An Interview of
Dr. Malcolm Richardson – The 15th Century Roots of Written English
Dr. Malcolm Richardson, Chair, Department of English, Louisiana State University. The following interview explores the historical development of standard written English. Dr. Richardson was a pleasure to interview. He is one of the leading authorities on how the English written language became 'standardized' and began its growth into more wide-spread common use.
The Chancery Under Henry V (1999) - "The Fading of the Ars Dictaminisin England, 1470-1560," Rhetorica, 2001 - "Women, Commerce, and Rhetoric in Late Medieval England," in Listening to their Voices: Essays on the Rhetorical Activities of Historical Women, 1997 - "Early Equity Judges: Keepers of the Rolls in Chancery, 1415-1447." American Journal of Legal History, 1992 - "Women Commercial Writers of Late Medieval England," Disputatio: A Transdisciplinary Journal of Medieval Studies, 1996 - An Anthology of Chancery English (with John H. and Jane Fisher), 1984.
Current Research Project:
The Textual Awakening of the English Middle Classes, 1380-1520, a monograph describing and analyzing bourgeois writing practices in fifteenth century London
Note: Remember to click on any word on this page to experience the next evolutionary step in technology supported reading.
The following transcript has not been edited for journal or magazine publication (see 'Interview Notes' for more details). Bold is used to emphasize our [Children of the Code] sense of the importance of what is being said and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis that occurred during the interview.
David Boulton: One of the areas that we want to focus on is helping people understand how artificial, unnatural, and technological this process called reading and writing is.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes.
David Boulton: And, so we want to reexamine our basic understanding of this code we read with, which takes us back to the very beginnings of writing, and through the invention of the alphabet and its spread around the world; its use by the Greeks and the Romans, and what it did to enable their civilizations, and so forth.
We are also very interested in the difference between this original code, with its more phonetic letter-to-sound correspondences, and the code we use today, the code of written English. The code that was produced by the fusing together of the writing system of the Romans and the spoken language of the English. And, it is right in that period, that, while talking with Richard Venezky who was one of the nation’s leading experts on orthography, that we found you and your work. Venezky led us to John Fisher. And, Fisher led us to you.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes. Yeah.
David Boulton: And, so we come to what fascinated me during our telephone conversation, which is your work on how literacy developed in England and the effect it had on the middle class. So, I’m most interested in discussing how the writing system formed and, then, from there, how literacy extended into and affected the population.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes. Some of our research on how written English was standardized is now over 25 years old. The idea of a ‘chancery standard’ very quickly got into standard explanations and textbooks about language development. It was put in textbooks more quickly than most theories, so that the usual scientific process by which theories are tested and examined was bypassed and that understandably upset a number of people.
I also think the way that our ideas have been explained, in some cases, greatly oversimplifies what we were trying to say. What we were saying has been interpreted as saying that you have an organization, the chancery, which, very consciously set out to standardize a written language, and did so, and then more or less imposed this on an unwilling group of literate readers. And, I think, that not only does that oversimplify what we were trying to say, but, it ignores other kinds of research being done in the area. We didn’t say that is was “standard” in the sense modern English has spelling and punctuation standards. There is also a problem with “Chancery”. I don’t think we ever implied that there was something called chancery standard that was anything like a modern standard. What the chancery itself produced was often very different from one document to the other.
We didn’t know much about the Chancery Staff when we did the Anthology of Chancery English, except about the senior clerks. After researching the entire Chancery Staff from about 1400-1430, I now think that the “standardization” that we are pointing to was emerging around the various inns in the district of Farringdon, near the Chancery headquarters. It was radiating through lower ranking Chancery clerks, moonlighting by teaching other clerks, law students, apprentice scriveners, and others who would make their living by writing, These lower-ranking clerks, sometimes with their wives, were essentially running schools, boarding schools, where people could come and learn writing skills. And, then, nearby, you have a law school. And, you have a lot of people who want to get into that law school, or, want to work in the paralegal profession, based on what they learn in these informal inns. So I think, rather than saying, here are a group of powerful Chancery bureaucrats who consciously standardized English and everyone followed their lead, lock-step. We have to realize that its much more complicated than that. So, I would now call it “Farringdon English, and see it more in competition with other written dialects.
David Boulton: Much more diffuse.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Much more diffuse than that. Much looser. One scholar said that the chancery standard is Latin. And, I think, certainly for the upper ranks in the chancery, and most of what they produced, that’s true. But, at the same time, there was something very important going on, where a very loose, written dialect was created in this district of London, which, I think, is still the leading contender for being the most immediate ancestor of modern, standard English.
There’s some recent research that shows that people in other parts of England wrote closer to this so-called chancery English if they were affiliated with the legal profession. And, there’s only one place where they could have learned that. So it’s the lawyers again who want things more neat and standardized. And that means everyone who has to deal with the law and legal documents had better pay attention. That means a lot of people are brought into line.
The Emergence of Written English:
David Boulton: OK. I appreciate the caveats and the care with which you put this together. What we’re trying to do is help the lay person, so to speak, the teacher or the parent, who hasn’t given any thought to any of this, understand something about how written English comes about. We want to make whatever safe generalizations we can:
- It initially comes in the 700s and for first few hundred years written English is used primarily by the Church
- A very small percentage of the population of England uses it at all
- It gets used up until the Norman invasion, and then it gets displaced, during the French rule of England,
- And then it comes back and begins its route to us.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes.
David Boulton: And then, during that period of time, when its emerging after the French, there’s a kind of a center of density of official use.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes.
David Boulton: And, at the center of it, is the king and some scribes and surrounding them, radiating out from them are certain types of other people, using it in different ways, but that this is the center of the shift that leads to where we are today.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes.
David Boulton: So, now I don’t want to put words in your mouth. But, I’m looking for something that’s as comfortable as you can say it, says something along those lines, to give people a view of the general emergence of English.
