Thoughts on a Mother Tongue, The Wife of Bath, and Language
‘Think women have never had it so good? You should take a look at medieval days.” (Martha Gill, The Guardian, 18/03/2023)
Stirring in my bed this morning, I woke up thinking about the Wife of Bath, yes, but perhaps because of the tale’s Middle English, my mind wandered onto the topic of language: the Euskara of one of my earliest ancestors. Celtic. Norman French. Breton. Provençal. Ladino. Kikongo. Nahuatl. The cruel impact of conquest and colonialism upon indigenous tongues, some stout survivals... Welsh/Cymraeg, and Wales’ now official use of “Eryi” instead of Snowdonia… those who can rattle off Cyhydedd Hir, an old poetic form from Cymru/Wales, stanza after stanza, in a bar… The Mabinogion from whence came my name and whose pronunciation still flumoxes some of my compatriots (learn phonetics, dammit!) The rich orature of the African world, despite all efforts of Europeans to dismiss Africans and their cultures… My other mentor, Kamau Brathwaite’s Nation Language—African languages in the Caribbean… The humble and uneducated fellow who was the handyman for my compound in Bénin, who slept on a mat in the garage where some my fellow residents kept their cars, but spoke a good five distinct languages… My Kenyan mentor, Ngugi wa Thiong’o being beaten at school for speaking his mother tongue; the many indigenous children in the Americas beaten for the same, some no doubt by my very ancestors. Being greeted in a synogogue in Istanbul by a caretaker speaking Ladino; and in that same city the current struggles of the Ladino press, started in the 15th century as Sultan Beyezit II welcomed Sephardic Jews expelled from Ferdinand and Isabelle’s Spain. The loss of language among the Huetara of Costa Rica, now only a small group having survived the depredations of prejudice and Spanish colonialism—if one can call it ‘survival’. The persistence of Mayan in the Yucatan of Mexico, Guyami in various forms among the Nobe, the Paraguayos…
One could go on…and on…
Now literature students are told, if not directly about the switch which Chaucer deliberately made—from the more elite class’s Norman French to the Middle English of common folk—that his work signals the beginning of English literature. A number of years ago I for one, fell in love with its Middle English sonorities. English has sibilants, fricatives and affricates. We have plosions. All of these consonantally linked sounds have not always made rhyme our most reliable tool. Indeed, in terms of the poetic format which Chaucer used, that did not come from rhyme-poor English: just to complicate things a little further, while England was subservient to the Romans, across the channel in France, Occitan Limousin resisted the Roman hexameter and began to develop what became familiar to us as iambic pentameter, Chaucer’s choice. Confusingly, the term itself, in English, is Latinate, iambic pentameter; in French pentamètre iambique; in Italian, pentamentro giambico; in Spanish, pentámerto yámbico; nonetheless, iambic pentameter inviegled itself into—and survived in—much of our English formal poetry (and, interestingly, has more recently been revived in contemporary rap music.) My colleague, Chris Sawyer-Lauçanno, in fact reminds me that the earliest example is indeed in Occitane—Boecis:
Bella's la domna, e'l vis a ta preclar, Davan so vis, nulz om no's pot celar; Ne eps li omne, qui sun ultra la mar
Beautiful is the lady, and her face is so bright, before her face, no man can hide himself; not even those men, who are beyond the sea.
and that the later Song of Roland is also in iambic pentameter, as exemplified in this brief excerpt of its beginning :
Carles li reis, nostre emperere magnes Set anz tuz pleins ad estet en Espaigne: Tresqu'en la mer cunquist la tere altaigne. N'i ad castel ki devant lui remaigne; Mur ne citet n'i est remes a fraindre, Fors Sarraguce, ki est en une muntaigne.
Further, Dante also used the form;
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura ché la diritta via era smarrita.
…and Boccaccio’s Filostrato, later imitated by Chaucer in his Troilus and Criseyde:
Alcun di Giove sógliono il favore Ne’ lor principii pietosi invocare; Altri d’Apollo chiámano il valore;
Indeed, these two language strategies do represent the beginning, mentioned above, of our literature.
But let us return to the language itself. Indeed, I confess that one of the things that interests me as a native English speaker is the music in our—my own— language, despite the intrusion of foreign forms. And, en revers, while that music is particularly hard for a native speaker of a romance language to hear. Indeed, they say that even in the womb, the near-born hear their mother’s utterances. The music of the mother tongue, irrespective of its mix with other languages’ strategies for poetic form and so on, is imprinted upon us from the very beginning of our lives. And whereas some of our English language attempts at rhyme were and are simplistic, to say the least (“The boy stood on the burning deck…”) in terms of vocabulary, the British isles has a long history of the speakers of various languages tromping in and out of what is now the UK; and we are, in fact credited with having the largest vocabulary among world languages (averages range ±1,025,109.8) as a result of that tromping.
