FR: Le Morte d'Arthur - gender change

Discussion in 'French and English Grammar / Grammaire française et anglaise' started by Tower of Babel, Feb 10, 2008.

  1. Tower of Babel Senior Member

    USA (American English)
    I am puzzled by the title of Sir Thomas Malory's 15th century book, Le Morte d'Arthur. I realize that the title is in Middle French (moyen français), and that modern French would render it as La Mort d'Arthur. But do I understand correctly that the masculine word "morte" actually changed gender to feminine "mort"? This seems quite surprising to me. Are there many French words that have changed gender?

    NOTE DE LA MODÉRATION : Ce fil comprend plusieurs discussions existantes sur le même thème.
    MODERATOR NOTE: This thread includes several existing discussions on the same topic.
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  2. Maître Capello

    Maître Capello Mod et ratures

    Suisse romande
    French – Switzerland
    That's weird because the original latin word (mors,-tis) is feminine…
  3. Bléros Senior Member

    USA, English
    The book was written by Thomas Malory, an Englishman. He obviously either didn't understand grammatical gender or heard the word wrong. The only significant gender changes in French are the -eur words like couleur, peur, frayeur which for some reason are feminine but have masculine origins in Latin (color, pavor, fragor)
  4. mplsray Senior Member

    Rather than acting out of ignorance, Malory was following an established tradition. Via Google Books, I found the title explained on pages 92 and 93 of the 1901 version of Chambers's Cyclopaedia of English Literature by David Patrick (note that a 1902 version is also available, but page 92 was badly scanned and omits some of the material). The author explains that Malory based his work on a number of existing English romances (a couple of which used Morte in the title, one without an article and one with the article la). In a footnote about this group of romances, the author says:

    "It may be noted that the English romances are indifferently called Le Morte and La Morte, the masculine referring to the title regarded as a phrase, and the feminine to the proper gender of mort. How thoroughly the title had passed into a phrase is shown by Malory's own choice of it for a work which tells of Arthur's whole history, beginning with his parentage."
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  5. Tower of Babel Senior Member

    USA (American English)
    Hi mplsray,

    Fabulous information! I didn't think it very likely that Malory could have given such a title in error.

    Only one thing surprises me even more than the answer itself--namely, that the answer is so hard to find! Le Morte d'Arthur is such a celebrated work, and anyone who knows even a modicum of French must see right away that there is something odd about the title. How peculiar that one has to find a footnote in a book over one hundred years old to learn the answer.

    Thank you for the fine detective work!
  6. francois_auffret Banned

    Lahore, Pakistan
    France, French
    Hmmm this thing is weird, knowing that the French versions of the same book (which are older than Mallory's) are all called La Mort Artu or La Mort le Roi Artu. It maybe a feature of Anglo-Norman French???

    Gender changes from old French to Modern French is nothing new....
    In the Middle-Ages, the following words were masculine and became masculine in modern French: amour, art, évêché, honneur, poison, serpent; On the other hand, the following masculine words used to be masculine: affaire, dent, image, île, ombre.

    Never heard about mort being masculine though...
  7. mplsray Senior Member

    It doesn't appear to be a matter of Anglo-Norman French. I took a look at the entry for "mort" in the Oxford English Dictionary and was surprised to find that it was treated as being completely naturalized into English (non-naturalized terms, or terms which once were naturalized but became non-naturalized again, are preceded by a special symbol). The etymology includes a reference to "Anglo-Norman and Middle French mort death." If there had been an alternative form in those languages, I think it would have been listed by the editors there. "Morte" seems to be an English variant only: Among the variants given are "ME-16 morte, ME- mort." That is, the spelling "morte" is limited to the 16th century while "mort" is not so limited.

    The first meaning, identified as obsolete, is "Death, slaughter." The first citation is "c1330 (?a1300) Arthour & Merlin," from which I take "in periil of mort." The second citation is "a1470 MALORY Morte Darthur (Winch. Coll.) 1154 The Moste Pyteuous Tale of the Morte Arthure Sauns Gwerdon par le Shyvalere Sir Thomas Malleorre, Knyght."

    Under that definition, four more cites are given in a non-Arthurian context, two of them using the spelling "morte" and two using "mort."

    The original title of Malory's work did not include the article. It did include the preposition "d," however, without an apostrophe, which makes it seem to me that the title was intended to be at least partly French--See the English works below which did not use a preposition.

    I also took a look at The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English by Ian Ousby, Cambridge University Press, (C)1988. Ousby says that Malory had five main sources, two English (Morte Arthur, c. 1400, and Morte Arthure, c. 1360) and three French (Tristan, the Vulgate Cycle--which consists of a number of stories--and Roman du Graal). Malory is described as having done a masterful job joining all these stories into his work. It seems to me that he must have known French in order to do that, so that is another argument against Malory having named his work the way he did out of ignorance of French.

    The words in red are not what you intended, are they?
  8. francois_auffret Banned

    Lahore, Pakistan
    France, French
    Oops... Sorry, Did I really write that?????? My bad!!!

    Of course, you understood what I meant... feminine... masculine & masculine... feminine...

    Thank you for pointing out this mistake, and thank you for your interesting and scholarly posting!

    Although I don't have as many sources at hand, I quite agree with you that thinking that Mallory was that bad in French is ridiculous!!!