King Henry V:
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Right. Well, I think you had asked about Henry V and his role, and I noticed John Fisher said, go see Richardson. Well, here I am. And, I would say that the description he gave and what you’re talking about is accurate, as I see it. Up until about 1400, of course, people are speaking English all over the place. You have poets who are writing in English. You have poets like John Gower, who are hedging his bets and writing in French, English, and Latin. But in terms of getting business done, the kind of thing that you would need to write, the kinds of things that we all write every day. Little memos, business accounts. They really didn’t have much prestige unless they were in Latin, or French. This is up to about 1400. One of the curiosities in writing is, has been discovered by a linguist at Cambridge, Laura Wright, who’s published what she calls Macaronic English, and what it shows is the attempts of ordinary London business people to keep their records in a language that they really don’t understand. And so, you have a word that begins in one language and then it ends in another. These are the London Bridge accounts. They’re struggling. They’re clearly struggling. So, there were a lot of practical needs, and, as commerce developed over the fourteenth century, I think it became pretty clear, among the merchant class that they really needed to write in English.
Henry the Fifth becomes king in 1412. He immediately starts making plans for war. He immediately needs money and needs the support, particularly of the merchant class of London, which is the wealthiest in the country. London is the port through which most of the trade comes. It would be nice to have the members of Parliament on his side, and to be seen, himself, as an English patriot, because while Henry was not worried very much about linguistic matters, he was very concerned about practical matters, and about getting money. And he was certainly smart enough to see that people were uncomfortable with French. He certainly was comfortable with French himself, but, he knew that there was this unrest. So, after he becomes king, after he starts off on his wars to France, he starts sending many, if not most of his messages back, his news to the London citizens, in English. He apparently asked his own staff, which was called the signet office, his private secretariat, to start using English, or at least gave permission to do so. Those were the letters that I dealt with, that were in English. Sometimes, the replies that came back from the mayor and aldermen of London were in French. They apparently felt that there was something fishy going on here and it would look better if they replied to the king in French, even though he had written to them in English.
There was an immediate reaction to Henry’s use of English. And, we can see this by the well-known proclamation of the Brewers’ Guild, in 1422, about the time Henry died, and they simply said, outright, since our king has started writing in English, we are now going to start keeping our own records in English. And, they did. And, you can see the shift in the guild records from that point on. Now, the guilds had produced some documents in English, but almost all the guild records start shifting, very heavily, into English. It’s never a clean process, and most royal, church, and even civic official documents are still in Latin and French. But, English rose as the century goes on.
Another thing that happens is that people start writing private letters and private accounts in English. This is one of the things I’ve been looking at. The most famous example are the Paston Letters, this huge body of letters, our greatest source of knowledge about what life was like, among at least, this rank of the gentry. It filled up two very thick volumes. They’re on the web now. An incomparable source of knowledge about middle-class, well, upper, upper-middle class, lower gentry life in England. I don’t think they would have been written in the previous century. Because they would, it would probably be expected that people of that class would be writing in French. Here, they’re writing in English. But, even beyond that, we have letters from ordinary merchants. We have a lot of letters from a family called Cely, who were not the best users of English, we’d say today, but, they wrote lots and lots of letters in English.
We really don’t have anything comparable to that kind of middle class private writing before 1400. Another group, I think, were liberated, by this indirect encouragement of the king, were women. We find many, many more letters, private letters, by women, because women could control their own letters. I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence that they would actually sit down and write them out in their own hand, but certainly in the Paston family, the Stoner family, and many others, women, whose letters are found in the National Archives, from the fifteenth century, were able to at least supervise the writing of the letters. And, they could pick them up, and they could read them, much more easily than if they were written in French. So, unintentionally, Henry the Fifth, liberated people, or more precisely gave permission for people to use their own language in a way that they were not able to do before.
The Turning Point:
David Boulton: Excellent. Thank you. My sense from my reading of people in this area, and, obviously, I’m working across a really broad spectrum so I can’t go anywhere near as deep as others can, but, my sense was never that there was some official decree: “This is English. You people go use it.” That there was this chain of command, you know, radiating the way of doing things, but rather that there was this national identity with the language that started to shift.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yeah.
David Boulton: Like you were saying, there was a point at which the right thing to do for a certain class of people in power, and that would be engaged in literacy at all, was to use Latin or French. And, over a period of time, that switched to being English. And, Fisher made the comment, I think, that in the 1400s, or up to the 1500s, there were maybe 5,000 people in all of England that could read and write in English. And today, there’s hundreds of millions.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes.
David Boulton: So, there’s a point, a seminal point of change that’s going on here. Whether we say that somebody worked it all out and imposed it, or somebody just started to shift their behavior in a way that was influential, we’re still talking about a turning point.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yeah. It is a turning point. I would describe it as a kind of a collective sigh of relief among, especially the middle-class, in England, that they could use English.
Now, reading and writing were separate technologies at the time. I’m sure you’ve talked to people about this before, that writing, if you’ve seen pictures of how one went about writing in medieval England, it was pretty hard. You had to have special equipment. You had to have, not just an eraser, but several different kinds of, of scrapers. You had to be taught how to write, which most people weren’t. So, it certainly was more common that people could read very well, but had a great deal of difficulty writing much beyond their own name, even among the upper classes. I think consequently, it was simply the standard procedure, as it is in many developing countries today, like India, that if you wanted to send a letter home, you would go dictate the letter to someone and then that person would put it in an acceptable rhetorical format. I think one of the main impetuses for moving towards standardization was, that, this not only applied to private correspondence, and business correspondence, it also applied to official petitions, and things that would get things done for you in the government.
David Boulton: Official formatting.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Official formatting. Exactly. So, that if you were living in the north of England, and you were going to send a petition to Parliament, you would want that cast in what seemed like the most prestigious kind of English possible.
David Boulton: Implicit in that, is how well your request is received is connected to how well it’s formatted.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes, absolutely.
