March 26 Geoffrey Chaucer: Your Yen Two Wol Slee Me Sodenly

Something that annoys me is the fact that people refuse to acknowledge that language changes. In order for language to be considered “living” (still actively being used) it has to be ever changing and growing. With the modern age with its jet-fast (trademark) progress in technologies, fads, fashions and culture, so too is its language changing at an ever-quickening pace. The word “crazy” went from “cray” to “cray cray” I’m just waiting for it to get the syllable out of the way and just be “zee”. “Twitter” and “Tweet” used to just be old fashioned words that referred to the sounds that birds make and now they’re something that tells people everything everyone wants to know (and doesn’t want to know) about some given celebrity (wow, tell me all about how Miley Cirus went to the grocery store and bought an orange – thank god I know that!!).

I think the thing that makes me the most zee is the insistence that everyone in the English speaking universe be able to spell everything correctly from the word go. Yes, I’m going to correct my spelling for a letter or an email, or a tweet, but to insist that I should have know the correct spelling before I set pen to paper is, well, cra cra. The dictionary has only been around for about 200 years and English has been around for a LOT longer than that. Before the dictionary was around, most people spelled English words pretty much any way they wanted (though about the time of the dictionary’s inception many people were starting to agree that this random spelling thing was getting confusing – and rather annoying).

And when the original English-speaking nation started colonizing, it inadvertently created several different branches of the English language. In England it’s “colour” (along with Canada); in America it’s “color”. “Organize” American English, “organise” British English. My favorites are British English “kerb” and “tyre” and in American English “curb” and “tire”. And there is still no formal agreement on how the word “rhyme” or “rime” ought to be spelled in any of the English speaking languages. But along with this so have the words used changed. In America a “lift” is an “elevator”, going to the “chemist’s” is a trip to the “drugstore”. (My Irish friend says “ta” instead of “thank you”.)

This is a simplistic way of showing how language changes across landscapes and also why a dictionary is so useful, because you can look up the root of a word or what it originally meant, because not only does geography change words, so does time. The word “brat” used to just mean child, not horrible and spoiled child. “Transgression” used to just mean the crossing of a line, and it means that but the line is a moral one instead of a physical one. I thought that it was important to discuss this topic, because having a better knowledge of a word’s history can help the writer to place it more carefully and use it more effectively.

I wanted to post the Chaucer poem, a poem written in Middle English (an older version of the English language no longer used by modern speakers) to show how the language has, indeed, evolved, meanings have changed, word order is different and even spelling is completely different. “Upon my truth, I say you faithfully”, could be a sentence structured for the poetic meter or just the way they talked, but we modern speakers do recognize the structure as old fashioned and medieval.

Different eras will have different ways of talking, different versions of language.

So I’m posting a small excerpt from the poem “Reason” by Josephine Miles, a poem written in the 1950s, that shows another form of English, the colloquial, or common every day speak.

“Said, Pull her up a bit will you, Mac, I want to unload there./Said, Pull her up my rear end, first come first serve./Said, Give her the gun, Bud, he needs a taste of his own bumper.”

Here, the English is very relaxed. Mac is someone’s nickname. The poet is using the way people spoke at that time to express the feel of the poem. The “her” in the second line is a car and “give her gun” means to step on the gas peddle. It feels kind of short and choppy like lines from a noir film. These are hard-working middle class guys who do things fast and loose. The poem is about cars and about average America and what is important to it, therefore why not use the lingo of average America.

When I looked at some passages by a poem written in the 1600s, “Lycidas” by John Milton, I found many words used in ways that we no longer use them. “Thus sang the uncouth swain.” “Uncouth” here means rustic. And some terminology we’re no longer familiar with “He touched the tender stops of various quills.” He’s playing a pipe and the “quills” are the reeds of his shepherd’s pipe.

Now, with Chaucer we go back even further and English is not very recognizable any more.
I do admit that I’m not certain how to translate all of this poem, but I’ll do my best. I’m not a Middle English scholar. I’ll do like the rest of you and use my imagination.

But I will give a bit of a guide up front for some of the words. “Yen” means “eyes”. “Slee” means “slay”. “Hem” means “them”. “Sustene” means “rest”. “Herte” means “heart”. “Kene” means “thoroughly” (or through and through, as in “You wound me through my heart”). “But” in line 4 means “unless”. “Helen” means “heal”. “Grene” means “new”. “Trouthe” means “word” (Upon my trouthe – upon my word or I give my word). “Trouthe” used the second time means “truth”. And no, none of what is written is a typo.

I encourage you to say it out loud as you read it, it will sound pretty (as poetry should).

Your Yen Two Wol Slee Me Sodenly
by Geoffrey Chaucer

Your yen two wol slee me sodenly;
I may the beautee of hem not sustene,
So woundeth hit thourghout my herte kene.

And but your word wol helen hastily
My hertes wounde, while that hit is grene,
You yen two wol me sodenly;
I may the beautee of hem not sustene.

Upon my trouthe I sey you feithfully
That ye ben of my lyf and deeth the quene;
For with my deeth the trothe shal be sene.
Your yen two wol slee me sodenly;
I may the beautee of hem not sustene,
So woundeth it thourghout my herte kene.


About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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