The B0y came home from school day before yesterday talking about Middle English. Well, that was just like a red cape to a bull around here. I took a Middle English translation class in graduate school and have been simply pining for a place to put all that esoteric knowledge. Little did The Boy know what he was unleashing when he innocently spoke of having to write a short passage using certain Middle English words!
Imagine, for a moment, what it’s like to be my child. You go to school. You get an assignment you find mildly interesting. On the way home you mention it in passing, on the way the really vital discussion of whether or not McDonald’s is in the family’s immediate future.
And suddenly you find yourself buried under an avalanche of information about how one dates and geographically places Middle English texts, a spirited re-telling of “Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight,” (complete with “voices”), an analysis of how natural barriers like rivers and mountains factor into dialect formation, and a brief detour into natural barriers’ role in national boundary formation, complete with cautionary examples of countries who try to exist without them (Poland, something of keen personal interest, since while the family is ethnically German, we come from north central Poland).
And all this because you innocently mentioned that you were talking about Middle English in school. It must be hard.
Of course, it’s no picnic being the mother in this scenario, either. The Boy expressed mild interest in the fact that it’s possible to place Middle English texts, given a decent sample, and I wanted to show him the maps I got in graduate school, graphing out which variants were used in which parts of England. And of course I can’t find the damned book. I’ve looked all over. No joy, as they say on the detective show I’m currently watching on Netflix.
I’ve looked online, and can’t find them there, so this tells me that this particular bit of information is really, really esoteric. So I’m back to relying on my own resources. I’ve vowed that I’ll find that book if I have to clean the whole house to do it. Well…maybe not that…that’s a bit extreme. But I’ll at least look in the bedroom again. And on the shelves in The Boy’s room, where my overflow books live.
But let’s leave that for the moment. Our conversation (read “my monolog”) on the subject of how dialects grow and change based on boundaries has gotten me thinking about how our language reflects our history, and never so strongly as when we are forced to accept things we don’t like. Old English became the language of England in the wake of the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Norman French took over with William the Conquerer. Middle English fought its way back to prominence, only to find itself exposed to new ideas, expressed in new languages, from the Middle East.
The Puritans came to America, and their language immediately began taking on a freight of Native American words, and then, as they encountered settlers from other European countries, words from their languages as well. The influx of immigrants and refugees from Southeast Asia, Mexico, and South America have added words to our language.
Someday, linguists will take out their charts and attempt to place one of our written documents geographically and chronologically. And they’ll be able to do it. Our language carries our history in its bones. No matter what some may say about who the “real Americans” are, and what the “real American language” is, our language tells the truth of us–we are a nation that has grown on the shoulders of ancestors from all over the world. We have been a global society since our very beginnings. To say that any one ethnic group or language defines us is to deny all of the forces that have shaped us for thousands of years.
I’m not quite sure where I was going with this. Maybe it’s just to say that our language reflects not who we wish we were, but who we are. It holds our reality. And keeping it vital and strong means allowing it to grow and evolve to reflect our changing selves.
So what does that mean today? Maybe it means that instead of rigidly insisting that English and only English be spoken, we adapt to the reality that there are millions of people here, now, whose language holds a different history. And maybe we become bilingual? Or trilingual? At the very least, I think it means understanding that, like it or not, our language is changing, and will continue to do so, if it is not to become as dead as Latin.