/ Assignments / Knight
Chaucer's Language by L. K. Pearce
The language, which Chaucer wrote and spoke, is different
from modern English, and we must therefore make an initial
effort to familiarize ourselves with it. The scholars of our
day call the language of Chaucer's age, in retrospect, Middle
English, thereby differentiating it both from its ancestor,
Old English or Anglo Saxon, spoken before 1066, and from its
descendant, our modern English, spoken after 1500. But Chaucer,
we must remember, would have considered his language normal,
modern English. And he would have had every right to do so,
for his particular dialect, among the diverse regional and
class dialects of England, was that spoken by the educated
classes of London during the fourteenth century, and it later
became the model for standard modern English when other dialects
began to lose prestige.
Unfortunately, for the subsequent appreciation of his work,
however, language is ever changing. Consciously or unconsciously,
speakers effect minor innovations within the limited sets
of distinctive sounds, intonations, grammatical forms, sentence
patterns, and words currently in use; and in time the subtle
balance within these sets of interdependent speech elements
is changed so that the language of yesterday seems unnatural
or obscure. The changes, which the English language underwent,
particularly in its pattern of contrasting sounds, were remarkably
extensive in the century after Chaucer's death in 1400. Our
conservative and arbitrary English spelling systems affords
a most inadequate clue to the actual facts, but, presumably,
if Chaucer had reappeared in the age of Shakespeare, two centuries
later, Elizabethans would have found his speech almost incomprehensible,
not merely because he used some words that had become archaic
but particularly because an extensive shift of vowel sounds
had rendered the still surviving words and grammatical forms
which he used unrecognizable in sound. By contrast, three
and a half centuries after the death of Shakespeare, we ourselves
would find the English spoken in the Elizabethan age still
By a process of ingenious deductions from the mute and ambiguous
written records of Chaucer's language, scholars have established
the principal features of sound intonation, form, arrangements,
and vocabulary characteristics of the language actually spoken
in his time. The following simplified account of these findings
offers a practical working guide for those who wish to understand
what Chaucer wrote and to read his poetry aloud in somewhat
the manner in which the poet himself would have read it. No
hypothetical reconstruction can be absolutely correct in all
its details, but, if we are to appreciate the flavour of an
author's language, whether we are reading Chaucer's poetry
or Burn's lyrics or the tales of Uncle Remus, some sort of
imaginative projection into a dialect other than our own is
To transform the written transcript of Chaucer's language
consistently into spoken words, the first requirement is readjustment
of our sense of relationship between spelling symbols and
- Pronounce all written consonants as we do those in modern
English. However, "gh" as in "night",
though now silent, was pronounced like the "ch"
in the Scottish pronunciation of "loch" or in
the German pronunciation of "Bach." This unfamiliar
sound is like the initial sound in modern English "how"
but more strongly breathed.
- Pronounce all the syllables in the word, even those which
are represented only by a final "-e" and are no
longer pronounced in modern English. Thus, pronounce Chaucer's
"dame" with two syllables as "dah-me",
and his "dames" as "dah-mess." This
final unstressed vowel probably had the same sound as the
final unstressed vowel, when unemphatic, in modern English
"Stella" or "raven."
It is most important for our understanding of Chaucer's
metres to note that, as in classical French poetry, all
final syllables were pronounced, including those ending
in "-e", "-ed", "-en", "-es",
Pronounce all written vowels according to their so-called
"continental" values, that is, according to
the sounds which they represent in modern French or Italian,
or in our modern pronunciation of Latin.
Thus, pronounce the vowel spelled "a" in Chaucer's
"dame" as the "ah" sound of modern
French "dame" (or modern English "father),
not as the "ay" sound of modern English "dame."
Other instances are Chaucer's "bare", "care",
"fame", "game", "hate",
"lame", "make", name", "page",
"rage", "save", "take",
Pronounce the vowel spelled "e" or "ee"
in Chaucer's "regioun" as the "ay"
sound of modern French "region" (or modern English
"able") not as the "ee" sound of modern
English "region." Other instances are Chaucer's
"be", "me", "thee". There
are a large number of exceptions in this case, but the
important fact to remember is that Chaucer's "e"
is never pronounced as the "ee" sound of modern
English, "region", "be" and so on.
Pronounce the vowel spelled "i" or "y"
in Chaucer's "fine" as the "ee" sound
in modern French "fine" (or modern English "machine"),
not was the "eye" sound in modern English "fine".
Other instances are "bite", "glide",
"kynde" (modern English "kind"), "mine",
"prime", "ride", "strive",
"thine", "wyn" (modern English "wine").
Pronounce the vowel spelled "ou" or "ow"
in Chaucer's "doute" as the "ou" sound
in modern French "doute" (or modern English
"soup"), not as the "ow" sound in
modern English "doubt"), "foul", hous",
mous", "tour" (modern English "tower"),