David Boulton: OK, you’re describing something that seems almost like a pre-cursor to telegraph use, in that you take your message to somebody and they put it in a particular code, a particular format, so that it’ll get across so the other person can read it and unfold it for you.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Exactly. Exactly. And, again, I’m not saying this is a lockstep process. They’re plenty of petitions out there. There are plenty of things that find their way into the official records that are still highly dialectical or that show a blend of things that we can say, Aha, this is like the chancery, but then, the next word isn’t. In the next few years, we should be able to know a great deal more about this because, the petitions that were sent into the central government are now being digitized. I’ve just come from a conference where I learned that about a third of the eighteen thousand petitions are now digitized. But, we should be able to these wonderful skills that we have now, with the computer, to be able to tell just the pace at which things became more standardized. But, right now, it seems pretty clear that people caught on very quickly that highly dialectical petitions and other official correspondence with the government were suspect. And this is where this training in this Farringdon district of London comes in, because I think one or two things are happening at the same time, that, if you were in Yorkshire and wanted to send a petition to Parliament, you would seek out somebody who’d been trained in this area of London and who could approximate not just the rhetorical format but the linguistic format, or, it’s possible that you would have, let’s say, an attorney, someone with a power of attorney who was actually in London who could either do it himself or go to one of these places and have it done. It’s even possible, and there’s some suggestion in the records that this was happening, that what we would call a student in this apprenticeship program at one of the inns, who would be willing, as part of his training, to write one of these things out for you, maybe, one hopes, supervised by somebody, but, if you wanted to have an official document done, this person could do it for you as part of his training.
David Boulton: This sounds very much like the scribal tradition throughout the history of early literacy – of needing specialists to translate across the page.
Standardization Parallels with Email:
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yeah. I think so. I mean, we, we’re still negotiating the computer, for example, and the computer gap, in the school system. The haves and the have nots. The people who have access to computers, the people who understand what they can do with it, the people who can write on computers and the people who can’t. Something probably everyone’s familiar with, and it’s an area where there’s still a lot of negotiation, is email. What’s acceptable in email, and what’s not? And, you know, every day, we read about somebody getting nailed by the law for sending some injudicious email, which then gets sent to thousands of unsuspecting readers. But, on another level, you probably have people who send you emails with no capitalization. And, they say, this is a new form. It’s OK. You can just blast it out, no capitlization, no punctuation. The purpose of email is to get a message out. And, then, you have other people who are greatly offended by something like that, and go through and very carefully edit their emails.
David Boulton: And, similarly with respect to the volume issue. My favorite example of this was in my correspondence with, James Heckman, the Nobel Prize economist in Chicago. And, he will send, fragments of words, fragments of sentences that are almost a cryptic code. And, some people will, like you say, embellish; it’s elaborate; it’s nuanced. And, for other people, it’s just as brief and informal as will get the gist of that message across the pipe.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes. Or, you see people who change over time. We had an administrator here who was a Henry James scholar. And, if you’ve read Henry James novels, you know they’re voluminous. And, he, in the 1980s, when he first started sending email, his email would be two or three pages. As he became more successful, and moved up the administrative ladder, and, is now President of a university system, his emails became quite concise as he went through that process. But, we’re still negotiating that form of communication.
David Boulton: There is a divide and that brings back to what you were saying earlier, which I thought was really fascinating, that, there was a language divide, as well as a literacy divide. There was an upper-crust of the population that was hanging on to its aristocracy, in a way, by virtue of its connection to the Latin and French languages which were less common in the population.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes.
David Boulton: And, there’s common people speaking English, but, the differences in their proficiency with language are part of the social stratification system.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes, absolutely.
David Boulton: And, then, then, you overlay on top of that, literacy.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes. And one of the things we’ll probably never know about is the amount of bilingualism in the lower classes, that is, the classes beneath, the aristocracy. How, because, you know, clearly, a London merchant who has to deal with a French-speaking aristocracy, and who’s trading partners are in France and the Low Countries, would pick up enough practical French to be able to speak to these folks. The same thing happens with a member of the gentry or the aristocracy, who has to deal with servants, who doesn’t speak French, or speaks very little French. It’s very difficult to measure the amount of oral bilingualism that was going on at that time.
David Boulton: Talk about the spread of literacy. I mean, at one point you made the statement that a lot of people were reading, but only a few people were writing, Yes?
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes.
David Boulton: But, there wasn’t a lot…Now, this is prior to the printing press, and this is prior to the ascendancy, the slow ascendancy of English as the writing system, so , when you say a lot of people were reading, we really don’t mean a lot of people….
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Right, right. Uh.
David Boulton: How many people were reading in England? What percentage of the population in the 1400s? Any idea?
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Oh, that’s a very contested area. Certainly not more than about three percent. But, then, how do you define literacy? And, I’m sure you’ve dealt a lot with that. I mean, that’s a question even today. I think many medievalists now would say that, uh, someone who could read a little bit, or even, there are even scholars who say, if you can listen to, and comprehend a text being written to you then that gives you literacy in medieval terms because they just didn’t think of it in the same way that we do. One of the things I was noticing looking through chronicles recently is the amount of material that was posted around London. Now, some of this was read out, as familiar from films, someone standing up and reading a proclamation, then everyone goes, Oh, my. But, then, these were subsequently posted all over the place, and, you know, at the very least, it gives writing a kind of aura, but, also, I find it difficult to believe that people weren’t coming along and reading these, or reading them to other people, that there weren’t people who were able to read and read to other people. They had different attitudes about private letters, for example. Private letters, what we consider private letters were always meant to be read aloud like poetry. They were expected to be read aloud. And, we have a portrait of Chaucer reading Troilus and Cressida to the court of Richard II, but that was, that was the way people expected written documents to be communicated.
David Boulton: They were prompts for speech.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: They were prompts for speech. And, there’s a famous story of a king who was able to read, and he would read documents, but, he would also have them read to him, so he would get the full communication. So, there were many gradients of literacy in the Middle Ages that are difficult for people today, who see reading and writing as inextricably bound together. But, that wasn’t always true. And, I don’t think it’s true in a lot of developing countries today.
