Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 761
I am going to quote from the original Middle English text of this play in this response. I will give my own translation for each quotation I use, but I feel it is important to quote from the text itself. One of the main reasons for this is that The Second Shepherds' play, while being of literary interest, is also extremely important from a dialectological standpoint and offers some interesting insights into the development of the English language. Because it is impossible to illustrate these points using a translation, I will quote the original text.
Readers familiar with Chaucer will note that there are many differences in orthography (spelling) and lexis (word form) between Chaucer's writing and that of The Second Shepherds' Play. This is because the play is written in a northern dialect of English with many marked dialectal features, and is closer in orthography and form to the language of, say, William Dunbar, who was writing in Scotland. By the early sixteenth-century, southern or "Chancery" English had become the base for a standardized form and was a "prestige" or preferred form of English, but we do not know when exactly this idea of it as a prestige form began to be fixed. The Second Shepherds' Play, then, is vital to linguists because of the insight it offers into this question:
what! ich be a yoman / I tell you, of the king;
The self and the same / sond from a greatt lordyng,
ffy on you! goyth hence
Out of my presence!
I must haue reuerence;
why, who be ich?
(Mak says: "What! I tell you I am a yeoman of the king; yes, exactly that, sent by a great lord...and so on. Fie on you! Go away out of my presence. I demand reverence: why, who am I?")
Compare Mak's language here to the language used in the rest of the play, and the choices he makes become very interesting. Instead of the "I" pronoun used by the shepherds, Mak uses "ich," and "you," instead of "ye," which is perhaps the most obvious difference observable to the modern eye. His choice of French lexis, however—"presence,"—also mark his language as elevated. The other speakers rarely use French-derived lexis. Note also Mak's wavering words—"and sich," and "what!"—and it becomes clear that he is doing, effectively, an impression. This would have been very funny to the gathered audience, not least because of the first shepherd's response:
Now take outt that sothren tothe,
And sett in a torde!
(Take that "southern tooth" out of your mouth and stick it in a turd.)
But it's very interesting that, in order to portray somebody who is the opposite of the thief the shepherds know him to be, Mak adopts a southern accent and lexis similar to that used by the king's yeomen. This is an indication that, at the time of writing, some degree of prestige had already come to...
(The entire section contains 761 words.)
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