Archives for posts with tag: West Africa

chaunges one chaucer

Languages have a way of changing. Certain words and expressions adapt – sticking with us for centuries – while others disappear entirely. Here are five Middle English expressions we no longer use:

1.       Drunken as a Mouse

This expression is probably best known from its appearance in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale[1] – the first Canterbury Tale. There’s no doubt this expression comes from the peculiar state cellar mice were found in after gnawing on wooden casks of wine or ale. Though aging ale in wooden casks is starting to make a comeback in home and craft brewing, mice haven’t been associated with beer in popular culture since Bob and Doug McKenzie used one in a bottle to try to get a free case of Elsinore beer.

bob and doug mckenzie try to get free beer using a mouse in a bottle

Bob and Doug McKenzie (played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) try to get a free case of beer using a mouse in a bottle in the film Strange Brew (copyright 1983 MGM).

The expression later became “Drunk as a skunk” – probably only because it rhymes. When’s the last time you’ve heard anyone say, “Drunk as a skunk” anyway?

2.       Breme as bore

Brave (or fierce) as a boar. It appears in The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur[2] where it is used several times to describe how awesome certain knights of King Arthur’s court are at jousting. I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of a lance driven by a knight who was as “breme as a boar.”

This expression is one of my personal favorites and I’d love to bring it back. Problem is, “breme” didn’t make it to our Modern English. I suppose we could use “brave as a boar” but it just doesn’t have the same ferocious ring to it. Plus, how often does a wild boar come up in conversation anymore? Though they seem to always be around in Middle English and Middle High German texts, we rarely hear of run-in’s with wild boars these days – unless, of course, they are Sylvester Stallone legends from Bulgaria.

3.       They walwe as doon two pigges in a poke

They wrestled like two pigs in a poke. Chaucer used this expression to animate the cartoonish climax of his Reeve’s Tale. Symkyn the Miller and Alalyn are in a fight cloud like pigs in a poke until Symkyn slips on a stone, falling backward onto his wife in bed giving Alayn and John the chance to get out of Dodge.

Growing up in the American South, I occasionally heard the expression “like two pigs in a poke” but, famously getting expressions wrong and not knowing that a “poke” was a sack – I thought it meant something along the lines of two pigs trying to pass a threshold at the same time – not wriggling around in a sack.

The closest I’ve ever come to seeing this expression acted out was in West Africa. Once, when my wife and I were en route from either Grand Popo or Porto Novo to Cotonou, the taxi driver stopped at a roadside stand to load some pigs in the trunk. We could hear – and sometimes feel – their wrestling behind us for the entire journey.

When we finally reached Cotonou, the driver stopped at a Barbeque stand where the pigs were unloaded for a big lady who oversaw the removal of the beasts from the back of our vehicle looking stern and unimpressed. We were surprised to see that there were actually three pigs in the trunk instead of two. Though it greatly annoyed the other two ladies who were stuffed like sardines in the backseat with us – we were lucky we kept our backpacks on us instead of storing them in the trunk.

4.       Not worth a leek

Chaucer used this expression in his Wife of Bath’s lecture on marriage. The entire line is:

I holde a mouses herte nat worth a leek
That hath but oon hole for to sterte to
And if that faille, thane is al ydo. (D ll. 572-74)

This basically means marriage is like a mouse who only has one hole. If the mouse loses his hole, he has nothing. It’s a long way of a saying, “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket” – which we could use on one level to sum up the entire Wife of Bath’s Prologue. I’m not talking about the entire sense of these compound expressions though. Instead, I’m looking specifically at the expression “not worth a leek.” I’ve only seen that expression in Middle English texts. We don’t use “not worth an onion” (another one Chaucer often uses) and “not worth a leek” anymore. We’ve replaced them, at least in America, with “not worth a dime.” Why is that so?

5.       Whoso that first to mille comth, first grynt

I wasn’t intending to give Wife of Bath two spots on this list, but her work is chock full of witty expressions. We know what “First to the mill, first to grind” means, but we never hear it used today. Since everyone in a 14th century village needed their grain ground (whether they farmed it or not) on a regular basis, people spent a lot of time waiting their turn to get this done. We no longer rely on the miller to save us from grinding grain by hand all day.

