3 Oct /13

John Trevisa

Today Word of the Day celebrates not a word but the talent of those who unlock the doors between languages and cultures. This will be first in an occasional series on the unsung heroes of the development of the English language – translators.

With English now spoken by over a billion people worldwide, it is difficult to imagine a time when it wasn’t even the principal language of its own native population. While the first English government document was published in 1258, French remained the common legal language well into the Middle Ages. The fifty year reign of King Edward III began to address this. Edward became the first king to address Parliament in 1362, and that same year he adopted the Statute of Pleading, making English the language of the courts. Anyone who has despaired of Britain’s courtroom interpreting problems in recent years might like to know that this is not a new phenomenon. Edward III’s 750 year old law tells us that the use of French in courts only meant that “the people […] had no knowledge of what is being said for them or against them.”

Gradually the use of French died out. John Trevisa (1342-1402) offered a plausible explanation for this and gave notice that the English were not the most eager language students when he stated that English children knew no more about French than “their left heel.”

Trevisa himself was a noble exception. Born and bred in Cornwall, his first language was Cornish but he would quickly become a master of English. Additional progress in other tongues was swift. The international language of science, religion, literature, government and diplomacy was Latin, and Trevisa’s translation of the early encyclopaedia De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the Properties of Things) was a notable addition to English scholarship. This work, along with his English version of Polychronicon a Latin chronicle of theology and history provides almost 9,000 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary and makes Trevisa the man who introduced many everyday concepts and terms to the language. This was acknowledged two centuries after his death, when the preface to the 1611 King James Bible acknowledged that most of the selected translations for the gospels were the work of Trevisa. By this time, with Shakespeare at the pinnacle of his craft, English was still a minority language with only six million speakers. Those who followed in John Trevisa’s footsteps would see this dramatically change.