Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Thou and Ye: A Collocational-Phraseological Approach to Pronoun Change in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Thou and Ye: A Collocational-Phraseological Approach to Pronoun Change in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Chaucer's use of the singular or plural form of the second person pronoun to address a single person in his Canterbury Tales usually follows the established standards of his time. However, some ninety instances of pronoun switching do occur, and explanations drawing on pragmatic parameters, rhyme and textual corruption have not been able to explain all of these deviations. Complementary to these approaches, this paper offers a novel explanatory hypothesis. The "collocational-phraseological hypothesis" suggested here takes into account the force of the syntagmatic relationship of words. On the basis of an original electronic compilation of all instances of pronoun switches in the Canterbury Tales and a classification according to three main types, we argue that frequently and/or habitually used lexical combinations (collocations, formulae, quotations) can account for a significant number of the cases in question.

1. Introduction

Towards the end of the fourteenth century, the use of the second person plural pronoun to address a single person was generally determined by sociopragmatic conditions such as status and social distance (cf. Finkenstaedt 1963: 73-74; Burnley 2003). Chaucer's literary use of the personal pronouns thou and ye (henceforth: T and Y; including inflected forms) usually accords well with the practices of the time. Skeat's (1894: 175) assessment of that general practice has basically remained unchallenged: Y was reserved for the address of a servant to the lord, for compliment, to express honour, submission or entreaty. However, it has also been noted for a long time that sudden changes of the pronouns in the conversation of the same pair of speaker and listener do indeed occur in Chaucer's works. The Canterbury Tales, on which this paper concentrates, show a considerable number of such cases. (1) The following example from a speech by the yeoman to the summoner in Friar's Tale (1397-1402) is an illustration of the change in question. It shows a single deviation from the singular (thyn etc.) to the plural (vow) in verse (1399): (2)

   1) I am unknowen as in this contree;
      Of thyn aqueyntance I wolde praye thee,
      And eek of bretherhede, if that yow leste.
      I have gold and silver in my cheste;
      If that thee happe to comen in oure shire,
      Al shal be thyn, right as thou wolt desire.
      [I am not known in this country;
      I wish to ask you of your acquaintance
      and also of sworn brotherhood, if you wish.
      I have gold and silver in my chest;
      If you happen to come to our shire,
      all shall be yours, just as you wish.]

Striking deviations from the norm such as this one seem at first sight to be rather irregular and arbitrary. What complicates the picture is that next to single deviations such as in (1), complete changes of the paradigm or utterly irregular switchings in both directions can be found. Scholarship has so far mainly concentrated on affective-situational or other pragmatic explanations to account for all these changes. In particular, developments in the attitude of the speaker towards the addressee in the course of the text have repeatedly been claimed as the motivating factor for the changes. Demands of rhyme or textual corruption can be held responsible in a few cases; and from time to time reference to "formulaic phrases" has been made. Section 2 of our paper is a brief review of earlier approaches which shows that these explanations fall short of accounting for all of the instances of pronoun change.

We suggest that the syntagmatic relationship of words had an impact on the choice of the pronouns of address. In particular, we argue that frequently and/or habitually used lexical combinations could influence the choice regardless of micro- or macropragmatic considerations. It will be shown that this line of investigation, which we call the "collocational-phraseological hypothesis" and which will be more fully introduced in section 3, can usefully complement pragmatic explanations. …

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