We’ve since replaced this expression with “the early bird gets the worm” or “first come, first serve.” Many Americans will be thinking about this expression come Black Friday and as Christmas shopping season ramps up even more – I doubt they’ll use the words “first to the mill is first to grind”, but they will be thinking the same thing.


[1] References to Chaucer in Middle English are taken from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963).

[2] The Stanzaic Morte Arthur from King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure, ed. Larry D. Benson, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1974).

My wife read me a passage from Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? the other day that reminded me of language bridges:

“In the 1960s many men – and they were men not women – attended evening classes at the Working Men’s Institutes or the Mechanics’ Institute – another progressive initiative coming out of Manchester. The idea of ‘bettering’ yourself was not seen as elitist then, neither was it assumed that all values are relative, nor that all culture is more or less identical – whether Hammer Horror or Shakespeare.

 Those evening classes were big on Shakespeare – and none of the men ever complained that the language was difficult. Why not? It wasn’t difficult – it was the language of the 1611 Bible; the King James Version appeared in the same year as the first advertised performance of The Tempest. Shakespeare wrote The Winter’s Tale that year.

 It was a useful continuity, destroyed by the well-meaning, well-educated types who didn’t think of the consequences for the wider culture to have modern Bibles with the language stripped out. The consequence was that uneducated men and women, men like my father, and kids like me in ordinary schools, had no more easy everyday connection to four hundred years of the English language.

 A lot of older people I knew, my parents’ generation, quoted Shakespeare and the Bible and sometimes the metaphysical poets like John Donne, without knowing the source, or misquoting and mixing.”[1]

The King James Version of The Bible is still read in America today, but it’s not as popular among Protestant Christians as it was fifty years ago. 

Liberal and moderate Protestant Christians often distance themselves from the King James Version, associating the text with fundamentalist and conservative Christians. 

And many of those conservative Christians even agree that the language of the KJV is archaic and have replaced their copies with NRSV’s, NIV’s, NKJV’s, Living Bibles, and a myriad of others. 

Since the KJV was assembled and translated according to the theology of the Church of England, it omits certain scriptures found in the Catholic Bible. [edit: The original 1611 Edition King James Version contained the Apocrypha intertestamentally (between Old Testament and New Testament) but was later removed by the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) brought to a head by the British Puritan Revolution and the British Civil wars…]

Modern Catholics prefer other English translations like the New American Bible, New Jerusalem Bible, and the Catholic edition of the NRSV.  

For whatever reasons we choose to read and study an English language translation of the Bible other than the King James Version, as long as the KJV is left to collect dust on the bookshelf, the gulf between our English language of the past and the one we speak today widens, becoming more foreign with each generation.

Or does it? I look at the decrease in popularity of the KJV not so much in the interest of the future of Christianity and its various denominations, but from the perspective of how to bridge our modern language with older versions of it – and, more specifically, (I’m finally here!) how it affects popular appreciation of Middle English texts.

sunday school

“Any of you guys ever go to Sunday school?” Dr. Jones assumes CIA agents know their Bibles in Raiders of the Lost Ark (image copyright 1981 Paramount Pictures/Lucasfilm Ltd./Walt Disney Company)

So if you don’t read the King James Version to help bridge the gap between Modern English and Middle English…

 Will texting improve your ability to read Middle English?

There was some chatting on Chaucernet a couple of months ago about whether or not experience texting and Instant Messaging can surprisingly put someone at sort of an advantage when trying to learn to read Middle English. 

In text messaging and Instant Messaging, words can often be abbreviated in unconventional ways. And when words are abbreviated, the vowels are often the first to go. 

So, someone who is accustomed to quickly cycling through possible vowels combinations to identify the right word in a particular context for a text message may apply that skill to crack a puzzle in a Middle English text and have no problem trying out an eo even though puple is printed to get people – or see that schewyng is showing

Also, the speed of IM communication lends itself to spelling errors, so – like it or not – those who IM regularly practice reading varied spellings of even the most common words. Varied spellings often occur in Middle English texts. Take, for example, the spelling of the word way (when meaning road, way, or route) in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Sometimes it appears as weye, but other times it’s spelled way – even wey as well. 

Though weye and wey are totally incorrect spellings in Modern English, they might just be understood in an Instant Message.

