Language over Time: Chaucer's Smale Foweles

By Blake, Julie | NATE Classroom, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Language over Time: Chaucer's Smale Foweles


Blake, Julie, NATE Classroom


Changing language over time is a re-minted currency in the National Curriculum economy. We'd been doing it already, in the indirect manner of reading Shakespeare plays and other older literary texts and anyway, some schools never stopped doing their old 'Knowledge About Language' historical mini-surveys at Key Stage 3. But in linguistic terms Shakespeare is modern, and though we could easily spend several weeks just looking at language change in the life of a teenager, if we're also trying to keep our eye on literary heritage we might turn again to Chaucer. Too hard? Well, as with anything, it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it, and that's what gets results (to quote Bananarama). So, here is a much tested way into working directly with the language of the opening section of Chaucer's General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, to go with 'The Road Less Travelled' companion piece in this edition (page 26).

Step 1: feel the fear and face it anyway

Try starting with these words from the opening section of The General Prologue (lines 1-18). If you save them in a PowerPoint version you can print them off easily, six to a sheet, to use as a card sort activity. You could ask students to sort them into lists of:

a) those they are confident they know the meaning of

b) those they would hazard a guess at

c) those they are mystified by.

Encourage students to say the words out loud as well as reading them, comparing them with other words they know. This activity gives you an immediate 'reading' of who has the most/least confidence with language if it's a class you don't know well and even when you do, it can throw up a few surprises about who your class code-breakers are--often students with less attachment to the baroque curlicues of schooled literacy. A large class will usually manage to figure out most of them. The ones they don't get are usually to do with vocabulary development rather than language obstacles--have a dictionary or six on hand to help with words like 'sundry', 'foweles' and 'licour'. When you go through the answers, pat them a lot and tell them that they've just done it the hardest possible way, without any context, and everything hereafter will be easier!

Step 2: the first 18 lines

The next step is to work with the meanings of the words in context. You could start by listening to the opening lines without the text, encouraging students to listen for the general gist rather than over-worrying about full comprehension. Audio files are available here if you don't fancy reading it yourself http://academics.vmi.edu/english/ audio/Audio_Index.html. Part of the trick of building confidence with other language forms is to encourage flexibility, using what is known and a large dose of 'have a go' intuition to bridge across to what isn't known yet.

1 Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

2 The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

3 And bathed every veine in swich licour

4 Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

5 Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

6 Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

7 The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

8 Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,

9 And smale foweles maken melodye,

10 That slepen al the night with open ye

11 (So priketh hem Nature in hir corages),

12 Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

13 And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,

14 To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;

15 And specially from every shires ende

16 Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,

17 The hooly blisful martir for to seke,

18 That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

Having discussed the general gist, and pieced it together from the different ideas students have picked up, you might then work on a detailed translation of the opening lines. …

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