Middle Gears


Elizabeth Creith

In my university days—the mountains were cool, but megafauna still roamed the earth—I took a course in mediaeval English literature. The bulk of the year, as I recall, was spent on Chaucer, who is really a good read.

Was that a groan? That was a groan, wasn’t it? And you in the back, I saw you roll your eyes. Let me tell you, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, all that lot have been sadly misused and maligned by being crammed down the throats of hapless high school students. The poor creatures—the students, I mean—can’t figure out what earthly good the ability to quote “To be or not to be” or “Whenne that Aprille with its shoures soote” will do them in later life. In all fairness, the teachers who have to do the cramming are probably similarly bewildered.

(It does you precisely the same earthly good as learning all the lyrics to every single Pink Floyd/Black Sabbath/Debbie Boone song does, which is lots in the mental-pleasures department, and none whatsoever in terms of finding a job. Oh, I lie—you can get a job teaching Chaucer if you're smart and lucky. Nobody I know of has, to date, got a job teaching Pink Floyd. Or Debbie Boone.)

It doesn't help that in high school you aren't even going to get the original Middle English of Chaucer's day. No, you get some “modern translation” with an umpty-tumpty-ump rhythm and lines whose feet not only limp, but are probably both wearing left shoes. The vocabulary is chosen so that it rhymes in modern English, and the overall effect is to the original what “The Rabbit of Seville” is to Rossini's original opera. Except without Bugs Bunny. Or any humour.

Of course, reading Chaucer in the original is a little more work, because language evolves. In between Chaucer and us—in fact, in between Chaucer and Shakespeare—the very pronunciation of language evolved. This was called The Great Vowel Shift.

As far as I can figure out, one night everybody went to bed with the vowels in one place in their mouths, and overnight there was a vast sort of rollover thingy that happened, and in the morning everybody's vowels were all in a different place but—and this is important—in the same different place. So yesterday you went to milk the four-legged critter with the two pointy bits on her head and a distressing tendency to whack you in the face with her tail in the middle of milking, and you called her the “coo.” But today, inexplicably, you called her the “cow.” And it was all because those pesky vowels all moved around in the night.

Luckily your neighbour’s vowels had moved, too, so when you yelled at him to get his coo out of your garden, he knew exactly what you were saying. And when he replied with a fine old Anglo-Saxon expletive, you understood that, too, and life went on just as before.

At least, I think that's what happened. It's possible that pre-Chaucer we were all speaking in standard shift, and afterwards it was some kind of automatic thing that didn't have a clutch. It’s possible that those dratted vowel mechanics accidentally disengaged the emergency brake at the same time, which would explain why we’ve lost our grip on the speed of linguistic change.

But here’s the thing—if you can get your head around “sweet” and “root” rhyming, Chaucer is definitely worth the trouble. All you have to do is learn to read in standard shift. And don’t step in the coo poo.

Books mentioned in this column:
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (Bantam Books, 1982)


Elizabeth Creith is a biblioholic and incurable librocubicularist. Not only does she buy, read, shelve and stack books, but she also writes them and on occasion makes them by hand. Elizabeth lives and writes in Wharncliffe, Northern Ontario, distracted occasionally by her husband, dog, and cat. The Scriptorium is where she blogs about writing and life. Contact Elizabeth.



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