Meddling with English.

A Guardian piece by Nancy Groves focuses on Caroline Bergvall’s multilingual performance Raga Dawn, a part of Estuary, “a 16-day festival celebrating the distinct character of the Essex ‘edgelands’ between Tilbury and Southend”:

Not only is Bergvall duetting her poetry with classical singer Peyee Chen, to a score by Gavin Bryars, the pair are accompanied by the recorded voices of the Punjabi-speaking community of Southend and a group of Romansh speakers from Switzerland. […]

Blame the polyphony of Raga Dawn on Bergvall’s “bilingual brain” – her description, incidentally, though “multilingual” might be more accurate. Born in Germany to French and Norwegian parents, she moved to London in 1989, drawn by art and love (namely, her then girlfriend), and became energised by the queer arts scene of the Vauxhall underground.

As interesting as all that is, what prompted me to post was this passage:

Bergvall’s thoughts on these issues are set out in a thought-provoking 2010 essay, Middling English, in which she attempts to break down the development of modern English into four elements: midden, middle, middling and meddle. As she puts it, the “midden” is the soils of the English language, originated in multiple cultures. The “middle” is the historical Middle English period where the language settled into the one we recognise today. “Middling” is any attempt to standardise English, too often in prejudicial ways. This is something we see playing out in current political and social debate. Should new immigrants learn English as standard? And if so, what English do we mean? As Bergvall says, every new generation brings their own words to the mix: “Pop music and rap and even slam poetry all disturb the language.”

So what about the “meddle”? “The meddle is the artist or writer who messes things up and shows up the language’s complexity and richness,” says Bergvall. “The meddle is wanting to tackle issues, to bring other areas of awareness to the work you make.” Audiences can meddle, too, she adds. “We’re simply jumping in and activating it.”

Good for her: more meddling, less middling! (Thanks go to Trevor for the link.)


  1. David Marjanović says

    I like that.

  2. Interestingly (but this might depend on your definition of interesting), Meddle is a common surname in Southend. Or to be even more specific, in Old Leigh. Greetings to Sarah, Martin and Olivia, the three Meddles I know best!

  3. It’s not in any of my reference books; I wonder what the origin is?

  4. The Southend Meddles are descended from one Stephen Madle (1791-1859). The surname Madle is ultimately from French Mâle.

  5. Thanks! I wonder how the -d- got in there?

  6. Maybe it’s a survival? This site says:

    Première hypothèse, un lieu planté de pommiers (en latin malum = pomme, mais ce mot avait déjà été remplacé depuis longtemps par poma). Autre hypothèse, sans doute plus probable, un nom de personne d’origine germanique, Madalhari, raccourci en Malhari (madal = conseil, réunion + hari = armée).

  7. cf. meddle < Fr. mesler; I don’t know why.

    Ed. I don’t know why [ei] became [ε] either. I wish Piotr would show up.

  8. Jim (another one) says

    “cf. meddle < Fr. mesler; I don’t know why."

    Maybe like "bidness" < business.

  9. Trond Engen says

    I had the thought that some intermediate stage between mesl- and mêl- could have been interpreted as a debucxalized /me?l/. But I don’t think that’s a thing.

  10. Trond Engen says

    Maybe that’s /meɦl-/. And what I propose would presumably count as debuccalization also in French. Still not a thing, though.

  11. Trond Engen says

    And I should probably have used square brackets. I didn’t mean to suggest that the voiced glottal fricative was a phoneme of either French or English. Even as not a thing.

  12. Eli Nelson says

    I checked the OED. I’m not sure how reliable it is for Romance etymology, but it does give several explanations and examples of analogous words. Apparently forms spelled with “dl” instead of “sl” (such as “medler” for mesler) did exist in French (specifically, “Anglo-French”). The entry for meddle attributes the /d/ in English to an “early Old French” sound change of /z/ > /ð/ that occurred “before a voiced dental consonant” (I’m not sure what other contexts this is supposed to cover besides before /l/). It says to compare medley (which is kind of the same word), medle (an obscure term for the fruit of the medlar tree) and Middle English spellings like “idle” for isle and “madle” for male.

    The OED entry for isle contradicts the /z/ > /ð/ explanation and provides another. It says the form “idle” developed from a hypothetical form *isdle, with epenthetic /d/ inserted between s (presumably realized as [z]) and /l/; this sound change is compared to the development of /d/ in coudre < Latin consuere.


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