Pronouncing Chaucer's English

by Prof. Linda Georgianna, adapted by Alfred J. Drake

1. Consonants

Nearly all consonants in Middle English (ME) are pronounced; furthermore, nearly all are pronounced individually with exactly the same sound they have in Modern English. Hence, in know the "k" is pronounced, and in folk the "l" is pronounced. A few exceptions: "gh" is not silent as in Modern English, but is pronounced like the "ch" in German nach; also, with "gn" both consonants are pronounced when they appear at the beginning of a word (like gnawe), but in any other position the "g" is silent (as in signe).

2. Final "e"

Final "e" is often pronounced, always when it occurs at the end of a line. Final "e" is pronounced like the "a" in "sofa." Whether final "e" appearing in the middle of a line is pronounced depends upon the scansion of the line.

3. Vowels

Vowels are tricky and phonetic study will give you different Modern English equivalents. Blame it all on the Great Vowel Shift. The following table is greatly oversimplified, but it will get you started.

A. Short Vowels are easy because they are quite similar to Modern English short vowels with a few exceptions:

ME short "a" (as in ME whan, hath) is pronounced like the "o" in Modern English "hot."

ME short "o" (as in ME of, yonge) is pronounced like the "o" in Modern British "fox" -- think of the way Richard Burton would say it.

ME short "u" (as in ME sunne) is pronounced like the "u" in Modern English "full." Note that in Modern English, short "u" has several distinct sounds (e.g. "cut," "hurt," "full"), but in ME it has only one.

B. Long Vowels are more complicated, and the following list is sinfully oversimplified. Roughly, vowels were long in stressed syllables unless immediately followed by two or more consonants (hence whit -- long and wittes -- short). Note that in ME "th" and "ld" = one consonant: hence bathed, fold -- both long.

ME long "a" (as in ME bathed) is pronounced like the "a" in Modern English "father" (like short ME "a," only longer).

ME long "e" (as in ME sweet) is pronounced like the "a" in Modern English "name."

ME long "i" (as in ME inspired) is pronounced like the "ee" in Modern English "feet."

ME long "o" (as in ME roote, holy) is pronounced like the Modern English "holy."

ME long "u" (as in ME shoures) is pronounced like the "u" in Modern English "Luke."

C. Diphthongs. These wouldn't be so hard if ME writers didn't often use diph-thongs to spell long vowels and vice versa. But don't think about that now.

ME "ai," "ay," "ei," "ey" may be pronounced like the "ai" in Modern English "aisle."

ME "au," "aw" (as in ME chaunge) may be pronounced like the "ow" in Modern English "how."

ME "ew," "eu" (as in ME newe) may be pronounced like the "ew" in Modern English "curfew."

ME "oi," "oy" (as in ME joye) may be pronounced like the Modern English "joy."

ME "ou," "ow" (as in ME thoughte, know) may be pronounced like the "ou" in Modern English "thought."

Note: the ending "ion" or "ioun" was always pronounced as two syllables.