David Boulton: Lets go back to that question from a somewhat different angle. We can’t apply today’s ideas of literacy to what was going on at that time. But, you mentioned before, that about three percent of the population of England were literate in the sense that they, we could use it beyond some benchmark, they could read a proclamation, or they could read a letter that was sent to them, without having somebody else read it for them.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes, although following what we were just discussing, it might be more accurate to say that a very small percentage could read and write like today, and an undetermined number could understand texts in other ways.
David Boulton: OK, now, the other distinction you made was, is that some people were considered literate if they could understand language that was structured for writing.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes.
David Boulton: And, that’s an important distinction because what you’re describing is that there’s a separation between oral exchange and the formatting of language that comes with writing, which is the first stage of literacy.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes.
David Boulton: Maybe you could expand on that, and connect it with the percentage of the population in some way. And, we can move from there into how it changed to involve more people, over time.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Well, you can probably gather that I’m very nervous about giving percentages, because…
David Boulton: Well, say whatever you can that you feel safe about, because what we’re trying to do is give people a sense that we haven’t been reading for that long.
Illiterate Knights and Merchants:
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: No. We haven’t. And, I mean, one thing, I think, that’s tied into it is that people learn, people learn to read and then they learn to write because they need to, because there’s a need that’s there. And, it’s a common joke in undergraduate teaching to talk about illiterate knights. This is one of the big jokes. They were knights. They were in the nobility. And, they couldn’t read. But, actually, what a knight had to know was very complicated, if you actually look at the body of knowledge a knight had to possess or should possess, I should say, and, reading was just simply not one of their job requirements. There wasn’t a need to learn to read, for a number of reasons. And, the same thing was true of merchants. They were able to get along though using various means. Even the central government used, tally sticks to measure taxes. Tally sticks, I don’t know if you’ve seen pictures of them or not, but they were just notched sticks that were sent in to show how much taxes were raised. And, these were used by the royal exchequer, which, later did enter it in writing, but they preserved the tally sticks as well, as a check. One of the amusing points of history, although it wasn’t amusing at the time is that Parliament decided to get rid of the tally sticks, the medieval tally sticks, in the early 1830s, and they built this big fire, and threw them in, and, uh, the House of Parliament, got, caught on fire and burned down.
Literacy Levels Rise with English:
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes, the percentage was always very small, but people, I think, as the capability to write, the capability to put their words in writing and get the message they intended across, became more of a reality as English became more accepted, the vernacular became more accepted in the 15th century. So the number of people who could be considered literate, in the sense that they could dictate a message and possibly even read it, grew. But, you know, given these gradients, I’m a little scared of giving a percentage, because it’s almost impossible to measure that. There’s a book by M.T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record, that actually deals with the period before 1300, where he measures the growth of writing, and the dependence of the government on writing, by things like, the amount of parchment that the government bought, and the amount of wax that it bought, to seal things.
David Boulton: Watching the growth curve of the use of materials required to write..
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Right, and by what people said in court. But, given all these different concepts of literacy, it’s very hard to say. I mean, the number of people who could actually sit down and read and write with a great deal of fluency, may have been one percent. But, given the different gradients of what could be considered literacy, it probably swells somewhat, but it’s, it’s not a lot of people.
Trust in the Written Word:
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: On the other hand, respect for writing, the growth in the trust in writing, which Clanchy shows growing from 1100 to the period we’re talking about, is really quite remarkable. There’re records, for example, of peasants, who had seals, which is really the beginning of the knowledge that written records are important. And, also the shift that he traces, in the trust of the written word over the spoken word. That is, in 1100, it’s pretty clear that if a person comes to court and says, ” I saw Bob buy this cow on the fourth of June when there was a big rain.” That was good. 1400, this same person would have to have a written document to prove that. And, of course, we still have dependence on oral testimony.
David Boulton: ‘It’s literally true’.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yeah, it didn’t go away. But, by 1400, or 1300, as Clanchy shows, the written document trumped the spoken document, by, by quite a margin, even though forgery was rampant.
David Boulton: So this mind-set developed:. “If it’s in writing, it must be true”.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes.
David Boulton: Which was, clearly, just a myth.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Sure. Some of the worst forgers were religious houses, because they, due to their background and training, knew the value of the written word. They were the first ‘professional group’, we might say, to actually keep their records, and keep them bound in codex volumes. And, so they had no qualms at all about simply forging deeds. And, this was another reason that the government started keeping records. Because, religious houses would come up with a charter and say, look, all this belongs to us. Here’s a charter from Henry I, and the government would go back and look around and say, well, we really don’t have anything to confirm or deny it, but, they have a charter that seems to be real, so, maybe we’d better start keeping some records too. And, they did. Which is one of the reasons why the English public records are the most extensive in Europe.
David Boulton: That’s a great story. I’m always amazed at how, democracy, our law so many other modern systems seems to have emerged from the conflict between those polarities.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yeah, yeah.
Reading and Writing Become Essential:
David Boulton: I appreciate you bravely going into these areas that make you a little bit nervous. And, remember, what we’re trying to do is, we’re not trying to be scholarly accurate. We’re trying to give people an impression. A lot of people think that reading’s a natural thing. And, when we look at the length of human evolution, and we look at the time that human beings have struggled to learn to use this technology. I mean, it’s a just blip on a whisker in the timescape of our development..
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yeah.
David Boulton: I mean, It’s fresh. And, it’s this transition right here that we’re talking about, that sets the stage up for where we are today.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes. It’s really a turning point in the lives of ordinary people, at least ordinary middle class people, where reading and writing become essential skills, and I think that’s what you’re looking at. There’s a long period where it’s not really important. The period that I’m looking at, I would say, is a period in which for the merchant class, anyway, it is a highly desirable quality. And, it becomes even more highly desirable as it goes along. Then, later, it becomes essential. It becomes a point where you can’t enter the middle class without having those skills. And, today, we’re in a much more democratic society, where we believe that everyone ought to have the capability, ought to have the opportunity to move up economically. And, because for a long time, I think, we were willing to accept that lots of people would just never have those skills, and they were going to stay where they were. They were going to stay laborers. And so, the minimal amount of being able to sign your name would be fine. But, now, we’re launched on a new experiment where we would like everyone to have the opportunity to move up, and that is different. And, I think what you’re looking at are the blocks to this, things that are left over from a previous age that were created for a class system that doesn’t exist anymore, or shouldn’t exist anymore.
