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How many Chaucers does it take to change a language?

After 600 years, what do we think of when we hear the name Geoffrey Chaucer? The straightforward, factual answer – that he was the son of London wine merchant, born sometime in the 1340s, who spent his life, after youthful forays to the French wars and diplomatic missions, working as a civil servant and building up a formidable reputation as a poet and translator – probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when this question is asked. Even if we’ve read little or nothing of his works, our response to the question ‘who was Chaucer’ is still likely to be conditioned by what we know of his writings.

For many of us, the first Chaucer we think of is the one we encountered at school: the venerable but crude uncle of English poetry, always ready with an inappropriate story, quite likely, even when it seems as if his tale can’t get any funnier or more scurrilous, to say ‘pull my finger’. This is Geoffrey Chaucer of (Merry) England where willing wives are swived by interlopers in the branches of pear trees or in darkened rooms, right under the noses of their husbands, where arses are bared, farts let fly, and women with inexplicable beards are always saying ‘Tee-hee!’. He inhabits and embodies a world as blunt, earthy, and malodorous as the Host of the Tabard’s threat to the Pardoner:

I wolde I hadde they coillons in myn hond. . .             testicles
Lat kutte hem off, I wol thee helpe hem carrie,
They shul be shryned in an hogges toord!                     enshrined, hog’s turd

This riotous image of Chaucer doesn’t sit well, either with the ‘safe pair of hands’ entrusted with diplomatic missions by the king, or with the way Chaucer presents himself in his works. In the Canterbury Tales and elsewhere, the narrator-pilgrim or dreamer is a fattish man with an elvish look, always looking at the ground or lost in his books, and often scandalized by the dreadful, churlish stories he has to relay. This is the Chaucer who blinks out from manuscript illuminations, surprised at his own presence among so much lush decoration and lewd storytelling.

If you’re of a more serious frame of mind, you may think of a Chaucer who is not as easily approachable as either of these figures. The yawning gap opened up between his version of English and ours by the Great Vowel Shift in the hundred years after his death, combined with a literary reputation (not easily reconcilable with our first encounters with the edited highlights of the Miller’s or the Merchant’s Tales) often finds Chaucer yoked together with Shakespeare and Milton as one of the three difficult characters who can’t be avoided in school and university English. Even if you’ve read Beowulf in Old English, the chances are that you’ve had to get past these three heavies on the door first.

In this guise Chaucer is no longer the embarrassing uncle, but was called ‘the Father of English Poetry’ by Dryden (who would, in turn, be called ‘the Father of English Criticism’). The notion that this version of Chaucer invented English poetry as we know it, has been reasonably and often convincingly challenged over the past twenty years, but it continues to guarantee Chaucer a place at the top table of English language and literature (not to mention on the OxfordWords blog), and it’s worth asking what there is about Chaucer’s use of English to justify his seemingly unending popularity and significance.

Choosing English

In the first place, while it is obvious that he read widely in Latin, French, and Italian, there is no firm evidence that Chaucer ever chose to write in any language other than English. This sets him apart from the two friends and contemporary writers to whom he dedicated Troilus and Criseyde: the Oxford academic, ‘philosophical’ Ralph Strode left only Latin works, while ‘moral’ John Gower wrote major poetical works in both Latin and French, as well as the English Confessio Amantis. That Chaucer was ambitious (and might have been expected to seek the international audience and reputation that writing in other languages would have afforded him), can be obscured by his own willingness to portray himself as at best a clumsy poet:

That Chaucer, thogh he kan but lewedly                          knows little
On metres and on rymyng craftily,
Hath seyd hem in swich Englissh as he kan                      knows
Of olde tyme, as knoweth many a man
And if he have noght seyd hem, leve brother
In o book, he hath seyd hem in another!

