A. History of the Language: Old English period mid-Ve - 1066

Middle English 1066 - late XVe

Modern English XVIe present


1. OLD ENGLISH (Anglo-Saxon)

a) Germanic & hence heavily inflected language, with changes in orthography to indicate changes in person, tense, case, mood, #. Hence a synthetic, not analytic language--great freedom in word order, especially in poetry.

[inflection--not here a variation of pitch or tone, but an alteration in a word's form to indicate different grammatical or syntactical relations: drink/drank, bring/brought, I/me/my, she/her/her]

b) different symbols invented by scribes using Roman alphabet to represent OE sounds: (thorn), đ(eth), (ash)

c) Still, strong survival to present--of 1000 most common words, 83% have OE origin and have changed little: Life, love, man, god, word; come, sit, see, give, seek, be; 80% of pronouns and prepositions


2. MIDDLE ENGLISH--earliest examples from late XIIe

a) much less inflection--adjectives do some, and some verbs

b) loss of declensions (toward ModE nominative/objective)

c) French (and Latin) influences and borrowings

d) dialects: West Saxon dominant in OE by late Xe; regional forms quite distinct in the fourteenth century (SE Midland (Chaucer); W Midland (Piers Plowman); NW Midland (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), Northern (Yorkshire)

ii) considerable variation even within dialects, as with Chaucer's London dialect; Chaucer's and ours grew out of the London dialect


3. MODERN ENGLISH--Shakespeare's language and ours. The so-called Great Vowel Shift is the major (and largely inexplicable) difference between ME and ModEa XVe phenomenon


ME long a (pron aa) ModE long a (rake)

ME long e (pron. a) ModE long e (pron. e)

ME long o (pron. o) ModE long o (pron. oo, spoon)

ME long i (pron e) ModE long i (pron ai, like)

ME long u (pron oo) ModE long u (use)



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I. Sounds

A. If you know a modern romance language, you're all setjust pretend the Great Vowel Shift never happened.



B. VOWELS. Long when doubled (goon, heeth), terminal (he); a, e, o when followed by a consonant/vowel (name, seke); short when followed by two consonants (thynne).


vowel spelling ModE equivalent ME example


long a a, aa father, Hahvahd name, maken

a a hot, Mann can, that

long e (o & cl) e, ee fate, there be, sweete, teche

e e set tendre

final e e sofa, horses sonne

long i i, y machine lif, myn, I, ryden

i i, y sit this, thyng

long o (o & cl) o, oo note, broad go, goon, bote

o o oft pot, folk

long u ou, ow, goose flour, foules

u u, o put ful, love

"final u" u, eu, ew, uw, eau pure vertu, beautee, new, aventure

one dipthong ay,ai,ey,ei aisle/day saide, day, wey



C. CONSONANTS: pronounce 'em all! gnat, knave, folk

c, g = same as today: certes, gentilesse ch = church

gh = ich, loch, hue: myght, knyght gh = silent at end, indicates long vowel: sigh

gn = n at end, indicates long vowel: sign, regn gg = bigge or brigge




1) Pronounced when final or when needed for meter (more below)

2) Omitted or elided when preceding "h" or a vowel, or when inconvenient for meter. "And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche"

3) Slurring medial (Canterb'ry) and terminal (ev'r, nev'r, com'th) syllables is permissible.


II. Sense

A. Nouns

1) Most possessive nouns take and s or an es (e.g., Of hertes hele and deedly woundes cure, PF 128), but some possessive nouns don't inflect: suster sonne, Lady grace, herte roote, Priamus sonne. Don't worry about case inflections unless you're planning to write in ME


2) Most nouns add -s or -es for plural, though some don't inflect (e.g., hors). Others end in -n, like ModE children or women--cf. ME en.


B) Adjectives and Adverbs:

1) Adverbs can end in ly but also -liche (e.g. rudeliche) or e (ful loude he song)

2) Adjectives and prepositions can follow nouns and objects (as in verse generally): shoures soote; rood hym agayns. Don't worry about case inflections unless you're planning to write in ME.


C. Pronouns

Nom. Poss. Obj.

