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Reviewed by:
  • Trading Tongues: Merchants, Multilingualism, and Medieval Literature by Jonathan Hsy
  • Pamela Troyer
Jonathan Hsy. Trading Tongues: Merchants, Multilingualism, and Medieval Literature. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2013. 237p.

As a medievalist I expected to learn much from Jonathan Hsy’s new book. And I did. It is a rich and well researched exploration of literary and commercial [End Page 96] translingualism in medieval “contact zones”: teeming cities, intercultural marketplaces, ports of entry, and travel routes. What I did not expect was to find the book so directly applicable to my modern-day literature courses, which I now view in a new way as “contact zones,” not just of students from different cultures and languages but also of cultures across centuries. A surprising inspirations for his study is Borderlands: La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldúa’s emotionally charged reflection in prose, poetry, and two languages on her experience as a Mexican immigrant in the U.S. Hsy uses her bi-genre/bi-lingual model, her self-described “unruly tongue,” in sympathetic juxtaposition with medieval translingual poets whose work, like hers, became “a highly charged locus for theorizing identities across changing environments” (195). Comparisons such as these helped me to re-contextualize my presentation of medieval literature in a present-day classroom.

Trading Tongues is a detailed examination of different sorts of medieval writers and works beginning with a chapter entitled “Chaucer’s Polyglot Dwellings: Home and Custom’s House” in which Hsy explores the eclectic language of London’s waterfront and how “the activities conducted there produced a voluminous amount of mixed-language documents” (38). One of these documents is The Shipman’s Tale and its “Francophone business jargon” which, through ““translingual semantic drift,” represents shady trading in the multiple meanings of such words “cosnynge,” “taillying,” and “frankes.”The study of Chaucer’s literary business is followed by an examination of John Gower’s poetry, in which “legal and economic transactions are encoded as linguistic transactions” (111). Here, I was particularly interested in Hsy’s processing of Gower’s language as analogous to the “ethnolinguistic difference” evident in petitions to the Crown by the Silkwomen’s Guild. In fact, throughout the text, Hsy offers interesting examples of women’s multilinguistic voices, including a chapter devoted to Margery Kempe’s autobiography, which he sees as a travel narrative that self-consciously denies its multilingualism for effect. It depends on “Margery’s purported monolingualism as a narrative device, seeking to extend the motif of the protagonist’s unlikely, miraculous authority” (136).

Included with these literary studies is an analysis of the evolution of William Caxton’s linguistic decisions and that of two representative London merchants--Robert Fabyan, a draper, and Richard Hill, a grocer—whose observations in business records interlace language registers and vocabularies representative of London’s commercial activities. Finally Hsy examines the poetry of Charles d’Orleans, a war hostage in the English court, as a “fluid deterritorialization of language that often underlies translingual writing” (194). One term of art Hsy uses in his discussion of translingualism is code-switching, which he applies in the broad sense of “alternation between languages (or different registers of any given language) within a single utterance or text” (58-59). In his final chapter, [End Page 97] Hsy suggests that Charles’ “translingual ouevre . . . invites us to think beyond functional and pragmatic analyses of code-switching to more imaginative understandings, and his poetry allows us to more deeply explore how writers express the subjective experience of linguistic disorientation” (199). Remarkably Hsy then moves to compare Charles’ code-switching to that of Gloria Anzaldúa’s, an unexpected and invigorating flourish.

After reading Trading Tongues, I experimented with Hsy’s ideas in a required course I teach that includes readings from Canterbury Tales. The class had students majoring in literary studies, secondary or elementary education, and creative writing. Three of them were bilingual and most of them from area public schools, which are now multilingual communities; the Denver Public Schools posts its “top languages spoken” as Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, Somali, Amharic, Nepali, and Russian. Since we only spend six weeks on Chaucer’s works, I have never assigned the Man of Law’s Tale, but after reading...