The Canterbury Tales


Chaucer wrote in late Middle English, which has clear differences from Modern English. From philological research, we know certain facts about the pronunciation of English during the time of Chaucer. Chaucer pronounced -e at the end of words, so that care was [ˈkaːrə], not /ˈkɛər/ as in Modern English. Other silent letters were also pronounced, so that the word knight was [kniçt], with both the k and the gh pronounced, not /ˈnaɪt/. In some cases, vowel letters in Middle English were pronounced very differently from Modern English, because the Great Vowel Shift had not yet happened. For instance, the long e in wepyng "weeping" was pronounced as [eː], as in modern German or Italian, not as /iː/. Below is an IPA transcription of the opening lines of The Merchant's Prologue:

'Wepyng and waylyng, care and oother sorwe
I knowe ynogh, on even and a-morwe,'
Quod the Marchant, 'and so doon oother mo
That wedded been.'[10]
ˈweːpɪŋɡ and ˈwailɪŋɡ ‖ ˈkaːr‿and ˈoːðər ˈsɔrwə ‖
iː ˈknɔu əˈnoːx ‖ ɔn ˈɛːvən and aˈmɔrwə ‖
ˈkwɔd ðə ˈmartʃant ‖ and ˈsɔː ˈdoːn ˈoːðər ˈmɔː ‖
ðat ˈwɛddəd ˈbeːn ‖[11]
'Weeping and wailing, care and other sorrow
I know enough, in the evening and in the morning,'
said the Merchant, 'and so does many another
who has been married.'

Although no manuscript exists in Chaucer's own hand, two were copied around the time of his death by Adam Pinkhurst, a scribe with whom he seems to have worked closely before, giving a high degree of confidence that Chaucer himself wrote the Tales.[12] Because final -e was lost soon after Chaucer's time, scribes did not accurately copy it, and this gave scholars the impression that Chaucer himself was inconsistent in using it.[13] It has now been established, however, that -e was an important part of Chaucer's grammar, and helped to distinguish singular adjectives from plural and subjunctive verbs from indicative.[14]

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