    There is no doubt that he knew perfectly French (and by the way, you don't even have to know perfectly French to know the gender of mort), so I personaly think (and I can't quote any source for back up here) that he purposedly named his book le morte... Why????

    My guess: I think at least two Old French books bore this name (I mean: La mort(e)...) before Mallory's. He gave his book this title so as Le morte is understood as the English version and is not mistaken with the two (?) French ones...
    This way he hit two birds with one stone: keeping the same title and showing thus what it is about, which tradition he is following and with the slight change / mistake, he leaves a mark, a sign of his own which means: 'Mallory's English version'....

  9. Tower of Babel Senior Member

    USA (American English)
    Thank you to all for your information and ideas!

    After searching through additional electronic and printed resources, I have finally located a recent and reputable statement on the puzzle of "Le Morte." The following explanation appears at a website for a college course on medieval literature:
    Of those [Arthurian narratives], the greatest single work is Sir Thomas Malory's, the narrative written in 1460-71 and published by William Caxton in 1485 as a single work he titled Le Morte Darthur. (The title's mistaken use of the masculine article, "le," for the feminine noun, "morte," is the result of Malory's shaky grasp of formal French grammar and Caxton's occasional reverence for loyal reproduction of his source manuscript.)
    [ and search for the word "morte"]​

    Also, the introduction to Le Morte Darthur in the Oxford World's Classics series provides a further interesting note regarding the original version of the book:
    It has no title page; the traditional title of Le Morte Darthur is announced at the very end of the work, in Caxton's own colophon rather than as part of Malory's text. It is retained in this edition, partly on account of its familiarity, but also because the defensiveness with which Caxton cites it suggests that he found it incorporated in some form in his copy-text, rather than that he made it up himself....​
    That Malory could have made such a basic grammatical error is a reminder of just how difficult it must have been to obtain information in a world where the printing press was as new as the Internet is today.
  10. mplsray Senior Member

    That nouns and other words have gender is such a basic aspect of French that I find it inconceivable that Malory would have made such an error. He worked with French source works, after all, which in a work such as this would often have had occasion to refer to "la mort" ("death" or "the death") and "sa mort" ("his/her/its death"), clearly showing that "mort" was feminine.

    I just found another scholarly source that seems confused about the whole business. For no reason that I can identify (the text itself refers to "Le Morte") the Project Gutenberg version of Malory's work refers to it as "Le Mort d'Arthur"!
    Last edited by a moderator: Jan 2, 2014
  11. Tower of Babel Senior Member

    USA (American English)
    At the least, I agree that it still seems surprising if Malory had given the title in error.

    In fact, because the title was stated only in the colophon applied by the printer William Caxton, there seems to have been some suspicion that it might have been Caxton himself who made the error. It's probably worth presenting the colophon here to show the "defensiveness" mentioned in the Oxford edition:
    'Thus endeth this noble and joyous book entitled Le Morte Darthur. Notwithstanding it treateth of the birth, life, and acts of the said King Arthur, of his noble knights of the Round Table, their marvellous quests and adventures, the achieving of the Sangrail, and in the end the dolorous death and departing out of this world of them all.'​
    The word "notwithstanding" does appear to indicate that Caxton himself would have preferred something other than "Morte" as a title, since the work also tells of the birth, life, and acts of King Arthur. This lends weight to the idea that the title was indeed chosen by Malory, not by Caxton. What is not as clear, however, is whether the article "Le" was also in Malory's text, or was added by Caxton. As previous posts have noted, the article was sometimes omitted in the titles of other works.
  12. CapnPrep Senior Member

    If you look up morte in this Anglo-Norman dictionary, most of the citations contain the feminine adjective/participle, but several of them definitely involve the noun "death".
    • Derechef aprés la morte de chescun tenant en fé
    • Mesme cel an lendimaygne aprés la morte del pape Johan le xii
    • il fuist mys a morte saunz processe de ley
    • qi voele la plaie garrir et le homme de morte garrantir
    • si ele aprés le morte son baron relés al gardein toutz maners d'accions
    Note in particular "le morte" in the last example, from a 15th century legal text. (Speaking of which, Malory's title is probably 100% correct in Law French.)
  13. temp1234 New Member

    English - England
    It is not at all surprising that Malory "made a mistake". For several centuries after William of Normandy invaded England most educated Englishmen were trilingual in French, Latin and English. By Malory's day it was not unusual for even well educated people to be fluent only in English with a little poor Latin and French.

    The shock(!), shock(!) that has greeted the realisation that Malory probably created a grammatical or spelling error would have been quite inappropriate in his day. This bureaucratic fussiness about spelling and grammar only arose a century later as governments grew large clerical departments that required standards in written English.
  14. AlistairCookie Senior Member

    Xandria, Virginia
    English - U.S.
    Why is this title "Le Morte" and not "La Mort". Is it because it is Middle French and not Modern French.
  15. SwissPete

    SwissPete Senior Member

    94044 USA
    Français (CH), AE (California)
    Basic research yields the following, from wikipedia:
  16. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    This is actually wrong. In Old and Middle French the noun is written “mort” and is always feminine (as already in Latin). Malory’s “Le morte” is simply an Englishman’s faulty French.
  17. jann

    jann co-mod'

    English - USA
    Actually, I think the relevant bit is in the first footnote to the English version of the wikipedia article that SwissPete cited:
    You might also note the English spelling of the title Malory's apparently originally gave to his work... it didn't exactly follow modern spelling conventions either. ;)

    The hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table

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