Pronouncing Middle English

Do I have to read Middle English in class?

Yes, I do expect you to read Middle English aloud in class when asked to do so, and I expect you to do so in a reasonable approximation of a Middle English accent. Why? Two reasons:

  1. Middle Engish literature was meant primarily to be read aloud -- to be performed, even -- not to be read silently. Much of a poem's sense becomes clear when experienced aurally, and you'll find that your comprehension increases if you read it aloud to yourself when you're preparing for class.
  2. Along the same lines, you'll find that you recognize more of the words if you can hear them than if you only read them silently. Because Middle English is largely written phonetically, sounding them out will help you identify the word, particularly when the spelling is counterintuitive to our twenty-first century eyes.

(Besides, who wouldn't jump at the chance to say "k-nnn-i-ggit" as the Pythons do in Holy Grail?)

How do I learn and become comfortable with this accent?

I have several tricks for you:

  • Start with my Guide to Reading Middle English -- it will get you started on what to pronounce, when, and how.
  • In class, listen closely to my pronunciation.
  • Out of class, there are many audio files online that you can listen to and practice along with. The Criyng And The Soun (at the Virginia Military Institute) provides audio files of different Chaucerian texts being read aloud by professional scholars. You can find more audio files on the Luminarium Canterbury Tales pages. (You might want to download these MP3 files rather than trying to listen on the oft-outmoded browser players.) The Chaucer Studio sells CDs/downloadable audio files of Middle English read aloud. There are others out there if you search.
  • Go to Harvard's METRO: Middle English Teaching Resources Online webpage and use their online tutorials to sharpen not only your pronunciation, but also your understanding of grammar and prosody.
  • Practice, practice, practice. If you've taken a Romance language (French, Latin, Italian, even Spanish), you'll find that your accent from that class will help your pronunciation of the Middle English (particularly the vowels, which still have continental values in the fourteenth century).  I strongly recommend that you read your assignments out loud to yourself, your roommate, your dog -- whomever -- even if you think you're mispronouncing the Middle English.

If you find you're still struggling, Larry Benson at Harvard has designed a Teach Yourself to Read Chaucer page that you can use to supplement our practice in class.

Why do these audio files pronounce Middle English differently?

As you listen to the online audio files, especially if you listen to the same passage being read by different scholars, you'll hear different ways of pronouncing Middle English. Why is that? First, Middle English was written and prounounced differently in different times and places. So, just as someone from Savannah today pronounces English very differently from someone who grew up in the Bronx, different regions in medieval England had different accents. Second, keep in mind that there were no tape recorders in medieval England. All these pronunciation "rules" are linguistic reconstructions, and tend to be interpreted differently by different scholars.

In class, I will teach you how to pronounce the kind of Middle English that Chaucer would have spoken (that is, the Middle English of late fourteenth-century London) -- even when we are reading earlier romances, largely because this is not a historical linguistics class and the Chaucerian pronunciation is the easiest to learn. When you read to me as part of your grade, I expect a good faith effort and evidence that you have practiced and prepared for the exercise. If you end up sounding more like Larry Benson or Alan Baragona than myself, that won't affect your grade a whit.