1st I, ich my, myn me

pl. we oure us


2nd thow thy, thyn thee [number distinctions can indicate social

pl. ye youre you distinction: ye is more formal than thou]


3rd he his him

she her hir(e)

it, hit his it, hit

pl. they hire them, hem


Demonstratives: that (sing), tho (pl); this (sing.), thise/these (pl) (cp. "Thise woful vers that wepen as I write")


Relative pronouns: Chaucer uses which, that, or which that instead of who and whom when referring to human beings. (cp."But I, that am exiled" or "a wyf, I Whiche that he lovede.)"


D. Verbs

1) Infinitives sometimes end in -n, -en: to sayn, to goon


2) personal endings are -e (1st sing), -st (2nd s.), -th (3rd s.), -en (pl): ich love, thou lovest, he/she/it loveth, we/you/they loven


3) As in ModE, there are both strong (vowel changes) and weak (adding d or ed) past tenses; cp. singen (I sang/soong; thow songe; he/she/hit sang/soong; they songen) and preyen (I preyede/preyde; thow preyedest; he/she/hit preyede/preyde; they preyeden)

4) Beware i-, y- in past participles (OE): yronne, ymaked. And watch out for shifts in verb tense in the middle of a sentence: And doun he kneleth, and with humble chere / And herte soor, he seyde as ye shul here


5) Double negatives are common and typically intensify (rather than cancel one another out): ne studieth noght. Note also negative contractions of common verbs:

nis (ne + is) = is not nam (ne + am) = am not

nere (ne + were) = were not nas (ne + was) = was not

nill (ne + will) = will not, do not desire nolde (ne + wolde) = would not, did not desire

nath (ne + haveth) = have/has not nadde (ne + hadde) = had not

not (ne + wot) = knows not, does not know niste (ne + wiste) = knew not, did not know

6) Modals sometimes have meanings in addition to their auxiliary function

ginne; gan/gonne: intensifier & sign of past, like ModE do/did: myn herte gynneth blede; upon hir knes she gan to falle [NB: it does not mean begin/began]

will/wol; wolde: "to desire, want" as well as indicating futurity or the conditional

conne/konne; coude/koude: "to know" as well as "can"

shall; sholde: "must, have to" as well as futurity: the time approcheth that this weddyng sholde be

do; did: "to cause": he dide doon sleen hem; but yt doth me for fere swete


7) Impersonal constructions: him liketh, it pleases him; hire reweth, it pains her; him thynketh, it

seems to him (but cp. he thynketh, he thinks)


E. Word order Middle English is more flexible in word order than Modern English, and uses syntactic patterns no longer common todayexcept, of course, in poetry. Some examples (from Kolve & Olson):


object-subject-verb But Cristes lore, and his apostles twelve, / He taughte


object-verb-subject A Yeman hadde he


complement-subject- verb Curteys he was


complement-verb-subject Short was his gowne


verb-subject-object Thus hath this pitous day a blisful ende


subject-auxiliary-object-verb I have thy feith and thy benignitee . . . assayed



A. OE, Alliterative ME: rhythm depends on stresses and unrhymed alliterative lines.

1. OE four-stress line, allit. aa/ax. Note caesura.

Her elstan cyning eorla dryhten

Beorna beag-giefa and his broor eac

Eadmund eling ealdor-langne tir

Geslogon t secce sweorda ecgum. . .

2. ME alliterative poetry (PP): longer lines, more alliteration, less care of unstresses syllables


B. Chaucer's verse

1. Standard early ME form: four-stress couplets

HF: I have gret wonder, be this lyght

How that I lyve, for day ne nyght

I may nat slepe wel nygh noght,

I have so many an ydel thoght.

2. Later developed a five-stress line, usually iambic with 10 syllables. First extensive (perhaps first) use of iambic pentameter; cf. Shakes., Marlowe, Milton, Pope, Dryden, Wordsworth

PF: "The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne"

cp. Shakespeare, # 130: "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun"


a) 5-stress line in stanza form (rime royal) in PF, TC, some tales


3. Chaucer's verse is good verse, his rhymes good rhymes--let both of them help you with their regularity. There is an occasional eleventh, weak syllable (like unstressed e at end of line).

4. Use rhyme and meter to help you with meaning, too--try saying an unfamiliar word out loud



Some other useful web pages for studying Chaucers language: Harvard Chaucer page I; Harvard Chaucer page II; audio files


Heres a basic Chaucer glossary that highlights the 100 most common words.