Archive for the ‘London dialect’ Tag

Early Modern English: The Fifteenth Century   Leave a comment

Above: The Pastons’ House in Norwich (photo rights: A J Chandler, 2015)

The East Midland Dialect:

It is usually possible to make sense of late Medieval documents written in the east Midland and London dialects because they provide the basis for Standard English as written today. The fifteenth century was a period of transition to modern English (MnE), so we talk of the period from about 1450 as marking the development of ‘Early Modern English’ (EMnE).

In reality, the transition has its identifiable origins in the East Midlands dialect of the early fifteenth century. Margery Kempe (c. 1373-1439) was from King’s Lynn in Norfolk, who gave up on married life as a result of her mystical experiences in order to devote herself to pilgrimage. In the 1420s, she dictated a book describing her visions, temptations and journeys. As the text was dictated, it provides reliable evidence of ordinary speech at that time. The dialect is east Midland, but we cannot tell how accurate the scribe’s reproduction of Margery’s speech actually was, especially as the only surviving manuscript was copied in mid-century. Here is her description of her marriage in verbatim translation:

When this creature was twenty years of age or something more she was married to a worshipful burgess of Lynn and was with child within short time as nature wills. And after that she had conceived she was in labour with great fevers till the child was born and then what for labour she had in childbirth and for sickness going before she despaired of her life, thinking she might not live…

The opening of the book is shown in facsimile below, and given in transcription here:

001

Here begynnyth a schort tretys and a comfortabyl for sinful wrecchys, wher in thei may haue gret solas and comfort to hem, and vryndyrstonyn the hy and vnspe cabyl mercy of ower soueryn Sauyowr cryst Ihesu whoe name be worschept and magnyfyed wythowten ende. That now in ower days to vs unworthy deyneth to exercysen hys nobeley and hys goodnesse.

The Pastons were a prosperous family who also lived in Norfolk (see photo above). A large collection of their letters written between the 1420s and 1500s have survived. The letters cover three generations of the family and are a valuable source of evidence for historians as well as students of language development. Much of the period was troubled by the political upheavals of the Wars of the Roses, reflected in the letters. As well as letters from Agnes Paston to her husband William, the collection includes a valentine letter from Margery Brews to the third generation John Paston, written in 1477, partly in rhyme. They were married later that year:

…and if ye commande me to kepe me true where euer I go

iwyse I will do all my might zowe to love and neuer no mo

and yf my freendys say that I do amys thei thei shall not me let for to do

myn herte me byddys euer more to love zowe truly ouer all erthely thing

and yf thei be neuer so wroth I tryst it schall be bettur in tyme commyng

no more to yowe at this tyme but the holy trinite hafe yowe in kepyng and I besech zowe that this bill be not seyn of non erthely creature safe only zour selfe…

…be zour own MB

(Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, Norman Davis (ed.), OUP, 1971)

 

The London Dialect:

William Caxton was the first English printer, setting up his printing press in London in 1476. It began a revolution in the production of books, which no longer had to be copied individually by hand. Of course, copying did not die out completely, and Caxton was more than just a printer of other people’s writing. He also translated and edited many of the books printed, providing a large number of prefaces and commentaries.

In 1482, Caxton printed a revised text of Trevisa’s 1385 translation of Higden’s Polychronicon. This provides an excellent example of some of the changes in the language which had taken place over the hundred years between the two editions. Caxton found Trevisa’s language old-fashioned and out of date, as he said in an epilogue:

William Caxton a symple persone have endeuoyred me to wryte fyrst overall the sayd book of ’Proloconycon’ and somewhat have chaunged the rude and old Englyssh, that is to wete certayn wordes which in these dayes be neither vsyd ne vnderstanden.

Caxton’s modernised version of John of Trevisa’s description of the languages of Britain shows some interesting differences with the original texts. It illustrates the lack of standardisation in Middle English and the way in which differences in the dialects of ME were reflected in writing.

A standard form of a language develops in a nation or society only when the need becomes evident and pressing. The invention of printing was one factor in the complex of political and economic changes in England by the end of the fifteenth century, which led in time to acceptance of the educated London dialect as the basis of Standard English.

