The French of England:
Multilingualism in Practice, c. 1100-c. 1500

27th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies, Fordham University
Friday, March 30 - Sunday, April 1, 2007
At the Lincoln Center Campus of Fordham University

Language Contact and Langland’s French

Mary Catherine Davidson

Linguists and literary scholars have already examined the ways in which Langland’s integration of Latin and English in Piers Plowman reflect the “documentary poetics” (Steiner) and “clergial discourse” (Somerset) of the poem. Attending more specifically to the depiction of verbal interactions in the poem, my article “Code-switching and Authority in Late Medieval England” has also analyzed its switches to Latin within English speech as expressions of literate power and multilingual identity. From a similar sociolinguistic perspective, this paper examines how switches to French strategically minimize the exclusivity of the Latinate clerical discourse characterizing the poem overall.

While only occurring in a handful of instances, switches to French within constituents comprised of words, phrases, and sentences typically persist across the A, B, and C versions of the poem. I will argue that even this minimal presence of French nevertheless symbolically unites clerk and lay against French in a linguistic construction of their spiritual vernacularity as “English.” I conclude that minimal contact between French and the Latin-English for which the poem is more famously known is not indicative of the decline of French in late medieval England. Indeed, the presence of French in this putatively “English” poem attests to the power of a category “French” in formulating majority language identities despite or, perhaps more accurately, on account of the minority and increasingly specialized status of late fourteenth century Frenches.



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