Guide to Reading Middle English

Basic Principles

  • Read phonetically.  There is no spelling consistency in Middle English; authors and scribes wrote what they spoke (and heard).  And in courses where the texts come from a variety of locales and time periods, you will find substantial spelling changes from poem to poem; reading phonetically (and being flexible about vowel pronunciation) will improve your comprehension and reading speed.
  • Read aloud.  Most Middle English literature was written to be read out to a crowd of listeners, and its poetry (and prose) is more comprehensible via ear as well as eye.  Moreover, because of the phonetic "spelling" conventions, words seen with the eye often make more sense when heard with the ear.  You might want to form reading groups for this class, in which you gather to take turns reading the texts to each other.  (It's a good way to avoid odd looks from your roommate or cat.)
  • Pronounce all the letters.  There are no silent ks or gs; the final e is ALWAYS sounded as a schwa (unless it is a terminal y sound, as in "hende" = "handy").  Keep the accompanying pronunciation guide to hand, but also keep in mind that vowel sounds (in particular) may shift somewhat from one dialect to another.
  • Read logically.  Few Middle English writers are trying to trip up their readers, so if you are presented with a seemingly illogical sentence construction or word, take the simplest grammatical or denotative path (at least for starters).  If you see the phrase "He was the hendest man olive," you can be sure that the writer is not talking about kalamatas, but rather that he is using an o rather than an a.  At the same time, there may be true grammatical, lexical, or cultural barriers to comprehending the text; don't hesitate to ask me about these, because if you are confused by them, probably others are as well.
  • Use the MED and/or OED, but also improve your contextual comprehension.  Many words ("fre," "hende," "honeste") have a wider variety of connotations in Middle English than they do in ModE, so you will want to take regular recourse to a dictionary to ensure that you understand  the range of possible meanings.  On the other hand, there are (for example) dozens and dozens of words that mean "person" or "man," and you can often figure those out solely from context.
  • Annotate your text.  Textual divisions are few and far between in most Middle English texts, so mark major structural changes in the margins.  Similarly, if you have to look up a word or if you stumble over a syntactical construction, write down the definition or ModE word order in the margin.  Reading Middle English is an experience of interacting WITH the text, not being a passive consumer OF it, and your margins should be your personal road map to your interaction with the poetry.

Common Spelling and Syntactic Hurdles

  • Impersonal constructions.  "Me thenkest" = "It seems to me," NOT "I think"
  • Personal pronouns.  In some texts, he/she/they will be spelled recognizably.  In others, “she” or “they” might look like “him,” so be wary from text to text.  Read logically when it comes to pronouns, and you'll be right most of the time.
  • Word order.  Middle English is more inflected than ModE, so be aware of object pronouns ("him") preceding verbs -- they are NOT grammatical subjects.
  • Unfamiliar characters.  There are three Middle English characters that we no longer use: the thorn (þ) the eth (đ ) and the wynn (I don't have it on my computer, but it looks rather like a squared-off 3).  These have been normalized to their contemporary counterparts in the student editions we are using ("th" for þ and đ , "g" or "w" [depending on context] for wynn), so you won't need them on a daily basis.  You may, however, encounter them when using the MED or reading non-normalized texts.  Don't fear them -- they're fun characters to wow your parents with.

Pronounciation Guide

Sound Pronounciation ME Spelling ME Examples
Vowel pronounciation table
ā like a in father a, aa fader, caas
a like a in what a what
ē like a in mate e, ee swete, neede
ę like e in there e, ee swete, neede
e like e in met e hem
ə like a in about e younge
ī like i in machine i, y blithe, nyce
i like i in bit i, y list, nyste
ō like o in so o, oo dom, roote
ō like o in cloth o, oo lore, goon
o like o in or o for
ū like oo in root ou, ow hous, how
u like oo in book u, o ful, nonne
ű like French u in tu u vertu
au like ow in how au, aw cause, drawe
ei like ay in day ai, ay, ei, ey fair, may, feith, eyr
eu ę + u ew fewe, shewe
iu like ew in few eu, ew feule, newe
oi like oy in boy oi, oy point, joye
ou like ow in grow ou, ow thought, knowe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Consonants

Most consonants are pronounced as in ModE.  However, unlike ModE, all letters are sounded, including those letters that are silent in ModE:

  • k- and g- (as in gnawe and knight) are voiced
  • l before f, v, k, m (as in calf, halve, folk, palmer) is voiced
  • -gh- as in thought is pronounced like ch in German (ich)
  • r is rolled, as in French
  • -e at the end of the word is sounded as a schwa (ə)

Adapted from R.A. Shoaf's introduction to his edition of Troilus and Criseyde, pp.xvii-xviii.

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