The Book of Prefaces

by Alasdair Gray
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1984

Daniel Defoe referred to “your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English,” thus encapsulating fifteen hundred years of linguistic history. The linguistic legacy of the Roman occupation of Britain appears largely in place names, such as names ending in “-chester,” the Old English borrowing of the Latin castra, military camp.

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The last Roman legions left in 410 c.e. In 449, Angles, Jutes, and Saxons sailed across the North Sea from Denmark and Lower Saxony to England. Over the next 150 years these invaders drove the Celts into the island’s western mountains. The Celts were dispossessed linguistically as well as physically: Old English contains barely a dozen words from the Celtic. To compound the injury, the Germanic tribes named the Celts’ remaining strip of land “Wales,” from the Germanic word wealas, foreigners. (The Celts themselves call it Cymru, the land of “compatriots.”)

In 597 came a second Roman invasion, this one led by Augustine. This Catholic incursion, supplemented by missions from Ireland, reintroduced Latin to England. The Catholic newcomers established schools to impart literacy and monasteries to preserve, copy, and create texts in both Latin and the vernacular. The Venerable Bede, the second author in Gray’s anthology, was educated at one of these monasteries, at Jarrow. The first author in Gray’s collection, Caedmon, was illiterate, but dictated his poetry to seventh century clerics who wrote down his words.

Caedmon, Bede, and Cynewulf expressed Christian views in Anglo-Saxon. Beginning in 793, Defoe’s next language entered the melting pot that is English, as Vikings plundered and conquered much of the island. These Danes destroyed most of the centers of Anglo-Saxon learning, including Bede’s Jarrow, Caedmon’s Whitby, and Cynewulf’s Lindisfarne. Only the kingdom of Wessex remained a bastion of Anglo-Saxon language and culture. In 878 Alfred defeated the Danes at Edington, Wiltshire, thus preserving his kingdom and his language. To protect his kingdom against the Danes, Alfred created a ring of forts along his borders. Another defensive strategy involved the power of language. To unite his kingdom, Alfred reestablished schools and monasteries and set about translating key texts from Latin into the vernacular. He also began the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to remind the English of their history. By saving the English language and creating Old English prose, Alfred earned the title “the Great,” the only English monarch in the country’s long history to be so called.

However, even Alfred could not prevent the natural linguistic changes that occur when one language is exposed to another. Old English before the arrival of the Danes was highly inflected. Thus, eorthe is the Old English nominative form of “earth,” while eorthan is the accusative. Singular and plural forms of words also looked and sounded different. To facilitate communication between Danes and Anglo-Saxons, speakers abandoned these distinctions. The union of Danes and Anglo-Saxons also is reflected in the Old English epic Beowulf. The opening line of this poem, preserved in Alfred’s language, introduces his erstwhile enemies, the Gar-Dena, “Spear-Danes.” The Christianity of the poem remains a matter of debate, but according to the surviving text the monsters besetting the Swedish king are born of Cain. The reference reveals the influence of the Roman church, whether in the original composition or in the final transcribing of the poem.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that on September 28, 1066, William of Normandy landed at Pevensy. The Normans (that is, Northmen) were Vikings who had settled in France and had by the eleventh century exchanged their Germanic language for Latin-based French, which became the prestige dialect in England once William added “the Conqueror” to his name by defeating the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold, at Hastings. The last entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chroniclewas made at Peterborough in 1154, and Robert of Gloucester commented in the late thirteenth century, “For but a man know French[,] men count of him little./ But low men hold to English and to their own speech yet.” Old English survived as a spoken language but fared less well among the literate. Gray quotes a postconquest lament, rare for being written in the old tongue:

Now the lore is forgotten, our folk forlorn,
Now other language is laid on our folk
And most of the teachers are lost, the folk with them.

Even as Robert of Gloucester was writing, however, the linguistic tide was shifting. In 1325 William of Nassyngton observed that in England some knew Latin and some knew French, but all understood English. French was taught in Anglo-Norman schools, but it was taught as a foreign language. In 1362 Parliament was opened in English for the first time in three centuries; and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Prioress (1385) speaks French in the English manner, “For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.”

Still, the English of the fourteenth century is a world away from that of Caedmon and Alfred. Some of these differences are cosmetic. French scribes changed the old English “cw” to “qu,” turning the now strange-looking cween into the familiar “queen.” Old English mychel becamemuchel, a step toward the modern “much.” The Old English inflections that had been disappearing in speech had lingered in the written language but do not exist in Chaucer’s Middle English. Old English made new words by combination, as in the already cited Gar-Dena. Caedmon used the word wuldorcining, “king of the world.” Middle English eschews such fusions.

Most significantly, the Norman invasion changed English by enriching the old word-hoard with an entirely new vocabulary. One place where this doubling is evident is in the matter of food. The Anglo-Saxon peasant raised swine, calves, cows, and chickens. When these animals came to the Norman lord’s table, they became pork, veal, beef, and poultry. The names of the farm animals all come from Old English; all the edible counterparts derive from Norman French. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales also demonstrates the transformation that had occurred from the Old English period. The poem begins,

Whan that Aprill with his showres soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour. . . .

