As I promised in a previous post, here’s my almost certainly true and accurate explanation of why the language you’re reading now is the result of one man’s writing back in the 14th century. Yes, of course, I mean Chaucer; author of The Canterbury Tales. Thanks to him, you’re reading this in modern English.
In his day, there wasn’t a cohesive form of English, but rather several dialects that were all Middle English (see map); each was influenced by its own invaders or immigrants, and in turn each influenced its neighbours. English evolved, but thanks to Chaucer, it did so rapidly and became Modern English. Okay, there was a war, and a plague that contributed, too, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Speakers of different dialects in Chaucer’s day could make themselves known to one another, but each area had enough of its own idioms, verb forms, and grammatical structures to make it sound different and sometimes difficult to understand (Compare the texts of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in an ME northern dialect with The Canterbury Tales written in a London dialect; Sir Gawain is much tougher to understand in ME if you’ve been schooled in Chaucer’s version – see the postscript att he bottom of this post). English was fragmented. Yet barely a century after Chaucer, it had congealed into a reasonably cohesive national language.
We could all be speaking French today, had the French not been such misogynistic twats back in 1317 and passed a law that prohibited female succession to their throne. Had they let women rule, a lot of the subsequent violence and brouhaha could have been avoided, but it might also have meant English would not have evolved as rapidly as it did. So maybe we owe the French a thank you for not helping English become so great.*
Chaucer was a southerner who spoke and wrote in the Kentish/London dialect of what we call Middle English (ME; more on that, below). He also spoke French, some Italian, and Latin, and clearly knew some of the terms used in other ME English dialects because he used them in The Canterbury Tales. Although it wasn’t English as we know it, even today, with a bit of effort, we can read his words. It was a combination of his popularity, rising English patriotism, and the newly-arrived technology of the printing press that helped English become what it is today. Oh, and the Black Death played a part, too, albeit unexpectedly. Buckle up for my explanation (and check the notes, below).
Let’s start 500 years before Chaucer with Alfred the Great. Alfred was a king of the merged kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, which included the majority of the Saxon population of Britain (aka the West Saxons). Alfred ruled that region from 871 CE and spent most of his time fighting Viking invasions until 878 CE when he decisively won the Battle of Edington against them. After that, he and the Vikings made peace and divided England between his Anglo-Saxon territory in the south and the Viking-ruled Danelaw in the north, northeast, and East Anglia. The peace lasted until the 890s. Alfred ruled until his death in 899 CE, and died fighting the Danes.**
What’s important about Alfred in this tale is that he pushed for everyone in his kingdom to use a single language, and required his government to use what we call today Old English (more properly: West Saxon, a dialect of Northwestern German, but by this time, the Saxons were English so let’s not get to calling their language anything else).
Alfred decreed that all education except religious education was to be taught in English. Religious teaching was in Latin (which would continue until The Second Vatican Council decreed that Mass would be in the vernacular in 1962). Alfred made sure English had a solid foothold by being the first ruler to introduce translations of the Bible in English. And he made all written records of his reign in English.
Alfred’s language had been in use on the island for at least 300 years, since the fifth century CE, during which it had developed a solid library of literature as it evolved and spread. But wasn’t always the dominant language. There were Mercian, Northumbrian, and Kentish dialects of Saxon, too, some of which included words and forms from the earlier Jutes and Angles who also landed on the isle. Like tofu in a pot of chili, these languages absorbed a lot from one another. Over the centuries, they ended up with large shared vocabularies. But Alfred’s decision to use West Saxon as his kingdom’s language caused the three other tongues to disappear. The main languages competing for use against West Saxon were the Vikings’ Old West and Old East Norse, both of which heavily influenced Old English.
Old English did just fine after Alfred gave it that boost. In the late 10th century, Æthelwold, Bishop of Winchester helped standardize it for official uses. This robust form is known as Late West Saxon or the Winchester Standard today and it tootled along nicely as the main language of Britain. Its acceptance was fueled by the victories of King Æthelstan who in 937 CE united the various minor kingdoms into what we call England today.
The Vikings and Danes continued to invade, and although Danes captured the throne a few times after him, Alfred’s English didn’t lose its foothold. In fact, merging several of the smaller kingdoms merged into the larger state helped it solidify its hold.***
But then the French invaded.
Well, they were Normans. France wasn’t a unified country like it is now, but Normans were French of a particular sort, and in 1066 they landed and conquered the army of Harold, the last English king. They imposed themselves as far as they could across the island. They made their version of French the language of the land. English became the language of the defeated; the tongue of peasants, serfs, and workers. Law courts, schools, the royal court: they were all held in French (technically Old French or Old Norman). Latin remained in the churches, of course.****
English wasn’t banned, just banished to the fringes of officialdom. The Normans were strong and powerful, but not enough of them to wipe out a language. And English thrived in part because it wasn’t the language of the oppressors. It was the resistance.
