Chaucer and Evolving Grammar
Geoffrey Chaucer‘s verse in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales shows the beginning of a shift toward Modern English. However, some usage, spelling, and even archaic letters remain from Old English. The Canterbury Tales lacks the heavy Norman French influence of Modern English and has a great deal in common with modern German. The mechanics and vocabulary of Chaucer’s Prologue echo clearly the Germanic heritage of English in a grammar characterized by pure descriptive grammar.
In seeking to understand the mechanics of English, it is important to understand the march of the language through history. The first Germanic people arrived in England around 400 AD. It is this fact that places our language in the Germanic language branch (like German, Dutch and Swedish) rather than the Romance language branch (like French, Italian and Spanish). By 600 AD, English had become distinct from the local Celtic language. Multiple migrations by Scandinavian people continued during this era as well as many Viking attacks. English began to mix with Danish, and borrowed some words in common use today. In 1066 AD, William the Conqueror lead the Norman Conquest of England. This introduced Norman French to England, and the languages continued to be spoken alongside each other. The languages mixed and produced a language both like and unlike Modern English
One of the most prevalent indicators of Old English carryover in the Middle English used by Chaucer is in the use of letters no longer in English (Freeborn, activity 13.3). The most prevalent of these is the thorn (Þ) which survives today only in Swedish (Cantrell). Excellent examples of this usage are seen in the infinitives yfalle (line 25) and ymages (line 420): These translate to “to fall” and “to improve” respectively (Chaucer). The linguistic processes of change eventually made the hard “th” plus a verb into the word to plus a verb. Like Modern English, the Prologue has distinct forms for verbs used as nouns. The thorn seems to indicate participles in several other places: Ybore (“carried”) (380), yteyed (“fastened” or “tied”) (459), and yshryve (“shriven” from shrive – for a priest to hear a confession or offer absolution) function as adjectival verbs. Yeve (“to give”) (223) is arguably a gerund.
The Prologue shows evidence of more than one missing letter. It is very unlikely that yaf (“give” or “gave”) (177 et al.), started with either a thorn or an actual “y”. It is far more likely that this letter was an insular g (ᵹ) or even yough (ȝ) (Cantrell).
Both of these sounds would likely develop into an English “g” with use. When The Canterbury Tales entered print in the 16th Century, it would not be surprising if the typesetter replaced this lost letter (as well as the thorn) with what letters he felt proper (and had in his set) (Freeborn, ch. 3).
The Curse of the Publisher
It was with the introduction of the Gutenberg press in the 16th Century that English began a centuries-long regularization in spelling (Kremmer). Though changing the text of a document by a printer may seem unconscionable to modern writers, scholars believe this was a fairly common practice at the time (Freeborn, ch. 3). Handwriting could be ambiguous, faded, or contain letters not in the movable type set. Since English was purely descriptive in grammar at the time, some seem to have taken it on themselves to correct the English and even meter of some early writers (Freeborn, activity 13.3).
At the time Chaucer was writing, English was slowly gaining respect in Great Britain. Government documents were beginning to appear in English, legal cases were now conducted in English, and schools began to teach the children to speak English (Kremmer). Some historians cite the rising importance of the English speaking working class during the Black Death (Tillery). Chaucer references the saying of prayers in French in lines 121-123, and, given the ravages of plague, the association of the two may have led many to be less than enamored with the Norman French language. Many others historians cite the Hundred Years’ War as a key factor in the rise of both English nationalism and the English Language (“English”).
We Learnen Yspeake Anew
These myriad causes meant that Norman French (the predecessor to Modern French) and Middle English mixed and precipitated the Great Vowel Shift (“Great Vowel Shift (Gvs)”). This process has no clear beginning or end; rather, it is marked by a slow regularization of vowel sounds and vowel sound spellings in English. Since most Romance languages (such as French) center more on vowel sounds and Germanic languages (such as English and German) center more on consonant sounds, English took vowels from Norman French and consonants from a predecessor closer to German.
Vowel sounds were simply different before this as evidence by the first two lines of the Prologue where roote (root) and soote (sweet) rhyme (Chaucer). One of the most prevalent and noticeable changes from Chaucer’s English is the many vowel sounds of “y”. The practice of using “y” to represent a range of vowel and consonant sounds persists in Modern English but not to the extent of Chaucer’s time.
The phonetics in English (both in Chaucer’s time and today) come largely from Germanic influence. The practice of signaling a short vowel by following it with double consonants—a common practice in not only in Modern English but modern German as well—is already evident in the 14th Century. The words hadde (had), dette (debt) (283), and apparently calle (call) (286) illustrate this point. If this practice survived the last seven hundred years, we can reasonably assume unstressed vowels (ǝ) were common at the time as well. The practical importance is that unstressed vowels are a key element of English not found in Romance Languages.
If You Start a Sentence with a Cart, You Can’t End It with a Horse
Perhaps most important, Chaucer’s grammar (and all English at the time) was entirely dictated by descriptive elements. It was not until the 18th Century that anyone began to call publicly for a prescriptive grammar standard. This is where many of our standards, which are often ignored in informal English, come from. The admonition against ending a sentence with a preposition is among these rules. Similar is a rule against splitting an infinitive, though it is very common in usage. Some even tried to impose Latin grammar rules on English (especially noticeable in the introduction of the objective case pronoun “whom”).
Among the most notable of these grammarians was Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels. One of his many complaints was what he saw as major grammatical errors and irregularities of use in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton (Stanton). Though some experts disagree with Swift’s standards, the famous author’s clout helped carry these standards forward to the twentieth century.
When The Canterbury Tales was written, English was still free from heavy French influence to mechanics, vocabulary, and phonology: Simply put, it was not the language it is today. Though formalized and prescriptive grammar schemes have arguably slowed linguistic changes (there is much more difference between Chaucer and Shakespeare than Hawthorne and King despite similar time frames), they have not stopped the change. This should be encouraging to those fretful grammarians who cringe at Facebook.
Beginning in Chaucer’s time, Middle English was greatly altered by geopolitical factors, social climate, and technological advances. Linguistic students should take heed of these factors as they have not vanished but rather accelerated at the speed of technology. Change is a necessary process of language, and Chaucer’s Prologue shows how drastic these changes can be in a relatively short time.
Cantrell, M. Asher. “12 Letters That Didn’t Make the Alphabet.” Mental Floss, 2012. http://mentalfloss.com/article/31904/12-letters-didnt-make-alphabet. Web. 23 June 2014.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Ed. Sinan Kökbugur. Librarius, 1997. http://www.librarius.com/cantales.htm. Web. 20 June 2014.
“English.” Dictionary of Languages. London: A&C Black, 2004. Credo Reference. Web. 23 June 2014.
Freeborn, Dennis. “From Old English to Standard English.” Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan Ltd. n.d. http://www.palgrave.com/language/freeborn/site/. Web. 23 June 2014.
“Great Vowel Shift (Gvs).” A Dictionary of Sociolinguistics. Edinburg: Edinburgh University Press, 2004. Credo Reference. Web. 23 June 2014.
Kremmer, Suzanne. “Chronology of Events in the History of English.” Words in English Public Website. Houston: Rice University, n.d.. http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Words/chron.html. Web. 23 June 2014.
Stanton, Robert. “EN 307 History of the English Language.” Boston: Boston College, 2014. https://www2.bc.edu/~stantoro/en307/handouts/grammhist.pdf. Web. 24 June 2014.
Tillery, J. “Middle English: 1066 to 1500.” San Antonio: University of Texas San Antonio, n.d. http://colfa.utsa.edu/tillery/notes.html. Web. 23 June 2014.
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