Only 51 Years To Go!

Word nerd alert: yesterday it dawned on me that I’ll probably still be alive in 2066, when the world will mark the 1000th anniversary of the Norman invasion of England, which began the transition from Old English to Middle English.

It’s a big date in language history, and I’m genuinely excited to help celebrate it. I’ll only be 89 (and my daughter will have become president just 14 years before).

I’ll commit now to reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that year, in his original Middle English. Who else is in?

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More Humor in Ulysses

Chapter 14 of James Joyce’s Ulysses tells a story of men visiting a hospital for a local woman who’s having a baby.  Stylistically, it starts in the vein of the earliest English and gets more modern as the chapter goes on.

By the following point, Joyce tells of the men discussing some intimately sensitive matters far out of their depth, in a faux-Chaucerian vein.  The combination of highly serious epic poetry with the crudity of the men’s ignorant pontificating strikes me as pretty funny.

Now let us speak of that fellowship that was there to the intent to be drunken an they might. There was a sort of scholars along either side the board, that is to wit, Dixon yclept junior of saint Mary Merciable’s with other his fellows Lynch and Madden, scholars of medicine, and the franklin that high! Lenehan and one from Alba Longa, one Crotthers, and young Stephen that had mien of a frere that was at head of the board and Costello that men clepen Punch Costello all long of a mastery of him erewhile gested (and of all them, reserved young Stephen, he was the most drunken that demanded still of more mead) and beside the meek sir Leopold. But on young Malachi they waited for that he promised to have come and such as intended to no goodness said how he had broke his avow. And sir Leopold sat with them for he bore fast friendship to sir Simon and to this his son young Stephen and for that his languor becalmed him there after longest wanderings insomuch as they feasted him for that time in the honourablest manner. Ruth red him, love led on with will to wander, loth to leave.

…..

But sir Leopold was passing grave maugre his word by cause he still had pity of the terrorcausing shrieking of shrill women in their labour and as he was minded of his good lady Marion that had borne him an only manchild which on his eleventh day on live had died and no man of art could save so dark is destiny. And she was wondrous stricken of heart for that evil hap and for his burial did him on a fair corselet of lamb’s wool, the flower of the flock, lest he might perish utterly and lie akeled (for it was then about the midst of the winter) and now sir Leopold that had of his body no manchild for an heir looked upon him his friend’s son and was shut up in sorrow for his forepassed happiness and as sad as he was that him failed a son of such gentle courage (for all accounted him of real parts) so grieved he also in no less measure for young Stephen for that he lived riotously with those wastrels and murdered his goods with whores.

Which means just what you think it does: Stephen was easy.  Alas.

 

Shakespeare Is Not “Old English”

A pet peeve: people constantly complain–students and adults alike–that they can’t understand Shakespeare because he wrote in “old English.”

No, he didn’t.  Shakespeare wrote in exactly the same modern English we still speak and write today.  He used a much larger vocabulary, tons of poetic phrasings and figures of speech, a lot of specialized references, and often simply waxed eloquent in his singularly elegant style, but his language was no different from ours.

I realize that when people call it “old English,” they mean precisely the aspects of Shakespeare’s language which I just mentioned, but still, the inaccuracy bugs me.  A little effort, time, and homework makes Shakespeare comprehensible and enjoyable, but actual old English is, practically, a foreign language.

Really.  Quick English lesson summary: The defining work of modern English is that of one of its earliest practitioners: Shakespeare.  Middle English (which could be dated very roughly from about 1000 AD to 1500 AD) is best exemplified by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  Old English is illustrated best by the epic poem Beowulf

Shakespeare, as I said, can be read with a little effort.  In fact, most of us could understand most of his work right now with practically no assistance.

Chaucer, however, is usually “translated” into modern English when printed, as his vocabulary and spelling are so different from what we use today that much of it is very difficult to read.  A sample of the middle English text is below, with a modern equivalent to help. 

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