Daily Archives: March 21, 2018
The study of modern languages in British secondary schools is in steep decline. The number of students taking French and German GCSE has more than halved in the last 16 years. But as the UK prepares to forge new relationships with the wider world, and with a question mark over the status of English as an official EU language, it may be that many more Britons will need to brush up on their language skills – not unlike their medieval ancestors.
In the Middle Ages, a variety of vernacular languages were spoken by inhabitants of the British Isles, from Cornish to English to Norn – an extinct North Germanic language. The literati of the time learned to speak and write Latin.
But another high prestige language was also used in medieval Britain. After the Norman Conquest, French became a major language of administration, education, literature and law in England (and, to some extent, elsewhere in Britain). To get ahead in life post-1066, it was pretty important to “parler français”.
French would have been the mother tongue for several generations of the Anglo Norman aristocracy. But many more Britons must have learned French as a second language. Medieval biographies of saints, such as the 12th-century recluse Wulfric of Haselbury, tell of miracle workers who transformed monoglot Englishmen into fluent francophones.
In reality, many probably acquired French at “song” school, where young boys were taught reading and singing before moving on to study Latin at “grammar” school.
But, by the late 14th century, standards of French in Britain were slipping – at least in some quarters. Perhaps not such a problem at home, where English had already assumed some of the roles previously performed by French. But if British merchants wanted to export wool, or import bottles of Bordeaux, knowledge of French was still a must.
It’s around this time that the “Manieres de langage” – or “Manners of Speaking” – began to appear. These model conversations, the earliest used to teach French to English speakers, were used by business teachers who taught all the necessary skills for performing basic clerical work.
As well as teaching learners how to ask for directions and find lodgings in France, the “Manieres” feature rather more colourful language than you’d find in today’s textbooks.
Some of the dialogues are made up entirely of insults and chat-up lines. Learners could quickly progress from “Mademoiselle, do I know you?” to “You’re quite sure you don’t have another boyfriend?”. And if things didn’t quite go to plan, an expression such as: “Va te en a ta putaigne … quar vous estez bien cuillez ensemble” (That’s it, run along to your whore! You’re made for each other!) may have proved useful.
The “Manieres” also taught learners about life across the Channel. In one dialogue a Parisian chap mentions to an Englishman that he’s been to Orléans. The Englishman is amazed: “But that’s near the edge of the world!” he exclaims. “It’s actually in the middle of France,” replies the Parisian, “and there’s a great law school there”. Once again, the Englishman is taken aback. He’s heard it’s where the devil teaches his disciples black magic. The Parisian is exasperated until the Englishman offers to buy him a drink.
Lessons from the past
The French spoken in Britain was mocked from at least the 12th-century, even by the British themselves. In the “Canterbury Tales”, for instance, Chaucer teases his Prioress for speaking the French of “Stratford-at-Bow” (rather than proper Parisian).
English swearing’s European origins
Like many a language learner in Britain today, the Englishman in the “Manieres” lacks confidence in his linguistic abilities and worries about how he is ever going to speak like a native.
But the “Manieres” also suggest there was less separating the French of Britain from “proper Parisian” than we might think. When the Englishman lets slip he’s never actually been to France, it’s the Parisian’s turn to be amazed. How could anyone learn such good French in England?
These language learning resources date from a time when the association between linguistic identity and nationality was looser than it often is today. French doesn’t just belong to the French, according to the “Manieres” – learners can take pride in it too.
In Oxford, business school French proved so popular its success seemed to rattle the dons. In 1432 a University statute banned French teaching during lecturing hours to stop students skiving Latin.
It’s hard to imagine needing to curb enthusiasm for learning a foreign language in Brexit Britain. But perhaps there are lessons in the “Manieres” that could help promote language learning in the 21st-century classroom.
As Hobart’s Old Government House was being demolished in the late 1850s, workers made a remarkable discovery. Lifting the floor, they found an old pine board covered with four rows of pictures. Six scenes painted in oils depicted interactions between white people and Aboriginal men, women and children.
An old colonist who had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land back in 1804 remembered seeing such a picture board. She told The Mercury newspaper in November 1874 how she recalled it
hanging on a gum tree at Cottage Green [now Battery Point] where … there was an Aboriginal “Home”, to the occupants of which rations were issued.
