Ancrene Wisse and Hali Meiðhad is a 1929 essay by J. R. R. Tolkien on the 13th century early Middle English treatise Ancrene Wisse "The Anchoresses' Rule", and on the tract on virginity Hali Meiðhad "Holy Maidenhood". The essay has been called "the most perfect of tolkien's academic pieces".
In this essay J. R. R. Tolkien first coined the term "AB language" to describe the remarkable orthographic and linguistic consistency he noticed between the Corpus version of Ancrene Wisse (manuscript "A" in Hall's Early Middle English) and Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 34, containing a complete selection of what is now called the Katherine Group (Hall's manuscript "B"). These remarkable similarities (despite the fact that the two manuscripts were written by different scribes) suggest that the original texts were written in roughly the same place and time (Tolkien, p. 111). The term "AB language" is now rather baffling - since few now refer to Corpus as "A" or Bodley 34 as "B," but it has stuck, for better or worse. What is remarkable about the AB language is not so much that it represents a distinctive regional dialect, but the fact that it is really a kind of standard written language, descended in part from late Old English, and such a standard implies a common literate community.
What are the characteristics of AB language? S. R. T. O. d'Ardenne undertook a thorough description of it in her edition of the life of St. Juliana (one of the Katherine Group texts) and reports the following features:
1) the vocabulary contains a roughly equal mixture of French and Norse loans, though they seem to have been completely naturalized in English. That is, the French words in AW seem to be in common colloquial use. Further, the extent of French influence on the vocabulary is probably minimized because the scribes were "conservative clerks who loved the English language as they knew it" (p. 177). The strong Norse elements imply that the underlying local dialect was situated near the old centers of Danish influence, i.e., further north.
2) the spelling is conservative, resisting both the trends introduced by Anglo-Norman scribes as well as sound changes in the local dialect. In this sense, the spelling system may be consciously "English," drawing on literate traditions going back to late Anglo-Saxon England. Further, it is "a literary idiom - not a phonetic transcript from the mouths of peasants made by practical philologists" (p. 178).
3) though literate, the AB language has "its roots in living speech" and makes remarkable use of vigorous colloquial speech (p. 178).
4) it contains some of the archaic diction and alliterative flow of "ancient English" (p. 178).
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