Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Mixing Languages on the Manor

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Mixing Languages on the Manor

Article excerpt

Multilingualism in medieval England

Medieval multhingualism in England has become a significant subject of study in recent years.1 Much more is now known about the linguistic multicompetence displayed by language users in England, depending on textual type and function, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries especially. Although a belief in the adversarial nature of language choices - with French a language identified with Norman masters and English identified with the oppressed classes - has long been a staple of English language history,2 it is becoming clear that the relationship between French and English in the later medieval period was more a matter of complementarity. The two languages represented, not differing communities with opposed interests, but choices available to those who possessed bilingual competence. Educated Englishmen, at least, seem to have been comfortable in the use of either vernacular, selected in terms of the language function required. The sharp growth in the use of French for administrative and commercial purposes in the fourteenth century, at the expense of Latin, would have been poindess unless there were substantial numbers of people who found it practical to have such documents drawn up in French, even though they were by now - centuries after the Conquest - unquestionably native speakers of English.

Although it has long been customary to downplay the existence of French as a spoken language in later medieval England, and to restrict it to a written code, members of the literate classes experienced years of practice using French as a spoken medium of instruction at grammar school.3 The status of French as a vehicle for the teaching of Latin is amply documented by surviving pedagogic material in which Latin grammar and vocabulary is explained through French.4 This can surely have worked as a successful teaching strategy only if French was well enough known to learners to have functioned as a spoken medium in the classroom. Thus substantial numbers of school leavers would have been produced in each generation whose knowledge of spoken French typically came from non-aristocratic social backgrounds. Their social roles in adulthood would have been those where literacy was required, including those involved in administration and commerce, such as tax collectors, bailiffs, scriveners, and accountants,5 as well as teachers, lawyers, and the clergy. Documentary material survives in abundance from the later thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries to show that these professionals, as a group, functioned in French to an extent bearing comparison with Latin, producing a very large number of administrative records in French.

Granted that multhingualism was a fact of life in later medieval England, a key question is whether it took the form of 'code diglossia',6 whereby Latin and French were essentially written codes, with English as the spoken medium of communication. If insular French was entering a phase of terminal decline in the later thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries,7 little if any use of French as a functional spoken language would be expected, since in virtually all linguistic encounters the individuals talking to each other would have been native speakers of English, and would presumably have been able to use it to communicate. On the other hand, French as used in England in the later medieval period8 is often written at a level of grammatical competence and fluency which belies the older image of decline and collapse,9 so it may have retained a substantial spoken presence alongside its use in written documents. Given the pervasive orality of language in the medieval period,10 this degree of written proficiency may have gone hand in hand with some considerable ability to make spoken use of the language.

The thesis of oral bilingualism in medieval England, once championed by Legge,11 has been much criticized by many subsequent authors, who generally omit to note, however, that it actually comprises two distinct claims. …

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