In the early decades of the Australian colonies, British officials tried different techniques to communicate with Aboriginal people. Some strategies were brutal, such as when Governor Arthur Phillip had Arabanoo, and later Colebee and Bennelong, kidnapped. The Governor planned to restrain these Aboriginal men until they learned English and could act as go-betweens (eventually Bennelong became an intermediary and a companion to Phillip).
Other communication strategies were more creative. Around 1816, Governor Lachlan Macquarie used proclamations nailed to trees to try to convey messages to Aboriginal people in New South Wales. None of these are known to have survived. In the 19th century, visiting Italian scientist Enrico Giglioli thought that Tasmania’s colonists were copying Macquarie’s approach when they began using picture boards.
The Tasmanian picture board found stashed under Old Government House is rare. Only six others like it survive, all bearing the same picture sequence. This design has become relatively well known. Yet people continue to debate the meaning behind the boards. Some believe they depict the rule of law, others see martial law.
The central motif of the Lieutenant-Governor shaking hands with an Aboriginal leader, and the other pictures illustrating equality, have led scholars to conclude that picture boards were used to promote conciliation and harmony.
In 2014, fellow historian Nick Brodie and I were astonished to read detailed descriptions of two very different Tasmanian picture boards, in a manuscript by an unidentified author held in the Allport Library in Hobart. The author wrote about “Several Paintings of Panel […] about Eighteen Inches Square” that were “divided into compartments each of which represented a series of Actions admonitory to the Natives of the course intended by the Government to be pursued in future towards them”.
These visual warnings to Aboriginal people were part of Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur’s propaganda campaign during the Vandemonian War. We were intrigued by the scenes the writer described. To bring these to life, we invited Melbourne-based Tasmanian artist Simon Barnard to create impressions of what these other picture boards might have looked like.
The manuscript described scenes mirroring events that actually occurred. Take, for example, the Aboriginal man pictured in chains. In August 1830, following an altercation between field police and Aboriginal people at the Shannon River in Central Tasmania, the Colonial Times reported how an Aboriginal leader was
led in chains to the capital […] a large and heavy cart chain was twisted around his neck, and the other end of it was in the left hand of one of the conquerors.
The newspaper stated that two Aboriginal men were killed during the Shannon River affray. Other Aboriginal men, including the well-known resistance leader and convict from New South Wales, Musquito, were hanged in Hobart.
The two boards described in the manuscript presented Aboriginal people with a grim choice. Resist the British and guns and death awaits you. Adopt colonial ways and things will be better for you. The writer even suggested that “Official Rank & Station should be open to them [Aboriginal people] & […] they might even aspire to the dignified & confidential Employment of Postman”.
The accounts of these more recently rediscovered boards complicate our understandings of Van Diemen’s Land, by showing how the colonial government offered stark terms. Depicting “soldiery […] firing upon a tribe”, these images convey the brutal realities of the Vandemonian War more accurately than the board found under Old Government House. Rather than implying friendship and equality, the sequences of pictures on these other two boards illustrate diverging paths for Tasmania’s Aboriginal people following the British invasion.
Friday essay: journey through the apocalypse
The altercation-themed board’s picture sequence showed how, if Aboriginal people continued to resist the invasion, they would continue to be shot by soldiers, field police, armed settlers, and convicts. Those taken into custody could face the hangman.
On the other hand, the assimilation-themed board depicted how, in order to survive, the island’s original inhabitants could adopt Western ways. It showed Tasmanian Aboriginal people peacefully trading with the newcomers, being subservient to the Lieutenant-Governor, wearing colonial clothing, attending church, and taking up employment.
Aboriginal engagement with picture boards
Little evidence has survived to tell us how Aboriginal people engaged with or reacted to picture boards. We know at least one Tasmanian Aboriginal man became familiar with the imagery.
On 26 November 1830, the Tasmanian and Austral-Asiatic Review reported how Surveyor-General George Frankland gave the well-known leader Eumarrah a “little sketch” that illustrated:
[…] the consequences of the Aborigines adopting a peaceable demeanour, or of continuing their present murderous and predatory habits. In one part of the sketch, the soldiery were represented firing upon a tribe of the Blacks, who were falling from the effects of the attack. On the other part were seen, another tribe, decently clad, receiving food for themselves and families.
Ultimately this colonial propaganda was telling Tasmanian Aboriginal people that they really had no choice at all. Assimilate to survive. Resist, and perish.