Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The The: Chaucer was not Mallorcan

In days of yore when obliged to do Chaucer for English Literature, my school's headmaster - who only ever left his study to do any teaching when the Father of English Lit was on the curriculum - would produce one of those old-fashioned, vinyl LP things, place it on the school's gramophone player and inflict Nevill Coghill on his group of uncomprehending sixth-formers. The headmaster was passionate about Chaucer, passionate about Coghill's interpretation and so therefore passionate about the language that was being used - Middle English.

Chaucer's language was not the finished article by any means. English underwent various iterations before something like a standard version was hit upon. "The Canterbury Tales" and "Troilus and Criseyde", which would crackle from the needle on Coghill's intonation, were arguably written through a collision of Kentish and Midlands dialects. Whatever the precise linguistic background to Chaucer's Middle English, his works contained what by then had become a standard form: the definite article "the".

Chaucer's great achievement was to give legitimacy to the native language in its then different varieties and to so challenge Latin (and French) as the dominant formal languages. His English was just one step along a route of influence, alteration and hybridisation which introduced its own conventions and abandoned others. One such was the distinction between the masculine, feminine and neuter articles which had existed in Old English. "The" became "the" and only "the" (or strictly speaking, "þe").

English nowadays reflects its historical, linguistic melting-pot in one particularly significant way. There is no language arbiter. There are no language diktats. English does not have academies, as the French and Spanish do, which establish rules.

English is hardly unique in having passed through phases of development brought about through migration and conquest, but while English, and other languages, evolved almost naturally, occasionally there was a linguistic shock, a moment in time when language (or dialect) changed almost totally. The conquest of Mallorca represented one such moment in time.

The natives on Mallorca didn't wake up on 1 January, 1230 and start speaking Catalan. The process of language assimilation took time, but as the island's population was probably no more than 20,000 (if that), the time that was required was uncommonly short. Once established, this new language took two paths. One was a regular Catalan which made its way into administration, documentation and religion. The other was the colloquial Catalan, one that represented some continuity with pre-conquest Vulgar Latin and Mozarabic, which had existed before Jaume I arrived on the scene. This colloquial Catalan became the Mallorquín dialect. It differs in certain respects, and one of the more notable ways in which it differs to regular Catalan is in the use of the definite article - the masculine and feminine of "the".

I recently drew attention to the row that had broken out because the Mallorcan broadcaster IB3 had started using the Mallorquín "the" in its news reports. Known as the "article salat", this colloquial use broke with tradition which deemed that regular, more formal Catalan was used. The row has since gone as far as the Balearic parliament and has intensified, as the Partido Popular-dominated parliament has approved the use of the "salat" at IB3. As a consequence, there are many, especially those in scholarly circles, who are now in a right old lather because of the parliament's decision. The argument has everything to do with the Partido Popular undermining Catalan. Again.

For we English-speaking descendants of Chaucer, the argument may well appear absurd. It will seem doubly so because of the absence of an English usage rule-making body. But where such bodies do exist, as in France and Spain, they are non-governmental and supposedly independent. For a government to make a direct ruling on language use is a different matter, and it is - despite the apparent absurdity - a pretty serious matter.

Inevitably and understandably, parliament's approval can be seen as having echoes of past official rulings on the Catalan language. But those were different to the current row. This is a local one, predicated as much if not more on political dogma as on linguistic common sense. The right-wing, characterised by elements within the PP and the anti-Catalan Circulo Balear (recently lampooned for its apparent role in determining government language policy), advances the cause of Mallorquín and the dialects of the other islands and attacks Catalan hegemony. It is as though Jaume I and the conquest never happened. But without that moment in time, that linguistic shock, Mallorquín would not now exist; or it would exist in a different form.

Yet, for all that there are political overtones, from experience of having spoken to Mallorcan people over the years, the majority might well agree with parliament's decision. They speak Mallorquín and not Catalan. How confusing. If only there had been a Mallorcan Chaucer. Though there was one - of sorts. Ramon Llull. And he used ...? 

No comments: