Jul 25, 2013

Reading in two languages

Yin Liu 

The oldest surviving English translation of any part of the Bible can be found in this manuscript:

The translation consists of the smaller words written above the larger main text. It is not a Bible translation in the sense that we customarily think of – that is, a text that can be read in its own right. Rather, this translation takes the form of an interlinear gloss, intended to help an English speaker read the Latin text.

The image is from a page of the Vespasian Psalter, British Library MS Cotton Vespasian A.1, a copy of the Psalms in Latin. The manuscript was made in the second quarter of the 8th century, probably in Canterbury. The gloss was added just over a century later, in the middle of the 9th century. The image shows the start of the psalm Caeli enarrant, Psalm 18 (Psalm 19 in most modern translations). The script of the main text, in Latin, is in English uncials; the gloss is in an insular pointed minuscule, in a Mercian dialect of Old English. The English gloss provides a word-for-word translation of the Latin: thus in omnem terram is glossed in alle eorĂ°an (‘into all the earth’). This way of presenting a text in two languages probably seems straightforward and self-evident to us now. Think how often students annotate their textbooks in just the same way when learning a new language or reading a text in a language in which they are not fluent; and in modern linguistics, interlinear glosses, laid out in much the same way, are a regular feature to assist readers in understanding examples of speech or text in many different languages.
This bit of parchment shows an example of medieval text being encoded, structured, and presented as data

Nevertheless, that bilingual interlinear glosses are among our earliest surviving examples of English text (and continue to be used through the Middle Ages and into the modern period) should give us pause. Before a gloss is added, the text on the manuscript page can be read as a relatively simple linear transcription of speech. But once the interlinear gloss appears, the reader is challenged to regard the text on the page as a much more complex structure, existing in two dimensions rather than one. No longer is there a single sequence of linguistic units to follow, but two parallel sequences, linked by a one-to-one correspondence between individual elements. Furthermore, the two sequences are not equal in value; the Latin sequence is privileged not only visually (it is written in a larger and more prominent script) but also by dictating the order of elements on which the English gloss depends, even when normal Old English word order would be much different from Latin.

We may notice also that word-division in the two sequences does not always correspond. For example, the Latin text frequently joins the conjunction et (‘and’) to what we would consider the next word, with no space between: etopera, etnox, etipse. The English gloss separates out the conjunction and or ond (abbreviated with a symbol that looks like ‘7’) so that it is recognised as an individual linguistic unit: 7 werc, 7 neht, 7 he. This may seem trivial, except that word-separation by use of white space had only just been developed as an encoding convention by scribes such as these in the British Isles, and it had deep and far-ranging repercussions for reading practices throughout Europe and into the present day (Saenger 1997). Among its effects was a shift in the meaning of the word ‘word’. In this text, Latin verbum and English word mean ‘utterance, something said’. But separated script visually fragmented the stream of language into discrete units, which could then be processed and presented in new, non-linear ways.

This bit of parchment shows an example of medieval text being encoded, structured, and presented as data: tokenised and then arranged so that relationships between the tokens are visually apparent. Medieval English readers, grappling with a text in a foreign language, implemented reading aids such as interlinear glosses that allowed people to receive not only auditory but also visual linguistic information, and so created ways of understanding that depended ever more heavily on technologies of writing and of the book.


Some useful qualifications to these remarks, and a much better linguistic analysis, can be found in Alderik H. Blom, Glossing the Psalms: The Emergence of the Written Vernaculars in Western Europe from the Seventh to the Twelfth Centuries (De Gruyter, 2017), 161-173.

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