00.01.03, Obst, Die Sprache Chaucers

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Richard Utz

The Medieval Review baj9928.0001.003


Obst, Wolfgang, and Florian Schleburg. Die Sprache Chaucers: Ein Lehrbuch des Mittelenglischen auf der Grundlage von Troilus and Criseyde. Heidelberg: Universitatsverlag C. Winter, 1999. Pp. 6, 330. ISBN: 3-825-30898-7.

Reviewed by:
Richard Utz
University of Northern Iowa

In the 1870s, in a review of Bernhard Ten Brink's Geschichte der Englischen Literatur for the Shakespeare Jahrbuch, Friedrich Kluge criticizes Ten Brink, one of the founding fathers of German Chaucer studies, for being "too exclusively a philologist," for including and discussing "specimens of literature which have a purely philological value." And he praised him for abandoning that principle in the later parts of that publication and in his work as a teacher. Ten Brink's strong interest in questions of a more narrowly linguistic nature, Kluge indicates, had led the scholar to slight more specifically literary deliberations. Kluge, a linguist himself, who would become famous for authoring the often reprinted Etymologisches W├Ârterbuch der deutschen Sprache, shows an astonishing awareness of the hegemony of linguistic approaches in the nineteenth-century German study of Chaucerian and other early English texts. Both, Ten Brink's practice and Kluge's reaction, are indicative of a national academic mentality or tradition which -- in part -- still permeates the teaching of Chaucer at German universities, where more Chaucer classes are taught as part of programs in (historical) linguistics than as part of literary or cultural studies curricula. Die Sprache Chaucers caters to such a readership of German students of "Anglistik", many of whom face linguistics-oriented written or oral state exams in Middle or Old English for teacher licensure or university degrees. Although the volume strives to imbed a fair number of aspects from the general background of medieval literature and culture, the overwhelming prevalence of philological/linguistic paradigms cannot be missed.

While I must deplore the methodologically limiting concentration on linguistic issues for a textbook which will be many students' only admission ticket to the world and the words of Geoffrey Chaucer, I would also like to state that the admirable accessability and didactic appropriateness of the linguistic information provided outshine any previously existing German-language introductions to Chaucer or Middle English. The editors have wisely selected twelve central sections (each about 100 verses long) of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde (herafter TC) as a short, elementary anthology of Middle English. In order to give access to an actually existing manuscript of TC, they have decided to use Corpus Christi College Cambridge Ms. 61 as the basis for all of these textual passages. Several comparisons with variants from other manuscripts offer readers insight into some aspects of textual editing, and two pages of the Corpus Christi manuscript (folios 87r and 87v) have been reproduced between the selected bibliography and the first chapter. Each textual section is collated with a complete phonetic transcription (International Phonetics Association), a German translation which succeeds in staying close to the text without ever sounding antiquated or clumsily literal, and a commentary which manages, despite very little available space, to mention many of the salient issues regarding the realms of grammar, textual variants, differences between Chaucer and his sources, etc.

Each of the twelve textual sections is followed by concise surveys which familiarize readers with one aspect of Middle English. Thus, they inform about: Middle English spelling, sounds, and versification; the major differences between Middle English and contemporary English and the principles of sound change; the origins of Middle English sounds; issues of lexicography and semantics; Middle English nouns, pronouns, and verbs; and syntax. The most valuable sections , in my view, are chapters 4 ("Wort und Welt") and 12 ("Die Welt als Text"), because they manage to connect linguistic content with broader cultural issues, such as medieval semiotics, epistolography, rhetoric, metaphor, and allegory. The textbook also contains a valuable glossary which assists readers not only with phonetic transcriptions and German translations of the Middle English entries, but also with helpful etymological information.

All in all, this textbook offers a comprehensive introduction to Chaucer's language. The volume's compact size, the thoroughness and exactitude of the material presented, the impressive presentation (illustrative diagrams, high quality of printing) and, most of all, a fine translation of the Chaucerian passages definitely make it a recommendable choice for Chaucer classes in German-speaking countries. While I would like to see it available in English translation, such a translation, at least for the contemporary North American university classroom, would demand extensive revision. The high level of linguistic knowledge displayed in the German version would demand a substantial, potentially complicated cultural translatio and numerous excursus, not unlike the one which obliged Bruce Mitchell to explain to the Anglophone readers of his Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England (1995; pp. 31-33) the differences between analytical and synthetic languages.

One final word of praise: By selecting the poet's most beautiful, complete poem for their volume, Wolfgang Obst and Florian Schleburg thankfully abandoned the beaten track chosen by too many introductory textbooks which almost invariably prefer the Canterbury Tales and/or its "General Prologue". For the year 2000, the authors are planning to publish the first complete German translation of TC, another step towards extricating the poem from its ill-deserved reputation as one of Chaucer's "minor poems". For this project, of course, they will enter into competition with the long and impressive line of German translators of Chaucer: Wilhelm Hertzberg, Adolf von Duering, Eduard Fiedler, Karl Ludwig Kannegiesser, John Koch, and -- more recently -- Martin Lehnert, Dieter Mehl, Ruth Schirmer, Fritz Kemmler and Joerg Fichte.

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Richard Utz

University of Northern Iowa