Further, the most recent scientific research has posited that the infamous, blue-eyed, dark-skinned Cheddar Man (earliest of human remains found in the UK) was not only dark, but probably spoke a language related to Euskara. That is, related to a language spoken by Basques, one counted as the most ancient in Europe and not related to any which followed, though follow they did: Celtic, Anglo-Saxon (a Germanic derivative,) old Norse, Latin, French, etc. No, English is not, nor probably ever was, pure. But it has developed into this odd, orthographically challenging tongue which, for those of us instilled with it at birth, resonates with its unique sound.
Mind, herein lies a dilemma, if not some controversy. While not only are there some unwarranted assumptions about the constraints upon women in the Medieval age as per the above epigraph, other erroneous assumptions persist about its artistic sophistication (a lack thereof tends to be assumed.) Again in The Guardian, an article recently appeared about an exhibit in Paris of English medieval arts, 1000 – 1500 AD. What sadly happened in England was a wanton destruction of arts and artifacts at the hands of the persecuting fanatics of the Reformation, including Oliver Cromwell. Some of these artistic pieces managed to ‘escape’, if that is the right word, and can now be seen in exhibit at the Al Thani Collection at the Hôtel de la Marine, in Paris. (2 Place de la Concorde, 75008, Paris)
Further, the curator of the exhibit, also keeper of decorative art and sculpture at London’s V&A, James Robinson, asserts that language was part of the international exchange with Europe in the middle ages: “We know from textual sources and from the material culture there was a fluency in French at the highest levels of English society that percolated down to a degree but not of course to the lower orders of society that spoke English.” (25/6/23) Yes, multi-lingualism, but I hope he is not implying that French speaking was a marker of the artistic, of ‘sophistication,’ as opposed to the ‘primitive’ use of the English language of the time.
Thus Chaucer’s choice of Middle English, as opposed to French, for Canterbury Tales is even more interesting as, to quote Sawyer-Lauçanno, “polyglot Chaucer” chose a continental form, iambic pentameter, to use for his tale.
As I have noted, these comments originally came from my desire to write about The Wife of Bath; but its language is so striking that the idea of ‘mother tongue-ness’ could not go unremarked upon. Perhaps Chaucer was being a bit nostalgic about his own first language, Middle English. Though his education, we must guess, gave him iambic pentameter as the outer garments to render the Tales, he used his mother tongue for its content. The official line that goes, Chaucer wrote in the vernacular, Middle English, for the sake of insuring a broad audience for his work begs the question. Also recited as part of the oral tradition, nonetheless it must be remembered that most people were illiterate at that time. I do, however, suspect that we all gravitate towards our first language as our more emotion-laden and expressive tongue, learnt when we were mere babes in our mothers’ arms.2
For a sample of what Middle English sounded like, the Medievalists.net has several options; my preferred is a short rendition of the beginning of the The Canterbury Tales’ prologue by James Horan:
And in terms of language, yes, it is fair to say that most of us have learned our language from our mothers, but my admittedly cursory search has not yet found any female readers of, for example, Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath. Nonetheless, I offer this for your delectation:
As for this writer, I merely entreat my fellow scribes to listen to our mother tongue, with all its confusing glory and maternal comforts, as well as the luxuriousness of its inherent, borrowed, snitched, manipulated varieties. One need not succumb to an impoverished vocabulary wherein strong emotion can only be expressed by that much overworked, if not exhausted, expletive, f–k, variously attributed, etymologically, to Middle English, North Sea German, Scandinavian and bastardized Latin—all more or less around the 15th century, hot on the heels of Chaucer’s late 14th.
Next, the Wife of Bath’s Tale itself. For now, Dear Reader, you are invited to read The Wife of Bath itself, in Middle English.
(To be continued…)
 French (specifically Old French) was the mother tongue of every English king from William the Conqueror (1066–1087) until Henry IV (1399–1413). Henry IV was the first to take the oath in (Middle) English, and his son, Henry(1413–1422), was the first to write in English. Some Norman French, with modern French orthography, persists in such areas as English law.
 And forgive my repetitiveness, hence the term, “mother tongue.”