David Boulton: Yes. Thank you. I think that’s better said. There’s a residue to these archaic, relatively recent, but still archaic structures that have unfolded through time that we must understand. There’s institutional inertia at work here making it hard for millions to participate.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Absolutely. And, whole ways of teaching that would work with a relatively small percentage of the population don’t work with the kind of population we have now. I’m sure you’ve been told this many times. We have a population of people who are trying to move up, on the social ladder, from poverty into the middle class. We have huge numbers of immigrants coming into this country who are often taught English, taught reading and writing with a model that might have been suitable in the 1830s, when we had a relatively a few number of people we were concerned about. Most of whom, were already being taught a foreign language, usually French or Latin, just like 200 years before, and so they could understand things like declensions in a way that are meaningless to a lot of people in this country right now. On the higher end of education, where I am, supposedly, I still see obsessions with standard spelling and standard punctuation. Not so much in the humanities, but, in other fields, where we, meaning people who teach English, have taught from grade school up, that the measure of good English is standard spelling, standard spelling and punctuation. And one of the sad things for me is when I go out into industry and do consulting is that managers, who are completely flummoxed by the inability of their new college graduate employees to be able to write a report, is that the managers don’t have the vocabulary to explain to me what the problem is. They will say, “Spelling. They can’t spell. You have to go in there and do something about spelling and punctuation. It’s just terrible. The reports are unreadable.” Well, I go in and I look at the reports. And, the problem isn’t spelling. I mean, it may be true that they don’t spell that well, or grammar, necessarily, athough, there may be grammar problems. It’s that they can’t organize. They have no conception of what the expectations, rhetorical expectations, of that profession are. But, the manager can’t explain that to me, because he or she has gone through our school system and been punished for misspellings, and grammatical errors, and so, has equated that, that kind of really artificial standardization, with good English, with communication.
David Boulton: And, this trickles back to affect the developing child’s sense of his or her own intelligence. But, because children can’t intuit the ability to conform to our artificial standards, our series of conventions, which are bizarre from their perspective, they come to feel as if there is something fundamentally wrong with themselves.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes. Yeah, there are historical accidents that have become ingrained, or aspects of them have become ingrained in our consciousness as being the equivalent of good communication, when there are lots of other things that we should be looking at. I think part of this, part of the problem is the decline of rhetorical education in the school. That is, and I’m not advocating everyone should go back and try to speak like Cicero, as in the 1800s, early 19th century education. But what rhetorical training did give was a sense of audience. A sense of appropriate speech, depending on the people you’re dealing with. Rhetoric is, I would say, pretty liberal, in that respect. And, the separation in teaching of rhetoric and writing, even though most of our universities have a division called rhetoric and composition, it’s really composition, is unfortunate. And, education colleges, at least the ones I’m familiar with, require a course from the English Department, called modern English grammar, but they don’t require courses in rhetoric.
Communication skills are very problematic still. And, we see this every day – exacerbated by the huge number of immigrants we have in the school system. There are students who come into the public schools who can’t speak English, or who have just a rudimentary sense of English. And, one of my hopes is that this will precipitate a crisis where we look at the entire picture and see what we’re doing, and see that the kind of education that we got in the 1950s is, is just not working anymore.
David Boulton: Again, it’s perpetuating a modern equivalent of the language/literacy divide we were talking about before.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes. It is. And we’re eliminating many people. Just to give you one example, and this is, I realize, about people who have already made it through the system. I had a graduate student who did a thesis some years ago, where she talked to engineering professors about writing and about how writing should be taught to engineering students on the undergraduate and the graduate level. And, their opinion was almost universally that they had nothing to do with that. That this was a problem of the English Department, until you get to the dissertation stage, writing a doctoral dissertation. And, then, there were all kinds of pious comments about mentoring, and, how the dissertation professor should be there at all times helping with the writing and the shaping of the dissertation. And, that’s all very good. The problem is that the people who don’t come into the system already having some concept of the organization and mental processes that go into writing an argument in the traditional, academic way, those people aren’t there. They never make it to the dissertation.
David Boulton: Which comes back to: how do we create the environments that will cause them to learn the necessary abilities in incrementally more complex ways along the whole course, rather than this obstacle course wall at the end of the game.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: And, that’s an accurate term – an obstacle course. Because it means that people are eliminated who haven’t been trained in their early education to think and write this way. I think it’s one of the reasons that you, well, one of the many reasons that you see comparatively few women, getting through in science and engineering education – much better than it was, but still not great. And, certainly people from lower socio-economic classes are just not making it through, except, of course, the ones, the talented tenth, you might say, and many of the others just give up, because they just don’t have that kind of basic education.
Acquired Learning Aversions:
David Boulton: That’s one of our key points. Not only do they give up, they give up because they learn something about themselves, which isn’t true, but, that it’s hard not to believe, which is that they’re fundamentally deficient – not good enough. And, that’s a heck of a wound, scar, image, and aversion to learning, to carry around in life.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes. Well, you’ve probably talked to what are called returning students, which usually means older students, students who’ve dropped out at some point and come back. We don’t get that many here, because they don’t feel welcome, and a lot of them come in through evening school, but, now, they’re being put into the community college system, which is a great receiver of returning students and I think that’s a wonderful thing. But, one of the things I’ve found in teaching the returning students who come my way, and it’s not been huge numbers, is that they are petrified of writing. They are petrified of writing. Now, in fact, once we get them going, because of their life experience, they do fine. But, when they come in they see writing as this tremendous obstacle because of grammar, because of prescriptive grammar that they’ve been taught and spelling and this is the first thing they’ll tell me. Most of them are not shy. They’re older and they come back and they say, “I’m terrified of this course. My grammar and writing are just not good.” Most of them get through fine, without any kind of problems.
