Langland’s Lament.

Dave Wilton of writes:

I’ve come across the following quotation in a number of places, such as this article from The Economist:

There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter.

The quotation is attributed to William Langland, author of Piers Plowman, who died in 1386. The problem is that I could only find the quotation in modern translation and it sounds distinctly un-Middle Englishy, so I doubted that it was authentic. Because I could only find it in translation, tracking it down was difficult—it’s hard to search for a Middle English quotation if you don’t have the Middle English diction. It turns out that the quote is genuine, but it is a rather free translation.
[. . .]

Langland says nothing about “writ[ing] a decent letter.” In the B-text he does bemoan the fact that English scholars can’t read a letter in languages other than Latin or English, but says nothing about writing them. The translation of clerk as “schoolboy” is also questionable. The word schoolboy connotes a relatively young age, but clerk, which is the ancestor of the modern cleric, referred to clergy, often used in the context of someone who could read and write. It could also refer to a university student—as in Chaucer’s clerk—but the word wouldn’t be applied to what we now dub a schoolboy. Also the word grammar has shifted in meaning considerably. […]

So a more accurate modern translation would read something like:

Latin, the basis of all, now beguiles children. None of these new university students can compose good poetry or write formally. Not one in a hundred can properly interpret what an author has written, or even read anything at all that is not written in Latin or English.

Langland was indeed bemoaning the state of learning, but not in the way people bemoan the supposed decline of English today. He was concerned with the fact that scholars didn’t know languages other than Latin and English, and the schoolchildren were not even learning good Latin. He was not going on about the decline of English, which at the time was not a prestige dialect—it was what linguists call a basilect, with Anglo-Norman French being the acrolect and Latin being the language of scholarship. The idea of English declining wouldn’t have made sense to him. If anything, English was on the rise, with poets like him, Chaucer, and Gower, once again composing serious verse in it.

Original and further details at the link; I love this sort of careful investigation.


  1. The full text of Passus 15 can be found here in the original spelling. I like the fact that Langland had a high opinion of linguistics: Gramer þe grounde of al.

    Incidentally, by the time Langland wrote Piers Plowman, there were very few if any speakers of Anglo-Norman as a mother tongue, and AN literature was long past its heyday. English was not so much on the rise as already at the top — a fully developed literary language and the primary medium of communication even among the upper class. When linguists use the term “basilect”, they don’t mean things like Chaucerian English.

  2. or even read anything at all that is not written in Latin or English

    So he was lamenting the decline of Anglo-Norman?

  3. A good knowledge of French (literary Central French rather than Anglo-Norman at this stage) was quite indispensable to anyone with cultural and literary pretensions, and since Langland doesn’t list French together with English and Latin, it’s possible that he had it in mind — of foreign languages in general. Of course some people were more competent than that. Chaucer, for example, had a perfect command of “standard” French and most probably was able to read Italian in the original.

    It’s absolutely true that gram(m)er(e) meant ‘Latin grammar‘, ‘education in Latin’ or ‘knowledge of Latin’ in the 14th century. It continued to be so used for the next two hundred years. The first English Grammar was that written by Ben Jonson (1640) under the inspiration of Pierre de la Ramée (whom Jonson heavily plagiarised). But attitudes towards proper education were changing during Langland’s lifetime. As Trevisa reported in 1385, in all “grammar schools” in England pupils were taught translation from Latin into English (not French any longer) as a result of a reform initiated by Iohn Cornwaile, a maister of grammer. As Trevisa goes on to say, the new method had an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage was that they learnt Latin faster and more effectively, and the disadvantage was that they learnt hardly any French at all, and þat is harme for hem and þey schulle passe þe see and trauaille in straunge landes and in many oþer places. Things haven’t changed much since, except that Latin is gone as well :-).

  4. P.S. Link to John Trevisa on languages, dialects and language education.

  5. English had never ceased to be a “fully developed literary language,” but it had sharply declined in popularity following the Conquest. It came back to the fore in the fourteenth century, with Chaucer, Gower, and Langland becoming the preeminent practitioners by the end of that century. (The Pearl/Gawain poet, writing in alliterative verse from the provinces, is probably a late representative of the continuous tradition that had survived on the margins of Anglo-Norman society.) The point is that it is a mistake to think that Langland would look at English as being on the decline.

    I used the terms acrolect and basilect with trepidation. I knew they weren’t quite right. I’ll try to think of a way to succinctly rephrase that sentence.

  6. I used the terms acrolect and basilect with trepidation. I knew they weren’t quite right. I’ll try to think of a way to succinctly rephrase that sentence.

    They are normally applied to (respectively) the upper and lower ends of a sociolectal continuum not divided by a communication barrier — originally in a post-creole situation, but in current usage it is normal to refer, for example, to working-class Scouse as the basilect of Liverpool. Anglo-Norman and Middle English were in a “superstrate” vs. “substrate” relationship (two different languages in a diglossic speech community, carrying unequal social prestige). Unfortunately, the same terms are often given a different meaning by historical linguists, which may give rise to confusion.

  7. I don’t have a problem saying that in German Transylvania, German was the laich language and Hungarian the heigh one, so it’s not about whether they’re related or not, though that’s the most common case. Rather, L and H are terms used about the diglossia existing at a particular moment, whereas superstrate and substrate are historic facts. English had and will always have a Latin superstrate unless and until all the Latin words are lost (which is hardly conceivable).

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