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Geoffrey Chaucer and His Contribution

Main Written Records of the Middle English Period

Geoffrey Chaucer known as the Father of English literature, is widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages and was the first poet to have been buried in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey.

While he achieved fame during his lifetime as an author, philosopher, alchemist and astronomer, composing a scientific treatise on the astrolabe for his ten year-old son Lewis, Chaucer also maintained an active career in the civil service as a bureaucrat, courtier and diplomat. Among his many works, which include The Book of the Duchess, the House of Fame, the Legend of Good Women and Troilus and Criseyde, he is best known today for The Canterbury Tales. Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the most prominent authors of the Middle English Period and he set up a language pattern to be followed. He is considered to be the founder of the literary language of that period. Most authors of the Middle English Period tried to follow this standard.

Features of the Chaucer’s Language:

Chaucer’s Language was the basis for the national literary language (15th – 16th c.).

New spelling rules (digraphs) and new rules of reading (1 letter = several sounds) appeared as compared to the Old English.

New grammatical forms appeared (Perfect forms, Passive forms, “to” Infinitive constructions, etc.).

Chaucer tried to minimize the number of the French loans in the English Language.

Chaucer introduced rhyme to the poetry.

The following is the beginning of the general Prologue from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The text was written in a dialect associated with London and spellings associated with the then-emergent Chancery Standard.

Original in Middle English: Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote And bathed every veyne in swich licour, Of which vertu engendred is the flour; Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth Inspired hath in every holt and heeth The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne, And smale foweles maken melodye, That slepen al the nyght with open ye (So priketh hem Nature in hir corages); Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes; And specially from every shires ende Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende, The hooly blisful martir for to seke That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke. Translation into Modern English: (by Coghill) When in April the sweet showers fall And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all The veins are bathed in liquor of such power As brings about the engendering of the flower, When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath Exhales an air in every grove and heath Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun His half course in the sign of the Ram has run And the small fowl are making melody That sleep away the night with open eye, (So nature pricks them and their heart engages) Then folk long to go on pilgrimages, And palmers long to seek the stranger strands Of far off saints, hallowed in sundry lands, And specially from every shires’ end Of England, down to Canterbury they wend The holy blissful martyr, quick To give his help to them when they were sick


Middle English Alphabet

The Middle English Alphabet resembled the Old English Alphabet but some changes were introduced:

th replaced ð/þ/Đ/đ;

w replaced?;

æ, œ disappeared;

digraphs (2 letters = one sound) appeared (came from French):

th for [q] and [ð];

tch/ch for [t∫];

sch/ssh/sh for [∫];

dg for [dζ];

wh replace hw but was pronounced still as [hw]!;

gh for [h];

qu for [kw];

ow/ou for [u:] and [ou];

ie for [e:].

Rules of Reading:

They resemble the modern rules, with several exceptions though:

Double vowels stood for long sounds, e.g. oo = [o:]; ee = [e:].

g = [dζ]

c = [s] before front vowels ([i, e]).


g = [g]

c = [k] before back vowels ([a, o, u]).

y = [j] – at the beginning of the word;

= [i] – in the cases when i stood close together with r, n, m and could be confused with one of these letters or could be lost among them, it was replaced with y, sometimes also for decorative purpose.(e.g. nyne [‘ni:nə], very [‘veri]).

th = [ð]

s = [z] between vowels.

o = [o] – in most cases;

= [u] – in the words that have [Λ] sound in Modern English (e.g. some, love)

j = [dζ]

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