Meanwhile, a spelling bee champion struggles to accept that the written works of the father of English literature are chock-full of spelling errors

How about joining the Peace Corps?

Imagine you’re posted in a West African country where the borrowed English words are pronounced in a pidgin accent somewhere between French and their local languages. Together becomes tugeyda, for example. You notice that these English words in these local languages are written on signs and documents, the spelling is not all that standardized – especially in rural towns and villages – it’s phonetic.

It’s the same thing for the words in their own local languages. Take, for example, the Hausa word wanzame (traditional barber). It is sometimes written as wanzamé, wanzamey, wanzami – and probably ten other ways too. 

Plus it’s written phonetically in both Arabic and Twareg Tifinagh scripts with just as much variety…

a022niger

A traditional Hausa barber (wanzame) creates suction for bloodletting using a cow horn (kaho) in rural Niger (image: Jon Weaver)

Say you’re trying to learn these local languages so you can actually get stuff at market for a fair price and not accidentally say vulgar things when commenting on the flavor of fermented millet porridge. 

[True story! I was once visiting a nearby village with a local volunteer and, noticing ginger was added to the porridge we were kindly served upon our arrival, I wanted to acknowledge the kind gesture because in poorer villages the millet porridge was usually prepared plain. But I didn’t say the word ginger – I said another word that sounded a lot like ginger – a woman’s… oh never mind!] 

Though it isn’t exactly the phonetic system one would find in a dictionary (when in Rome), you make quick notes of new words you hear using the roman alphabet and applying some loose mixture of French and English pronunciation rules.

These scribbles that you will study, especially the ones written very hastily, might remind you of Middle English words like togider (together), seide (said), pees (peace), and knoulechide (confessed/acknowledged).

Anyway, there was a time that I lived (and sort of worked) in rural Niger and while I was there – for better or worse – Middle English became a little easier for me to read.

Just read Middle English out loud in a French accent

My Chaucer professor suggested once that I try this. It initially helped me “fake” it but it also helped me find many English words that didn’t resemble English words until they were read using French pronunciation rules. [I’m finding now a little German helps too.]

Reading Middle English out loud – or at least phonetically out loud in my head – helps me recognize certain words that I may have otherwise missed. 

I remember there was this guy in my Chaucer class who always ended up dropping into this sort of Irish accent when he read Chaucer aloud. He was American, but I guess he was tapping into the way he talked several hundred years ago or so… in any case, it worked – or as Chaucer would say, “But algates therby was [he] understonde.” (MLT l. 520)[2]

What has helped you bridge the gap between Modern English and Middle English?

bush


[1] Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (New York: Grove Press, Grove/Atlantic, 2011), 28.

[2] Chaucer in Middle English from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963).

A Tunanina...

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Wyrdwend

The Filidhic Literary Blog of Jack Günter

actantedourada.wordpress.com/

Io Morales Sánchez - arte en fío

Dave's Corner of the Universe

Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide

Record Shop Shots

What I think about when I'm in one

Eric Weiskott

Assistant Professor of English at Boston College

opusanglicanum

one Englishwoman's work

mediaevalmusings

1,000 years of history in blog-sized bites.

The Baker

Scraps and Glimpses...

Momentum - A Travel Blog

Stories and thoughts from a life in motion

A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

Early medievalist's thoughts and ponderings, by Jonathan Jarrett

Things Medieval

Shedding light on the Dark Ages one post at a time.

In Thirteenth Century England

Thinking, writing, and teaching high medieval history, by Kathleen Neal

Medieval History Geek

An amateur's blog about Medieval history, books, etc.

leaf and twig

where observation and imagination meet nature in poetry

A Pilgrim in Narnia

a journey through the imaginative worlds of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings

These Vagabond Shoes.

Adventure Travel on a Shoestring

Blueagain: Film and Lit.

Movies, Books, Flix, and Pulps

My Aleph

Thoughts from an Arabic & IR student about literature and history

FortLeft

observations on politics, sports and life in general

E. C. Ambrose

dark historical fiction, because "pseudo" isn't medieval enough

The Templar Knight

Mysteries of the Knights Templar revealed at this fact filled historical blog. And join the army of Facebook followers here: https://business.facebook.com/QuestForTheTrueCross/

%d bloggers like this: