Middle English Word of the Moment

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Reading to a child

This started out as a response to Wynken de Worde's post on re-reading, and the way one's perception of a book can change from childhood onwards. But then it got too big to politely be a comment, so it is over here.

When we were young, we used to go and sit in our grandmother's sewing room with our ears pressed to the speakers of her old record player, because you had to do that to hear the stories properly. One of my favourites was "Little Black Sambo", with the idyllic and very very simple idea of living in the jungle and playing with monkeys. I idolised him, like I did Mowgli, and was rather surprised when one day my mother made a pained expression and told me that it was actually terribly racist.

Now, for the first time, I'm preparing myself as an adult for the arrival of a new baby in the house, and making sure I have enough collections of all sorts of stories to read. And every time I think of reading a child one book or the other - Italo Calvino's volume of uncensored Italian fairy tales, or the Narnia books - I find myself tangling in the predicament of how one reads to a child.

Because I can read them to myself now and skip over all the bits that are potentially worrying if taken literally or to heart. But to read them to a child, without stopping to explain them away? Is a minor correction that a child wouldn't really understand about anyway worth breaking the spell of the story and all the good that brings in itself? Do you just trust a child to find the magic in a story now, and refind it differently the next year, when they see the world a little differently?

Or does one just read as many different stories from as many different cultures and viewpoints as possible, let the child keep the magic of all of them, and try to live and teach them by example in such a way that they learn to choose for themself?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dante as he should be remembered

Pinched from Per Omnia Saecula, because it is amazing and scary and wonderful, and also happens to be my favourite passage from the Inferno:

Roberto Benigni reciting from Dante. To remind us all that a poem like that is image and drama and feeling before it's food for analysis. I don't know about you, but I could live with quite a lot of that sort of reminder.

For anyone who wants it, he's reciting Inferno, Canto 26 1-142, available by selecting xxvi in the drop-down box labelled "Canto" here. Selecting "Inglese" in the "Versione" box will give you the translation[1]. And, for added irony on the opening lines, he's performing this live in Florence.

[1] Incidentally, I love the fact that they have three versions - Italian, English or American.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Lingua latina in bucca angliae

So, sometimes you come across a word so weird and random it just has to be right. Especially if the other manuscripts suggest an alternative that looks more, well, normal.

Two of them occur in the course of Adam Murimuth's account of the murder of Piers Gaveston. One, hutesio, is the same in all extant manuscripts and occurs as hutesium on the next page, so it was clearly intentional, even if I couldn't find it in any Latin dictionary I consulted, no matter how creative I got with the spelling. But the other, utlagatum, occurred only once - only once in the text and only in one manuscript. It even confused the scribes - one other scribe had made an attempt and spelt it utlagium, and the others had just amended it to the much simpler vulgatum, which works perfectly well in context. But it just looks wrong. It's an awkwardly angular (or Angle-ar?) accumulation of conflicting consonants. Which meant that it had to be right.

It's a phenomenon of editing that I'm rather fond of, the way the least obvious version is at least as likely to be right as the word that looks right, if not more so. It happens in Shakespeare all the time, which is just what you get when you go about inventing hundreds of new words and word variants all over your oeuvre. Compositors often just edited them back to more normal words or phrasings. Sometimes you can see them absent-mindedly correcting various clownish characters' verbal hiccups; so, for example, Mistress Quickly's continuantly (2 Henry IV, 2.1.22-23, Norton edition) appears in the Folio version as continually.

So I hunted, dragged out the Middle English dictionary and the Anglo-Norman dictionary (though I thought that utlagatum at least was probably from Old English, as it sounds rather Germanic, so that it wouldn't be much help for that one at least), and experimenting with spellings and sounds and de-Latinising.

Hutesium, in context, looked like a technical term derived from hunting:
... [Gaveston] invenit ibi multos homines facientes hutesium super eum vocibus et cornibus, sicut super inimicum regis et regni (he found there many men making hutesium against him with voice and horn, as against an enemy of the king and the realm) ...
So I was thinking vaguely of our expression "hue and cry" - correctly, as it turned out - but I couldn't find it in the Middle English dictionary until I hit on searching for *outhes*. Then I found:
outhes (n.) Also outheis, othes, outesse, outes, outasse, outhas, outas, outhest & (early) uthes, utheis, utheste, utest, huthes, hutes, huteis, huthest & (Latinate) uthesium, huthesis, hutesium & (error) houches.

