A university lecture on the history of the English language

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Listen to part of a university lecture on the history of the English language.

Professor: So, the next really significant step in the development of the English language- in the development of both our language and certainly our literature- is Geoffrey Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales. And there is no way I can overstate Chaucer's important place in the history of our language.

It's easy to remember his time on the historical timeline of the English language- he died in the year 1400, at the very beginning of the fifteenth century. England had been under Norman-French rule for three hundred years by then- ever since the Norman Conquest in 1066. With William the Conqueror, Norman-French had become the language of power and commerce in England. In fact, the court of Chaucer's king, King Richard the Second, was probably the first English-speaking English court since the Conquest. So, for the previous three hundred years, England had been more or less bilingual, practically speaking. The Anglo-Saxon or Germanic English of the common people, and the Anglo-Norman-French of the court and the clergy and the schoolmen- these had been influencing each other for a long, long time.

Geoffrey Chaucer wasn't an aristocrat, but he came from a very well-to-do family, and as a young man, he was sent into royal service- at first as a sort of butler. This was a common practice in those days, a way to advance a family's fortunes. In his long career, Chaucer held many jobs. He was by turns a soldier, a courier, a diplomat and a public official. Consequently, he travelled widely in England- and to France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands- and he spoke French, Italian and Latin. So it should be no surprise that his greatest work, 'The Canterbury Tales', strongly reflects the influence of the continental writers, both in style and in content. For instance, the Clerk's Tale is an adaptation of Petrarch's version, and the Knight's Tale is based on Boccaccio's 'Teseida', and even the framing narrative for all the tales- the pilgrims' journey to Canterbury town- is modelled on Boccaccio's 'Decameron'.

However, it was the influence of the great Italian writer, Dante Alighieri, which mattered the most, because Dante set a real precedent in abandoning Latin to write his 'Divine Comedy' in contemporary Italian, and following Dante's lead, Chaucer abandoned Latin and French to write in vernacular English- and he did this with such great success, with such excellence, that his English style set the standards for the next two hundred years.

Chaucer had no constraints in how he wrote, really. English hadn't yet been used seriously for literature. English didn't have any history of style- it didn't even have a formal grammar or a dictionary. What Chaucer had was a liberal education, a broad experience of the world, and a keen ear for how language- the languages of England- were used by the people. And with these abilities- and with his great poetic talent- he created a new, a fuller and richer, blend of what would eventually emerge as our modern language.

About fifty percent of Chaucer's vocabulary has its source in the Romance languages, but they weren't French or Italian or Latin borrowings- his language wasn't a hybrid of his own devising. Chaucer wasn't coining words from his familiarity with continental French or Italian. No, Anglo-Norman still had a very strong presence in England, and it's this that Chaucer's vocabulary reflects. Much Norman-French had entered the English vocabulary by Chaucer's time, and its foreign origin was recognized as little as we today recognize the foreignness of the words 'hotel' or 'parachute'. Words like 'bachelor' in the Merchant's Tale carry the Norman-French meaning of 'an unmarried man'- as it primarily does today- not the continental French meaning of 'a high school graduate'.

Now, the Canterbury Tales might seem a little daunting to try to read at first, because there were no spelling rules for the Middle English of Chaucer's time, and word endings were much more like the Anglo-Saxon in the pronunciation, for instance, of final '-e' and '-ed' as separate syllables, so Chaucer's rhymes are sometimes hard to understand.

And also, the Great Vowel Shift had not yet taken place. The Great Vowel Shift is the main difference between Middle English and Modern English. It consisted of major changes in the sounds of all of the English long vowels, and this happened during the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. So many of Chaucer's words may be difficult for you to recognize now.

Nevertheless, good modernized texts of the Tales are available- both Penguin Books and Bantam Classics have good, readable editions- and it'd be well worth your while to sit down with the Canterbury Tales and enjoy the engaging humour, the keen observations, and the outstandingly rich poetry that makes this work truly great and which has caused Chaucer to be called the father of English literature.


According to the lecture, which statement is NOT true?


What did Chaucer have?


Why is Dante Alighieri important?


What makes 'The Canterbury Tales' easier to understand?


The lecturer mentions the word 'hotel' as an example of what?


Which do you think is nearest to the author's viewpoint?