November 29, 2011

Adventures in My 'Mother Tongue': Middle English--Part 2

For the past few weeks I have been having an absolute ball teaching myself to read and comprehend the literature written in Middle English.  Middle English (ME) is the form of English that was commonly used, both spoken and written, in Britain from about the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 until about 1500 A.D.  ME, like present day English, is an amalgamation, or blending, of Anglo-Saxon (i.e., Old English), Old Norse, Old French, and many Latin 'loan words'.  As with most languages, ME is a language comprised of dialects, and five major dialects have generally been identified.  Probably the best known writer during this time was Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), and his works are written in the southern dialect, and specifically that dialect classified as "East Midland", and it was this dialect that became somewhat standardized over time and used throughout Britain.  In contrast, the Arthurian epic alliterative poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that I have been slowly translating was written in the northern, or "West Midland" dialect, and shows a much closer relationship to its Anglo-Saxon and Welsh roots in Old English.

The ME alphabet is largely the same as that used by present day English, with the notable exception of a couple of additional characters that were in use through much of the ME period.  The first character is the "yogh", and is depicted with the Ȝ, and can indicate the sound of the letter 'y' or the consonant grouping 'gh' like in 'knight'.  In the ME alphabet the Ȝ or ȝ is found between 'g' and 'h'.  The other character commonly used in ME is "thorn" and is indicated by the character Þ and þ, and represents the consonant grouping 'th' like that in 'that', 'this', 'other', or 'the'.  The letter þ is located immediately after the letter 't' in the ME alphabet.  Believe it or not, with time it becomes pretty easy to read the original ME and make the translation mentally.  Apparently, there is a bit of a movement afoot to try and bring back the Ȝ for use in present day English as it has a much more explicit usage for that particular sound and consonant grouping.  There's also still a bit of the ME character "thorn" or þ sneaking about even today.  When you see a sign like "Ye Olde Book Shoppe" above your favorite bookstore, that "Ye" is actually "þe" (i.e., "the").  The early scribes hand-wrote the "thorn" symbol much of the time such that it looked like a "y".  Grammatically it makes much more sense that the sign would read "The Olde Book Shoppe" too.  There's a nifty bit of trivia for you!

The spelling and pronunciation of ME is fascinating too.  It really is largely phonetic, and spelling seems to have been somewhat variable among dialects and usage.  Bear in mind that for much of the time that ME was prevalent that it really had much more in common, from a pronunciation perspective, with continental languages like French, Italian, and even the liturgical Latin.  However, during the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries there occurred what is known as the "Great Vowel Shift" in English.  It was largely this change in the spoken values of the long vowels that marked the transition from Middle English to Modern English.  Generally, the long vowel sounds in ME were as follows:
/a:/ as in modern 'father'
/ε:/ as in French 'bête' ('open e', roughly as in modern 'there')
/e:/ as in French 'thé' ('close e', roughly as in modern 'say')
/i:/ as in modern 'see'
/Ɔ:/ roughly as in modern 'broad' ('open o')
/o:/ as in French 'eau' ('close o', roughly as in modern 'go')
/u:/ as in modern 'do'
So, you can really see that things have changed a lot from the days of Chaucer or the anonymous Gawain-poet and the English that they spoke, read and wrote to that which we read, write and speak today.  Once you become used to the sounds of the Middle English vowels, particularly the long vowels, in use prior to the Great Vowel Shift, you're well on your way to at least grasping the basic gist of ME. 

It is has been quite fascinating to see so many words that we commonly use in present day English are there in ME.  They are maybe just a little 'camouflaged',  but the meaning can generally be ferreted out.  I have found that it really, really helps to read these passages aloud, especially on those sections where I am kind of stuck. By simply reading it aloud, you can sometimes 'hear' the meaning of the word.  I know, it sounds crazy, but it does work.  Having a good glossary doesn't hurt either.

