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Umberto Eco has passed away, and with him we’ve lost one of our great thinkers about the meaning and implications of language. Like many people, I first encountered Eco as a fiction author. I remember seeing and loving The Name of the Rose as a high school student, going on to read the book, and being inspired to to make my way doggedly through Foucault’s Pendulum. Pendulum, like much of Eco’s work in fiction, depended on such deep cultural knowledge I’m sure I only understood a fraction of the references, but I remember the kudos I earned from my English teacher for knowing the book at all. Even in fictional work, Eco was dense and difficult, and rewarded slow absorption and reflection.

It was many years before I encountered Eco the Scholar. I was a postgraduate student in Oxford when he came to give the Weindenfeld lectures. He was gently disheveled, politely confused by the requirement of wearing an academic gown to lecture, by turns quiet and contemplative, and excitable and insistent. I was absorbed again and attended every one. His topic was translation. Not the technicalities of moving between Italian and English, for example, but the meanings, problems, losses and gains of doing so. He talked extensively about the experience of having Foucault’s Pendulum translated into English. The central figure of Casaubon is a sort of cipher for Eco himself; the ultimate intertextual person; a person constituted, motivated and to be understood almost completely by his literary and scholarly reminiscences and allusions. Eco talked about the thorny question of how to render classics of medieval Italian literature with which his initial readers would have been familiar into an English version, for instance. Transforming the words of Dante, or Boccaccio into English would not convey the same play of intertextual  light and shade to an Anglophone mind. Simply replacing these references with contemporary English literature wouldn’t serve: the average Anglophone reader is less acquainted with and able to understand snippets of Chaucer than an Italian counterpart their Dante. In the end, some references had to be replaced with more modern English quotes, while others were transformed directly from Italian but couched to point towards their relevance and erudition. What happened to Pendulum in the process? Was it the same book? Fundamentally, yes. Like Abelard, Eco concluded that in translation it is intention that matters more than fidelity to the rules. The reader must understand what something really means, more than they must grasp the particular words.

In fact, those lectures, effectively the draft jottings of what would become his Mouse or Rat? Eco went on to demonstrate that all ‘rules’ for moving directly languages are fallacies, because language is fundamentally a cultural phenomenon. Human experience has many common features across cultures, and languages therefore also share many common features. We all have words, for example, for mother, baby, walk, and talk. But it isn’t merely a cliche to say that the Inuit have many words for types of snow that an English speaker isn’t capable of distinguishing. In the same way, Eco discussed, the native peoples of The Philippines have words for myriad shades of red that we would have to describe as colour codes, lacking the linguistic richness to discuss the differences between them. These distinctions of language are distinctions of culture. They reflect what matters to people in particular contexts; and the full meaning of the words is only properly conveyed by reference to that system of values and assumptions.

Looking back on his work, I can see how these topics to which he turned in the early 2000s were in long continuum with his interest in semiotics, the science (or art?) of meaning, since the 1960s. For my own work, one of Eco’s most influential books was The Limits of Interpretation. Here he reflected on the problematic anarchy of postmodernism’s attempts to kill the author. The death of the author, Eco observed, opened up the meaning of texts to any and all interpretations. But this isn’t representative of how texts work. In fact, they have limited possible interpretations. Admittedly, not all of them will be the intended meaning of an author/writer/producer of the text, but authors know this. As a result, the art of textual production, Eco argued, rests on anticipation of the reader and their assumptions, reference to likely shared patterns of structure and understanding, and the construction of a text which limits, for a given probable reader, the possible readings as closely as possible to the intended one, without simply reproducing a template. This insight was fundamental to me in understanding the relationship between medieval artes dictaminis, letter formularies, and the individual letter. It stimulated in me the idea that every medieval letter (and every modern one, perhaps) was a negotiation between reference to a notional ‘Ideal’ letter (the artes), common patterns of letter writing and meaning (formularies), and unique epistolary responses to the imperatives of context and correspondents.