However, as much as it tried not to, English absorbed a lot of French words and forms while it scurried about the dark corners of the castles. English was still used in trade, farming, in the hamlets and villages and on the wharves. Over the centuries, the Normans, always fewer in number than the conquered, mixed, mingled, and married their subject people, eventually making the nobles more English than French. And with that mixing came the English language (the result was Anglo-Norman, but it was on its way to Middle English).
But (and there’s always a but…), Old English had been fractured into several dialects that survived in ME as shown in the map above, each one reflecting the influences of the invaders and trading partners in that region. Since the Normans had no interest in perpetuating English, they did nothing to standardize it. But then, they didn’t try to wipe it out, so it survived, albeit in fragments.
By 1300 CE, English was on the rise as the language spoken at court and by the nobles, not just by the underclasses. More than 200 years had passed since the Norman invasion; the royals and nobles had become inseparably integrated into English life. Most spoke English, at least as a second language.
Because the court was in London, and many of the nobles lived there or nearby, the Kentish/London dialect of ME gained prestige over the others: many of its native speakers also worked for the court and the nobles and they influenced each other. Waves of migration from the north and east into the London area in the early part of the century helped strengthen the language’s position.
French was still spoken as the language of international diplomacy and courts. But that all went pear-shaped when Charles IV died heirless (see note, below). England went to war with France over the succession to the French throne and patriotism broke out all over England.
Everyone in England got all flag-wavey and started rejecting everything French. This didn’t bode well for cheese and wine sales from the continent, but it did wonders for the English language because people started using it a lot more just to prove they weren’t French. And this was not just among the hoi polloi, but among the upper classes as well. Speak English or be suspect, especially when your country is at war with France.
The Black Death (aka the Pestilence, the Great Mortality, the Plague) showed up in England in 1348 CE just as the Hundred Years War between England and France was taking off. By the end of 1349, it had spread across the entire country. Somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of the population died from the plague that year, before it receded. It returned in 1361-62 CE and killed 20 percent of the survivors. The war was put on hold.
If you’ve read the Decameron (and if not, you should), you know that to avoid the cities where the plague seemed to gather, many rich and noble people fled to country estates away from the masses. These were the educated and most literate people in the kingdom, and one of the things they did while isolated was to read (sound familiar? Much the same happened here during the recent COVID pandemic). But there were no printed books then, so they had scribes to copy what they had and share them with other nobles, who did the same with their documents. And they also did because they wanted the novelty of new things to read. Some of those documents were in English.
This practice of copying-and-sharing helped spread the written word around the country, doing wonders for keeping English alive. And when they came back to London post-plague, the nobles had this habit of reading. Shortly after Edward got back into the saddle to fight the French again, Chaucer appeared on the scene, working for the English royals (starting in 1357 and continuing almost until his death in 1400) and writing poetry. In English. He was good at it, too.
Chaucer travelled with the king’s army to France when fighting resumed, where he was captured and later ransomed back to England. Later he went on several diplomatic missions for the king, including to Italy. He worked as a customer official and forester, too. During his time working for the court and king, Chaucer cultivated a close network of the best and brightest in the courts. He had a built-in audience for his poetry: the most literate and well-connected people in the land who craved novelty and amusement. And, of course, the well-to-do merchants and bourgeoisie wanted to mimic the rich so they followed suit. Perfect for sharing his works with a wide audience.
In 1399, Henry Bolingbroke seized the throne and became King Henry IV. He was the first king since the Norman invasion to speak English as his mother tongue and he spoke it at his coronation. His son, Henry V wrote his official reports in English from his campaigns in France. More flag-wavey patriotism erupted when Henry V and his small, tired army beat an overwhelmingly larger French force with hordes of knights and nobles, at Agincourt. But by then, Chaucer had been dead 15 years.
As I mentioned earlier, Chaucer wrote in the more sophisticated Kentish/London dialect which anyone who wanted to be seen as anyone would use (it was also influenced by the traders who came to do business with English merchants, so it incorporated more foreign words). Folks sharing Chaucer’s poetry helped spread the dialect outside London, as well as helping Chaucer become renowned as a poet throughout wider England. He even received kudos from French poets. The contemporary poet, Thomas Hoccleve, considered Chaucer his role model, calling him, “the firste fyndere of our fair langage.”
