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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XIX. Changes in the Language to the Days of Chaucer

§ 15. English Dialects in the Fourteenth Century

Writers on the history of the English language have been accustomed to quote, as if it related to the condition of things in the year 1385, the following passage from Trevisa: “All the language of the Northumbrians, and specially at York, is so sharp, slitting and froting, and unshape, that we southern men may that language unnethe [hardly] understand.” This sentence, however, is not Trevisa’s own, but translates a quotation by Higden from William of Malmesbury’s Gesta of Pontificum, written before 1125. The fact that Higden and Trevisa reproduce Malmesbury’s words without comment, can hardly be said to prove anything. Still, although Trevisa’s adoption of Malmerbury’s statement is not, considered by itself, very good evidence as to the amount of dialectal divergence existing in his own time, it appears likely that, on the whole, the difference between the speech of the north and that of the south had rather increased than diminished between the twelfth and the fourteenth century. It is true that the decay of the old inflexions had removed some of the dialectal distinctions of the earlier period, and that greater freedom of intercommunication between different parts of the country had not been without effect in producing some mixture of forms. But, on the other hand, the development of pronunciation had been divergent, and the gains and losses of the vocabulary had been, to a great extent, different in the different regions.

It must be remembered that, throughout the fourteenth century strongly marked differences of dialect were not, as now, confined to the less educated classes; nor is there any clear evidence that any writer attempted to use for literary purposes any other dialect than that which he habitually spoke. It is true that Wyclif was a man of northern birth, and that the language of his writings is distinctly of the midland type. But this is only what might have been expected in the case of a distinguished Oxford teacher, whose life, probably from early boyhood, had been spent at the university. Men of the highest culture continued to write in each of the three or four principal varieties of English. The dialects may have been somewhat less unlike in their written than in their spoken form, because the spelling was too much under the influence of tradition to represent accurately the divergent development of the original sounds. But, in spite of the nearness of Canterbury to London, it is probable that Chaucer would not have found it quite easy to read the Ayenbite of Inwyt, which was written about the time when he was born; nor would he have felt much more at home with the writings of his contemporaries among the west midland alliterative poets or those of northern poets like Laurence Minot. At any rate, a modern reader who has learned to understand Chaucer without great difficulty commonly finds himself very much at a loss when first introduced to the Ayenbite, the Morte Arthure, or Sir Gawayne. Northern prose, indeed, is to us somewhat easier, because, owing to the loss of inflexions, its language is, in some respects, more modern than even that of Chaucer.

An outline of the distinctive features of Middle English dialects has already been given in the sections of this chapter treating of grammar and pronunciation. The following comparative list of forms of words may assist the reader to obtain a general notion of the extent and nature of the diversities of the written language of different parts of the country in the fourteenth century.

KentishSouth-WesternE. MidlandW. MidlandNorthern
Fireveervuir, fuirfuirfuirfier
I shall sayIch ssel ziggeIch schal siggeI shal seynI shal saieI sal sai
She sayshy zeythheo seythshe seythho saithscho sais
They sayhy ziggethhy siggeththey seynhy, thai saynthai sai
Her namehare nomehor nomeher namehur nameher nam
Their nameshare nomenhure nomenhir nameshur namusthair names
The English of Scotland, so far as we know, was hardly used for literary purposes until the last quarter of the fourteenth century, when Barbour wrote his Bruce. It is doubtful whether the other works ascribed to Barbour are not of later date, and the Bruce itself has come down to us in manuscripts written a hundred years after the author’s time. The specific features distinguishing the Scottish dialect from northern English across the border will, therefore, be more conveniently reserved for treatment in a later chapter.

It must not be supposed that the forms above tabulated were the only forms current in the districts to which they are assigned, or that none of them were used outside the regions to which they typically belong. Local varieties of speech within each dialect area were doubtless many, and the orthography was unfixed and only imperfectly phonetic. Literary works were copied by scribes who belonged to other parts of the country than those in which the works were composed; and, consequently, the texts as we have them represent a mixture of the grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary of different dialects. Vernacular writers, especially poets, often added to their means of expression by adopting words and forms from dialects other than their own. Hence, although in the last years of the fourteenth century the establishment of a common literary language was still in the future, and the varieties even of the written speech continued to be strongly marked, there are few writings of the period that can be regarded as unmixed representatives of any single dialect.

The tendencies that ultimately resulted in the formation of a uniform written language began to act before the fourteenth century closed. In London, the seat of legislative and administrative activity, the influx of educated persons from all parts of the kingdom led to the displacement of the original southern dialect by the dialect of the east midlands, which, in virtue of its intermediate character, was more intelligible both to southern and northern men than northern English to a southerner or southern English to a northerner. The fact that both the university towns were linguistically within the east midland area had, no doubt, also its effect in bringing about the prevalence of this type of English among the educated classes of the capital. The works of Chaucer, which, in the next age, were read and imitated not only in the southern kingdom but even in Scotland, carried far and wide the knowledge of the forms of London English; and the not very dissimilar English of Oxford was, in like manner, spread abroad through the enormous popularity of the writings of Wyclif and his associates. Even in the lifetime of these two great writers, it had already become inevitable that the future common English of literature should be English essentially of the east midland type.