Title Background

Chaucer and the History of English

Chaucer and the History of English

Linguistic history, like all history, is written retrospectively. It is written from some historical vantage that allows a critic to survey what has been previously spoken and written and to decide which forms are representative, which aberrant, which tangential, and which proleptic in the ways they figure in a coherent account of language change and development. While speakers use language to accomplish specific tasks in specific situations, historians assemble these utterances into moments of stasis (like dialects or historical stages) and narratives of change. Classifying the linguistic record in this way, language historians make possible large conceptualizations of a sort that typically eludes speakers in ordinary conversation. In the case of second person personal pronouns, L, like other late-medieval writers, sometimes used singular and plural forms in imitation of the honorific patterns that occur in contemporary French. But he did so inconsistently, and scribes of PPl amplified this inconsistency. In fact, usage patterns in late-medieval poetry and prose in general suggest that honorific pronouns were stylistic choices but not part of Middle English grammar in the abstract. Poets like L can offer only limited insight into how late-medieval speakers used Middle English in everyday circumstances. (TWM)


Speculum, 87 (2012), 147-75.


Machan, Tim William