It is difficult to be absolutely certain about the correct pronunciation of Medieval English words - there were no electronic recording devices at the time that they were spoken. However, some medieval texts have been familiar to successive generations of readers since they first appeared. Through the ages, they have not only been read but read aloud by one person to another. By means of this oral tradition, and by other methods that need not be considered here, it has been possible to make informed judgements about how the language should sound.
There can be more than one correct way of pronouncing a Medieval English word. Words were pronounced differently in different parts of the country and the pronunciation of words changed over time. Similarly, the spelling of words was subject to a good deal of variety, from place to place, and from time to time.
What is called Medieval English here would more usually be called Middle English. That is to say it is the form of English occupying a 'middle' position in between the oldest form of English, Old English (Anglo-Saxon) and the form of English which began to become common a hundred years or so before Shakespeare's time.
What follows is a light-hearted look at the English language of the 14th Century, presented to you in the manner of a foreign language learning course. It should not be taken as an infallible, or necessarily typical, rendering of 14th Century English speech. However, the language does come mainly from an authentic Medieval source, namely that famous 14th Century work "The Canterbury Tales" by Geoffrey Chaucer. Middle English was spoken and written differently in different parts of the country, the main distinction being between the northern and the southern forms (Chaucer wrote in the southern form). The popularity of his works helped to establish the southern form as the language that most 'educated' people in mainland Britain spoke. Similarly, it became the form of English that most people in mainland Britain would write in (if they could write at all - only a very small minority could at the time) if they chose English over French and Latin, which were still used for many purposes.
All of the words written in italics letters are Medieval English words. Some Medieval English words are pronounced the same as in modern English; some are pronounced differently. Pronunciation, where different, is given in brackets.
The Geoffrey Chaucer Phase Book
Lesson One: Hello and Goodbye
- To a man - good (rhymes with 'woad') day, sir (rhymes with 'hear').
- To a woman - Good day, dame (pronounced daahm-uh)
- To more than one person - good day, everychon (pronounced 'ever-ee-choon').
Lesson Two: Mind Your Manners
- I (pronounced 'ee') beseek you (pronounced 'yow') meekly
- I pray you
- I thank you
- weileway (pronounced 'weeluh-way')
Things not to say:
- nice. In Medieval English 'nice' doesn't mean nice. It means foolish or silly.
Lesson Three: Yes, No and Maybe
- paraunter (pronounced 'par-awn-ter')
Lesson Four: I don't know
Lesson Five: The Verb 'To Be'
- I am
- thou art
- he (pronounced 'hay') is (pronounced 'eez')
- she (pronounced 'shay') is
- it (pronounced 'eet') is
- we (pronounced 'way') are (pronounced 'arr-uh')
- ye been
- they been
Lesson Six: Easy As One, Two Three...
- oo (rhymes with 'zoo')
- twaye (pronounced tway-uh)
- three (pronounced thray)
Other numbers, up to ten, are basically the same as in modern English.
Lesson Seven - Out And About
I have rather a bad toothache
- Mine wanges (pronounced 'wanguhs') werken me full wo
Can you assure me that these garments are fashionable?
- Of the newe jet been thise weede, sooth?
The onion soup sounds good
- Wel love I garleek, oynons and eek lekes
And I think I'll have a glass of red wine
- And, for to drynken, strong wyn, reed as blood
Please be silent (speaking to more than one person).
- I beseek thee, pees
Shut up! (to one person).
- Stint thy clappe
Lesson Eight - Silence is Golden
Why should anyone concern themselves with the language of 14th Century England? Well, to be able to enjoy the literature of the period is one good reason. Also, those involved in historical research need to understand the documents of the era. To be fully involved in these pursuits, one would need to study the language of the past in considerably more depth and detail than has been offered here. Perhaps this article will encourage some readers to do just that.
Perhaps, also, the brief glimpse of this almost forgotten form of English that has been offered here will serve to reinforce an awareness that is of importance to all of us in our everyday communication. Namely, the awareness that, while it must have accepted rules and conventions, language is nevertheless constantly changing and evolving over time.