A Brief History of the English Language Part 2

Part 1 of this Brief History of English  describes the suppression of the English language under  the Normans who imposed Norman French as a national language.   As French declined and English revived there were briefly two languages in the one nation.
"Before Chaucer wrote, there were two tongues in England, keeping alive the feuds and resentments of cruel centuries; when he laid down his pen, there was practically but one speech -- there was, and ever since has been, but one people."
D. Laing Purves

Many scholars are agreed that Geoffrey Chaucer is the father of literary English. I propose to take that idea further. I suggest that, of his century, Chaucer was the most important unifying influence on the English language, with John Wycliffe running him a close second. The influence of these two men can still be clearly found in modern English.

The Life and Times of Geoffrey Chaucer.

In the century of Chaucer's birth, the English way of life changed dramatically and permanently. The climate changed, turning cooler in Europe. There were famines in much of Europe during the whole century, with a peak, the Great Famine, about 1315 to 1317. Overpopulation and underproduction of food led to wild economic cycles with starvation and death for many. Undernourishment, and a lack of scientific knowledge of disease control made many people vulnerable to typhoid and other infectious diseases. England and France joined battle in the start of what would come to be called the hundred years war.   And then came the Black Death.

Into all of this economic and social chaos was injected a popular disaffection with the established order of things. A population used to the idea that each person had a pre-ordained station in life began to rebel against that notion. John Wycliffe enjoyed popular support for his attacks on a wealthy and corrupt established church, and the power of a distant pope over English kings. Wat Tyler ensured his place in history by fomenting rebellion against harsh taxes and corrupt churchmen.   It was the age of change.

In 1382, Wycliffe completed his translation of the Bible from the Vulgate Latin into English. It was a plain, unadorned English, intended to convey accuracy of translation rather than a sense of prose or poetry.
1 In the bigynnyng God made of nouyt heuene and erthe.
2 Forsothe the erthe was idel and voide, and derknessis weren on the face of depthe; and the Spiryt of the Lord was borun on the watris.
3 And God seide, Liyt be maad, and liyt was maad.
4 And God seiy the liyt, that it was good, and he departide the liyt fro derknessis;
and he clepide the liyt,
5 dai, and the derknessis, nyyt. And the euentid and morwetid was maad, o daie.

The Canterbury Tales

In an England where French and Latin were still the languages of the scholar, Geoffrey Chaucer chose to write in English. He wrote to such a high standard that his style was accepted and adopted for at least two hundred years afterwards.   Although Chaucer wrote much more than just the Canterbury Tales, it is for these tales that he is most widely known. They are, of his writings, the lightest, most readable, most enjoyable, most earthy. The reported speech may have been emphasised for purposes of satire. In these tales he appears to have interwoven snippets from Greek and Latin stories, personal recollections of his travels and perhaps some English folk tales.

Chaucer's English had no history of bookish style, no formal grammar, no dictionary. Chaucer had a free hand. He had knowledge of the English of the royal court, the courts of law and of parliament. He knew logic and rhetoric, French, Italian, Latin and most probably Greek. He was a courtier, a poet, a gentleman, a knight of the shire of Kent and a keen observer of human nature. He also had a keen ear for the common use of language.

Taking what might well be called the Germanic English of the common people and the Norman English of the ruling classes, Chaucer created a new meld of words and phrases.   Medieval treatises on (Latin) writing distinguish only three styles: grave, middle and simple.   John of Garland wrote of the manner of speech of the shepherd, the agriculturalist and the person of rank.  Chaucer achieved at least six styles of speech to give a vitality and a realism to the characters in his Canterbury Tales.

This newly blended English was middle English, that is to say, English in its middle state between early and modern. The pronunciation of the final e and the e in -ed endings was only just beginning to die out. The poetry of Chaucer retains this to the full: telle is pronounced 'tell-uh', speak, spelled as speke, is pronounced 'speak-uh'.
Who so shall telle a tale after a man,
He moste reherse, as neighe as ever he can,
Everich word, if it be in his charge,
All speke he never so rudely and so large;
Or elles he moste tellen his tale untrewe,
Or feinen thinges, or finden wordes newe.

In a land where schooling was mostly in the hands of the church, Wycliffe's bible helped to spread the written form of English. In a land where the storytelling poet was held in high esteem, Chaucer's writings helped to spread English as the new language of literature. For the first time, a fairly uniform English was the true national language of England.

Geoffrey Chaucer
the Wycliffe Bible

Continued in Part 3