“Whan That Aprille Day”: Book Review of “Chaucer’s Language.”

Since Chaucer himself invited us:

On the first daye of Aprille, lat us make tyme to take joye yn alle langages that are yclept ‘old,’ or ‘middel,’ or ‘auncient,’ or ‘archaic,’ or, alas, even ‘dead.’

chaucers-language-simon-horobin-paperback-cover-artAs promised last week, I am reviewing Simon Horobin’s introductory volume on Chaucer’s language.  Horobin’s book, targeted to upper-division undergraduates or others with a background in Chaucer but not in linguistics, introduces the sounds, dialects, vocabulary, grammar, and discourse features of Middle English as used by Chaucer.  The book itself is 177 pages, but it also includes appendices with further reading, sample passages and commentary, and a glossary of linguistic terms.  Since I can’t run through the whole book, I will briefly look at three ways in which this book illuminated my appreciation of Chaucer.


First, sound and dialects.  Middle English was generally composed of four dialects: Northern, Southern, East Midland, and West Midland.  Chaucer lived in London, where he used the Southern dialect frequently.  Yet because his Canterbury Tales contains the stories of a wide array of people, he skillfully weaves their way of speaking into his tales, making him “the first writer in English to employ dialect variation” (26).  For example, the Reeve’s Tale portrays two Cambridge students from the North who speak in strange ways, using “I is” instead of “I am” and using a-sounds where Southerners would use o-sounds (33).  Putting different dialects into his characters’ mouths enabled Chaucer to flesh out their personalities and poke fun at people from other regions of the country.  Horobin points out that “Chaucer’s works were composed for oral performance, and his first audience was probably composed of listeners rather than readers,” so understanding the sounds of Chaucer is key (11).

Second, spelling.  Chaucer was able to portray dialect differently because English spelling was not standardized in his day.  People spelled as they spoke, so that while there were fewer of present-day English’s inconsistent spellings, people from different regions might have a hard time reading one another’s writings.  For example, the northern student in the Revee’s Tale:

To grynde oure corn and carie it ham agayn; (4033)

By contrast, the Southern dialect in the mouth of the Summoner:

That oon of hem cam hoom, that oother noght. (2021)

Notice how the northerner’s different pronunciation of the vowel in “home” changes the spelling.  Chaucer’s Southern spelling, while sometimes very different from our spelling, is still more recognizable to me than Northern English, simply because Chaucer’s London dialect would later become the basis for standardized spelling.  This is why the northern students in the Reeve’s Tale were so hard to read for me!

Third: vocabulary.  Middle English vocabulary was derived from Old English, French, Latin, and Old Norse.  Whereas Old English speakers, like modern-day Francophones, eschewed word-borrowing, Middle English began to be the mutt that modern English has become.  Horobin shows how Chaucer took words from particular registers, such as Latin mostly used in ecclesiastical settings, and repurposed them for the vernacular English of his tales.  He shows how every word can have an intricate past that Chaucer’s audience would have picked up on easily but not us.

Why is Chaucer’s language key?  Chaucer was one of the first major vernacular English authors.  It was not obvious that the Canterbury Tales would be in English.  English poets of his day often wrote in French, and some even in Latin.  Horobin points out that English was considered more democratic.  The Black Death had also created a new middle class that wanted entertainment in a language they could understand.  Chaucer certainly understand that language is always changing:

Ye knowe ek that in forme of speche is chaunge
Withinne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden pris, now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thinketh them, and yet thei spake hem so… (Troilus and Creseyde)

I would recommend Horobin’s book as a textbook and a short read for anyone interested in the history of the English language.

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