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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 intelligible.

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 necessary.

Chaucer's Pronunciation

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 spoken sounds.

  1. 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.
  2. 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", "-eth."

  3. 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", "wake".

    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"), "out".