Middle English Basic Pronunciation and Grammar

Middle English Pronunciation

Middle English is the form of English used in England from roughly the time of the Norman conquest (1066) until about 1500. After the conquest, French largely displaced English as the language of the upper classes and of sophisticated literature. In Chaucer's time this was changing, and in his generation English regained the status it had enjoyed in Anglo-Saxon times, before the Normans came. English was once again becoming the language of the royal court and of the new literature produced by Chaucer and his contemporaries.

The main difference between Chaucer's language and our own is in the pronunciation of the "long" vowels. The consonants remain generally the same, though Chaucer rolled his Rs, sometimes dropped his Hs, and pronounced both elements of consonant combinations (such as [kn] in "knight"or [wr] in "write") that were later simplified ([n] and [r]). And the Middle English short vowels are very similar to those in Modern English (Chaucer's "short a" was more like the sound in "rot" than in modern "rat.") But the the Middle English "long" vowels are regularly and strikingly different from our modern forms.

These changes in the pronunciation of the "long vowels" are due to what is called The Great Vowel Shift. Between Middle English times and our own day, all of the long vowels changed in pronunciation in a regular manner, called The Great Vowel Shift.

Those changes are apparent in the following chart, which also provides a guide to the pronunciation of Chaucer's "long vowels":


Chaucer's Final -e

For Chaucer's poetry, the most important difference between Chaucer's language and our own is due to the fact that in the change from Middle to Modern English the language lost the inflectional or "final e". In Chaucer's language, the inflectional endings (-e, -ed, -en, -es) were pronounced in almost all cases. In Modern English the final -e has become the "silent e" (so Modern English "tale" has but one syllable, whereas in Chaucer's English tale usually had two syllables). And the inflectional endings remain only in a few specific environments (-ed remains after t or d -- wantéd , -es remains after s, sh, z -- glassés, dishés, etc.). The inflectional endings were disappearing in Chaucer's own time, and his language (and that of others of his generation, such as John Gower) may have sounded a bit old-fashioned to some younger speakers of English in late fourteenth-century London.

The rhythm of Chaucer's verse is dependent on this final -e. In the Canterbury Tales Chaucer customarily writes a five-stress, ten-syllable line, alternating unstressed and stressed syllables (what would later be called iambic pentameter):

The dróghte of Márch hath pérced the róte.
The word perced must have two syllables (rather than the one it has in modern "pierced"). Note that the final -e on droghte is not pronounced; this is because a vowel follows. Final -e is not pronounced when the following word begins with a vowel (or often h- and w-). Incidentally, the final -e on rote at the end of the line is pronounced but not counted as metrical (that is, stands aside from the ten syllables ordinarily required).

It is as important to omit the final -e when a vowel, h-, or w- follows as it is to pronounce it in other contexts:

Why artow angry with my tale now?
       (MilPro (1).3157)

Telle of a somonour swich a tale or two
      (WBPro (3).842)
In the first example, tale has two syllables; in the second a vowel follows tale and the -e is elided. This may seem complicated, but it is not; if you read the text aloud your ear will soon become accustomed to the rhythms of Chaucer's verse, and observing these rules becomes almost automatic. In tale or two it is impossible to say the two vowels e and o together without a slight pause; the meter is harmed and one's ear (quickly trained to Chaucer's rhythm) detects this.

Likewise the meter is ruined if one fails to pronounce the inflectional endings (-ed, -en, and -es):

But if I telle tales two or thre
       (WBPro III.846)

Save unto yow thus muche I tellen shal
       (ShipT VII.169)

Ye sholde han warned me, er I had gon,
      (ShipT VII.388)
As said above, your ear will soon become your best guide to pronunciation. In the meantime, follow the rule that final -e is always pronounced unless a vowel (or h- or w-) follows, and inflectional e in -ed, -es, -en is always pronounced.

Words of three syllables and more are frequently slurred in pronunciation, as often happens in modern English. We almost never pronounce the word "every" with three full syllables (we say "evry"). Chaucer did the same:

Inspíred háth in évery hólt and héeth 
If a syllable is not elided in such words it may be pronounced very lightly ("resolved") or may indeed be part of an eleven-syllable line (not all lines in Chaucer are regular). Indeed, there are many variations on the basic iambic pentameter pattern, since Chaucer, like any poet, uses the meter as a norm against which variations can play. The first line of the General Prologue reverses the stress pattern in the first two words:
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The stress is on Whan (since that is a weak intensifier), and this forces a trochaic movement on tbe whole line, so that the final -e on roote is necessary to the meter, even though a final -e at the end of a line is usually not counted. These and other such variations are common in Chaucer, and they keep the lines from degenerating into complete regularity.

With all this in mind, read the following lines in Middle English. Those final e's that are to be pronounced are underlined; those that are to be omitted are enclosed in parentheses, as are vowels that should be slurred in words of more than two syllables. The final -e's in lines 7-8 and 15-16 are marked for omission, but they may be pronounced (especially if one is reading very slowly).

1         Whán that Áprill wíth his shóures sóote
2         The dróght(e) of Márch hath pérced tó the róote,
3         And báthed év(e)ry véyn(e) in swích licóur
4         Of whích vertú engéndred ís the flóur;
5         Whan Zéphirús éek wíth his swéete bréeth
6         Inspíred háth in év(e)ry hólt and héeth
7         The téndre cróppes, ánd the yónge sónn(e)
8         Hath ín the Rám his hálf cours yrónn(e),
9         And smále fów(e)les máken mélodýe,
10       That slépen ál the nýght with ópen ýe
11       (So príketh hem Natúr(e) in hír coráges),
12       Thanne lóngen fólk to góon on pílgrimáges,
13       And pálm(e)res fór to séken stráunge stróndes,
14       To férne hálwes, kówth(e) in sóndry lóndes;
15       And spéciallý from évery shíres énd(e)
16       Of Éngelónd to Cáunterb(u)rý they wénd(e),
17       The hóoly blísful mártir fór to séke,
18       That hém háth hólpen whán that théy were séeke.


You can also find more information on the Harvard METRO's overview on spelling and pronunciation.