Reading Middle English
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As we read the Canterbury Tales, we are going to spend some time working on reading Middle English aloud. Below are some very basic tools for pronouncing the language. Note that all of this is quite simplified: there are exceptions to most of the rules noted below. For more precise instructions, exercises, and samples, visit some of the links below.
I have concentrated on the vowels because they seem to cause the most trouble. I have used modern word equivalents for the sounds (rather than phonetic symbols). These rules are drawn from Helge Kökeritz, A Guide to Chaucer’s Pronunciation.
a - as in German Mann or French patte
e - as in bed
i, y - as in sit
o - as in dog
u - as in put
When is a vowel short? Single vowels before single or double consonants usually are short if the same word has a short vowel today. Exceptions are words like bread, breath, dead, heaven, where the vowel is like French père; and gone and hot, where the vowel is like law.
a, aa - as in German Vater or French art
e, ee, ie - as in German sehen, French été: use this sound when the modern word has a sound like he, see
e, ee - as in there: use this sound when the modern word has -ea, as in speak, dream, and also head, bread
i, y - as in see
o, oo - as in German Sohn, French chose: use this sound when the modern word is like food, good, blood, other
o, oo - as in law: use this sound when the modern word is like most, stone, throat
u - as in French tu
When is a vowel long? Single vowels and digraphs (a combination of two letters to represent one sound, as in sea or see) are long if the modern word has a long vowel or a diphthong. Words spelled with -oo today are always long, even if we now pronounce them with short vowels. There are exceptions to these notes about long vowels: these include the fact that a and o are usually short when followed by f, s, th, and r.
ai, ay, ei, ey - aim for something between the sounds in lake and like
au, aw - a bit like the sound in house
eu, ew - rather like few; while there is another, somewhat different sound also corresponding to this spelling, this sound should get you started
ou, ow, ough - as in moon: use this sound when the modern word is like house, course, or through
ou, ow, ough - rather like know: use this sound when the modern word has a similar sound, or, before -ght, a sound as in law
While I encourage you to use the other resources listed here to learn to pronounce Middle English more precisely, what I’m most interested in is that you should get some sense of how a poem like the Alliterative Morte Arthure works through its sounds. As with other languages, you need to have the nerve to make mistakes in order to progress to oral reading. Many people find they can at least start the process by using vowel-sound equivalents from various European languages: you’ll notice that French and German are both used in the simplified outline on this page. Marry those sounds to some kind of regional British accent, and you’re on your way...
Follow these links for a more precise account of Middle English pronunciation:
Teach yourself to read Chaucer is a series of online lessons from the Harvard Chaucer page, with sound files
Chaucer’s Pronunciation, Grammar, and Vocabulary, also from the Harvard Chaucer page, outlines the sounds of Chaucer’s language
The Chaucer Metapage Audio Files lets you hear a variety of experts reading aloud from Chaucer
Common (and commonly misread) Middle English words
Your text is quite fully glossed ; this list is simply a list of words which recur frequently in the Canterbury Tales or in Middle English more generally. In the interests of keeping the list short, I have limited it to words which are often repeated, and/ or to those which are often misread by modern English speakers.
If you find words you do not understand that are not listed below, and that do not appear in the apparatus of your texts, have a look at the Middle English Dictionary. It can be difficult to figure this resource out at first. Use the Lookups function, and be sure to select Headwords and forms in the pull-down menu on the left. Make lavish use of truncation, since spelling can be quite variable.
and can sometimes mean if al although als as, also anon at once arwe arrow as as, as if, like atte at, at the aventure chance axe ask ay always bachelor young knight been are bet better beth are blyve quickly, soon brenne burn breste, brast burst but unless can, kan know, be able cas happening, chance carp speak certes certainly cheere appearance; can mean entertainment chees(en) choose clep(en) call clerk scholar corage desire; heart coy quiet defend refuse deme judge, suppose devyse tell of, describe drede fear ech each eek, eke also eft again elles, ellis else enow enough er, or before, formerly erst before everich every fay, fey faith fere, feere companion fele many flour(e) flower folde earth, ground forthy therefore fro from gan, gon began gyse manner, way, guise han have hastow have you hem them hende handy, courteous, gentle here her hie go hight named, called hir(e) her, their hope think ich I ilke same iwis, ywis indeed keep, kepe care for, guard konne learn, know how to kynde nature lese lose leve dear liggen to lie list to wish; it pleases lite little lust pleasure, desire make mate, make maugre in spite of meet suitable, useful mette dreamed mo more moot may, must nam am not namo no more nas was not nat not ne nor, not (double negatives are OK) nere was not nis is not nolde would not nonys, nones occasion noon none, no noot know not, do not know nyce foolish nys is not o, oo, on, oon one ought owed; owned or can be or, but can also mean before pardee by God parfit perfect passing very quit(e) to avenge; to acquit oneself quod said rathe early, soon rede to advise, interpret, read; advice routhe pity scathe harm, shame seistow you say sely innocent, simple sentence opinion, subject matter, saying siker certain, sure sith(en) since, then sola(a)s pleasure, entertainment somdeel somewhat speed, spede be successful stente, stynte stop sterte leap, go steven voice swich such swithe fast, quick, very syn since than(ne) then, than thilke that, this tho those, then trow think, believe tweye two unnethe scarcely unhappy unlucky, unfortunate verray true, veritable war (be) aware of wele prosperity, joy wend go wene, ween think, believe whilom once (upon a time) wight person; or strong wist(e) know wit know (wist) wood crazy, mad wot, woot know wroth angry yaf gave yeve(n) give ynow enough English 346 home page