Chaucer’s Defense of the Vulgar Tongue
By James R. Andreas
Postscript: The Journal of the Philological Association of the Carolinas, Vol.9 (1992)
Introduction: Rousseau notes curiously that “Writing is nothing but the representation of speech; it is bizarre that one gives more care to the determining of the image than to the object.” Not so for Chaucer, who showed a predilection for the oral, vulgar tongue over the written, polite language throughout his literary career. While he may have been considered the ‘Father of the English Language’ by some of his and our own contemporaries, Chaucer might really have been more interested in the ‘Mother Tongue’, an interest which Dante asserts for himself in De Vulgari Eloquentia. Anticipating Bakhtin, Chaucer often theorized about the priority of the utterance, whowever small, lewed and churlish over scripted, gentil language. As Charles Owens has so insistently demonstrated, Chaucer may have apprenticed as a ‘writer’ translator and adapter of ‘olde’ texts that were designed to be read, but he quickly developed an interest in and a talent for speaking ‘pleynly’ and ‘fulbrode’ as the narrator of the Canterbury Tales insists he must in the General Prologue. Chaucer’s works are riddled with explanations about the primacy of speech “experienced was opposed to written texts that are “authoredw and which then come to represent the “dictates” of wauctoritee.” As “Mother of our Tongue” Chaucer took enormous pains to justify using the speech of plain folk, the vulgus in Latin, and even the deliberately vulgar, as opposed to the language of policy and the court. In fact, he may well have realized his comic and his Christian potential as a poet largely because of this choice. Although writers usually end up as great texts of a civilization, they achieve the distinction by representing the living voices of their people.