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Day of the Dead Languages

In an interview with Pacific Standard, Chaucer explains why extinct dialects still matter.
(Photo: CircaSassy/Flickr)

(Photo: CircaSassy/Flickr)

Nearly 600 years ago, the author Geoffrey Chaucer opened his great work The Canterbury Tales with the observation that April was the month in which Christian pilgrims visited saints’ shrines. In England, he specified, these spring pilgrims traveled to Canterbury to thank the blessed holy martyr St. Thomas Beckett, “That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke” (who helped them when they were sick).

These days, Chaucer hangs out on Twitter in the form of @LeVostreGC, the pseudonymous Twitter account of a medieval scholar who tweets solely in Middle English. Lately, he’s taken to tweeting about a new holiday that seeks to put modern people in touch with their cultural past: Whan That Aprille Day, dedicated to the celebration of old and dead languages. Celebrants mark the day by reading texts in medieval and ancient languages, including Old Norse, Middle English, and Ancient Greek. @LeVostreGC also recommends that observers tweet with the hashtag #WhanThatAprilleDay17, play games, make crafts, and chat with other devotees of obscure languages online. For the hungry, he suggests making cake “wyth oold wordes upon yt.”

WTAD’s been around since @LeVostreGC founded it in 2014, and he’s been using his ever-expanding social media presence to promote it ever since. To date, his account has almost 70,000 followers, Lin-Manuel Miranda, J.K. Rowling, and Margaret Atwood among them, making @LeVostreGC one of the most visible figures in the vibrant online world of #MedievalTwitter and adjacent networks in the humanities. His utterances range from the quotidian (shopping tips) to the political (fund the arts!) to the sublime (be kind, then let’s dance).

In advance of the holiday, Pacific Standard spoke, over email, with Mr. Chaucer, about WTAD, how learning old languages can enrich 21st-century readers, and his feelings on threats to the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities’ federal funding.

Dear Mr. Chaucer? Master Chaucer? Monsieur Chaucer? How do I even address you?

Gramerci for the emayle. Ye maye calle me Geoff.

Can you tell me a bit about Whan That Aprille Day? What, first of all, is it and what does it have to do with you, specifically?

Whan That Aprille Daie ys a made-uppe holidaye for the celebracioun of langages that koude be callid “olde,” or “middel,” or “archaic,” or, alas, even “deade.” Arounde the globe of the erthe, scoleres, and readers, and loveres of langage do alone or yn groupes reade of olde langages and make merrye and have partyes and poost thinges to the ynternette to share the mirthe.

Bycause my Tales of Caunterburye do begin yn Aprille wyth the poetrye of Aprille and singinge birdes, and bycause the fyrst lyne of those Tales doth begin “Whan that Aprille…,” Ich thynke yt fittinge to celebrate the musique and lovelinesse of olde wordes on the firste daye of Aprille. For byfor April was “the cruelest moneth,” yndeed yt koude be a moneth of joie and celebracioun. And yt maketh no differaunce that the firste of Aprille ys also the daye of the fooles of Aprille, for all who trewelye love sum thinge are yn sum waye also fooles. And we do celebrate our foolishnesse.

And lat me saye that al thogh Ich dyd beginne thys holidaye, and my langage ys that shared yn Engelonde, the ambicioun of Whan that Aprille Daye ys to speake yn al of the beautiful and olde langages across the great and glorious spanne of thys earthe. No langage ys bettir than anothir, and everybodye ys welcome to the partye.

What should people do or look for on the day?

Ye may celebrate WTAD by simplye readinge the wordes of an olde langage. Reade them to yower catte, perhaps, and the catte shal be most mirthful. Or ye might gather with friendes and have sum maner of cake and festivitye, wyth the wordes of olde langages on the cake (yf appropriate). Universitee academique departementes have organized special celebraciouns ynvolving lovely activities swich as makinge quill pennes and playinge games.

Yet thys ys also a holidaye of the rootes of grasse, and a holidaye of “do yt yowerself,” so eny maner of celebracioun ys encouragid. Be creative.

To share ower mirthe and experience togethir, we do poost to Twytter or the booke of face wyth the hasshetagge #WhanThatAprilleDay17 — remembir the “a” in Whan and the “le” in Aprille!

Why should this kind of rich engagement with older, even dead, languages matter to people who aren’t scholars?

By cause yt YS fun! Scolershippe doth helpe us have access to thes olde and deade langages, for onlye by the labor of scoleres and the fundinge of that labor do the langages remayne yn formes that we kan reach. But the langages themselves were nat spoken by scoleres, thei were spoken by all. Yf learninge a newe langage doth enrich the worlde, than exploringe olde langages doth showe us othir worldes, worldes that once were. Langage ys a waye to breake out of that which ys, and thynke of al the good and bad that mighte be. Wordes themselves are incantaciouns of great power and lovelinesse, and on thys daye we celebrate their magique. Thys holidaye hath the express purpose of narrowinge the divide bitwene “scoleres” and “non-scoleres,” for what doth seem to be obscure and harde to studye ys alwayes, alwayes rewardinge to explore for all.

It sounds like you are saying that learning — and enjoying — old languages is a form of engaging with diversity, is that right? Should we think of the past through the lens of diversity?

Ich do believe yn a maner of diversitye yn fower dimensiouns. Tyme ytself doth chaunge, and understandinge of tyme and the shiftes of tyme ys ymportaunt to being a citizen of the earthe. Aye, ye be wyse to speke of the past as an issue of diversitye. For folk thoughte and spake yn wayes then that we do nat yet now. And no past ys claymed by no place yn the same waye. And olde textes may yet have newe lessouns that may helpe us or warn us. To speke an olde langage ys to learne the etymology of the present.

Finally, in 21st-century America, President Donald Trump has released a budget proposing cutting all federal funding from both the NEA and NEH. Can Whan That Aprille Day help us demonstrate why the arts and humanities matter?

For Whanne That Aprille Day, Ich wolde firste wisshe to kepe yn mynde the joye, and wondir, and discoverye of the event. But thanne, whan the fun ys done, thynke of the scoleres, and bookes, and publicaciouns, and websytes that helpe keepe these olde textes and langages alyve. Scoleres have no singular purchase on the past, but thei also knowe wel of the special craftes for bringinge the various beautiful and terrible pasts of different places to us.

Thei are the park rangers of the pasts, to speke yn a figure. And these park rangers of the past neede their supplyes to do their worke. And for their cool park ranger vans and their towers and bases and walkye talkyes (metaphoricallye spekinge). Left onlye to dilettantes or to private fundinge, the past ys the playgrounde of the fewe.

Wythout training, the verye lettirs of olde bookes kan nat be understood. Forgetfulnesse will come lyke wynter. But, well funded and sourced through the ongoing felaweshep of scolerlye communicacioun, every one of the manye pasts ys accessible to more folke. The multiple pasts of ower erthe are a resource that must be protectid and must be opened to all.