What is this fascination we have with words?
Who has not spent an hour, a day, or a week searching for the right word, and having found one, will change it for another, then another. And daring to wax poetic we fail, like the child wanting to catch an elusive butterfly, flailing with net, coming up with empty air.
Prologue to Troilus and Criseyde
It was then quite refreshing to come across these words from Georffrey Chaucer’s Prologue to Book 2 of Troilus and Criseyde.
Ye knowe eek, that in forme of speche is chaunge
With-inne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden prys, now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thinketh hem; and yet they spake hem so,
And spedde as wel in love as men now do;
Eek for to winne love in sondry ages,
In sondry londes, sondry ben usages.
Chaucer’s speech is Middle English, the language spoken after the Norman invasion, influenced by French, but connected to the language of the Saxons and Angles who came to the British Isles in the Middle Ages. With a little study the words and meaning become clear.
Following the rhetorical salutation “you know” we are greeted by the strange sounding word “eek” in line 22 (pronounced like “eck” and not the sound we make when we see a mouse) is derivative of the German “auch” meaning “also” or “besides”.
Third line, the word “prys” is “prize” which is a fair equivalent for value. Line 26, “spedde” is the past tense of “speed”. It is a word familiar even in Shakespeare’s time in the common salutation “Speed well” meaning may your trip go quickly and without mishap. “Fare” and “farewell” is a more modern adaptation. “Eek” appears again in the second to last line. Here it is better to substitute “besides”. The word “sondry” we spell “sundry” but the meaning is the same, “various”.
The last line repeats the word “sondry” twice, referring first to different lands, and second to the usage of speech. The verb “ben” is our “been” expressing a form of the verb “to be”. Today, one might more appropriately say “have been” to imply continuous usage, but “were” fills the bill nicely.
You know also that the form of speech changes
Within a thousand years, words though
That had value then, now seem wondrous nice and strange
We think them; and yet they spoke them so
And fared as well in love as now men do;
Besides, to win love in sundry ages,
in sundry lands, there were sundry usages.
In Chaucer’s day, French was the language of court and had been so for 300 years. Despite this, and the continuing marriages with French princess, and wars in France, England seems to have had an affinity for the language fiven it by the Saxon and Angles who invaded the island in the Middle Ages.
Were I to translate Chaucer’s English to courtly French, I might, without the correct rhyme or meter, have this:
Savez que la forme de la parole change
Dans mille ans, les mots si
Cela a eu une valeur, alors, semble maintenant belle merveilleuse et étrange
Nous les pensons, et ainsi ils les ont parlé
Et aussi bien réussi dans l’amour que maintenant les hommes;
D’ailleurs, pour gagner l’amour dans les âges divers,
dans les terres diverses, il y avait des usages divers.