, and to help her with the pain. The prayers and invocations are in Middle English and in Latin, so this is a multilingual women’s artifact from the first half of the fifteenth century.

Prayers in Latin and Middle English, nails and other implements from Christ's Passion
New Haven, CT, Beinecke Library Takamiya MS 56; image from exhibition catalog.

As with many of the items in the exhibit, I wanted to have a more thorough look than that provided by the display cases. While I’m sure the curators wouldn’t allow it, I’d really like to unroll the entire item (advertised then and now as “equal to the height of the Virgin Mary” – at 1730mm, the Virgin was slightly taller than me?) to see all of the images and prayers and then perhaps wrap it around my own midriff, checking the artifact for signs of similar usage hundreds of years ago. Are there creases or dents or stains that could indicate use during active labor? Could it have torn or frayed or abraded during an unusually intense contraction? Did a laboring woman feel a sense of relief when it was applied? As I stood in the Beinecke lobby, suddenly thinking about the deliveries of my own two daughters with all the benefits of twentieth-century techology, I felt an odd kinship with an imagined series of medieval English women who labored with the help of this manuscript rather than with epidurals and other modern technologies. They were, I hope, soothed by the prayers and the physical application of this talisman.

Once the exhibit is taken down, MS 56 will go into storage, retrieved when requested to be viewed in the reading room; I hope it will also be digitized and made available online for those unable to travel to New Haven to see it. I’m sure some enterprising scholar will do an edition (and translation?) of the bilingual prayers it contains.  But I also hope that people who work with it, virtually or actually, will take a moment to think about the real labor pains of the real women who used this item 600 years ago, before epidurals or spinal blocks, and who endured the fear and risk of childbirth, protected only by their own strength and that of a devotional and wearable text.

Works Cited:
Clemens, Raymond, Diane Ducharme, and Emily Ulrich, A Gathering of Medieval English Manuscripts: The Takamiya Collection at the Beinecke Library (New Haven: Beinecke Library, 2017).