But he is always acutely aware of his own celebrity, and the Man of Law’s criticism here provides one of many excuses in the Tales and elsewhere for the poet’s works to be carefully listed even as they’re being dismissed as little better than doggerel. It seems as if Chaucer was conscious of creating and curating a distinctive body of work in a single language. Chaucer’s concentration of his creative efforts on works in English was no more an easy option than it was a foregone conclusion: writing in Latin or in French in England in the fourteenth century provided access to more or less standardized literary languages with extensive vocabularies and a range of specialized linguistic registers. To write in English was not only to limit your immediate audience and available vocabulary, but also to contend with dialect divisions so deep that mutual intelligibility was not always guaranteed.

Negotiating English

We have to assume that Chaucer spoke and wrote the London dialect of Middle English with which he grew up. This is only an assumption (albeit a reasonable one, on the basis of external and linguistic evidence), because no holograph manuscript of Chaucer’s works survives. All of the copies that have come down to us have been copied by at least one scribe, and usually by more than one. That Chaucer was aware of the dangers of scribal transmission is clear from his short poem ‘Chaucer’s Words unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn’. That he was particularly aware of the dangers of the process in a land where English was divided into at least four major dialect areas, and was subject to lesser variation from town to town and county to county, is underlined by the appeal at the close of Troilus and Criseyde:

For ther is so gret diversite                                      diversity
In Englissh and in writyng of oure tonge
So pray I God that non myswrite the
Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tongue:             mismetre, fault, language
And red wherso thow be, or elles songe,            read, wherever, sung
That thow be understonde, God I biseche.

Despite this anxiety, Chaucer himself was willing to use linguistic variation in English for his own artistic ends. In the Reeve’s Tale, the two students of Cambridge speak in a dialect marked by consistently northern forms, using different vowel sounds, vocabulary, and inflexions from Chaucer’s own London English, the first example of such regional ventriloquism in English literature. Elsewhere, Chaucer makes the sheer diversity of English work for him on a smaller scale, using alternative spellings and pronunciations of individual words to provide convenient rhymes or to fill out his metrical pattern.

Shaping English

Importing words from another dialect of your own language may be useful, but it has limited uses. Borrowing words from outside the language allows a writer not only to fill a metrical gap more pleasingly and flexibly than the available native lexis would allow, but also to express new concepts in culture, science, or theology.

In the 200 years before Chaucer’s birth, Middle English had been borrowing words—slowly at first, but with steadily increasing speed and volume—from the other languages being read and spoken in England at the time. While Old Norse and Latin could also be drawn on, the vast majority of these loanwords came from French, since the Norman Conquest the language of fashion, government, secular law, and high art.

As a product of this linguistic culture, as a reader of French and Latin, as a man who moved between the world of poetry and the world of business, and as amateur scientist with a particular enthusiasm for astronomy, Chaucer was well-placed to continue the process of expanding the vocabulary of English. There are around 2,000 words for which the works of Chaucer currently provide evidence of first use in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Just over half of these borrowings are from French or Latin roots (mostly French), almost all the rest are new formations based on existing English words. Many of Chaucer’s borrowings continue in general use today, and help us to express basic concepts: agree, possibility, misery, poignant, future, praise, and both femininity and womanhood are both first recorded in Chaucer.

Many of the imported words belong to specific contexts or registers: from French (and often ultimately from Latin) are words from astronomy (retrograde and Milky Way) and geometry (superfice); from alchemy (ablution) and medicine (narcotic, melancholic).

From the law come the new words protestation, submission, and altercation; from religion parochial and precept; and from the arts laureate, poetical (both from Latin), and proem. Chaucer’s contribution to the vocabulary and power of expression of English has perhaps been overstated in the past, but his skill in choosing and absorbing new words for his works is a significant factor in the richness of his writing, and often seems to shape the way we think and write today.

These are just three fairly minor ways in which Chaucer managed to use English in new ways. But along with his use of rhetoric, his metrical innovations, and his placement of English in the mainstream of European culture through his reading of the Latin poets and the early Italian humanists, they’re all part of the reason why we need to keep reading, if only to find out which, if any, of the different Geoffrey Chaucers who weave in and out of his works, is the real one.