David Boulton: They overcome the fear of being confused.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: They do. And, they realize, well, “I can understand this. It’s really not that hard. I was traumatized when I was young.”
David Boulton: Yeah. It’s like the fable, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it comes to mind, of the way elephants are trained in India, with a little rope. They grow up thinking that they can’t break through that rope and so as adults they don’t even try even though it would be easy for them. We’ve got a hundred million people or so in this country that think there’s something wrong with themselves, and they can’t learn because of the emotional response that they have habituated to a confusion that wasn’t their fault.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Right. Yeah. They got a paper back that’s full of red marks and they think, “This is hopeless”. Or they have to go diagram a sentence on the board when they’re in the fourth grade, and their parents don’t even speak English, and their English is a little touch and go, and they can’t get through. Yeah, they give up. They give up.
David Boulton: Let’s step back to something you said which is a real hot button for us, which was about the historical accidents that shaped English writing. Take us on a highlights tour of what you think are the most significant historical accidents associated with the development and evolution of our writing system.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Well, an obvious historical accident is the way England kept getting invaded by different kinds of people, and the way the language developed as a consequence. And, I know you talked to John Fisher about that and how English is a conflation of several different languages. Certainly, Angle-Saxon and French, and Latin, and Scandinavian languages, and a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Those certainly have nothing to do with central planning of language.
I know you’re interested in is the accident of the printing press, which in England served to freeze spelling in the fifteenth century. So, you have these bizarre spellings, which are baffling to foreigners. One of, the obvious example, the ‘ought’, which would not have been a problem to anyone in the fifteenth century, who could read. They would have said, well, there’s ‘throcht’ [Through) and there’s ‘thoucht’ [Thought] and that’s the way they’re pronounced. But, now we have Through and all these other variations of that which are just utterly senseless, and, to me, that is a great accident. Another accident that actually comes out of education, I don’t know if this could be considered an accident or not, was the long predominance of Latin, as a prestige language, long after it ceased to be spoken, long after it served any kind of use whatsoever in northern Europe. It preserved attitudes about language that were then codified by prescriptive grammarians in the eighteenth century that we’re still stuck with. Paradigms of teaching English that are based on Latin grammar that are utterly senseless.
One example I think everyone can understand is the split infinitive. I still find, particularly people who are in the humanities, not necessarily in English, who become enraged over a split infinitive. This is a rule that comes out of the eighteenth century. You can’t say, “To boldly go, where no man has gone before.” That’s a split infinitive. That’s a terrible thing. Well, this is an utterly senseless rule that comes from Latin, because in Latin, you can’t split an infinitive. An infinitive is one word. In English, it’s two words. To write. To run. So, why can’t you put an adverb in the middle? Why can’t you say, “To boldly go”? Well, because somebody back in the eighteenth century said Latin is the most prestigious language. You can’t split an infinitive in Latin. So, therefore, you shouldn’t be able to split an infinitive in English. Uh, that, to me, is, and the kind of prescriptivist tradition, like that, that came out of the eighteenth century, and earlier, is one of the more unfortunate historical accidents that we’re, that we’re stuck with.
The Printing Press:
David Boulton: Go back to the printing press for a moment. Give us a more exploded view of that. I mean, we’ve heard some people address the ‘cost of fonts’. Some have said the printing press just coming at the wrong time in the evolutionary process of written English. And that’s part of what we’re trying to convey. I mean, this soup of languages that hadn’t quite gelled at the time that it gets frozen, or snapped in by subsequent things like the printing press. The printing press technicians were no more conscious of the hundreds of millions of struggling learners that would follow them than…
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: No. They were just trying to print and make some money. Another rather small example of an accident is the loss of letters, several letters that were lost out of the English language, that represented actual sounds. And, they were lost simply because the printers, came from the Low Countries, and, the actual typeface came from the Low Countries, where they didn’t have those letters, or, they had lost them centuries before. And, so, an example, I think, that will be familiar to most people is, you’ll be driving along through a shopping district, and there’ll be a cute little shop that says: “Ye Olde Tea Shoppe”. Well, the ‘y’ in Old English would have been a letter called Thorn, which was being used up into the fifteenth century, and, when they started printing, the Dutch didn’t have a Thorn. So, they used something that looked like a Thorn, which was a ‘y’. And so no one, ever, ever said, “Ye Olde Tea Shoppe.’ They always said, “The Olde Tea Shoppe.” An accident of print. It probably would have been better if printing came in at another time, but we don’t get any choices in those matters. It would have been better once a relatively standardized form of English had been agreed on but we don’t get to make those choices. We just do the best we can. And, certainly, other languages have fared much worse than English, by being subjected to the Latin alphabet, and the sounds that missionaries and other well-intentioned people heard and translated into the Latin alphabet, languages of native Americans, for example, which contain all kinds of sounds that can in no way be represented by the Latin alphabet, and yet found their way into print, and then, they’re stuck with it. Irish is another example. The absolutely baffling spelling of the Irish language, which the Irish have tried to undo, in this century, undo the work of a thousand years before, where you have monks coming in from Italy and saying, “What on earth are these people saying?” And trying to reproduce the sounds of the Celtic language that was being used, using Latin letters, and they were stuck with that until the early twentieth century, when they tried to simplify. Well, the fact that almost nobody spoke Irish, only something like five percent of the population, helped.
Future of Democracy:
Cori Stennett: Isn’t this the future of our democracy? Isn’t what we’re talking about linked to the future of our democracy as a country.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Right. The future of participatory democracy is tied up in this, and, we have a lot of people concerned about it. We don’t have as many people as we should doing something about it in my opinion.
You see, people who are in major research universities have a vested interest in things as they are. I mean, most of us would like to feel that we’re part of helping things to change. There are things that we do, in this department, service learning, where we send our students out to work with kids, where we will send faculty members and graduate students out to work with children in poor areas. But, it seems very hit-or-miss to me. I know there are lots of good people working on it. I’ve gone through your web site. I’ve been really impressed. I think you could probably interview every linguist in the United States and you wouldn’t have anyone say, “You need to have them diagramming sentences on the board, and, spelling is the most important thing in the development of communication skills.” And, yet, we don’t seem to be going anywhere as fast as we need to be. I don’t want to be pessimistic and say we’re not making progress. And, I think attitudes are changing. But, time’s moving on.
