and Social Change
in Chaucer's Prologue
Ye knowe ek that in forme of speche is chaunge
Withinne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden pris, now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thinketh hem; and yit they spake hem so,
And spedde as wel in love as men now do:
Ek for to winnen love in sondry ages,
In sondry longes sondry ben usages.
These observations on linguistic change in general and semantic change in particular do not now appear to be very remarkable, until one tries to parallel them. They are uttered in a deceptively self-effacing manner, as if the narrator does not want to bore anyone by expatiating on obviosities well within the range of any observant person's awareness. Today the evidence of semantic change is all around us: the scholar observes a great deal of it with feelings of quiet desperation. The invention of moveable type has stabilized the form but has been used, as some would say, to "destabilize the semantic content" of language. Chaucer's prayer, at the end of his great work that it be faithfully reproduced amidst the "gret diversité in Englissh" has eventually been answered, but with a vengeance.
Today Chaucer's lines have an added irony, which one can be sure,____________________