After several years of detective work, philologists at the University of Stavanger in Norway have collected a unique collection of texts online and they're about to start the most comprehensive analysis of middle English ever.

During the last few years, associate professor Merja Stenroos and post doctor Martti Mäkinen at the University of Stavanger have travelled around Britain and read original handwritten leather manuscripts from the 1300s–1500s.

"It is as natural for us in Stavanger to research Middle English as it is for English researchers. None of us have this language as our mother tongue anyway, says Merja Stenroos, who is managing the project titled MEG - Middle English Grammar.

 Merja Stenroos Martti Mäkinen  15th century Book of Hours Folio

The MEG project was given 6,1 million NOK from the Research Council of Norway in 2006. The first part of the project is about transcribing the 1000 originals which have been preserved, and turn them into digital texts. In April this year, researchers at the University of Stavanger in Norway launched a unique collection of newly transcribed texts from the late middle ages on the University web pages.

The MEG project builds on previous work on A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English, carried out at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. The collection contains legal, religious, medical and astrological texts, but also cookery books and literary texts, such as romances and dramas. Most of the texts have never been digitised.

The interpretation and digitising was started ten years ago. Aside from Merja Steenroos and Martti Mäkinen, the Stavanger team consists of three master students and two research fellows, Vibeke Jensen Bratland and Hildegunn Støle. And in Britain, Professor Jeremy J. Smith is at the University of Glasgow, and post doctor Simon Horobin is at the University of Oxford.

"What`s unique about The Middle English Grammar Corpus (MEG-C) is that it is the only collection where the texts are transcribed directly from the handwritten." Steenroos explains that previous text collections were based on printed editions which have been edited, and where the language has been normalised.

In the 1300s, the English court was French speaking, and the Catholic church used a lot of Latin. The English written language was hardly used at all. But throughout the late middle ages, it became more and more common to write in the language that was spoken. After a while, writing workshops starting to turn up all over the country, and each workshop had their own language variant which was consistent with local dialect.

"It is very interesting for us to study the dialectic variants, as they tell us about the changes in the language. We can, based on the many dialect words, form some theories about how language found it's way to what eventually became the standard", says Stenroos.

Associate professor Merja Stenroos has during the last few years trained five others in the art of interpreting and transcribing Middle English. The transcribing master tells us about the many pitfalls which await a researcher in Middle English.

"It is an enormous detective work. It is easily done to miss a line, and it isn't always obvious where a sentence begins, and where it stops. Although the texts follow each other in a printed book, it doesn't follow that they belong together. And sometimes the same text has been written by several different writers", says the philologist.

In addition to exploring the language itself, the philologists have to do a lot of detective work to find historical details around the texts they read. Dating and localising the texts and identifying the writers is an important job.

The researchers keep making discoveries that are completely new. The great finds usually turn into scientific articles. Steenroos has for instance written an article about an English dialect which for hundreds of years didn’t have words for “he” and “she”. And one of the master students found the word “barter” in a text written a hundred years earlier than what the Oxford English Dictionary had registered.

"When we make discoveries like these, we contact the OED and notify them. What may seem like nitpicking to some, are exiting finds for us", as Steenroos points out.

What the researchers are itching to do now, is to start using the search engine in the database. Thanks to computer technology, the Stavanger philologists can study Middle English in greater depth and breadth than researchers have ever been able to before.

"When the database has been filled with all thousands of texts, it will function as a kind of dictionary. It will be a completely new and important instrument for finding the patterns in the medieval language. We can look up a word, and get a number of variants of the same word. And we can find out, for instance, why one spelling variant has been chosen over another in a certain region of the country, and learn more about the development of the language in terms of grammar and structure. The database gives us an amazing opportunity to present the first extensive description of Middle English", says Mäkinen.

More on the Middle English Grammar Project here.