En 311: The Age of Chaucer





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The Age of Chaucer  

Literary Types & Themes


The English Language, c. 500 A.D. to c. 1500 A.D.

The language of medieval literature, as that literature was originally created, would be very unfamiliar to us. We can observe two quite distinct language periods in this literature, one which is traditionally called Old English or Anglo-Saxon and a later period traditionally called Middle English. Old English, the language of Beowulf and "The Seafarer," spoken in Britain from the end of the fifth century at least through the end of the eleventh, is very unfamiliar to us, indeed. After that, the Middle English of Chaucer and even of Langland and Julian of Norwich will seem like something we have seen and heard before (although it sounds more different than it looks). Most of the Middle English we study was committed to writing in the second half of the fourteenth century. The three-century gap between the last Old English literature  and the Middle English literature of Chaucer and his contemporaries is related to some extent at least to the effects of the Norman Conquest of England which occurred in 1066.

Old English

OE developed as a shared language among the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians who migrated from Germanic areas of northern Europe and settled in Britain in the second half of the fifth century. It is a strongly Germanic language. It's most striking difference for us who speak American English in the twenty-first century is in its syntax, or as we sometimes say, its grammar. Old English is a language with many inflections, which is to say that the words, rather like our personal pronouns, alter form to indicate their function in an expression.

[For example: I go, but it happened to me, and the book is mine.

Inflections were plentiful, not only with nouns and pronouns, but with adjectives and adverbs as well, which altered form to correspond to the words they modified. Similarly, the verbs had more distinct forms, or inflections, than Modern English verbs have.

[Consider the verb "to be": I am, you are, he is. I was, they were, we have been, he is being ____.]

Most Modern English verbs show only minor inflections, the third-person-singular "s," a present participal ending in "ing," and a past and past participal ending in "ed." In Old English grammar, these would be called "weak verbs." A small but important group of Modern English verbs, such as "to be," "to eat," "to drink," "to drive," change form by altering a stressed vowel rather than an ending. These few verbs behave as the many strong verbs in Old English did. When one studies Old English, it is necessary to memorize the patterns of inflections for nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs. We won't go that far with the language.

One related characteristic of Old English is that the order of words in a clause or sentence can be much more flexible than Modern English allows, because the form of the word (and its modifiers) creates a clear pattern of relationships with little regard to the order in which the words appear. While the subject-verb-object pattern with which we are familiar is used, it is far from being the ruling pattern as it is in Modern English. Another related characteristic is seen in the relative scarcity of prepositions. Most modern prepositions already exist in Old English, but they are used much more sparingly than we use them. Again, the form of the words indicates their relationships and very often the preposition would be redundant.

Middle English

For some three hundred years following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, Anglo-Saxon culture endured an eclipse. England's rulers were French, spoke French, and held lands in France as well as in England. During this time, Old English lost almost all association with power, prestige, and learning. As a direct result, the language changed rapidly and dramatically. You can see why, if you reflect on what factors motivate you to speak and write "good English." To an Anglo-Saxon scholar, had any been able to visit Chaucer's England (1340--1400), the English language being spoken might well have seemed appallingly corrupted.

What were the most dramatic changes?
  • There were many fewer inflections.
  • Word order was much more limited (although still not so limited as in Modern English).
  • Prepositions were more in use, taking up some of work of connecting words to each other.
  • In addition, there was a significant infusion of new words borrowed from the French of the aristocracy and inflected according to the "weak" form.
In what ways is Middle English unfamiliar to speakers of Modern English?
  1. Some inflections, especially of verbs and pronouns, were still more complicated than they are in Modern English; pronouns are more varied than in Modern English.
  2. Word order can still be strange to the modern ear; for example, the direct object may well precede the verb.
  3. Spelling is haphazard by modern (post-printing, hi-tech) standards.
  4. Some vocabulary has become obsolete.
  5. If the language is spoken rather than written, listened to rather than read, it is very different.
  1. For one thing, a major shift in the pronunciation of the stressed vowels occurred at the end of the Middle English period, one which accounts for the very different pronunciation of vowels in related words in Modern English and Modern Continental languages.  (Consider English "Liza" and Continental "Lisa" or the English and French pronunciations of "thyme"; English "out" and French "outre"; John "Keats" and William Butler "Yeats" [or Ronald Reagan and Donald Reagan--English "tea" and French "té."]; English "pate" and Latin "pater.")
  2. Another difference can be heard in the pronunciation of what we call "silent" letters--consonants or vowels. They are in the spelling of Modern English words because when that spelling was established these sounds were present in the language. So "knight" was a word with four consonant sounds(k, n, gh, and t) rather than the two we hear in Modern English (n and t), and "time" is a two syllable word.

Click on the controls for the following passage from the Canterbury Tales Prologue to hear this distinction: 

Sound file
A knyght ther was and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie

By way of comparison, here are the opening lines of Beowulf:

Sound file

Hwaet! We Gar-dena,in geardagum
theodcyningathrym gefrunon
hu tha athelingasellen fremedon

In addition to the sounds of the language, notice that Chaucer's fourteenth-century Middle English looks quite familiar (even though it may be spelled somewhat strangely and it sounds downright odd), while only a few words in the Beowulf lines seem familiar. We could stretch the familiarity of the OE passage, if I can convince you that you use "hwaet" and "hu" constantly and that "geardagum" is made up of two words you use if not every day at least many times in a year.