Episode 138: Family Matters

In the 1400s, rising literacy rates and access to cheap paper combined to produce the first collections of personal letters in the English language. One of the earliest letter collections was maintained by the Paston family of Norfolk. Their letters reflect the struggles of an upstart family against the traditional landed nobility, and they provide an important perspective on the family dispute that became known as The Wars of the Roses.


14 thoughts on “Episode 138: Family Matters

  1. Hi. Thanks for another fascinating episode. I read the Paston letters (in modern English) a few years ago and they give a good insight into the social history of the time. One of Agnes’ letters to John warns him about about not letting himself be tempted into the sins of London life (Mothers never change!).
    This episode gives an interesting picture of the linguistic importance of the letters and their place in the transition from Middle to Early Modern English. I notice that the word “away” is here pronounced “awye”. What fascinates me is that that is still the pronunciation used in many of the dialects of London. Is that a reversion or has it never changed?
    Thanks again and I hope you’re keeping safe.

    • It’s a reversion or later development that took place in London English in the late 1700s and 1800s. It was picked up by migrants to Australia in the 1800s and can also be heard in Australian English.

  2. I’ve listened to this podcast for years and have found it to be a continuing source of comfort and edification. Thanks so much for doing what you do, Kevin — it means more to me than you can know. Please do keep up the great work.

  3. I am finding music behind the readings distracting, especially when trying to listen for all those changing vowels.

    • I don’t normally include background music, but there were so many short passages in this episode that I felt I needed to mark them separately from the main narrative. I know that some listeners have an aversion to music beds, so I intentionally used a piece of music with very few notes and turned the volume down as low as I could. I didn’t think it interfered with the reading, but I appreciate the feedback.

      • I was pacing in the dark and the music confused me for a moment, but otherwise it was fine and useful for indicating a changeover.

        Fascinating story – thanks very much.

  4. This is about the Patreon episode on interjections, on the word “hello.” I have two comments. First, and I think I heard this on Lexicon Valley, back when Dave and Bob were doing it, one thing that elevated the use of “hello” was the invention of the telephone. Back then, way before caller ID, you didn’t know who would be on the other end when you answered the phone. You didn’t want to sound too informal if the caller turned out to be someone of a higher rank, or too formal if it was a person of lower status or rank. “Hello” came to be accepted as a polite but neutral word that was good to use as a greeting for whomever was calling.

    These days, in Hungary, “Hello” is used to mean both hello and good-bye, like “aloha” or “ciao.” I’ve never gotten used to hearing it used that way, though. It still feels odd to hear my Hungarian friends (who speak no English) wave and yell “Hello!” as I back out of their driveway.

  5. “John’s father had purchased the estate from two joint owners.
    One of the sellers was actually Geoffrey’s Chaucer’s son, Thomas Chaucer.”
    Thomas Chaucer was a cousin of King Henry VII, via his mom’s side. His mom’s sister was the 3rd wife of John of Gaunt. So, he’s not a guy I would want to litigate against.
    His daughter Alice Chaucer married 3 times and became the richest (or almost) woman in England. 3rd husband was Suffolk–they went to France and brought back Margaret to be the wife of Henry VI–“best friends” with Henry VI and Margaret life long. She married off her son to Elizabeth, the sister of Edward IV and Richard III, both of which were Kings of England.

  6. Kevin, to me your reading of the Middle English in the letters sounds similar to a modern South West English (Somerset, perhaps?) accent. Is there a historical link between the sound of the variety of Middle English used by the Pastons, and today’s South West English accent, or is it coincidental? Geographically it seems unlikely, given that Norfolk is about as far East as you can get in England.

    • Many regional accents in England (including those of the Southwest) tend to be conservative and retain a lot of older features and pronunciations. I suspect that is source of the connection. I am going to try to explore the development of some of those regional accents in future episodes. One of the recurring themes will be the older features that are retained in those various accents.

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