Sometime in his later years (after 1386), Chaucer began to write his opus: The Canterbury Tales. What stood out was that Chaucer wrote in the vernacular about ordinary folks, nuns, millers, cooks, shipmen, friars, squires, and so on. Some were grifters, some were pious, some were serious, others comical. Most literature back then was in Latin, with some in French or Italian. A lot of it had religious overtones: moral tales to remind people of their duties and obligations to both their betters and their god. Not the Tales.
Chaucer’s work, particularly The Canterbury Tales, was honest, earthy, funny, pious, scurrilous, sometimes bawdy, and very, very English. It showed readers how great, popular literature could be written in English, not just Latin or French. With the Hundred Years War continuing until 1457, Chaucer was the best poet to celebrate at home for his Englishness while fighting the French and proving you weren’t one of them. If you couldn’t go on a campaign over the Channel to put the stick about in France well you could sit at home and read Chaucer to your friends to prove your patriotism.
Everyone who read a copy of his work, it seemed, loved it, and many made copies (or of parts of it) to share with their friends and family. Chaucer had a sterling reputation even before it. Eighty-four of the copied, handwritten manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales (plus four incunabula, printed before 1500) survive, second only in surviving manuscripts in the vernacular to the long (almost 10,000 lines) moralistic, religious, and dreary poem about remorse, repentance, Hell, and confession, Prick of Conscience, written some 50 years before The Canterbury Tales. But the latter was a lot more fun. It had fart jokes and sex, after all. Chaucer was the Mel Brooks of his era. Wikipedia says,
…the speed with which copyists strove to write complete versions of his tale in manuscript form shows that Chaucer was a famous and respected poet in his own day. The Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts are examples of the care taken to distribute the work. More manuscript copies of the poem exist than for any other poem of its day except The Prick of Conscience, causing some scholars to give it the medieval equivalent of bestseller status.
Even though it was never finished, The Canterbury Tales retained its popularity through the 15th century. So popular was it, that the first book ever printed in England in English by William Caxton was The Canterbury Tales (1476). By that time, English was changing again, but Caxton’s printing helped stabilize and standardize English and created an even bigger audience for Chaucer’s work. It proved so popular that Caxton released a second edition in 1483, updating it with 26 woodcut illustrations, one at the beginning of each tale. Caxton’s market was local because few outside England would (or could) read a book in English, but the English bought every copy he printed. *****
Caxton made sure Chaucer was well known for more than just this one work: he published The Parliament of Fowls, Anelida and Arcite, Troilus and Criseyde, House of Fame, and Chaucer’s prose translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy before he died in 1492.
Chaucer’s version of Middle English was based on contemporary London speech, influenced by the migrations from the East Midlands. That form became the Chancery Standard for use by clerks in official documents around 1430 and slowly adopted throughout the nation. These documents had been written in French before the Hundred Years War but the new, war-driven patriotism brought about a change to English. Clerks would have also known French and Latin, which in turn affected how they adopted the Chancery Standard. Richard Pynson, appointed King’s Printer to Henry VII and Henry VIII, used the Chancery Standard when he printed his legal texts. However, the church and law courts still used Latin and courts still used some Law French. These would continue in use until 1730 when English was made the sole language for use in the courts.
While the Chancery Standard was emerging, another change was taking place: the Great Vowel Shift, in which the long ME vowels went from being pronounced as they are in Romance languages like Spanish, and in German languages, to being pronounced as we do today. And the final ‘e’ in most words ceased to be pronounced like it had been in Chaucer’s day. This shift slowly led to Chaucer falling out of favour because later readers who spoke Modern English couldn’t understand how his lines scanned. (and didn’t appreciate the schwa ending in his words…) It took some time before readers grew to appreciate him again. But now we do, perhaps more than even in his day. ++
Chaucer had the great fortune of being in the right place at the right time, and his works survive and are read even today. Not merely as academic fossils like most of his contemporaries; his work continues to be read by the general public, and published in print. translations are still published in both poetry and prose. His poems and prose remain relevant, amusing, and entertaining.
Evidence of his influence on the evolution of English, however, is somewhat muted. but without Chaucer, it’s unlikely our language would have progressed as it did.
* The Capetian dynasty ruled France from 987 CE. When Louis X died in 1316, he had no son to succeed him. At that time there wasn’t a law that specifically prohibited females from donning the crown and there were women who could have ruled (including his wife, Clémence of Hungary, and his illegitimate daughter, Eudeline), but the Estates-General (all men, of course) met in 1317 to make a ruling that did so. Every French family with even the faintest and furthest blood claim to French royalty decided its oldest male had a valid claim on Louix X’s throne.
