MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 62.3 (2001) 293-296
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The Making of Chaucer's English:
A Study of Words
The Making of Chaucer's English: A Study of Words. By Christopher Cannon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xiii + 435 pp.
At the end of the first half of The Making of Chaucer's English, Christopher Cannon makes perhaps the clearest statement of the critical conundrum in which the study of Chaucer's lexicon places him: "We may carefully, but often, advance the heresy that Chaucer's English does not really matter very much, that Chaucer did not really begin anything at all--and we may try to believe ourselves when we say this" (219). While revisionist heresies are put forward fairly frequently in medieval literary studies these days, this one is notable for the hesitancy of its proponent's voice. The Making of Chaucer's English is not quite a self-consuming artifact, but the book's strong desire to debunk the object of its analysis and historiography is matched only by the sympathetic rigor of its philology, and the two agendas are somewhat at odds. Indeed, philology in this case is particularly apt: Cannon displays a real love of the word even as he labors to reach negative conclusions and to convince us--and, apparently, himself--that the object of his desire truly does not matter. Ultimately, the study's major problems arise from neither its positivism nor its historicism, for as an example of lexicography and literary criticism The Making of Chaucer's English is a substantial achievement. Instead, Cannon's study frequently fails to compel assent in the finer interstices of argumentation; to add further complication, it tends to demonstrate the opposite conclusion, namely, the real worth of Chaucer's lexicon as a uniquely important object of study. What, then, are we to do with a book that succeeds, in a way, despite its own intentions and against its own conclusions?
The first half, consisting of five chapters, is a critical review of the history and practice of Chaucerian lexicography in the context of its increasing professionalization; the second half is an updated lexicon of the over nine thousand words recorded in Chaucerian texts, literally every word that we [End Page 294] think Chaucer wrote. Such a Janus-faced project is fraught with threats to coherence, but Cannon brings the two halves together admirably. Beginning with a historiographical account of the development of Chaucer language study, Cannon sets out the scope of his investigation: to analyze Chaucer's language in order to bring greater clarity to the claims of his originality. For this purpose "words are not simply one linguistic object among many: they are the best objects for study and fundamentally distinct from other objects because of the greater analytic possibilities they extend" (37- 38). An analysis neither of style nor of rhetorical invention but related to both, this study proposes to isolate "the 'literary' linguistic object" (28, 33) of Chaucer's poetry in his lexis, what poets and critics traditionally have called Chaucer's eloquence and what Chaucer himself defined, in an almost Arnoldian prolepsis, as "swetenesse." As Cannon convincingly shows, historical evaluations of Chaucer's linguistic priority--exemplified by Hoccleve's familiar praise of him as the "firste fyndere of our faire langage"--have been dogged by both an ambiguity and a circularity, making it difficult to determine precisely what Chaucer was "first" and therefore best at, or "best" and therefore first at. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries this ambiguous bardolotry gave way to an equally problematic attempt to locate the uniqueness of Chaucer's achievement in the lexicon of the English language itself. So the assumption of his productiveness as a lexical borrower and innovator led, as it did with Shakespeare, to his overvaluation and overrepresentation in lexicons and studies such as Joseph Mersand's Chaucer's Romance Vocabulary, in historical dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary and later the Middle English Dictionary, and in the general history of the English language.
In the middle chapters...