David Boulton: There’s a flat line. There may be small, incremental improvement, but, the whole literacy thing’s been a flat line for a long time.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes.
David Boulton: There’ve been all these changes. Let’s teach this way. Let’s teach that way, and flat line it remains. But, meantime, the society’s accelerating in its demand for literacy, and therefore, there’s more falling out than ever before.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Absolutely. Yeah, I wish you could have been here last week. We had a grad student come in and she was talking about the dissertation that she wants to write, and, she’s completed everything but her dissertation in English, and, she’s now teaching in the public school system in Houston, where most of her students are Spanish speakers, are ESL [English as a Second Language]. And, to hear her talk about the gap between the students that she teaches and the kind of standardized testing that’s being implemented in the state of Texas and the likelihood of the one meeting the expectations of the other is just appalling.
David Boulton: Yeah. Did you see that CNN report just two weekends ago? High-stakes testing?
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: No.
David Boulton: Yeah. It was very much on the point. These tests have implicit assumptions about cultural and social relevance that are way off the mark and, you know, sidelining even more and more people.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes.
The Chancery Scribes:
Cori Stennett: Earlier you referred to the medieval Chancery, the “Chancery scribes”. To someone who hasn’t studied English, who hasn’t really delved into this space, what do we mean? What are we talking about? I’m looking for something that’s kind of a basic, for someone to understand. How many people? What was this tribe of scribes, so to speak? How many people are we talking about that were involved within the Chancery?
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: I noticed John Fisher said 220, and if you include all the various hangers-on, and what we would call contract workers, that’s probably right. I think they had probably more like a hundred people who were officially, a hundred to a hundred and twenty people who were officially classified as Chancery clerks. The Royal Chancery was as close to the central administrative office of the Royal government as you would have as a modern equivalent.
The Chancery started off as the scriptorium, or writing pool of the King. That is, it simply produced decrees, but it very quickly assumed some judicial and legal functions. So, at the very top of the Chancery you have twelve clerks who oversaw the production of things like treaties, very important documents, others, like deeds, maybe less. And, underneath these twelve were a rather large number of people of intermediate status, who, at the very bottom did nothing but copying and writing. And, others, as they moved up, actually had some kind of discretion in what they did. And, it’s these lower-ranking people that, I think, were training, law students, and others.
David Boulton: They were the interface for radiation.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yeah, yeah. Because they didn’t have much money.
David Boulton: I remember when John first brought this up, you know, in our phone conversation, he talked about twenty-six, and then it later went to two hundred and twenty or something, as if there really was this central core, and then these rings around them.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Well, I think that’s accurate. The question is how wide the rings go. And, that book I worked on, which is based on looking at people who signed off on documents, and then other people who were named, say, in a law case, as being a Chancery clerk. I think I came up with about a hundred and twenty. But, it could very well be more. And, this is also the Chancery of Henry the Fifth, and Henry cut back. He was very efficient. And, they fired a lot of people. He made his Chancellor the Donald Trump of the time. The Chancery worked directly under the Chancellor of England, which is why it’s called the Chancery. So, it was like the central administration. Now, there was also the Exchequer, which dealt with the finances. So, you know, that’s the equivalent of the central government.
David Boulton: I have a sense that these scribes, because they were so close, and because they spoke the language and they were the interface for so many things, that a lot of differentiation in governmental function would follow from them, rather than exist before them, in a way.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Well, it did. Because… The Exchequer had one main function, which was to deal with finances and taxes. Because the Chancery had the capability of evolving in some way, it became the Court of Chancery, a term that we still use. The Chancellors’ Court was a court in which, if you couldn’t find a remedy under the existing court systems, and there were several, you could come to the Chancery. And, so it became very popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. So, some of these Chancery clerks were also functioning as attorneys in their own court. They were helping to write the documents that would enable these cases to go forward. And, eventually, by the time you get to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when you’re talking about Chancery, everyone thinks about the Court of Chancery. And the most famous case is the Charles Dickens’ novel, Bleak House, in which the Chancery was a place you wanted to go because there was some flexibility. The Chancellor could say, “Well. OK. We’ll give you the benefit of the doubt even though strictly speaking, the law says this.” Where it was a very flexible case, to where it became just a sinkhole of expenses and delays and lawyers.
David Boulton: The modern court.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yeah. So, that’s a source, I think, of confusion when people hear the Chancery. But, in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, the Chancery Court was still a minor function, or a lesser function of the Chancery itself, which still mainly dealt with the administration. They kept the rolls of Parliament, for example. They were the records office. They stored records in the Tower of London, and in this place in the middle of London. And, so, if you wanted to find a, if the King had granted you, your great-great-grandfather some land, and there was a letter that said that, you would go to the Chancery and pay them some money and they would go through their rolls and they’d find that for you, in Latin, you know.
Cori Stennett: That puts it in perspective, thank you. When we talk about the history, and when we talk about the Chancery scribes, we get a lot of blank looks, people not really knowing what we’re talking about. So, I appreciate your elaboration.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yeah. Well, it was a mixed group, and I think at the beginning the upper rank of the Chancery clerks, I think, are the ones that John and I were first looking at, were really pretty much removed from English. They were very well-to-do. They had all kinds of ways of making money, particularly through land speculation because the records of land transfers would come to them, and the rolls of the time were just filled with these land investments, where everybody is a Chancery clerk. And, you know, they’d get hold of some land, and then they, for a fee, they let it go later.
David Boulton: There was no SEC watching over insider knowledge.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Certainly not. They were certainly not. I mean, that’s why you wanted the job, because it was insider trading. I mean, that was just a given in any kind of medieval government, very much like the State of Lousiana, until recently.
David Boulton: Until recently. OK. Well, that part will read well to some later on.
The Textual Awakening of the Middle Class:
David Boulton: One of the things that really attracted me to your web page when I first read it was this phrase, “The textual awakening of the middle class.”
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes.
David Boulton: That kind of leads back into one of our themes in a way, which is that reading changes who we are.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes.
David Boulton: Writing changes who we are. When we engage in this it creates needs. And, the need wants us to engage more. And, the more we engage, then there’s more need. And, it just ratchets itself – spirals up into ever greater interdependency..
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Well, you see what happened to the English central government, which is that they start off with just a few records, and then it snowballs. And, what I’m looking at is how that happens to the rest of us. By textual awakening, you realize that’s a kind of dramatic, catchy title, but I’m really writing about how middle class citizens, especially in London, acquired writing practices, personal writing practices. And, so, there’s a transference of this dependence on writing from these clerical and legal classes to ordinary people, what we would call ordinary, middle class people. And, that happened in the fifteenth century. That was the beginning of it. And, now, we’re enmeshed in it. We’ve just paid our taxes. We know exactly how bad it can get, going through these records. So, we’ve all become thirteenth century Chancery clerks, in a way.
David Boulton: Yeah. Or, as suggested by our series title, Children of the Code.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Children of the Code. We have all become Children of the Code, in some way or another. So, I’m looking at how this all began, when these merchants, and in some cases their wives, started saying, “I can do that too. Let’s see how it would be if I sent a letter to my cousin asking for a couple of bottles of wine.” And, there are plenty of letters that have no historical interest in the National Archives of Britain. I’ve got one next door, a copy of one, where this student is writing and saying, “Will you send me some cheeses, Mom?” And, of course there are lots of student letters, because they’re always writing home, just like they are now, “By the way, I need some money.” Or, they’re writing to their future employer, “Have you looked into that job for me yet?” So, it’s beginning to gell that this is a skill that they need to get along in life. So, that’s what I mean by textual awakening, just this sense that, “I can do this too.”
David Boulton: And its snowballing effect. A few do it. And more and more do it. More and more do it. And we get, like you said, we’re doing our tax returns.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yes, or dealing with HMOs. Even worse. Your money or your life.
David Boulton: Is there something we didn’t talk about that you think’s vital, given your sense of what we’re about?
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: No. I think I probably lectured too much. I apologize.
David Boulton: No, no, no. I appreciate your perspective on this. This is one of the things that’s really missing out there, the sense that it hasn’t always been like this. This developed.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yeah.
David Boulton: And, it developed in ways that there wasn’t any cognitive scientists, and developmental psychologists, or modern code scientists, or English professors all sitting around saying, “Let’s do this right, given its importance.”
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Yeah. Let’s clear the boards here and go back and see what really works and how people can move into this world, which is not going to go away. I mean, we’re still going to have our “Through.” I just don’t think there’s any hope for simplified spelling. Let’s see how we can get people into this in a way that actually works, instead of trying to teach them a system that may have worked with ten percent of the population in 1735, but, it’s just not going to cut it with the population that we’ve got now. And, you know, you’ve got a wonderful list of people who’ve probably got suggestions. We ought to, anybody who’s behind the No Child Left Behind bill probably needs to look at this, but probably won’t, they just…
David Boulton: Our basic theme is we’ve got to catch the ball before we throw it. And, we have been trying to throw this thing in every different which way, but, we haven’t taken the time to really understand what we’re talking about, as a society. And, that’s what we’re trying to inspire, and catalyze.
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Well, you’re really talking about a root and branch approach. Because I think we have some good current models of teaching writing, and maybe we have several good models of teaching writing. But, when you look at the magnitude of the problem, and the fact that we’re still grinding out teachers who have no more concept of the social history of English when they leave the university than when they came in, you know, that’s a problem. That is, I think most education colleges require a course in English linguistics, which is good, but, a lot of times it’s taught from a very technical point of view. You talk about Grimm’s law, and things like that. Well, these are the teachers who, the next year, are going to go off into these school districts where three-quarters of the students speak Spanish, or Vietnamese is spoken at home as in parts of Louisiana, or, some variety of Black English. And, they’re going to go into the classroom and may very well think that these are somehow debased forms of English, that Black English is just a kind of form of English spoken by people who haven’t thought about it very much, when, in fact, it’s a very highly evolved form of English. And, in some senses a more evolved form of English than so-called Standard English, because it’s carried language change one step farther, in many cases, than Standard English. But, these teachers are not going to know that. They’re going to go in with, maybe good intentions, but a wrong knowledge base. So, time for a change.
David Boulton: Yes.
Cori Stennett: One last question, as we wrap up here. You mentioned spelling reform attempts earlier. Just out of curiosity, being who you are, and studying in this, what’s your favorite spelling reform attempt story? Would you share that with us? Is there one that really tickled you, or that you got a real kick out of?
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Well, frankly, no, because they all fail so badly. I think George Bernard Shaw’s, attempts are amusing. But, that’s because I think Shaw was so full of himself that he actually, he thought he was such an important figure, uh, that he could actually implement a change on his own, just by being GBS. There were lots of good attempts like that, good-hearted attempts like that in the nineteenth century. There was another guy, F. J. Furnivall, who was one of these Victorian busybodies. Most of us in English knew him because he edited, and very badly, many, many editions of Middle English text. And, he wrote all of his introductions in something like the kind of spelling reform that Shaw advocated. I think Shaw came out of that Fabian Socialist tradition. And, they really look quaint, I think, nowadays. And, one of the problems is that if you try to reform spelling to make it, English spelling, to make it sound like it’s pronounced, well, who’s doing the pronouncing? So, they may very well look like what Shaw and Furnivall pronounced, but it sure doesn’t look like the way they talk over here in Thibodaux. And, that’s a problem with spelling reform is that you’ve got to decide on how things are actually pronounced. And, of course, we and the British have a different approach to that.
Cori Stennett: Thank you. You put that in perspective.
David Boulton: Thank you so much for taking the time with us today:
Dr. Malcolm Richardson: Thank you.
Special thanks to volunteer Carol Covin for transcribing this interview.