Sunday, December 10, 2006

English through the Middle Ages

Over the past few weeks it seems that I’ve been writing a lot about the English language of our ancestors, but not really looking at it. Now, this might be understandable, if we remember that our tongue, as it was back in the Middle Ages, was rarely used for the purposes of documentation. Latin and French were the preferred modes for making records, and in fact, administrative documents did not come to be written in English in any great number until the 14th century. This might well lead the sharp-witted amongst you to cry out “Well, how do we know what the language was really like, then, if it was never written down?” Good point, I must defer.

Let’s put this another way. If Latin was the language of science and culture, and Norman French that of law and administration, what was there left to write about in (Middle) English? Well, in fact there was plenty, and we have the Church to thank for this, to some degree. Let me try and explain.

History tells us that towards the end of the 12th century the Church began losing its virtual monopoly on the production of texts. Please bear in mind that at this time there was no printing press, and hard-working monks had to copy out all texts by hand. However, demand had become so great, no doubt partly due to King William’s zest for law and order, and for getting everything documented, that so-called ‘secular scribes’ were being employed to cope with the increasing workload.

In time, these lay copyists began forming their own workshops and guilds, as demand increased further still due to the emerging merchant classes. Soon works were appearing in various varieties of the English language on subjects such as cookery, education, medicine, and even literature - Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” being one of the first ‘works of art’ to be published in this way. By looking at these texts, we can trace the development of the language over this period, in which English was essentially a third class language, and subject to few rules and efforts at standardisation.

We can see, for example, that our tongue soon adopted the French tradition of verse using rhyme instead of the Anglo-Saxon’s preferred stress and alliteration. Take a look at the following poem, “The Owl and the Nightingale”, produced somewhere in the south of England during the late 12th century.

Ich was in one sumere dale, In one suthe dizele hale, Ihered Ich holde grete tale, An hule and one niztingale, That plait was stif and starc and strong, Sumwile softe an lud among.

Understandable as modern English? Well, the word order is recognisable, but there is still evidence of Old English-style alliteration in places, and the only French word used is ‘plait’. So a translation might be helpful!

I was in a summer valley, In a very hidden corner, I heard a great tale held, An owl and a nightingale, Whose pleading was stiff and firm and strong, Sometimes soft and loud in-between.

Personally, I prefer the original myself. Moving on a few years, to the year 1230 in fact, a text produced in the West Midlands region gave other insights into the language of the period. The words ‘sustren’, ‘habben’, and ‘housen’ were used, indicating that the variety of English used around those parts had yet to lose the Germanic-Scandinavian habit of using -n to indicate plurals. In modern English those words would be ‘sisters’, ‘have’ and ‘houses’. Other items such as ‘’Ich segge’, ‘nawt’, and ‘hwet’ inform us about the local pronunciation back then of modern ‘I say’, ‘not’, and ‘what’.

The following poem, written in York around the end of the 13th century, further shows the influence of French versification, but contains no French words at all, an indication of the difference mentioned in previous articles between the ‘barbarian’ north and the ‘sophisticated’ south. Another thing you might notice is that, in common with the poem above, there were variant spelling of one word. In fact, this was not seen as a problem at the time, as, unlike French or Latin, the good old English felt no pressure to standardise from any quarters.

Wel awa sal thir hornes blau, Holy Rod thi day, Now he is dede and lies law, Was wont to blow thairn ay.

A modern version might look something like the following, but again looses something during its translation.

Alas, who shall these horns blow, Holy Cross (on) your day, Now he is dead and lies below, He who was wont to blow them always.

However, those allegedly noxious imports from across the channel had become far more pervasive by the following century. A text of the late 14th and early 15th century shamelessly displayed such recognisable interlopers as ‘corrupcioun’, ‘famylyar’, and ‘processe’, as well as ‘nacyons’ and ‘nobyll’. Less immediately recognisable, but equally foul no doubt, were ‘conmixtion’ (mixing), ‘consuetude’ (practice), and ‘construyn’ (interpret).

And so to the period of Early Modern English, which ran from 1450 to 1750, approximately. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, by the mid 15th century English was becoming the first choice for official documents. As the Crown resided in London, it was this variety of the tongue that found its way into print and official favour. The first written form of the language was in fact devised by scribes in the Chancery, and as a result the term ‘Chancery English’ was given to this original standard.

The forms and spellings used back then are therefore much the same as today’s, although our pronunciation of the words has changed. This has caused nightmares for generations of students, as the modern way of pronouncing a word has little or even nothing to do with the way it is spelt! For example, the -ou- and the -gh in ‘cough’, ‘plough’, ‘through’ and ‘enough’ can be pronounced in several different ways. Only English can do this!

However, let’s not lose the plot here, as were getting close to the end. Because all documents were still hand-copied even in the early 15th century, irregular spellings still crept in from time to time. However, ‘the lordes spirituell and temporell’ is, despite its odd apearance, immediately recognisable, as are ‘Kynges’ and ‘lettres’, unlike words such as ‘sal’ and ‘suthe’ mentioned above. In fact, real standardisation of the English language was to come only with the arrival of Caxton and his printing press in the 1470s. So, next week I really will leave behind the period of Middle English, and focus squarely on Early Modern English - I promise (or should that be ‘I swear’?).


DG said...

Great & informative post :-)

By the way, Merry Christmas. Hope all your days are filled with happiness just like today :-)

Thomas said...

Fascinating....Very informative...

Question: When medieval historians refer to place-names in English towns and cities in the Middle Ages (based on contemporary primary source documents), in what language are these place-names most often written in the original?

In other words, if a local English town official in the 13th century was obliged to refer to the name of a street, in what language was this street, most likely, first rendered?


Tom Luce ( )