The Canterbury Tales


Chaucer wrote in a London dialect of late Middle English, which has clear differences from Modern English. From philological research, some facts are known about the pronunciation of English during the time of Chaucer. Chaucer pronounced -e at the end of many words, so that care was [ˈkaːrə], not /kɛər/ 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 /naɪt/. 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.'[17]
ˈweːpiŋɡ and ˈwailiŋɡ ‖ ˈkaːr‿and ˈoːðər ˈsɔrwə ‖
iː ˈknɔu iˈnoːx ‖ ɔn ˈɛːvən and aˈmɔrwə ‖
ˈkwɔd ðə ˈmartʃant ‖ and ˈsɔː ˈdoːn ˈoːðər ˈmɔː ‖
ðat ˈwɛddəd ˈbeːn ‖[18]
'Weeping and wailing, care and other sorrow
I know enough, in the evening and in the morning,'
said the Merchant, 'and so do many others
who have been married.'

Although no manuscript exists in Chaucer's own hand, copies were made by scribes. Because the final -e sound 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.[19] 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.[20]

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