[?From LOE blend of haes & haest 'fury, violence'; cp. ME hest(e n.(1) & heste n.(2).]

Outcry, clamor, uproar; ~ upon, outcry against (sb.); ~ and clamour, ~ and crie, hue and cry; greden (maken, reisen) ~, raise a cry.
So, that one's nicely solved, though I'm still not decided which word I will use to translate it - I'd like to keep the hint of hunting and baying, and the phrase "hue and cry" does that, but we don't use "hue" on its own anymore, do we? Unless discussing colour, of course, which is not really at issue, since Piers is a little beyond challenging sumptuary laws at this point.

The second word - utlagatum - was more of a challenge. In context it's an accusative past participle describing Piers, or rather, the mob's perception of him (sicut again). No creative spelling helped here, so I had to turn it back into a proper Middle English word and follow my ear. The Latin infinitive would be utlagare, so change that to English and say it's utlagen, spell that as it would sound and it becomes outlagen, then play around with the pronunciation until you get something that sounds like it might be a real Middle English word and you get the gutteral -gh- sound that might be interchangeable with -w-...
outlau(e (n.) Also oute-, outlagh, outelagh(e, ughtlaue, noutlai, utlaghe, utlag & (early) utlau(e, hutlaue, utlagh, -la3e, -lahe, -lage, utelagh, (early & N) utelau, (Latinate) utlagus, utlagi, (errors) houclawe, houlawe; pl. outlaues, -loues, etc., (Cornish) adla, (early) utlaues, -lawas, -lages, -lagas, uthlages & (early) utlauen, -la3en, -lagen, -laga, (Latinate) utlagos & (errors) oltaghys, holtaghys.

[OE utlaga & AL utlaga, -lagus & AF ullage, utlage.]

(a) One decreed an outlaw; a fugitive from justice; an exile, banished person [occasionally indistinguishable from sense (b)]; (b) a miscreant, villain; pirate, robber; fig. extortioner; (c) as surname or cognomen; (d) banishment, outlawry.

I love predictable languages! Even if they're only predictable with a little effort and a slightly unfastened brain.

These are my achievements for the day, and I am proud of them.

(And also: (c) as surname or cognomen? What poor person got Outlaw as a surname? And, more interestingly, how?)

Now, of course, the most interesting question in all of this is why and how Adam Murimuth of the formal and formulaic Latin drops into dramatic narrative style at this point and forgets himself so far as to use two visceral English words...

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Lingua latina in bucca... libri?

Latin isn't a real language. No, really. No language is a real language unless babies can pick it up. If it has to be consciously learned it's a code, no matter how sophisticated.

And this was surely even more true in the Middle Ages. We have a country that is, overall, tri-lingual: Middle English, Anglo-Norman and Latin. Out of these, the concept of spelling only seems to apply to Latin. And I just don't understand that. Having consistent spelling, with maybe a few errors, irregularities or regional variants, I understand. Considering spelling irrelevant and variable, I also understand. I do not understand how you manage to speak and write two or three different languages, and yet consider consistency in spelling important only for one of them. Granted, Latin isn't entirely consistent - one might contract 'occupaverunt' to 'occuparunt', or waver in how one wants to notate -oe- - and the vernaculars weren't entirely inconsistent, but overall it still bemuses me how the human brain can preserve such a distinction in their attitude to language.

