Trading Tongues

Merchants, Multilingualism, and Medieval Literature

Jonathan Hsy

Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture


Literary Criticism/Medieval; Language Arts & Disciplines/Linguistics
237 pp. 6x9

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Table of Contents

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The author recommends the following links:

In the Middle

Postmedieval,Vol. 4, Issue 2: Medieval Mobilities

Marion Turner, A Handbook of Middle English Studies

David Wallace, Europe: A Literary History, 1348–1418

Language Log

Medieval Manuscripts Blog


“Hsy’s development of the concept ‘translingual’—emphasizing the capacity for languages within the same space to interact, to influence, and to transform each other through networks of exchange— is visionary. Trading Tongues is poised to make a significant contribution both to linguistic studies of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in England and to the study of Middle English literature.” — Christopher Cannon, New York University

Trading Tongues is accomplished, intelligent, and assiduous. Hsy provides some excellent and original close readings of multilingual texts; I particularly admire his chapter on London merchants, and his final discussion of a Charles d’Orléans ballade is superbly interesting. The research is strong, the style elegant and well-turned, and the quality of argument high.” —Ardis Butterfield, Yale University

Trading Tongues offers fresh approaches to the multilingualism of major early English authors like Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, Margery Kempe, and William Caxton, and lesser-known figures like French lyricist Charles d’Orléans. Juxtaposing literary works with contemporaneous Latin and French civic records, mixed-language merchant miscellanies, and bilingual phrasebooks, Jonathan Hsy illustrates how languages commingled in late medieval and early modern cities. Chaucer, a customs official for the Port of London, infused English poetry with French and Latin merchant jargon, and London merchants incorporated Latin and vernacular verse forms into trilingual account books.

Hsy examines how writers working in English, Latin, and French (and combinations thereof) theorized the rich contours of polyglot identity. In a range of genres—from multilingual lyrics, poems about urban life, and autobiographical narratives—writers found venues to consider their own linguistic capacities and to develop new modes of conceiving language contact and exchange. Interweaving close readings of medieval texts with insights from sociolinguistics and postcolonial theory, Trading Tongues not only illuminates how multilingual identities were expressed in the past; it generates new ways of thinking about cultural contact and language crossings in our own time.

Jonathan Hsy is assistant professor of English at The George Washington University.