Trading Tongues offers fresh approaches to the multilingualism of major early English authors like Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, Margery Kempe, and William Caxton, and lesser-known figures like French lyricist Charles d’Orléans. Juxtaposing literary works with contemporaneous Latin and French civic records, mixed-language merchant miscellanies, and bilingual phrasebooks, Jonathan Hsy illustrates how languages commingled in late medieval and early modern cities. Chaucer, a customs official for the Port of London, infused English poetry with French and Latin merchant jargon, and London merchants incorporated Latin and vernacular verse forms into trilingual account books.
Hsy examines how writers working in English, Latin, and French (and combinations thereof) theorized the rich contours of polyglot identity. In a range of genres—from multilingual lyrics, poems about urban life, and autobiographical narratives—writers found venues to consider their own linguistic capacities and to develop new modes of conceiving language contact and exchange. Interweaving close readings of medieval texts with insights from sociolinguistics and postcolonial theory, Trading Tongues not only illuminates how multilingual identities were expressed in the past; it generates new ways of thinking about cultural contact and language crossings in our own time.