Yonge children myne: An etymological look at fourteenth-century attitudes toward children

Date of Completion

January 2002


Language, Linguistics|History, Medieval|Literature, English




During the fourteenth century, more than a dozen new nouns meaning “child” came into the English language. As part of a radically new sensibility, words like baby, boy, girl, lad, and lass first appeared in print during this period; a vocabulary of the nursery emerged, including the word norcery itself. Infaunt, byrth, pappe, swaddle, and lullay all made their first written appearance in the fourteenth century. Meanwhile, the synonyms that had already existed, like child, son, daughter, and bairn, began to appear accompanied by adjectives like suete, dere, lytel, and yonge. ^ In this dissertation, I have used the words themselves as tools with which to examine fourteenth-century attitudes toward children. The breathtaking expansion of the vocabulary of childhood argues for a powerful interest in children, for a complex consciousness on the subject, and for a fundamental shift in attitude about the qualities of childhood. Sheer numbers indicate the interest: so many new words meaning child, and so many new words indicating children's activities. Then, the range of meanings and tones for new words like boy, along with the new range of meanings for old words like child, arise in the service of portraying intricate characters, relationships, and issues. ^ This dissertation begins with a look at some major fourteenth-century events and their effects on families. Chapter Two features the new synonyms for “child,” including their etymologies and a look at the contexts of words that appear often. Chapter Three focuses on changes in child and bearn, synonyms that had existed since Old English, and the ways that their tones were changing. Sone, dohter, fader, and moder form the subjects of the next chapter, again looking at the way that adjectives like dere and suete indicate a shift in tone from that in previous centuries. Chapters Five and Six deal with vocabulary that describes children's activities, from the nursery through the school years. The final chapter, “A Middle English Style Sampler,” is a consideration of fourteenth-century syntax and its implications. ^