A few days ago in one of my Facebook discussion groups, Rod Marsden, author of Disco Evil: Dead Man’s Stand and Ghost Dance left a comment about The Canterbury Tales and the origin of language that stunned me with its depth and beauty. Facebook seems to pride itself on unwitty witticisms, too-cute aphorisms, and political opinionating all mixed together in a big pot of self-aggrandizement, and the remark struck me as being too important to be swallowed up by that voracious maw. I asked Rod if he’d like to expand on his comment and let me post it here. He sent me an awesome tribute to the English language that I will be posting over the next three days. I hope you will be as fascinated with Marsden’s tour of the English language as I am.
A Cook’s Tour of the English Language — Part I
by Rod Marsden
The earliest known example of English literature is the epic poem Beowulf. We can tell by its complexity and execution that it’s not written by a beginner. We know by its structure that it harks back to a long oral tradition of tale spinning. Strangely enough, there is much in common with Beowulf and the tall tales produced in the USA in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The stories associated with Davy Crockett are a great example of this sort of thing. Certainly poems and stories produced by Australian author Banjo Paterson in the 19th Century have a powerful Beowulf like feel to them.
It was through Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th Century that English as a written language made its first big step. Even at this stage it was far from being a pure language. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales he used words that had their origins in Ancient Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norman French and what was then regarded as Modern French. If he wanted to say something in a blunt, straightforward way most Englishmen would understand he would use Anglo-Saxon. If he wanted to be eloquent then he would use either Norman French or Modern French. French in those days was very much a language of nobility and the European courts. Latin was a more universal language and was tied in with English grammar. Ancient Greek had a lot to do with the natural sciences as well as its connections to great writers of a past age.
Geoffrey in his writing brought new words into the English language and revived words that had been around for some time but had fallen into disuse. He was playful with language but also a great craftsman with it. He had his cast of characters on a holy pilgrimage to Canterbury. They were a good social mix of high and low. Possibly the most famous or infamous was the wife of Bath. Sometime after Geoffrey’s death this feisty fictional female was still alive in song. There’s a ballad in which she goes to the pearly gates and St. Peter refuses to let her in. She of course kicks up such a stir that he has to eventually open the gates for her just to keep the peace. Did Geoffrey in his life time actually know someone like the wife of Bath? I would say so but we’ll never know for sure.
Understandably, Geoffrey feared that his writing, being in English, would not survive the test of time. He knew that the pronunciation of English differed greatly throughout the kingdom as did the spelling. To this day there are still variants in dialect but perhaps not as pronounced as in his day. For example, a place of worship near the Scottish border was known as a Kirk. In London, however, the same place of worship went by the more French influenced name of Church. Chances were good that a person living on the border would not know what a Church was and a person living in London wouldn’t have a clue about a Kirk. So there wasn’t really a common English language in Geoffrey’s day and, as far as The Canterbury Tales were concerned, he could only hope that it would be understood by enough people throughout the land.
Before The Canterbury Tales there was The Decameron. It was written by Giovanni Boccaccio. This was the first great epic poem written in the growing language of Italian rather than in the then more conventional Latin. It dealt with a group of well off young people who had gone into the country to escape the plague. To pass the time until they could return to their city they told each other stories. Like The Canterbury Tales, these stories were not confined to the author’s place of origin. They roamed with the writer’s imagination which makes them quite readable even in translation today. By the end of the 14th Century, between The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron, literature was flourishing in England and Italy in ways it had never flourished before. For a start, it was doing so in the common languages of the people and not just the languages of scholarship such as Latin and Ancient Greek.
The next great step forward for the English language took place during the reign of Elizabeth the first. She was, among other things, the first really good ruling queen the English had ever had. What’s more, England had a fleet of war ships capable of real defence against aggressive neighbours. The queen also understood good P.R. She commissioned playwrights such as William Shakespeare to not only entertain and inform but also to create excellent propaganda for her. When Britain was threatened by the Spanish Armada, she spoke personally to some of those tasked with defending her realm. What comes down to us as her speech on this occasion may not be verbatim but it is still quite stirring. She understood how we can be moved by words, especially words in our own language.
At the time William Shakespeare was writing, the world was in transition. Old superstitions were beginning to die away to be replaced by a new emphasis on the various sciences. This was made clear in his play, The Tempest. In his writing, Shakespeare sometimes turned what were traditional nouns into adverbs. He also invented new words and put old words to new use with new meanings.
England, in becoming more a seafaring nation than ever before, was receiving words into the language by the bushel. The French, in doing business with Arab people, adopted Arab words for the new spices such as pepper coming into common use in Europe. They of course gave the Arab words a French slant. The English, in doing business with the French, also came to adopt both these new words and goods. With new, improved commercial vessels able to travel further than ever before the language grew. It was also becoming more international though it would be a long while before it could compete successfully with French and Latin.
There still wasn’t a dictionary for English that everyone could agree on. Even the name Shakespeare wasn’t always spelt the same way so spelling was also problematical. Even with the printing press coming into use in England in the 15th Century, the issue of how to spell the most common of English words had not been resolved and was still to be resolved centuries later in Shakespeare’s day. From the 15thCentury to well into the 17th Century a word in print might be spelt several ways in the same document and retain the same meaning. This, of course, was confusing to anyone attempting to read English.
When Englishmen first set sail to colonize parts of America there wasn’t a dictionary that encompassed the entire English speaking population so the style of English that went with the colonizers was the style the colonizers had grown up with. By the time there was a definitive English dictionary celebrated in England, time and distance meant that it could no longer be definitive for the people of English descent living in America. Then there was the War of Independence and the United States of America became a separate entity from the British Empire. Even so, the Constitution of the United States is written in concise and precise English that every Englishman and American to this day can understand. In this regard it is a testimony to the strengths of the language and its general robust nature.
Rod Marsden has a BA in Liberal Studies, a Graduate Diploma in Education and a Master of Arts in Professional Writing. Rod’s short stories have been published in Australia (Small Suburban Crimes anthology), New Zealand (Australian Animals are Smarter than Jack 2 anthology), England (Voyage magazine), Russia (Fellow Traveler magazine) and the USA (Cats Do it Better than People anthology, Night to Dawn magazine, Detective Mystery Stories magazine). Then there is the more recent NTD book, Undead Reb Down Under Tales.
Marsden lives on the south coast of NSW, Australia.
Click here for: A Cook’s Tour of the English Language by Rod Marsden — Part II
Click here for: A Cook’s Tour of the English Language by Rod Marsden — Part III