This post was mostly prompted by a certain entry in the Anglo-Norman Online Dictionary, which is, if a little excessive, not atypical. I think this would be a good moment to quote it:
iluec, iluc, ilucs, ilueches, ilueckes, iluek, ilueke, iluekes, ilueks, ilueques, iluesques, iluk, iluke, ilukes, iluks, ilunqes, iluoc, iluoqes, iluque, iluques, ilux; elec, eleckes, elekes, eleuc, elluc, eloc, eloec, eloques, eloek, eluec, elukes; ilec, ileches, ilecqes, ilecques, ilek, ileke, ilekes, ileks, ileoc, ileoches, ileok, ileoke, ileokes, ileoks, ileoqe, ileoqes, ileoqs, ileoques, ileoskes, ileosques, ileqe, ileqes, ileqs, ileque, ileques, ilesqes, ilesques, ileuc, ileuk, ileuke, ileukes, ileuks, ileuqe, ileuqes, ileuques, ilex; illaoques; illec, illecqe, illecqes, illecques, illecqz, illecs, illecus, illeekes, illek, illekes, illeocqes, illeocques, illeoke, illeokes, illeoq, illeoqe, illeoqes, illeoqez, illeoqs, illeoque, illeoques, illeoquez, illeosqe, illeosqes, illeosqs, illeosque, illeosques, illeouqes, illeouqs, illeq, illeqe, illeqes, illeqoes, illeqs, illeque, illeques, illequez, illesqes, illesques, illeuc, illeucques, illeucus, illeuke, illeukes, illeuqes, illeuqs, illeuque, illeuques, illeuquez, illeusqe, illeusqes, illeusqs, illoc, illock, illocqes, illocques, illoec, illoek, illoeke, illoekes, illoeks, illoeq, illoeqe, illoeqes, illoeqez, illoeqies, illoeqs, illoeque, illoeques, illoequs, illoeqz, illoesks, illoesqes, illoesques, illok, illoke, illokes, illoks, illoq, illoqe, illoqes, illoqs, illoque, illoques, illoqus, illosqes, illosques, illouke, illoukes, illouqes, illouqs, illouque, illouques, illouquez, illousques, illuc, illucque, illucs, illuec, illuecqes, illuecques, illuekes, illueq, illeuqe, illueqes, illueques, illuesqes, illuesqs, illuesques, illuk, illuke, illukes, illukis, illuks, illuoqes, illuoqs, illuqe, illuqes, illuqs, illuques, illuqes, illusques, illux; iloc, iloces, iloche, iloches, ilocq, ilocqes, ilocs, iloec, iloeces, iloeches, iloecques, iloek, iloeke, ilokes, iloeqe, iloeqes, iloeqs, iloeque, iloeques, iloesqes, ilok, iloke, ilokes, ilokis, iloks, iloqe, iloqes, iloqs, iloque, iloques, ilouc, ilouke, ilouqes; ylec, ylecques, ylekes, yleok, yleokes, yleoqe, yleoqes, yleoque, yleqe, yleque, ylesques, yleuk, yllecques, yllekes, ylleoqes, ylloqs, yloc, yloec, yloeques, yloques, yloucus, yloukes, ylueqes, ylueques (hiluk Rot Parl1 i 389; ieluec S Audree 1512; ileu Anc Test (E) 7359; iley Durham i 174; ilioqe Rot Parl1 ii 87; illence (l. illeuce) Negotiations 102; illoik BOZ Cont 100; ilokis ROUGH 1; illoiques Edw Ring 66; illonqes (l. illouqes) Stats i 197 (var.); illonquez (l. illouquez) Readings 215; illovecques (l. illouecqes) Foedera iii 488; illus Rot Parl1 iii 91; iluekas Becket 4621 (var.); iluch Anecdota 13; ylooques Art 852)
adv. 1 (local) there, in that place; (local) (motion) there, to that place 2 (temporal) then; then, in that case;

Honestly. Did court scribes hold inter-county tournaments to see who could come up with the most obscure new ways to spell it? All that copying work must have got pretty boring, after all.

So, my conclusion is that the initial question rests on a false assumption. Latin and the vernacular(s) did not occupy the same space in most people's minds, and so they need not match in their rules. Perhaps Latin was learned from the page and largely stayed on the page, while written Anglo-Norman and English were considered a transcript of speech, rather than absolutes in themselves. Latin is a set of rules and signs, almost entirely self-referential: the vernaculars grow and change and steal and adapt. Latin was an internationally recognised code and had to remain consistent in order to BE Latin, but the vernaculars belong in the mouth of each speaker.

And, because I am worse than a dog with a bone[1]: see? Not a real language.

[1] I've yet to see a dog pay any attention to a bone for more than an hour tops. Solace buries hers within five minutes then runs around stealing the other dogs' and burying those.

Bonus points to anyone who recognises the phrase mangled in the title.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sir Launfal and the ubiquitous Veiled Homosexual Reference

So, I have been quiet again, for real life is intruding - in a good way, this time! The arrival of my formal offer letter from Ottawa University has precipitating a little fluffy of Things To Do, which leave little time for creative thought. Fortunately, one can still manage the more mathematical work of grammatical study and translation - so in addition to Latin, I am now having a lot of fun (re)teaching myself modern French[1], and trying not to get distracted by Anglo-Norman spelling patterns.

But we were reading through Sir Launfal today (using this online edition) and one thing struck me particularly.

For background: Guenevere, in this poem, is the traditional Evil Predatory Scheming Evil Seductive Evil Emasculating Threatening-Homosocial-Bonds Evil Female. She has already managed to get Launfal sent away from Camelot in shame (severing him from his masculinity, or at least the ideal proof of it, as Evil Predatory Scheming Females are wont to do). Now he has returned in glory, she tries another trick in the traditional repertoire of the Evil Predatory Scheming Female. She tries to seduce him - and when he (being a noble and virtuous knight, and also in love with someone else) refuses her, she goes to Arthur and cries rape[2]. However, before stalking off in a huff, she resorts to insult:
Sche seyde, "Fy on the, thou coward!
Anhongeth worth thou hye and hard! [Thou art worthy to be hanged high and hard]
That thou ever were ybore!
That thou lyvest, hyt ys pyté! [Probably, both 'that thou's should be read as dependent on 'it is pity'.]
Thou lovyst no woman, ne no woman the -
Thou were worthy forlore [to be lost/damned]!" (485-490)

Obviously, if one cannot lust after the beautiful Guenevere, one cannot lust after any woman, or so her logic seems to run. Certainly, given the consequent beauty contest, physical attractiveness (presumably as a metaphor for other noble/virtuous qualities) is at issue here. Launfal's reply confirms this:
The knyght was sore aschamed tho;
To speke ne myghte he forgo
And seyde the Quene before,
"I have loved a fayryr woman
Than thou ever leydest thyn ey upon
Thys seven yer and more! (491-496)

What concerns me here is the terms of her accusation. Firstly, she calls him a coward - a sore insult for a knight, but her phrasing suggests it's merely a throw-away line, subsidiary to and dependent on what follows. The primary accusation - which she holds as strong enough to damn him - is that he loves no woman, and no woman loves him.

The editors of this edition read this, without a 'maybe', as a barely-veiled accusation of sodomy. The equivalent tale by Marie de France has, at this point, a much more open accusation: Launfal prefers boys to women. Yes, dramatic, shocking, scandalous, and most delectably convenient to modern sensibilities. But..?

That's not what she says. I don't deny that the accusation of homosexuality[3] is present, or the threat of theological damnation for the act (or preference) of sodomy. But I feel that her primary concern is with exactly what she says: Launfal is apparently opting out of the intricate social game of courtly love. Whether that be in the interest of celibacy or chasing pretty boys is beside the question. Guenevere is out to emasculate Launfal; and, in this poet's view, stepping out of that ultimate knightly game of courtship and stylised self-elevating self-degradation, the theoretically bloodless game with its rules as intricate as those of any tournament sport, is as damning in social terms as sodomy itself may be in theological ones. This accusation is, and should be, enough. If Launfal cannot prove his manhood in courtly love - not because he fails in it, but because he chooses to avoid it - then there is no man to be proven. The potency of the venom lies in the central accusation, which is exactly what she says: "Thou lovyst no woman, ne no woman the".

The occasional (or habitual) act of sodomy may be a corollary to this, but I think it is imposing modern sensibilities too far to say that this is the heart of Guenevere's accusation. Rather, she is accusing him of opting out of the primary activity[4] of the homosocial network that proves his knighthood (or masculinity, if you prefer), thereby revealing himself to be less than a man[5].