The names of the months come from Latin. Perced (pierced), veyne(vein), licour (liquor), vertu (virtue), engendred (engendered), and flour(flower) are available to Chaucer because of the Norman invasion. Like all great writers, Chaucer did more than merely record the language of his time. As William Caxton observed in his 1484 edition of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer “by hys labour enbelysshyd/ ornated/ and made faire our englisshe,” bringing it a great step closer to its current state.

Not only the language but also the content of The Canterbury Talesdiffers from that of Beowulf. The Old English saga presents a warlike, aristocratic society living in a world filled with monsters and violence. Chaucer’s pilgrims meet at an inn, not a mead-hall, and the greatest enemy they fear on their journey from London to Canterbury, some sixty miles away, is boredom. Chaucer includes more than one tale of chivalry, including one set in the court of the Celtic King Arthur. These stories are, however, more apt to question than to exalt courtly ideals.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, contemporary with The Canterbury Tales, seems at first blush closer to Beowulf than Chaucer’s poem. The alliteration of Gawain, which Chaucer mocked as sounding like “rum, ram, ruf,” recalls the technique of English poets before the coming of William. Gawain’s dialect (North Midlands) looks and sounds less influenced by the Norman invaders than does Chaucer’s more southern vocabulary. Yet three of the first ten words of Gawain derive from Old French. Gawain travels through a world infested with monsters as he seeks a green giant who might have occupied Caedmon’s rendition ofGenesis. Unlike an Old English hero such as Beowulf, though, Gawain cannot achieve victory through force or skill; his spiritual, not physical, qualities are being tested.

Three-quarters of a century after Chaucer’s death in 1400, Caxton brought the printing press to England. In the prologue to his 1490 printing of Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.), Caxton tells of a hungry merchant who asks at an inn for “egges.” The hostess replies that she does not speak French. The merchant grows angry because he, too, speaks no French. Caxton’s point is that the English dialects of the merchant and hostess differ so greatly that they cannot communicate. What, then, is the printer and translator to do? What words should he choose? In practice, the choices that Caxton made became the standard as printing, centered in London and Oxford, disseminated that region’s dialect throughout the country.

The press also spread knowledge, especially of classical texts, bringing a new influx of Latin into English. Travel to Italy’s classic ground brought to England the handkerchief, the fork, and words from the Continent. In the sixteenth century over ten thousand new words entered the language. At a time when most English were illiterate, the language of the Bible that they heard read from the pulpit on Sundays deeply influenced their speech. The opening words of William Tyndale’s 1530 translation of Genesis sound modern indeed: “In the beginnyng God created heaven and erth.” Tyndale’s prose in turn influenced the King James Bible of 1611, the echoes of which resound in the Gettysburg Address and the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.

While the religious influence on literature remained powerful, the Renaissance emphasized this world rather than the next. Medieval mystery and miracle plays based on the Bible and lives of the saints yielded to the comedies, tragedies, and histories of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson. Perhaps nowhere is this new spirit better captured than in Richard Hakluyt’s The Principall Navigations, detailing the discoveries of such English sea dogs as Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Martin Frobisher. Such adventurers brought back information about a New World and gave to America another language. As always, contact with other tongues changed English as well: Native American teepeewigwam, andwampum would enter the word supply.

Foreign-language glosses had existed from the early Middle Ages, but by 1600 English had become so confusing that dictionaries defining English words began appearing. These works contributed to the spread of literacy among the middle and lower classes, who wanted to read about themselves. Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain wrote about this new audience in its own language, at once reflecting and creating changes in speech and literature.

Through his collection of prefaces Gray allows the reader to trace metamorphoses in English from c. 675 to 1920. The survey ends with this latter date to avoid the expense of copyright royalties, but the book’s more than six hundred pages still provide a cornucopia of material. Gray’s introductory and marginal comments place the selections in literary and historical context. The book is printed handsomely in black and red and is embellished with attractive illustrations.

The Book of Prefaces would be an ideal text for teaching linguistic and perhaps even literary history were it not so riddled with errors, typographical and factual. To avoid copyright royalties, the publisher excluded not only most twentieth century authors but also twentieth century scholarly editions. In fact, the reader has no idea which editions Gray used, raising questions about the form and content of the selections. While most passages are given in their original and, when necessary, in translation, some appear only in modern dress. The innocent reader might thus be led to believe that Caxton’s orthography underwent a dramatic revolution between his 1484 preface to The Canterbury Tales, printed here as Caxton wrote it, and the 1490 preface to the Aeneid, which Gray has purged of its fifteenth century look. The plan and, in places, the execution of this work are so good that one regrets that the final product does not fulfill its potential.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (October 1, 2000): 374.

Library Journal 125 (August, 2000): 102.

The Times, May 11, 2000, p. 2.

The Times Literary Supplement, August 11, 2000, p. 10.

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