Monday, November 14, 2016

A Student's Guide to Chaucer's Middle English (Review)

Language learning is difficult, no bones about it; you have to memorize essentially to memorize some more and between all of this effort you may say to yourself ‘what is the point?’ I have felt this pain personally and so can sympathize deeply with anyone who has ever been on the verge of giving up on learning another language or just could not take it and did dump their dreams of learning out the window.

                Part of the struggle, other than memorizing, is having proper tools. To what plateau can even the most determined individual reach without quality educational aids? Can you honestly say that you will get very far in learning French or Mandarin Chinese if you do not have a handy textbook that deciphers syntax, vowel and consonant alterations, and general pronunciation and writing tips? How will you know if you are correctly pronouncing words if you do not have an audio CD or an online program to help you in mastering the basics so as to not massacre the advanced? 

One of the contradictions of late capitalism is that consumerism fosters such a wide array of products for nearly every conceivable desire, that we face an up-hill battle to simply find the most helpful product. Sometimes we end up spending huge sums of money just to find that text which de-mystifies what we had previously read half a dozen times to no avail. Other times, however, we strike gold on the first strike and find that Holy Grail of tools which we could not imagine going without. I am lucky to say that in regards to my learning of Middle English, I struck gold when I picked up a copy of Peter G. Beidler’s A Student Guide to Chaucer’s Middle English

At first, I was on the fence as to whether I should purchase Beidler’s text. It was a short text at just fifty-five pages. The price, however, stood at a slightly obscene ten dollars. Was such a short primer truly worth such a price? Could I not find similar texts for a far better price-content ratio (relatively speaking)? Perhaps I could, but perhaps not; at the time, however, I let my instinct loose: I bought the guide. Hopefully the product description would not lie and I would have my cherished beginner-level handbook to take me through the wonders of Chaucer’s language. If not… then I dreaded the return trip to the online superstore in another bout to find that introductory primer.

I can already hear you asking, “Was the guide good? Was it worth the money?” Well, I am happy to report that it most certainly was worth the money. In fact, it was worth every penny and then some.

Beidler’s text is one of those introductions which I wish existed for all dead languages and linguistic inflections of dead languages. It tells you what you need to know, when you need to know it. The author states that it was his goal to write a dense yet easily accessible introduction to how Geoffrey Chaucer spoke and wrote Middle English (ix). An introduction, in other words, which would allow newcomers to know the nuance of Chaucer’s tongue without complexity being sacrificed. A difficult calling if there ever was one!

But if anyone could write such a guide then it is Beidler. A university educator of several decades, he has an enviable amount of experience in speaking, reading, and editing Chaucer’s works. In fact, the namesake of the little book—A Student Guide to Chaucer’s Middle English—is very apt: the text was written with Undergraduates in mind; indeed, the author states that this work grew out of many generations of his Chaucer courses and through many refinements as students offered their thoughts and as Beidler tweaked the contents in response.

Reading Beidler’s introduction will put newcomers at ease. Although it is a dense guide and there are parts which readers will need to re-read several times and carefully scrutinize in order to understand the proper way to use the book, actually learning the content does not ever become overwhelming, despite the great amount of material to learn. 

Why? We can chalk it up to several factors but it ultimately boils down to just how well the guide is written. Beidler gives the reader the lowdown on Chaucer’s time and his writing, some information on reading medieval manuscripts, but then quickly moves to how Middle English is different from Old English and how it is different, in turn, from Modern English. From here, he then moves on to the linguistic minutia—what important Chaucerian words the newcomer should memorize, how verbs, vowels, consonants, adverbs, diphthongs, and phonetics function in middle English and more; Beidler gives a brief rundown on iambic pentameter, gives the reader some handy tips on Chaucer’s use of Middle English, and returns to phonetic inscription before assigning three exercises on said inscription.

It sounds like a lot, does it not? Well, you would be correct—because it is a lot!

During my initial engagement with Beidler’s primer I was at a lost on certain segments; when it came to phonetic inscription, for instance, I was at a particular loss of words: why was he demanding that we inscribe the modern phonetics of a Middle English word alongside its older counter-part? Was the phonetic symbols somehow letters? Was there a difference in phonetic inscription between inscription for vowels and consonants? How does scanning lines of Chaucer’s poetry assist us in said phonetic inscription? And so on… 

Again, I am happy to report that I figured out all of these questions. Once I learned the answers I even chided myself for asking them in the first place. Why? Because all of the answers were there in the book, I just did not read closely enough during my initial read-through; which brings me back to the idea of re-reading this dense pamphlet—it is a necessity! Because so much information is crammed into such a tight space, even Beidler’s usually informative style can be lost on the observant reader if you do not pay attention to how concepts build upon previous concepts. Said again, there is no wasted sentence in this introduction—everything serves an illuminative purpose and it is up to you to have keen enough eyes to carefully read and take-in said information so as to effectively utilize the contents to your benefit.

It should be kept in mind, however, that Beidler’s guide is not a general introduction to Middle English. It is an introduction to how Chaucer used Middle English in what is now called the London dialect. Beidler does not introduce the reader to any other dialect; additionally, Beidler does not expend huge amounts of effort in providing an elaborate genesis of Middle English; for lengthy, detailed explanations of some of Middle English’s nuance, how it relates to Old English and its evolution to Early Modern English and Modern English, how Chaucer’s dialect differs from his contemporaries dialects and so on, you will need to find a different text.

First and foremost, Beidler is concerned with giving you informational summaries concerning Chaucer’s Middle English; he is concerned with teaching you about phonetic inscription; he disseminates some basic background information on how Middle English relates to Old and Modern English, and he gives you some tips, additional language learning resources, and warnings but he does not do much else (for better or worse). Beidler is focused on Chaucer and with getting you up to speed in reading Chaucer. He does not promise mastery but a familiarity, a base for further learning. He does this through concise and well-worded explanations of the most vital parts of the language; he may, at times, be a bit vague, but I assure you, he captures that mixture of intellectual rigidity and casual genius which is missing from far too many educational texts.

So no, Beidler’s text is not by any means an end-all stop for learning Middle English. But, for being able to hone in on such a specific aspect of Middle English literature and authorship, Beidler’s pamphlet should be considered a modern cornerstone of Chaucerian tools. I would even go as far as to say it is a must-buy, but this is really a matter of opinion as there is many educational primers out there which will teach you Middle English. What I can say is this: Beidler succeeds in his stated goal.

At the end of the day, Beidler instructs the novice with fluid care without abandoning the inner-life of the subject he is lecturing on. He manages to keep the lesson entertaining, does not bog down the reader in endless lines of dense, formal text, all while imparting his pedagogical best, that which he obtained over decades of Chaucer-oriented teaching. There is other introductions to Middle English published by the elite of the academic world. Beidler’s casual introduction may not be ranked among those lofty giants of Ivy, but his is indispensable all the same.

A Student Guide to Chaucer’s Middle English             
Peter G. Beidler
55 pages. Published by Coffeetownpress. $9.95 (Paperback). 2011.