The English Language
Four principal dialects existed in late medieval England in addition to the western and northern Welsh and Scots. Latin was still the dominant institutional language and French was commonly spoken among the nobility and others. Gradually throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, written English would become the language of many kinds of records, replacing Latin and French. This complex linguistic situation, somewhat exacerbated by Lollardy, caused both anxious and playful reflection on the part of writers (see “Censorship,” p. 242). For information on Ranulf Higden and John Trevisa, see “The English and England,” p. 50. The following selection precedes the passage on the English and England, and may be read in relation to that discussion. Here again we see Trevisa glossing Higden’s ideas.De incolarum linguis. Capitulum quinquagesimum nonum.1 [Ranulf says:] As it is i-knowe how meny manere peple beeth in this ilond, there beeth also so many dyvers longages and tonges; notheles, Walsche men and Scottes, that beeth nought i-medled with other naciouns, holdeth wel nyh hir firste longage and speche but if the Scottes that were somtyme confederat and wonede with the Pictes drawe2 somwhat after hir speche, but the Flemmynges that woneth in the weste side of Wales haveth i-left her straunge speche and speketh Saxonliche i-now. Also Englische men, they hadde from the bygynnynge thre manere speche – northerne, sowtherne, and middel speche in the myddel of the lond – as they come of thre manere peple of Germania; notheles, by comyxtioun and mellynge,3 first with Danes and afterward with Normans, in meny the contray longage is apayred, and som useth straunge wlafferynge, chiterynge, harrynge, and garrynge grisbayting.
4 This apayrynge of the burthe of the tunge is bycause of tweie thinges: oon is for children in scole, agenst the usage and manere of alle othere naciouns, beeth compelled for to leve hire owne langage and for to construe hir lessouns and here thynges in Frensche, and so they haveth seth the Normans come first in to Engelond. Also, gentil men children beeth i-taught to speke Frensche from the tyme that they beeth i-rokked in here cradel, and kunneth speke and playe with a childes broche, and uplondisshe men wil likne hym self to gentil men and fondeth with greet besynesse for to speke Frensce for to be i-tolde of. Trevisa: This mannere was moche i-used to for firste deth5 and is siththe sumdel i-chaunged, for John Cornwaile, a maister of grammer,6 chaunged the lore in gramer scole and construccioun of Frensche in to Englische, and Richard Pencriche lerned the manere techynge of hym and of othere men of Pencrich so that now, the yere of oure Lorde a thowsand, thre hundred, and foure score and fyve, and of the secounde Kyng Richard after the conquest nyne, in alle the gramere scoles of Engelond, children leveth Frensche and construeth and lerneth an Englische, and haveth therby avauntage in oon side and disavauntage in another side: here avauntage is that they lerneth her gramer in lasse tyme than children wer i-woned to doo; disavauntage is that now children of gramer scole conneth na more Frensche than can hir lift heele, and that is harme for hem and they schulle passe the see and travaille in straunge landes and in many other places. Also, gentil men haveth now moche i-left for to teche here childen Frensche.
Ranulf says: Hit semeth a greet wonder how Englische, that is the burthe tonge of Englisshe men and her owne langage and tonge, is so dyverse of sown in this oon ilond, and the langage of Normandie is comlynge7 of another londe and hath oon manere soun among alle men that speketh hit aright in Engelond. Trevisa: Nevertheles, there is as many dyvers manere Frensche in the reem of Fraunce as is dyvers manere Englische in the reem of Engelond. Ranulf says: Also, of the forsaide Saxon tonge that is i-deled athre8 and is abide scarsliche with fewe yplondisshe men, is greet wonder, for men of the Est with men of the West, as it were undir the same partie of hevene, acordeth more in sownynge of speche than men of the North with men of the South; therfore, it is that Mercii, that beeth men of myddel Engelond, as it were parteners of the endes, understondeth bettre the side langages, northerne and southerne, than northerne and southerne understondeth either other.
Willelmus de Pontificibus, libro tertio.9 Al the longage of the Northhumbres, and specialliche at York, is so scharp, slitting,10 and frotynge11 and unschape, that we southerne men may that longage unnethe understonde. I trowe that that is bycause that they beeth nyh to straunge men and naciouns that speketh strongliche, and also bycause that the kynges of Engelond woneth alwey fer from that cuntrey, for they beeth more i-torned to the south contray and, if they gooth to the north contray, they gooth with greet help and strengthe. The cause why they beeth more in the south contrey than in the North is for hit may be better corne12 londe, more peple, more noble citees, and more profitable havenes.