Monday, November 20, 2006

The Return of English: from the Shadows to the Sunshine.

In my previous two articles I’ve spent a good deal of time harking on about the vices and the virtues of King William , Duke of Normandy, the man with a thousand archers. We’ve seen that he was responsible for the English language becoming virtually an exile in its own country, as Norman French became the language of authority and the landed classes.

Moreover, he caused thousands of flowery French and Latinised words to infiltrate the English language, and thus changed its appearance for good (but not for the good, according to the Anglo-Saxon purists). And, perhaps most importantly, he led English into other foreign parts, where it began its gentle but sturdy stroll towards the status of world language (OK, this point might be stretching the truth a little, but let’s not let facts get in the way of a good story, eh!?). So was he villain or victim, saint or sinner?

Well, let’s withhold our judgement on the dastardly Duke a little longer, as we examine the progress that English made over the two or three hundred years after his first arrival on the shores of southern England. So, what I’d like to do is look at a couple of things this week. Firstly, there’s the fact that the Duke actually helped to create the linguistic diversity that exists today in the British Isles. From there, I’d like to go on and look at some of the uncomplimentary remarks made about that variety way back then. And finally, I’ll offer a brief glimpse at the subsequent years, as English crawled its way back into the higher ranks of public usage.

The first thing to realise is that partly as a result of English being reduced to the hedgerows and gutters as a largely spoken language, rarely written down, it failed to develop a standard. Instead, dialects flourished in the British Isles during the 12th and 13th centuries, although there was a good deal of ‘mutual intelligibility’ between them.

Some of you might remember that good old King Alfred had made an early attempt to standardise the spelling of English, and thus the language itself. However, the ‘Winchester Scriptorium’ that he had set up centuries before (responsible for producing books written in English) was promptly closed down by King William. This in turn led to a collapse in the standard, and a return to the regionalism of earlier times. Linguistic historians have noted that consequently “English developed striking dialect differences, as northern parts of the country continued to be influenced by Scandinavian languages, while parts of the south became affected by intimate contact with French”.

In fact, travellers of those times often noted just how different the English spoken in the north of the country was from that spoken in the south. John Trevisa, an adventurous wandering scribe of the early 14th century, noted how the tongue spoken north of the river Humber and around York was “scharpe, slitting, frotynge and unchape”. By this he apparently meant that it was quite shapeless in its sound, and grated like the sound of ripping cloth.

Ripping yarn or not, toffee-nosed southerners like Mr Trevisa often made these comments out of a sense of cultural, and not merely linguistic, superiority, as not only had his version of the tongue absorbed more of the apparently ‘civilising’ features of Norman French, the south was more affluent and populous than the north. Personally, having lived myself just a few yards from the banks of the river Humber, and being a jessie-boy Londoner to boot, I can say that little has changed.

Anyway, what about the ‘standard’ version? How long did it take for standard English to make its comeback as the language of administration? Well, look at things this way. King Henry the 4th was the first English monarch in over 300 years to speak English as his first language, and his arrival in 1399 was preceded by almost a century of consolidation. The fact that England and France were at war for 100 years from 1337 might have had something to do with it, of course. There were, however, more pressing reasons.

One interesting example of the justification given for using English in law proceedings was the widespread ignorance of French amongst the criminal classes. Moreover, in 1364 in York, that place of the jarring vowels and cutting consonants, a judge dismissed the testimony of a witness on the grounds that his constant shifting between different dialects made things impossible to follow. Better to insist on one standard language, then, that everybody could understand.

A similar turnabout happened in education, where, according to John Trevisa (yes, it’s that uppity southerner again), some time around the 1360s English was introduced as the medium of education in Oxford grammar schools, replacing French. Latin remained on the curriculum, however, as it was, after all, still the language of science and learning.

And finally, in 1380 two important events happened in the literary calendar: the New Testament was translated into English for the first time, and Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ was written and published, not in French or Latin, but in English. The English language was back in the saddle, wagging its tail happily no doubt, and starting its gentle trot towards the period known as Early Modern English, lasting from 1450 to 1750: of which there will be more in my next entry.

Next week’s taster: 1. What was The Great Vowel Shift? Was it (a) a change in the nation’s toilet habits, or (b) a progressive development in the English phonetic system? 2. True or False: ‘Canterbury Tales’ was a story about a group of randy vicars in Kent. 3. William Shakespeare was (a) a Zulu warrior who had trouble aiming correctly, or (b) probably England’s finest writer? Please don’t bother to e-mail me and tell me the answers, just hang on until the next entry, please!