Title Background

Written English: The Making of the Language 1370-1400

Written English: The Making of the Language 1370-1400

This essay argues that later Middle English was the result not of natural developments, but of a conscious attempt by writers like L, Chaucer, and Gower to develop a more flexible and precise form of English. The flexibility and precision of Latin had stunted the development of English, whose use was limited to less complex communication. Readers of the period apparently learned their letters in Latin not English. The language of The Book of the Duchess was novel, heralding similarly novel writings such as PPl, whose English was much more subtle, precise and expressive than was that of earlier writers. While it is not clear exactly how the change was made to English by L and his contemporaries, it is clear that crucial to the new development was the fact that the Ricardians were influenced by Latin styles, and were able to accommodate Latin and French readily in their new form of the vernacular. It seems that L wrote for a progressive and educated audience familiar with Latin, which would have sympathized with his attempt to reach out to a popular audience through the use of the new form of English. While the motive for experiment must have been strong among the Ricardians, the change in English was not driven by nationalism, but by the desire firstly that impromptu translations of Latin religious texts might be avoided in religious instruction, and secondly that English might take its place alongside other illustrious vernaculars.


Past and Present, 179 (2003): 24-59


Catto, Jeremy