The Pronunciation of Chaucer's Middle English

by John Gardner

English has never had a prettier sound than it had -- apparently -- in Chaucer's day, and every serious student of Chaucer's poetry will eventually want to master the fine details of its phonology. There are various readily available books which treat, among other things, pronunciation of Chaucer's dialect. For introductory purposes, the best are (for American readers) the standard American editions of Chaucer's work, that is, especially, the editions of F.N. Robinson, D.W. Robertson, Jr., and Albert C. Baugh. Another excellent, very brief introduction is that of E. Talbot Donaldson in the Norton Anthology of English Literature.

In all such introductions one repeatedly encounters such phrases as "It is important to maintain the distinction between such-and-such and so-and-so," for instance between "open o," as in broth (or aw, shucks), and "close o," as in note. Nothing could be truer, but when one listens to distinguished Chaucerians deliver scholarly papers at medieval conventions, or when one listens to the records made by great Chaucerians past and present, one discovers surprising differences of opinion about how things ought to be pronounced. For instance, some specialists make consonants sound much like consonants in modern English, except clearer, more precise, while other specialists speak consonants as they would in Danish or, God help us, German. For the beginner there's a valuable lesson in this: Chaucer's Middle English is relatively easy to fake. What follows here are some notes on how to fake it convincingly, so that one gets pretty clearly the sound of Chaucer's verse, making people who know the correct pronunciation believe momentarily that perhaps they've learned it wrong.

1. Read aloud or recite with authority, exactly as when speaking Hungarian -- if you know no Hungarian -- you speak with conviction and easy familiarity. (This, I'm told by Hungarians, is what Hungarians themselves do.) This easy authority, however fake, gets the tone of the language, its warmth and, loosely, outgoing character -- not pushy like low-class German, not jaundiced or intimate-but-weary, like modern French, and not, above all, slurred to a mumble, like modern American. Make Middle English open-hearted, like Mark Twain's jokes.

2. Pronounce the vowels like vowels in modern European languages, especially French, German, or Italian (but resist the temptation to drag in the consonant sounds of those languages). Thus a is ah, as in "Ah, so there you are!"; e is ay, as in "Say there!"; I is ee, as in "Gee, it's Marie!"; o is Oh as in "O!"; and u is, for the most part, oo, as in "Who?" That is, the vowels, a e I o u are, basically, ah ey ee oh ooh. Make them long or short exactly as you would in modern English. To be extra expressive, add the following complications:

3. Distinguish between "close e" (e with the throat closed, like the sound of an oboe) and "open e" (e wide-throated, like the sound of a clarinet); that is, , distinguish between the tight e of "eek" or meet, and the easy, breathy e of there when there is pronounced with a touch of Irish, to rhyme with air. (In Middle English, any e followed by r rhymes with air.) For purposes of faking it is fair to say that if a word is spelled ea in modern English (as in sea or beast), it had and open e in Middle English; if spelled ee in modern English (as in see or sleet), it was a close e for Chaucer. And the same goes for close and open o; words now pronounced like note or stone were open for Chaucer, like the o in our word cloth; words now pronounced like mood or good (modern o either long or short) were close o for Chaucer, like the o in our so. If this is too confusing, try to follow, in general, the pronunciation of the Cisco Kid: "Boot hombray, thees es nut yoor pesstol." For the sound al, very common in Chaucer, say ahl, as in "Ah'll be seeing you."

4. Final e: Many words in Chaucer have a pronounced final e, as in knowe, fewe, etc. . . . Pronounce the e like the a in sofa. In a line of verse, this e is silent if the word which follows it begins with a vowel but pronounced if the word which follows it begins with a consonant (except h and sometimes w or y). So that in the line, "That, by my trouthe, I take no kepe," the final e in trouthe is silent, the final e in take pronounced.

5. Diphthongs (that is, two vowels together, as in cause) can be a problem for the faker. For instance, for Chaucer fewe and newe are not quite rhymes. Short of learning Anglo-Saxon (which is behind the annoyance) or picking up the sounds by ear through listening to recordings, the faker can only depend on these two principles: (a) that au and aw are always ow, as in cow so that cause = cowzuh, drawe = drowwuh, daunger = downjer; and (b) when pronouncing any other diphthong, take the Middle English sounds of the words separately and squeeze them together, so that iu becomes ee + oo = yew. This works about have the time, which is good odds.

6. As for consonants, the rule is simple, pronounce every one of them except when you're positive the word is French (one can swallow the g in sign, for instance) or when the consonant is an initial h. With g or gg, pronounce the same word in modern English (e.g., juggen, modern judge, has the dj, but frogges, modern frogs, has the sound gg).

7. For consonant clusters like th or gh, all you really need is this: Like any consonant or consonant cluster that can be either voiced or unvoiced (z is voiced, sss is unvoiced), the th tends to be unvoiced at the beginning and ends of words but voiced in the middle (between vowels). (F in Middle English is always unvoiced, v always voiced.) Thus that is unvoiced (like the th in thin) but bathed is voiced (like the the in then). Similarly, s is unvoiced (or hissed) in saw and was but voiced in resoun (ray-zoon). The gh sound is slightly but not excessively German, as in ich or nach; and ch, even in French words like chivalrie, is almost always pronounced as in church.

8. Some words in Middle English are accented in peculiar places -- for example, coráge or solémpnely -- and some can be accented as the poet pleases, as in náture and natúre. Take the pronunciation that makes the rhythm feel right, not, of course, that every line has to be rigidly iambic. In most doubtful cases, no one can really prove you wrong. For instance one may read either, "For thére is phisícién but oón," or, "For there is phisícién but oón," or even, "For thére is phisicién but oón" (slightly hovering over the first two syllables of phisicien) and the solemnest phonologiest can only muse that he himself would read it somewhat differently. There are of course downright ridiculous readings, but it's comforting to notice that most of them have been urged, from time to time, by reputable scholars.

9. One last word about e's. Don't say nay for nuh (as in "I ne have," that is, "I haven't"), thay for thuh (as in "the cat"). Say thay when Middle English the means the pronoun thee (as in "thee, thou cat"). And watch for occasional long e's at the ends of words, as in beaute (bay-oh-tay, i.e., "beauty").

If you do all this, or some of it, and at the same time put across the sense of the lines you read, only pedants and people of mean spirit will notice your errors. You will, of course, make errors. Practice, both alone and with sympathetic friends; list to records; if you feel desperate, take a good course and, thereafter, blame your teacher.

                                                                                                                   --   From The Life and Times of Geoffry Chaucer

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