A bunch of noble French families fought over it. Various pretenders grabbed it, then inconveniently died without their own heirs, so it went up for grabs again. In 1328, the latest crown-grabber, Charles IV, also died without a male heir. Not even a brother who could wear it. But this time, the English royals felt they, too, had a claim: their king, Edward III was Charles’s nephew, and closest male relative through his mother, Isabella, Charles’s sister. So Edward claimed the throne for himself (English and French nobility had been in a pissing match over which side owned what bits of northern France since the Norman invasion). Well, the French said no to Edward: go boil your bottoms, and also, your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries. And on top of that, in 1337, the French decided they owned the last bit of English territory in France (Gascony) and took it over. Thus began the Hundred Years’ War.
That didn’t sit well with Edward and, being righteously angry, he raised an army and invaded France. Edward won a lot of battles, then died. Then the French won a lot more battles and took back everything they had lost. The Black Death interrupted the war, and the English didn’t really get back to it until Henry V decided to go once more unto the breach and set the stage for a rousing Shakespearean play, some time later.
** After Alfred, there was a series of kings, some from Wessex, but also four others from Denmark because the fighting between the Danes and the Saxons continued until the Saxon Restoration of 1042 CE.
*** The Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred the Unready (r. 978–1016) was defeated by Swein Forkbeard, the leader of invading Danish forces. Edmund Ironside, Æthelred’s son, continued to hold Wessex, but died later that year. Swein’s son, Cnut, seized the crown of England and was the first of three successive Danish kings to rule England until 1042 CE. After that came the last Anglo-Saxon kings: Edward the Confessor and Harold II (Harold Godwinson). The latter was killed at the Battle of Hastings by Norman archers.
**** William of Normandy, the leader, was actually the cousin of the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor, who ruled just before Harold. William claimed his invasion was not a conquest but to secure the proper succession from Edward. He may have been offered the crown after Edward’s death and been entitled to the crown, but even so, it was an invasion by the French. Harold was only an Anglo-Saxon noble, and not related to Edward; he was appointed to the throne by Edward’s council after the king’s death. William contested the appointment, and after the Pope declared William the rightful heir to the throne of England, William got more French support for his claim, so he invaded. One can only speculate how English might have evolved had England remained in Harold’s hands.
***** Chaucer completed only 24 of his planned tales. Wikipedia says, “In the General Prologue, some 30 pilgrims are introduced. According to the Prologue, Chaucer’s intention was to write four stories from the perspective of each pilgrim, two each on the way to and from their ultimate destination, St. Thomas Becket’s shrine (making for a total of about 120 stories). Although perhaps incomplete, The Canterbury Tales is revered as one of the most important works in English literature.”
++ English spellings did not keep pace with the vowel shift, which accounts for many of the “exceptions” to spelling and pronunciation in English.
PS. Here is the opening of Sir Gawain, a ME poem in the northern or midlands dialect, written about 1375, and a translation into modern English. The þ character is the thorn (th) and the 3 character is the yogh (usually gh):
siþen þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at troye
þe bor3 brittened and brent to brondez and askez
þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wro3t
watz tried for his tricherie þe trewest on erþe
hit watz ennias þe athel and his highe kynde
þat siþen depreced prouinces and patrounes bicome
welne3e of al þe wele in þe west iles
fro riche romulus to rome ricchis hym swyþe
with gret bobbaunce þat bur3e he biges vpon fyrst
and neuenes hit his aune nome as hit now hat
ticius to tuskan and teldes bigynnes
langaberde in lumbardie lyftes vp homes
and fer ouer þe french flod felix brutus
on mony bonkkes ful brode bretayn he settez
where werre and wrake and wonder
bi syþez hatz wont þerinne
and oft boþe blysse and blunder
ful skete hatz skyfted synne
After the siege and the assault of Troy, when the city was burned to ashes, the knight who therein wrought treason was tried for his treachery and was found to be the truest on earth. Aeneas the noble it was, and his high kindred, who vanquished great nations and became the rulers of wellnigh all the western world. Noble Romulus went to Rome with great show of strength, and built that city at the first, and gave it his own name, as it is called to this day. Ticius went into Tuscany and began to set up habitations, and Langobard made his home in Lombardy; whilst Brutus, far over the French sea by many a full broad hill-side, the fair land of Britain
Where war and wrack and wonder
Often were seen therein,
And oft both bliss and blunder
Have come about through sin.
Compare this dialect’s language with the opening of the General Prologue from The Canterbury Tales, about halfway down the text in this post.
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A good source of information about reading Chaucer, as well as some articles on how Middle English evolved.
And here’s a concise guide to reading and pronouncing Chaucer:
And here is a good page of literary resources for Middle English: