19 May 2009

Not Chaucer

I was taught in school that Chaucer was the first to mix languages among writers in English. That turns out, like many things I learned in school, not to be exactly correct.

In The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance, the mixing of languages in literary English is traced to the entire period and not to Chaucer as an individual:

"In the writings of the end of the thirteenth century and the first half of the fourteenth, the proportion of Romanic words is so great that we may correctly say that the literary English of the period was a mixed language. The interesting group of poems, perhaps all by one author, consisting of Alisaunder, Arthur and Merlin and Cœur de Lion, contain many long passages in which nearly every important verb, noun, and adjective is French. Nor is this mixed vocabulary at all peculiar to works written in the south of England. In Cursor Mundi, and even in the prose of Richard Rolle, which are in the northern dialect, there is, on the average, at least one French word in every two lines. The alliterative poetry of the west midland and northern dialects from about 1350 onwards has an extraordinary abundance of words of French origin, many of which are common to several of the poets of this school, and do not occur elsewhere. The notion prevalent among writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that Chaucer corrupted the English language by the copious introduction of French words, was curiously wide of the mark. In reality, his language is certainly less marked by Gallicisms than that of most of the other poets of his time, and even than that of some poets of the early years of the fourteenth century. It cannot be absolutely proved that he ever, even in his translations, made use of any foreign word that had not already gained a recognised place in the English vocabulary."

There are still the unenlightened that think that English is a "pure" language. Scholarship has shown that English was, from the very beginning, a mixed language. Works written in English are, therefore, inherently mixed-language works, even if the writers themselves think that they are monolingual. Multilingual literary criticism need not restrict itself merely to obviously mixed-language texts, but can say quite a bit about seemingly monolingual works.

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