A tribute to Meg Laing (by Prof. Donka Minkova)

by Donka Minkova

For Meg

Meg and Donka hugging and smiling in a pub
Meg Laing and Donka Minkova

The immediate shock, pain, disbelief in dear Meg’s untimely death is over, but as long as I live, I will remember how her wise, warm and sunny presence made me happy. She had time and love for everyone. Every hour, every day spent with her, whether at conferences, in LA, as her house guest, on hikes, on Skype, was a memorable event. Like the whole English Historical Linguistics world, I knew Meg’s work long before we met in person thirty years ago, and she was so miraculously open and friendly that a ride next to her on a post-conference excursion became the beginning of a much, much, cherished friendship.

Meg’s curiosity about the world, its people and every aspect of their lives was inexhaustible. There was no topic that she would dismiss as uninteresting, from the minute and possibly boring details of a friend’s indisposition, or the quality of the lettuce at the market, to art, history, music, poetry, and her beloved family. Her knowledge, intellect, and scintillating personality made her a sought-after invited speaker at highly prestigious venues. Meg had the rare talent to present serious academic work with humor and flair, engaging the audience, making complex material simple. Her riveting lecture “Texting the Past: Medieval Writing – Who Needs Spell-Check?” when she was a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in May 2010, kept faculty and students spellbound. In the next days she was followed by colleagues and students with questions, and for some of them her visit to UCLA was an important landmark in their handling of primary data. It was a triumph, we were so lucky, but Meg’s visit was cut a little short by the air-travel disruptions from the explosion of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. She made it back home safe and sound, but she missed a pre-planned hike in the Hollywood hills.

It is hard to separate the very dear personal friend from the vibrant, probing, scholarly persona behind Meg’s charming smile, but I would like to say a few words as a beneficiary of her scholarly legacy.

Meg was very clear about her research priorities: she put primary data first. She described her tour-de-force chapter on the records of syncope in the Middle English verbal inflections (Laing 2009), as a “Mystery Bus Tour”. This involved gathering first-hand information which allows the touring scholar to “arrive” at a previously unstated destination, a research methodology of which she was both an advocate and a practitioner. Typical Meg, she contrasted that methodology with a “Conjuring Trick” approach in which… “the existence of the emerging rabbit has nothing much to do with the previously presented evidence.” Not surprisingly, that chapter, based on LAEME and LALME, makes available the most detailed empirical base in print for tracking the history of verbal inflectional syncope, a treasure trove for historians of English and theoretical linguists.

Meg’s most prominent scholarly association is LAEME, and its offspring CoNE, resources for generations to come, and she was also an important contributor to eLALME. Her extensive list of publications and invited talks speaks for itself. What is particularly remarkable is the way that the Atlas expertise flourished further into astonishing new findings and interpretations of key topics in the history of English. Starting with the Laing and Lass (2003) paper “Tales of the 1001 Nists. The Phonological Implications of Litteral Substitution Sets in 13th-century South-West-Midland texts” she collaborated with Roger Lass on a dozen important projects. Two Laing-Lass studies (2016, 2019) on the significance of the Middle English ‘qu-‘ type spellings produced a comprehensive overview of the data and canvassed the distinct possibility (even probability) that in a very complex and highly variable continuum the ‘qu’ type spellings represent fortition to [kw]. In her words, the research meant that she was “thoroughly embroiled in Laocoonian toils”, but the outcome of these studies is there for generations to come. Her single-authored and co-authored research publications have become models of how to combine meticulous investigative work with theoretical acumen. Working with documents that had no fixed “correct” spelling, Meg showed how the written language was affected by numerous variables, including contemporary scribes’ responses to multilingualism, regional diversity, and developments in styles of script. A passionate word-gamer herself, Meg showed that Early Middle English scribes devised spelling systems characterized by flexible matrices of substitution and variation. Indeed, interpreting the systems sometimes requires the imaginative logic needed for any substitutional code or word game. She had the imagination and the logic: Meg’s work is foundational for the ‘future’ of the history of the English language.

Dear Ian, Catriona, Alex and Meredith,
Meg was so deeply proud of you. I share your grief over Meg’s physical absence.
She lives in our hearts.