Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Reeve's Tale Language and Communication

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Language and Communication

And nameliche ther was a greet college
Men clepen the Soler halle at Cantebregge;
[…]
Thanne were ther yonge povre scolers two,
That dwelten in this halle, of which I seye.
(135 – 136, 148 – 149)

The two clerks, John and Aleyn, study at Soler Hall, which later became King's Hall, at Cambridge. King's Hall was known for drawing more students from the north of England than any other school. This detail is important since Chaucer has Aleyn and John speak a northern dialect of English.

John highte that oon, and Aleyn highte that oother;
Of o toun were they born, that highte Strother,
Fer in the north, I kan nat telle where.
(159 – 161)

Here John and Aleyn's northern origins are confirmed. It makes sense that they will speak exactly the same dialect, moreover, because they come from exactly the same town.

'Symond,' quod John, 'by God, nede has na peer.
Hym boes serve hymself that has na swayn,
Or elles he is a fool, as clerkes sayn.'
(172 – 173)

Here the northernism of John and Aleyn's dialect becomes clear. John replaces the o's in his words with a's, so that "no" becomes "na." He also uses the word "boes" for "must," which in London middle English would be rendered as "moste."

'And forthy is I come, and eek Alayn,
To grynde oure corn and carie it ham agayn;
I pray yow spede us heythen that ye may.'
(177 – 179)

More northernisms here: again, John replaces the o's in words with a's, so that the word for home becomes "ham." The word "heythen," for however also marks John's speech as northern because it is a word of Scandinavian origin. Since the north of England was closer to the Scandinavian countries, its English had more contact with Scandinavian languages and so borrowed many words from them.

'By God, right by the hopur wil I stande,'
Quod John, 'and se howgates the corn gas in.
Yet saugh I nevere, by my fader kyn,
how that the hopur wagges til and fra.'
(182 – 185)

At this point we probably don't need to mention all of the o's that have been replaced with a's, but we will anyway: goes becomes "gas," fro becomes "fra." Another northernism here is the inclusion of an –e in the third person singular form of the verb "to wag": in the northern dialect it becomes "wagges" instead of "wags."

Aleyn answerde, 'John and wiltow swa?
Thanne I wil be bynethe, by my croun,
And se how that the mele falles doun
Into the trough; that sal be my disport.
For John, y-faith, I may been of youre sort;
I is as ille a millere as ar ye.'
(186 – 191)

Another northernism: Aleyn uses "sal" for "shall," replacing the "sh" sound with a simple "s." It's interesting that in this exchange, the clerks emphasize how they are alien to the miller's world, having never before watched corn being ground, at the same time as their speech emphasizes their northern origin, which also separates them from the miller.

This Aleyn al forgat, bothe mele and corn;
Al was out of his mynde his houbonderie.
'What, whilk way is he geen?' he gan to crie.
(222 – 224)

Here Aleyn presents another northernism with the question "Whilk way is he geen?" He replaces the –ch in "whilch" (meaning "which") with a -k, demonstrating the northern dialect's tendency to substitute –lk for –lch. Also, "goon" (for "go") becomes "geen" in Aleyn's dialect, the o's replaced with ee's this time instead of a's.

'Alas,' quod John, 'Aleyn, for Cristes peyne,
Lay doun thy swerd, and I wil myn alswa.
I is ful wight, God waat as is a raa;
By Goddes herte, he sal nat scape us bathe!
Why ne had thow pit the capul in the lathe?
Ihayl! by God, Alayn, thou is a fonne!'
(230 – 235)

Can you spot all the northernisms? In addition to many, many a's instead of o's (alswa/also, waat/woot, raa/roe, bathe/bothe), John uses a word of Scandinavian origin when he asks Aleyn why he didn't put the horse in the "lathe" (meaning barn). Also, he replaces the "u" in "put" with an "i," making this word "pit," another common northernism.

'Ye konne by arguments make a place
A myle brood of twenty foot of space.
Lat se now if this place may suffise,
Or make it rowm with speche, as is your gise.'
(269 – 270)

Symkyn is teasing the clerks here, although it's difficult for our modern ears to make out the joke. The complicated arguments scholars were fond of at this time period led some people to accuse them of using sophistry, or tricky arguments, to prove ridiculous things. So Symkyn jokingly says that John and Aleyn must be able to make his bedroom larger merely with their speech. Aren't scholars supposed to be good at that sort of thing? Symkyn asks. Although Symkyn is joking, he draws our attention to the way different kinds of speech can exclude certain groups. As a working-class person, he no doubt feels excluded by the language of scholars. This exchange is interesting in a narrative that, with the dialect of John and Aleyn, has very much focused on the way that language can form distinct groups.