February 1, 2011


John Ray

"And well we weren esed atte beste"

That's the English of 600 years ago.

Being old can be rather disturbing. It alerts you to what is possible. And one thing I know to be possible is that one can in country schools of no distinction gain an infinitely better education than one gets in just about ANY school today. I know that because I had such an education.

My education at Innisfail State Rural School and Cairns High School left me with an awareness of Homer, Chaucer, Robert Burns, Tennyson, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, G.M. Hopkins and many others. It even introduced me to Schubert Lieder, Dvorak, Bach and that marvellous prewar tenor Josef Schmidt. I doubt that even Eton does as much these days. Yet all those things remain with me and give me pleasure. Even the Latin I learnt then has often been helpful.

And note that some of the authors were distinctly "difficult". What is a "daimen icker in a thrave"? To understand one of the most famous Burns poems you need to know that it means "a single ear in a sheaf". And we learnt that. And to this day I celebrate the birthday of Robert Burns every year.

The Chaucer quote at the head of this post did pose some difficulty, however, The teacher didn't know what it meant and nor could I figure it out at that age. Some time in recent years it has become clear to me what it means, however, and it is of course very simple. It means "And well we were eased, at the best". The Tabard was obviously a very good inn on the way to Canterbury 600 years ago. It would be a rare schoolboy today who knows of that journey, however.

My interest in Middle English emerged in a rather fun way some years ago when I was doing a bit of work for a market researcher named Mark Troy.

At one stage I asked him where he wanted me to put some papers. He said: "Right here, on the table". BUT: He did not pronounce "table" in the usual way. He pronounced it as "Tarbla". Now most people would have thought that he was either a bit mad or having a joke but I immediately recognized what was going on. He was using the correct pronounciation -- the correct pronounciation of 600 years ago.

I said: "That's a Middle English pronunciation" -- and he confirmed that it was. So I immediately launched into:

'Whan that April with hir showres soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;'


Mark joined in and we must have recited together roughly the first 100 lines of the "Prologue" -- all in the correct Middle English pronunciation, of course. It gave us both great pleasure and satisfaction to do so but there was another guy in the room: Mark's business partner. And he looked at us with evident alarm. He apparently thought we had been seized by some sort of folie a deux (shared madness). He seemed relieved when Mark explained the matter.

Anyway, it was a great pleasure to come across a fellow Chaucerian. There can't be many of them in Brisbane.

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