Learn to Read Middle English by Studying The Canterbury Tales
written by: Ronda Bowen
• edited by: Sarah Malburg
• updated: 1/5/2012
The Canterbury Tales has long been required reading in many English classes. While you can find the book with the Middle English on one side and modern English on the other, it would be great if you spent some time learning about the differences between modern and Middle English.
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Middle English...is That Like Middle Earth?
For some people, Middle English may as well be from Middle Earth! Take for example the opening lines of Geoffrey Chaucer's, The Canterbury Tales:
"Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote
The Droughte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;..." (2)
Before you read on, take a moment to jot down what you think this brief passage means. While it looks like a foreign language, it isn't quite so far off from modern English as one might think. Middle English formed the bridge between Old English and our modern English. Old English was not standardized, so people would spell things as they believed they should be spelled. Imagine for a moment if we didn't have spell check and no one cared how things were spelled. You'd get an interesting variety of spellings of words (just think of some of the stuff you see on the Internet and in your text messages!), and it might be difficult to decipher what was meant by a particular word. Middle English was developed during a period where the Anglo-Saxons were blended with the Normans. Thus, there is a blending of the two vocabularies. (Don't even get me started on the Latin roots and the German roots of words.) Just as America is a blending of people from different cultures, so is Middle English. It wasn't until the printed English Bible and Prayer Books between 1500 and 1800 AD that English began to be standardized.
Have you guessed at the meaning of the above passage? Now you're ready to contrast the above passage with the modern English equivalent:
"When April with his sweet showers has
pierced the drought of March to the root,
and bathed every vein in such moisture
as has power to bring forth the flower;..." (3)
Take a look at the two passages. Which words are similar? Which of the words are different? How far off were you when it came to deciphering some of the Middle English words? Do you agree with this modern English translation? Keep in mind that translations are open to interpretation. How would you have translated it given this short passage you see here?
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Dialects? How Do I Decipher That Language?
Just as the United States has a variety of dialects, so too did Middle English. The language Chaucer wrote in was the London dialect; this is the dialect that wound up evolving into modern English (I wonder what the other dialects looked like!) You can see the similarities in a passage where Chaucer describes the statue of Venus in "The Knight's Tale."
"The statue of Venus, glorious for to see,
Was naked fleting in the large see
And fro the navele doun all covered was
With wawes grene and brighte as any glas." (92)
Without looking at the modern English translation, let's try to decipher the lines. The first line is easy enough. That looks like the English we are used to speaking. We might say something like, "The statue of Venus was a glorious sight," but still, we can get the meaning there. The second line, "see" there does not mean the same thing as it does in the first sentence. In fact, we might say it's misspelled from "sea." That leaves one word, "fleting." If the statue is in the sea, then what modern word would work best? Probably something like "floating."
The third and fourth lines look tricky, but they don't need to be. Using the same strategy of determining words from cognates, words that are very similar in both languages, we can decipher Chaucer's meaning. Let's look at the word "fro" in the third line. That word most likely means "from" as in the saying "to and fro." What do you think "navele" means? How about "doun"? When you say those words aloud, what modern English words do they sound like? Finish translating the last sentence on your own. I'll have the translation for you at the end of the article.
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Setting Up Rules for Translation
Now that you've been playing with the two languages a bit, what do you think some rules we can set up for translating the language might be? Well, for one, it seems that the "e" on the end of words seems as though it functions in the same manner the "e" on the end of many of our modern English words does - to make the interior letter long.
Try your hand at this next passage from "The Wife of Bath." Use the technique of figuring out cognates first and then deciphering meanings from the context. The answer will be at the end of this article. Once you have translated, and you have checked your translation against the answer, take a few minutes to jot down some of the rules you believe are in place for translating the Middle English to the modern.
"'Plight me thy trouthe, heer in myn hand,' quod she,
'The nexte thing that I requere thee,
Thou shalt it do, if it lye in thy might;
And I wol tell it yow er it be night.'" (228)
You'll notice, just like in our modern usage, there is a wrench in the translation. See if you can find it and decipher it. This is a bit more challenging, but I bet you can do it!
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The Secret to Translation and Understanding
If you're new to the Middle English style, I'd suggest the following. First, read through the tale in the modern English. Then, go back, and read it in the original Middle English. You'll find that you're able to recognize many more of the words that way. Pick out a few passages and translate them just as we have here. You'll start to see some patterns. For example, "lye" always translates to "lie" and "wol" is "will." As you build familiarity, so too will you build fluency. You may still need to look up some of the allusions in the work, but you may find that by the end of reading, you'll be able to pick out the differences between modern and Middle English using the Canterbury Tales. In fact, you'll be able to put together a short key that will help you to work on other Middle English works including the Wycliff Bible and the early modern English work, Paradise Lost.
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Chaucer, G. (1981) The Canterbury Tales. A. K. Hieatt and C. Hieatt Eds. New York: Bantam Books.
Maythew, A. L. (1888) A Concise Dictionary of Middle English From A.D. 1150 to 1580. Project Gutenberg.