One of Caxton’s problems as printer and translator is clearly illustrated in a famous story that he tells in the preface to his translation of a French version of Virgil’s Latin poem The Aeneid, called Eneydos. A revolution in communications was brought about by the printing of books. A book might be bought and sold anywhere in the country, but which dialect of English should the printer use? For example, there were at least two words for egg, the one in OE and the other from ON. The story is about the difficulty of asking for eggs for breakfast, but for Caxton it illustrates the problem of choosing a language in translation:

Loo what sholde a man in thyse dayes nowe write, egges or eyren?

This was just one of the problems that needed to be resolved in the agreement of a standard literary form of English over the next two centuries. If you examine Caxton’s language in detail, you notice that he did not devise a regular spelling system, and that many of his decisions about spelling and grammar were already out of date by the 1480s. Below is a very short example of Caxton’s printing. It is an advertisement, dating from about 1478, from Caxton’s edition of the Sarum Ordinal, the book of church services for Salisbury:   

                                                                                                                                                                                                                 026

If it plese ony man spirituel or temporal to bye ony pyes of two and thre comemoracios of salisburi use enpryntid after the forme of this preset letter whiche ben wel and truly correct, late hym come to westmo nester in to the almonesrye at the reed pale and he shal haue them good chepe

Supplico stet cedula

In 1485, Caxton published a noble and joyous book, entytled ‘Le Morte Darthur’. He described it in these words:

… a book of the noble hystoryes of the sayd Kynge Arthur and of certeyn of his knyghtes after a copy unto me delivered. Whyche copye Syr Thomas Malorye dyd take oute of certeyn books of frensshe ad reduced it into Englysshe.

Malory made his translations and adaptations from French while in prison. He wrote the following at the end of one of the books making up the collection:

And I pray you all that redyth this tale to pray for hym that this wrote, that God sende hym good delyveraunce sone and hastely. Amen

Malory died in prison in 1471. Caxton’s printed book was the only known version of Malory’s legends of King Arthur until 1934, when a manuscript was found in the Fellows’ Library of Winchester College. It was not in Malory’s own hand, but more authentic than Caxton’s book, which has many alterations and omissions. Below is a facsimile of the opening of the fourth story, The War with the Five Kings, in the first of the manuscript books, The Tale of King Arthur:

027

The first six lines of the facsimile were written by the principal scribe, while the rest was written by a second scribe. Not only is the handwriting clearly different, but so too is the spelling.

A collection of letters and memoranda of the Cely family, written in the 1470s and 1480s, gives us authentic handwritten evidence of London English a century after that of Thomas Usk’s, and contemporary with the Paston letters. The Celys were wool merchants, or staplers. They bought fleeces in and sold them to merchants in Calais and Bruges. The letters and accounts provide historians with primary evidence about the workings of a medieval English business, and give students of language examples of late medieval commercial English, as well as evidence of the speech and writing habits of the London merchant classes of the period.

The collection contains letters written by forty different people. Most are from two generations of the Cely family, father and sons. Like the Paston letters, they show that there was as yet no standardised written English. The spelling is not good evidence for the pronunciation of spoken English, partly because we do not know the sounds given to each letter, but also because the spelling of each of the authors was so irregular. Individual writers show many inconsistencies of spelling. The following text is not a letter, but a note of political events and rumours in the troubled times leading to the deposition of Edward V and the accession of the Duke of Gloucester as Richard III. The first five items are written as facts; the rest, beginning with if are rumours. As jotted down notes, they are not always grammatically clear:

There is great romber* in the realm, The Scots has done great in England. (The Lord) Chamberlain is deceased in trouble. The Chancellor is disproved* and not content. The Bishop of Ely is dead.

If the King, God save his life, were deceased. (If) the Duke of Gloucester were in any peril. If my Lord Prince were, God defend, were troubled*. If my Lord of Northumberland were ded or greatly troubled. If my Lord Howard were slain.

From monsieur Saint John

(*romber = disturbance/ upheaval; disproved = proved false; troubled = molested.)

Lord Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain, had been executed in June 1483. The Chancellor was Thomas Rotherham, Archbishop of York. ‘My lord prinsse’ was the Duke of York, Edward V’s brother. The Earl of Northumberland and John Howard were supporters of the Duke of Gloucester; ‘movnsewr sent jonys’ is a pseudonym, to disguise the name of Sir John Weston, from whom George Cely got the rumours.

