Title Background

Defining Markedness in Middle English

Defining Markedness in Middle English

To perceive structures as peculiar (or simply wrong), speakers need to have a sense of what is well-formed or normal. Native speakers of any language have this sense by virtue of being native speakers. They use it to distinguish grammatical from ungrammatical structures, which certainly is not to say every native speaker will define well-formedness in exactly the same way. Not being native speakers of Middle English and lacking any fourteenth-century English grammar books or dictionaries, however, we can make these judgements on behalf of L and his contemporaries only by examining late medieval usages, modern dictionaries, textual notes, and the like. Within this framework, this paper looks at two peculiar nouns — abeggeth and abribeth — that occur in the C text of PPl. It places the words in the contexts of L’s usage in general, of related Middle English usages (including those of Chaucer, Trevisa, and Robert of Gloucester), and of the words’ historical formation in order to suggest their immediate rhetorical effect. The words, and the nominal morpheme that made them, disappeared by the end of the Middle Ages, emphasizing their markedness but also the limitations of what is knowable about the pragmatics of Middle English. If markedness separates typical from atypical usage, and if both historiography’s Uniformitarian Principle and the extant record indicate it existed in the Middle Ages, the difficulty for the Middle English period is that in many ways as little is known about unmarked forms as about their marked counterparts.


Yearbook of Langland Studies, 30 (2016), 107–22.


Machan, Tim William