Here are two lines from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that may help illustrate some of what I am referring to with respect to the phonetic nature of Middle English--
"He sperred þe sted with þe spurez and sprong on his way,
So stif þat þe stone-fyr stroke out þerafter."
(Lines 670-671)
The literal translation--
"He spurred the steed with the spurs and sprang on his way,
So vigorously that the stone-fire [sparks] struck out thereafter."
At first glance the two lines appear to be fairly wonky and unintelligible.  But if you kind of puzzle on them for a few moments and then slowly sound them out things start becoming more clear.  Interestingly enough, even in translation the alliterative poetic scheme of the lines are largely maintained (i.e., the 'sp' sound of the first line, and the 'st' sound of the second line).  I am nearly 600 lines into the poem and my vocabulary and understanding of ME grammar has markedly improved.  I find that I am not referring to the glossary nearly as much as I did early on in the project.

So, you ask, precisely why am I translating Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight?  First, I am using the exercise of translating the poem from the Middle English text as a learning tool to actually teach myself Middle English (the autodidact that I am).  Second, I have read five different translations of the poem, and they are all quite different, and some are clearly better than others, and I'm very interested in better understanding why there is this great disparity in translations of the poem.  Finally, I not only want to be able to read Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde in the original Middle English, as well as all of the works of the Gawaine-poet, but I'd also like to use my knowledge of Middle English as a spring-board to learning to read and understand Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon, i.e., kind of keep working my way back in time and language.

I plan to do some more postings associated with my 'Sir Gawaine' and Middle English experiences over the next few weeks.  I would like to do a post that critically compares and contrasts the major translations of this important Arthurian epic, and what I liked and disliked.  I also hope to share some of my own literal translation of the poem from the Middle English text and subsequent interpretation into something that is meaningful and relevant, yet respectful of the original intent of the anonymous Gawaine-poet in the late 14th century.  At my present rate of translation, it looks like it will take a couple of months to complete the literal word-for-word translation.  The harder task, I think, will be the line-by-line reinterpretation of the poem, and I anticipate that this phase of the project will take many months.  The project has been a blast so far, and I am thoroughly enjoying working on it a little bit each and every day.

In summary, if you think you might be interested in learning more about Middle English--and I hope that some of you will be--I'd like to provide a brief reading list that might make it more fun for you.  You might consider looking into the following books and reference materials--

Middle English:
A Book of Middle English, Third Edition, by J.A. Burrow and Thorlac Turville-Petre, 2005.
An Introduction to Middle English, Simon Horobin and Jeremy J. Smith, 2003.

Geoffrey Chaucer:
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, edited by Jill Mann, 2005.
Troilus and Criseyde, by Geoffrey Chaucer, edited by Andrea Denny-Brown, 2005.
A Chaucer Glossary, by Norman Davis, Douglas Gray, Patricia Ingham, and Anne Wallace-Hadrill, 1991.

Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight:
Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, Middle English text, edited by J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, 1925; second edition edited by Norman Davis, 1967.
Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1975.
Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight; Patience; Pearl, translated by Marie Borroff, 2001.
 Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, translated by W.S. Merwin, 2002. 



  1. Fascinating! Especially the 'Ye' actually being 'the'. I'd never have imagined that.

  2. I was lucky enough to do the Reeve's Tale for English A level and will always remember the first lesson - when our teacher just began reading from the Miller's Tale and nobody understood a word. We were suprised at how quickly we learned to understand - and to love it and your post has really brought that back to me - thank you for sharing.


  3. Chris, you amaze me. As if you didn't have enough projects to juggle! Now, you're learning Middle English! Wow!

    Ciao, Jon

  4. Che, Hannah, Jam, and Jon--

    Thanks ever so much for dropping by, and leaving your comments!

    Yes, I am probably crazy for undertaking this, but I really am having a lot of fun. It is also incredibly challenging, and I think that doing something like this is actually good for a person.

    I am actually doing a good bit of completely unrelated reading too, so I'm kind of mixing it up. I think that it will take a long, long time to become relatively fluent or conversant in Middle English. But, hey, I'm always willing to make the time for literature and learning these days. I do wish that I had had at least a modicum of exposure to these works in high school or college.

    Again, my thanks to each of your for you kind visit! Cheers! Chris

  5. That is a lot of fun. Some of my favorite readings in college were in ME, and Chaucer, at least, wasn't too hard. If I had time I would definitely join up...

  6. Coooool. I love this. I took a class once on Scandinavian languages and learned about that "ye" "the" thing - because Icelandic still has that letter.