Source:

Dennis Freeborn  (1992), From Old English to Standard English. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

The Dialects of Middle English: Part two; From Mercian to West and East Midland.   Leave a comment

The Anglo-Saxons who invaded and settled the Midlands and Northern England spoke two distinct dialects of OE, Northumbrian (North of the Humber) and Mercian. During the ME period, Mercian or the Midland dialect developed distinctive features in the Danelaw, where it came under the influence of Danish Old Norse speakers. As a result, OE Mercian developed into two ME dialects, East Midland and West Midland. The West Midland dialect can again be divided into two, one to the north of the Trent and the other to its south, but there are sufficient similarities for them to be treated as one dialect.

The north-West Midland Dialect

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a romance in alliterative verse which tells a story of the legendary court of King Arthur. The story begins with the New Year celebrations at the court, when a green knight rides in, carrying a battle-axe, and challenges any knight to strike him a blow with the axe, provided that he can give a return blow a year and a day later. Gawain takes up the challenge.

008

The only surviving manuscript (transcribed and in print above) was probably written towards the end of the fourteenth century, and the scholars are agreed that the dialect is the north-West Midland of present-day south Lancashire and Cheshire. The manuscript shows how, long before spelling became standardised, a single letter could be related to several different sounds in English. The poem is written in 101 stanzas which have a varying number of unrhymed alliterative lines followed by five short rhymed lines. Like all OE and ME verse, it was written to be read out loud to an audience. Although it was contemporary with Chaucer’s writing, it is more difficult to read for MnE users, partly because some of the vocabulary is from a stock of words reserved for use in poetry, and partly because many words of the West Midland dialect came down into MnE spoken dialects, but not into written Standard English. It contains a large number of ON, Old French and dialect words that have not survived into MnE.

The south-West Midland Dialect 

Piers Plowman is one of the most famous poems in ME. It must have been a very popular work in its own day, because over fifty manuscripts have survived. The poem is an allegory of the Christian life, and of the corruption of the contemporary Church and society, written in the form of a series of dreams or ‘visions’:

Ac on a May mornyng on Maluerne hulles (= hills)

Me biful for to slepe

And merueylousliche me mette (= dreamed),

as y may telle.

(Prologue, lines 6-7, 9)

Piers is a humble poor labourer who stands for the ideal of honest work and obedience to the Church. The poem’s author, William Langland, is unknown other than for this one work, in which he characterised himself as ‘Will’ or ‘Long Will’, living in London, at Cornhill, with Kit his wife and a daughter named Calote. Apart from what he tells us, there is no evidence about him. There are three versions of the poem extant today (A, B and C texts), which show that Langland continually revised and extended the poem from the 1360s to the 1380s, when the C-text was probably completed. It is a fine example of alliterative verse in English. The dialect is south-West Midland, but rather mixed, and there are many variant spellings in the fifty manuscripts. The later, printed text of Langland’s poem is ‘edited’, based on one of the C-text manuscripts, but using other manuscripts or making changes where these do not make good sense. Abbreviations are also filled out and modern punctuation added. In addition, the manuscripts used by the editor are copies, not the original. Consequently, any observations made about either Langland’s ‘idiolect’, or the south-West Midland dialect in general would need to be verified from other sources.

009

There are relatively few words of French origin in Langland’s verse (extracts above and below), and even fewer from ON. The South, West and West Midlands of England had not been settled by Danes or Norwegians, so the scarcity of ON words is to be expected. The proportion of French words in one short text cannot be used to come to any significant conclusions, but it does perhaps demonstrate that the solid core of OE vocabulary continued into the ME of these regions of England, becoming the basis of their modern colloquial language.

010

East Midland and London Dialects:

Of the ME manuscripts which have come down to us, a large proportion are in the form of sermons or homilies which set out the ideals of the Church and the Christian life. A typical example is in The Parson’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which the primary and most prominent theme is sin and repentance for sin, or penitence:

Seint Ambrose seith that penitence is the plenynge of man for the gilt that he hath doon and namoore to doon any thyng for which hym oghte to pleyne.

The secondary theme is the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’, those sins which were thought to be the most offensive and serious. These were pride, envy, wrath (= anger), sloth, covetousness, gluttony and lust:

Now it is behouely thing to telle whiche ben dedly synnes, that is to seyn chieftaynes of synnes… Now ben they clepid chieftaynes for as much as they ben chief and sprynge of alle othere synnes… This synne of ire, after the descryuyng of seint Augustyn, is wikked wil to be auenged by word or by ded.

