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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XX. The Language from Chaucer to Shakespeare

§ 1. Fifteenth century changes in vocabulary

THE ALL-IMPORTANT feature in the development of English during the pre-Chaucerian period consisted of those grammatical changes which entirely altered the organic character of the language. From being a highly inflected language, it became one partially stripped of inflections, whereas its changes in vocabulary during the same period, though important in themselves, were far less radical in their effects. After 1400, the restraining influences of a recognised literary dialect and a growing literature made themselves felt. Writers became more and more adverse to modifications of grammatical forms, which had already been simplified almost to their limit, while the vocabulary grew mechanically under varying but ever increasing influences.

The period (1400–1600) with which this chapter deals divides naturally into two centuries, the dividing point being, roughly, the date of Caxton’s death (1491). The first of these two periods—the fifteenth century—though transitional and somewhat chaotic in character, was, nevertheless, responsible for certain marked developments. In it an increased importance was given to the vernacular, and a uniform written language was established, both of which effects were due to tendencies visible already in Chaucer’s day. And the period is further characterised by some considerable changes in vocabulary, as well as by changes of a more gradual kind in grammatical structure and pronunciation, which may be said to culminate in the following century.

The increasing importance of the vernacular in the fifteenth century was due, in part, to the growing sense of nationality under Edward III. Although the use of English had never died out, and even Robert of Gloucester had been able to state that “lowe men holde[char] to Engliss,” yet, in the thirteenth century and later, Anglo-French was the courtly language, Latin the language of learned of documentary writings. Under Edward III, the conditions began to change: in 1362, parliament was opened by an English speech, and, about the same time, English began to be used in the law courts and the schools. It also came to be generally regarded as the language of literature, as is seen when Gower forsakes French and Latin to write in English, and when Capgrave (1462) compiles what was the first chronicle in English since the Conquest. Though the struggles of the vernacular for recognition were not completed in this century, the position it held was stronger than at any time since 1066, and its supremacy was to be assured by Caxton’s work.

The causes which brought about the recognition of a standard dialect of English have already been treated. London furnished that dialect, just as the chief city of Attica furnished the language of literary Greek and Paris the language of literary French; and throughout the fifteenth century this London dialect was gaining ascendency. Various dialectal forms inserted in a text would still betray the district from which their writer hailed, even when he had deliberately adopted the standard dialect; and such provincialisms remained until the time of printed texts. But, from now onwards, the one dialect was to represent the spoken language of the educated, as well as the literary and official medium. The dialects of Ormulum and the Ancren Riwle lost caste, and remained, apart from literature, on the tongues of the people.

The most striking feature in connection with the fifteenth century vocabulary was the rapid manner in which old native words became obsolete. This is clearly seen from the following lists, taken, on the one hand, from fourteenth century texts, and, on the other, from modernised versions of those texts, belonging to the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

Trevisa’s Chron. (1387)Caxton’s version (1482)Wyclif’s trans. (1380)Tindale’s version (1525)
schulle[char] fongeseerdrod
to echeencreceshall reseeyveto meketo humble
bynemeteke awaysoure dow[char]leven
hi[char]twas namedaxe himquesten with him
as me trowe[char]as men supposewalow a stoonroll a stone
steiheascendedabide itwayte for it
[char]edewenteldeolde age
neschesoftto hie hymselfto exalt hymselfe.

Literary diction is not always a true test as to the condition of the spoken language, but there can be little doubt that the changes here represented stand for changes of the language in common use; for the object in modernising the texts had been to bring them into conformity with the language of the day. And it is also interesting to note that the forms of the later texts are practically those of modern English: they were to be fixed by the printing press.

It is evident from the above lists that the obsolescent native words were being mainly superseded by words of French origin. French words had been borrowed during the preceding centuries, when Anglo-French represented the language of the official and governing classes; but, in the fifteenth century, as a result of different social and literary influences, the borrowings were mainly of the Parisian or Picardian type, and their use became more marked than ever. Already, in the first half of this century, a change is visible; in Lydgate, for instance, abstract words of Romance origin are being substituted for Chaucer’s concrete native terms, and the proportion of this foreign element steadily increased as the century advanced.

Translation, no doubt, accounts for the presence of many of these French words in fifteenth century English, also for the many Latin words and constructions which were freely adopted. But it by no means represents the only influence. Trade relations with the Netherlands and the settlement of Flemish weavers in England during the fourteenth century led to the introduction of many Low German words, which were supplemented at a later date, when relations with the Low Countries were renewed in connection with printing. Then, again, Italian words like “pilgrim,” “alarm” and “brigand,” are found naturalised before 1500; and so, in a variety of ways, the character of the vocabulary changed, anticipating the more expansive movements of the following century.

It is also clear, from the above lists, that the decay of the earlier inflectional system was being gradually completed. Unnecessary adjuncts like the prefix y-, the negative particle in nas and endings like -ep in “schullep” (present plural) and “havep” (imperative plural), where the plural idea was denoted by the context, were being discarded. Prepositional forms were increasing, as well as the periphrastic method of comparison by “more” and “most.” There was also a growing tendency to avoid impersonal constructions, while vowel-differences, due to earlier ablaut or umlaut, as in “schullep” and “elde,” in the list given above, were being rapidly levelled. The most important of these changes, however, was the loss of final syllabic -e (-es, -en). It is probable that Chaucer’s systematic use of that vowel represented merely an archaism utilised for metrical purposes, and it was owing to his influence that its value was preserved in poetry during the early part of the fifteenth century. But already in Lydgate there are signs that it had really become mute, more frequently, perhaps, in Romance words, than in those of Teutonic origin; and this led to much confusion in both language and metre after the middle of the century. The secret of Chaucer’s metrical methods seemed lost, and the confused metre, the halting gait and the unmusical combinations of words illustrate how misapprehension of this final syllabic -e had interfered with literary effects. A change in the whole poetic phraseology was, moreover, involved: dissyllabic words became monosyllabic, and poetic formulas, received from the past, became mere prose. Lydgate was able to embody phrases such as Chaucer’s “the grene leves,” or “olde stories tellen us”; but, to later poets, unconscious of the syllabic -e, the phrases were lacking in harmony and rhythm. Instead of Chaucer’s “my grene yerés,” Surrey has to write “my fresh green years”; for Chaucer’s “sooté flourés,” Sackville writes “soot fresh flowers.”