Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Shadows of Middle English

Julia and I are reading around in Chaucer. Honestly, we should not dip in and dip out of Chaucer's tales. It's a mistake to extract only the Pardoner's Tale or the Wife of Bath's Tale, and read them standing alone. The fun parts are the dialogues among the pilgrims, stuck between the tales. We didn't read the Miller's tale because it's very bawdy, but the conversation beforehand ...? So fun!

We read the Pardoner's tale, the Wife of Bath's tale, and are now reading the Nun's Priest tale, a darling account of a rooster named Chauntecleer and his wife Pertelote. Next we'll finish with the Clerk's tale, which I've never read, but the summary of it sounds very exciting. Chaucer seems quite taken with the theme of marriage and man/woman relationships in his tales.

We came upon one word in Middle English that I enjoyed: "everich." This word, and variations of it, Chaucer uses quite often. Everich means "every." Everichoon means "every one." You find it in this quote describing the Friar: "He knew the tavernes wel in every toun, and everich hostiler and tappestere." (Now see -- that's not hard at all! "He knew the taverns well in every town, and every hosteler and barmaid." Even "tappestere" makes sense -- someone who minds the tap, right?)

I love words. I rolled that word, everich, around in my mind. And then I recognized it. I'd heard it from elderly people, country people, all my life. My grandmother, I guess, and older people in Mississippi, and even here in coastal North Carolina. You'll hear them say something like this: "We tried it ever which way, but couldn't make it work." Remember the song from a few decades ago -- "Every which way but loose ... You turn me every which way but loose." And that's close, but not as close as "ever which." And I realized that what I'd been hearing from those old country folks wasn't ignorant, stupid English. It was language closer to Middle English.

That thought made me tingle and think, "Ooooooh." Because I love language and words and things old and the past. I will now proudly say "ever which way" whenever I can!

I plan to give Julia a quiz just on the language, with a vocabulary section of single words, but also a chunk of text, about 10 lines, for her to render in modern English. Should be fun. We've both gotten quite good at reading Chaucer's English with ease and understanding. And when we come across a word that's a puzzle ... and we pause for a few seconds ... and then one or the other of us says, "Ahhhh" ... and we laugh and realize what we just read! Those are moments that make homeschooling quite priceless.

Did you know that the phrase "Murder will out!" is from Chaucer? Sure is! Did anyone use it before him? I don't know. "Mordre wol out," Chauntecleer says.

The rooster, who is afraid of his nightmares, is advised by his mate Pertelote to take medical action.  "Now, sire, whan we flee fro the bemes, for Goddes love, as tak some laxatyf." (When we fly from our roosts in the morning, take a laxative!) Julia recognized that word before I did :)

In this particular tale, I also found it fascinating that Middle English speakers had so many words for "dream." They called it a "dreme," (or "dreem") but also a "mette," and a "swevene." Why did we lose those words, and when? "Swevene" (or sweven) can also mean "vision" but it's a vision in one's sleep, in a dream.

Our language is narrowing in many ways. We expand vocabulary as we add technology words, scientific words, foreign words. But we lose the careful distinctions of certain verbs simply by not using them. How often do you hear someone use the verb "swum"? I know of elementary teachers (nice ladies, all of them!) who abuse verbs horribly, and I wonder how their students will ever acquire a full usage of English if their teachers say, "I had ran," or "She had swam." I hate to lose anything from a language.

I'll be sad to finish Chaucer, and I think I'll continue reading all the tales after Julia and I have completed her study. And maybe ... just maybe ... one of you will join me?


  1. I can still recite the first few lines of the prologue by heart ---- yes, in Middle English. Sigh. Memories of the twelfth grade...

  2. This sounds like so much fun. I wish I were in your school!

  3. My oh my you do read some interesting literature. I've never read Chaucer. I like reading but I'm guess some types of books are an acquired taste. Anyway I do think you do an excellent job of teaching and cover a wonderful variety of subject material.

  4. Love studying and reading about the Middle Ages. I think I've read about the Appalachian people preserving many old songs and ways of speaking because they came straight from England and Scotland, and just buried themselves in the mountains, and were not influenced by anything American or modern.


Hello! I hope you leave a word ~ I will get back to it as soon as I can!