Like Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco’s academic work is layered, dense and difficult. I don’t doubt it will continue to repay slow reflection and rumination for many years. Which is lucky, because there will be no more fresh thoughts from that wonderful, wide-ranging, provocative and stimulating mind. The world is a little dimmer.

Isidore of Seville says:

The noun (nomen) is so called as if it were ‘denoter’ (notamen), because by its designation it makes things known (noscere, ppl. notus) to us. Indeed, unless you know its name (nomen), the knowledge of a thing perishes.[1]

So if naming is the creation of knowledge, what is anonymity? Is it simply not knowing? or is it un-knowing; the destruction of an idea?


[1] Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. by Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and Oliver Berghof (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), (p.42) I.vii.1.

Cathectic (adj.): of or relating to cathexis (a concentration or accumulation of mental energy in a particular channel).[1]

I came upon this amazing word in Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper, ‘Beyond “Identity”‘, Theory and Society, 29.1 (2000), 1–47,[2] a dense but interesting and genuinely useful reflection on the imperfections of ‘identity’ as an analytical category and the possible replacements for it. I particularly liked the fact that this article, rather than simply complaining that lots of people use ‘identity’ in problematic and contradictory ways, actually proposed some useful solutions. Solutions that I, for one, am quite likely to adopt in future writing.

The word, cathectic, also rang some serious bells, because I am currently immersed, one might say in a cathectic manner, in the final revisions to my dissertation in time for submission next week. Wish me luck/leg breaks/etc. No time for proper reflective blogging… See you on the other side!


[1] “cathectic, adj.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 2 October 2013 <http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.lib.monash.edu.au/view/Entry/28935?redirectedFrom=cathectic&gt;; “cathexis, n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 2 October 2013 <http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.lib.monash.edu.au/view/Entry/28959?redirectedFrom=cathexis&gt;.
[2] Available on JSTOR if you have access; I recommend checking it out!

I’ve been puzzling over a conundrum which, perhaps unsurprisingly, has me speculating about medieval language choices. This is the thorny issue of pronouns, specifically, the matter of I and me. It’s not difficult these days to summon up any number of illustrative examples of these little but important words being misused with abandon. Here’s a quote, for example, from the Australian Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Penny Wong, on the topic of same-sex couple parenting: “I do not regret that our daughter has Sophie and I as her parents.” I’m not intending to discuss the gay marriage issue on this occasion. Instead I want to throw out some thoughts on the implications of the common grammatical error of using I as an object. (Senator Wong is merely a useful illustration of how widespread this particular mistake is in Australian – and perhaps other English-speaking – cultures.)

I used to think about this as merely a matter of inaccuracy or lack of education. Knowledge is certainly part of the matrix. My own ‘vernacular’ practice is, I admit, rather variable. The difference between subject and object wasn’t something covered in English classes at my school, and I doubt very much that I was unusual in that experience. My only childhood memory of any ‘discussion’ of the difference is my father interjecting ‘Andrew and I!’, ‘mum and I!’ whenever I used ‘me’ in such combinations. (Sometimes, in retrospect, even when I was originally correct… Sorry, dad!) I only really grasped the distinction when I began to learn Latin as a University student, and even now I sometimes slip, especially in casual conversation. But reflecting on the matter recently – as a result of marking a large number of undergraduate essays – I realised that there are also many other factors at play. For one thing, there is a complicated socially embedded bias against using ‘me’, especially in combination with other individuals. ‘Me and Jane’ (or ‘Jane and me’) seems to smack of a sort of lower class patois that must be avoided at all costs if one intends to sound educated, sophisticated and culturally aware: somehow this sensation remains, even when the sentence is “Anna bought matching watches for me and Jane”, which is, of course, grammatically correct.[1] I can’t trace the origins of this emotional reaction to language, but it is as if ‘me’ intrudes itself too much upon our notice in a sentence to be considered quite polite. Perhaps ‘I’, by virtue of its particular phonemic resonances, is less obtrusive, less overt, more self-deprecating than ‘me’? Maybe because of the ways that ‘me’ is stereotypically misused as a subject among the less educated, it has acquired connotations of general linguistic impropriety? (Conversely, as The Atlantic recently informed us, the pronoun whom is undergoing an inexorable decline because “Correctness is significantly less appealing when its price is the appearance of being—as an editor at The Guardian wrote—a ‘pompous twerp.'”. So, clearly, wanting to appear educated or at least of a middling-to-upper socio-economic background isn’t the only factor at work in the sociology of language choice. And I doubt I’m telling you anything you didn’t know there![2])

In other words, the use or abuse of I and me reflect not only our level of education in grammatical theory, but also how desirable it is in a given social context to perform that education, also taking into account the particular social, cultural and emotional baggage that adheres to individual lemmas of our vocabulary.

So where’s the medieval parallel? Well, in connection with this I have been thinking about the development of the plural as a form of polite address. Grammatically speaking, it’s all wrong: when there is a single subject the subject and verb ought to be singular. For some reason, however, kings of England (and elsewhere) in the high middle ages began to be represented in writing with ‘the royal We’. By the thirteenth century, they also sometimes addressed single subjects with plural pronouns and verbs, as in the formula vobis mandamus quatenus faciatis, which, for the sake of making the point, I will translate as ‘we command yous that yous should do [whatever]!’.[3]

When I made the point in a paper at Leeds a few years back[4] that it seemed significant when kings of this period decided not to use the plural pronoun in their commands, instead instructing subjects with versions of the phrase precipimus tibi quatenus facias, it emerged in comments that some scholars working on earlier periods didn’t see why this would be rhetorically important. In their sources, tibi simply indicated that the command was addressed to one person, vobis that there must have been more than one. Their impression was that I simply hadn’t quoted the whole thing and that multiple addressees were in fact involved. But no! Rather, as I replied at the time, the use of the plural was associated with dignity, status, and respect. It was less about the grammar accurately reflecting the number of subjects or objects to hand than it was about expressing the gamut of associated social meaning.

It seems from a cursory glance at earlier medieval sources that this developed into a standard practice sometime in the mid to late twelfth century (although I would be eager to hear of earlier examples). It’s intriguing that this is also a period in which many other means of defining and demarcating the distinctions between social ranks are also emerging and solidifying. What I ask myself, in light of my musings over the modern grammar of colloquial English, is whether medieval authors were completely aware of these changes at work, or if they too, in their turn, were sometimes mystified by the use of language that seemed technically incorrect. I open the floor for yous to discuss it…

[1] Conversely, coming into contact with a large number of manual and trade workers through my other half’s work, I am sometimes astonished to hear myself beginning sentences with pearls like “Me and my sister went…”. There’s some kind of chameleonic essence to my language use that I’ve never been able to shake. As a child I reportedly spoke a broad Glaswegian brogue with my school mates and would turn around in my chair and translate into ‘Australian’ for mum and dad on request, while recently on a visit to the States I was asked if I had been born there when my accent started to ‘tune in’ to the local cadences apparently of its own accord. Fitting in is what I do.
[2] Although I am making a personal stand to bring ‘whom’ back into correct usage, and hang the accusations of twerpery. (Twerpery? Twerpitude? Hmm…) Students who use whom correctly in essays for me get bonus smiley faces in the margins. True story.
[3] Which reminds me of my favourite line in that great Australian film, Two Hands, if you will excuse me… Young thug: “Yous two are f***in dead!” (Sees two police officers walking past.) “Nah, not yous two.”
[4] ‘To dictate or delegate? The language of governance in English royal letters, 1272–1307’, given at International Medieval Congress, Leeds, 13 July 2010.

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I teach and research at the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the School of Philosophical, Historial and International Studies, Monash University (Australia). Views expressed here are my own and not representative of the CMRS, SOPHIS or Monash.

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Twitter: @KB_Neal

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