And Launfal, tellingly, responds to the accusation in kind. He protests not that "I love a woman, she is definitely female, so there", but "I love a woman more beautiful than you have seen in seven years" (or possibly "I have loved a woman for seven years who is more beautiful than any you have ever seen"). Like Guenevere, he ties the issue back to feminine beauty - which is, of course, one of the most potent points-scorers in the Courtly Love game (along with Difficulty Of Attaining Maiden, Brutishness Of Beast Threatening/Wooing Her, Length Of Years Spent Wandering In The Wilderness / Locked In A Dungeon Before Attaining Her and Mystical Virtue-Affirming Objects Attained In The Process). Is there any solemn tale of courtly love in which the beauty of the objet desire (object in every possible sense, of course) is not extolled above all others[6]? Launfal replies in the terms of the game, asserting that not only does he participate, but he excels - as, of course, the subsequent contest will prove. Women are scorepoints, the higher the better; and the player who doesn't bother moving his little character across the screen to chase the points won't end up on the high score table.

I've nothing against reading gay theory into literature, of course. It's certainly necessary, and we've an awful lot of re-writing to do over centuries of phobia and repression. But it does concern me that it becomes a fad and an obsession - that we see OMG GAY SEX and focus on that to the exclusion of what might actually have been meant. It's as if, at work, I were to see two women or two men walk in hand in hand, and be too busy jumping over the counter to say I AFFIRM YOUR RIGHT TO HAVE SEX WITH EACH OTHER, GO TO IT, HOORAY FOR NON-HETEROSEXUAL CHOICES to hear them say, "Um, hey, actually, I just wanted a latte".

[1] My modern French is weird and erratic. I can read an academic article with no trouble, needing little more concentration than I do to read Italian - but then, the thought pattern for reading that form of writing is familiar, and the English vocabulary for formal writing is largely French/Latin-derived anyway. I'm lost in a French chat forum, where you'd expect the language to be simpler. And I can read a letter to a neighbour in Anglo-Norman, eye an unfamiliar verb with an odd collection of vowels and say "that looks like an early form of the French equivalent of this verb, and that is either the subjunctive or the imperfect, third person plural", which makes it very easy to locate the right form in a verb table to cross-check. But ask me to form the subjunctive or imperfect of any given verb in any form of French and I'd be stumped. It's all intuitive leaps and no recitable verb tables. And of course, my accent is terrible and my ear is quite untrained in following a modern French speaker at normal conversational pace.

So: I have the vocabulary, and the instinct, and just need to cement my grammar and build my aural skills. Easily done - that is, after all, what online resources are for!

[2] Actually, what she says is 'he propositioned me, and ALSO HE INSULTED MY BEAUTY, HE MUST DIE'.

[3] Or homosexual preferences, or homosexual acts. Caveat lector, homosexuality being an anachronistic concept, etc, though I'd dispute the absolute generalisation that sexuality was completely defined by the act in the middle ages and that there was no concept of sexual preferences - witness this accusation, if nothing else. If one reads this passage as being primarily concerned with OMG GAY SEX, as the modern reader is conditioned to, Guenevere does appear to be referring to an established preference: a lifestyle choice, in modern terms. But I think that is only secondary to her main point.

[4] Well, yes, there's also fighting. But this is courtly romance we're talking about, and the hero is always good at fighting: it's the courtly-love half of the two primary strands of knighthood that causes the problems and requires most intricate and difficult proof.

[5] And earlier in this scene, she actually stepped between him and Gawain, thereby symbolically cutting him off from the epitome of English knighthood and manliness! The wiles of women know no end. He should just hand her a cleaver and be done with it. And then go and exchange sob stories with Erec and Yvain about losing his precious Gawain because of a woman.

[6] The Grail legends may, at this point in the argument, be read as a tale of courtly love, if you so desire, or the courtly love paradigm read as a metaphor for the Grail hunt. Either works. The Grail is shiny and pretty.