One of the reasons for learning about the early development of the English language is to understand the relationships between the dialects and Standard English in the present-day language. In the conglomeration of different dialects that we call ‘Middle English’, there is no single recognised standard form. By studying the political, social, economic and cultural history of England in relation to the language, it is possible to determine that the conditions for a standard language to emerge were beginning to take shape by the second half of the fifteenth century. From the beginning of the sixteenth century, scholars and writers began to discuss the need for a standard in spelling, pronunciation and grammar, which naturally raised the question as to which dialect or variety of the language should be used to create that standard. A standard language, in modern sociological terms, is…

…that speech variety of a language which is legitimised as the obligatory norm for social intercourse on the strength of the interests of dominant forces in that society (Norbert Dittmar, 1976: Sociolinguistics).

By this definition, the choice is made by people imitating those with prestige or power in their society, while those in power tend to prescribe their variety of the language as the ‘correct’ one to use. A standard language is not, of itself, superior as a language for communication over other dialects, but in its adoption and development it is the language of those with social and political influence, and therefore intrinsic superiority is often claimed for it. For example, in 1589, the poet George Puttenham published a book called, The Arte of English Poesie. In it, he gave advice to poets on their choice of language:

It must be that of educated, not common people, neither shall he follow the speech of a craftes man, or other of the inferiour sort, though he be inhabitant or bred in the best towne and ciie in this Realme. But he shall follow generally the better brought up sought,… ciuill and graciously behauoured and bred.

The recommended dialect was therefore Southern, forming the usuall speach of the Court, that of London and the shires lying about London within sixty miles… This defines the literary language already in use in the sixteenth century, and clearly describes it as the prestigious language of the educated classes of London and the South-East. Being the centre of government, trade and commerce, its dialect was that of the ‘dominant forces’ in society, so that it was set to become the dominant form of the language.

The London dialect in the late fourteenth century derived from a mixture of ME dialects, but was strongly influenced by the East Midland dialect, partly because the city was then built wholly on the North side of the Thames, with suburbs running out into Essex and Middlesex, rather than into Kent and Surrey, and partly because there was a significant migration into London from the East Midlands and East Anglia in late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. There were also immigrants from south of the Thames, especially from Kent, which stretched from Dover to Greenwich at that time. However, although there are traces of the Kentish and Southern dialects in the London dialect, present-day Standard English derives its origins from the East Midland dialect of Middle English, which is why the English of Chaucer from the late fourteenth century is not so very different from the late sixteenth century language of Shakespeare. Both, of course, had Midland origins themselves. The extract below is from ‘The Friar’s Tale’ by Chaucer:

011

Geoffrey Chaucer was born in the 1340s and died in 1400: He was acknowledged in his own day as the greatest contemporary writer, not only in poetry, but also in the arts of rhetoric and philosophy. He wrote in the London dialect of ME of his time; that is, the literary form of the speech of the educated classes. The dialect of the mass of ordinary people living in London must have been very different, both in form and pronunciation, as it is today. The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer’s best-known work, but some of the tales are much more widely read than others. Most of them are in verse, and it is unlikely that the two tales in prose will ever be popular, since their content and style are less accessible to the modern reader. However, they do provide evidence of the development of the language. However, changes and variations in the pronunciation of a language are much more difficult to study than changes in vocabulary or spelling. One useful source of evidence, however, is in rhyming verse. If two words rhyme, we presume that they contain the same sounds. We can then look up the derivation of the words and compare the spellings and possible pronunciations. The principle changes from OE to ME are in the loss of inflections, but there are many changes from ME to MnE in vowels, and some in consonants. There are also some interesting changes in the stress patterns of some words from ME to MnE, so that identical words no longer rhyme in present-day English.

From the fourteenth century onwards, we begin to find many more examples of everyday language surviving in letters and public documents than we do for earlier English. Literary language draws on the ordinary language of its time, but we cannot be sure that it tells us how people actually spoke. In Chaucer’s day London was, from time to time, the scene of violence and demonstration in the streets. Thomas Usk was involved with what turned out to be the losing side in the political factions of his day, and describes a series of incidents in the 1380s. He was unsuccessful in his appeal for clemency in 1384 (below), and was executed sometime after. His appeal is an example of the London English of a fairly well-educated man, and provide further evidence of its proximity to the East Midland dialect of ME.   

  012   

%d bloggers like this: