This page gathers some tools to help you read Middle English out loud, and to translate it. Because I use this page for a range of courses, some of the examples may not be drawn from texts you are reading in any given course, but these general remarks should have applicability across a range of Middle English works.
Below are some very basic tools for pronouncing the language. Note that all of this is quite simplified: there are exceptions to most of the rules noted below. For more precise instructions, exercises, and samples, visit some of the links below.
I have concentrated on the vowels because they seem to cause the most trouble. I have used modern word equivalents for the sounds (rather than phonetic symbols). These rules are drawn from Helge Kökeritz, A Guide to Chaucer’s Pronunciation. A useful book for reconstructing somewhat later pronunciation is E.J. Dobson, English Pronunciation 1500 – 1700.
a – as in German Mann or French patte
e – as in bed
i, y – as in sit
o – as in dog
u – as in put
When is a vowel short? Single vowels before single or double consonants usually are short if the same word has a short vowel today. Exceptions are words like bread, breath, dead, heaven, where the vowel is like French père; and gone and hot, where the vowel is like law.
a, aa – as in German Vater or French art
e, ee, ie – as in German sehen, French été: use this sound when the modern word has a sound like he, see
e, ee – as in there: use this sound when the modern word has -ea, as in speak, dream, and also head, bread
i, y – as in see
o, oo – as in German Sohn, French chose: use this sound when the modern word is like food, good, blood, other
o, oo – as in law: use this sound when the modern word is like most, stone, throat
u – as in French tu
When is a vowel long? Single vowels and digraphs (a combination of two letters to represent one sound, as in sea or see) are long if the modern word has a long vowel or a diphthong. Words spelled with -oo today are always long, even if we now pronounce them with short vowels. There are exceptions to these notes about long vowels: these include the fact that a and o are usually short when followed by f, s, th, and r.
ai, ay, ei, ey – aim for something between the sounds in lake and like
au, aw – a bit like the sound in house
eu, ew – rather like few; while there is another, somewhat different sound also corresponding to this spelling, this sound should get you started
ou, ow, ough – as in moon: use this sound when the modern word is like house, course, or through
ou, ow, ough – rather like know: use this sound when the modern word has a similar sound, or, before -ght, a sound as in law
While I encourage you to use the other resources listed here to learn to pronounce Middle English more precisely, what I’m most interested in is that you should get some sense of how a poem like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or the Alliterative Morte Arthur works through its sounds. As with other languages, you need to have the nerve to make mistakes in order to progress in oral reading. Many people find they can at least start the process by using vowel-sound equivalents from various European languages: you’ll notice that French and German are both used in the simplified outline on this page. Marry those sounds to some kind of regional British accent, and you’re on your way…
Follow these links for a more precise account of Middle English pronunciation:
- Harvard has a Geoffrey Chaucer page that includes a section called How to Read Chaucer
- Peter Robinson has made an app of the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that takes you through the text with images, sound files, and translation (also available in a web-based version, here)
- I have recorded myself reading The Alliterative Morte Arthur aloud, in its entirety: visit The Alliterative Morte Arthur Aloud
- Chaucer’s Middle English: Don’t be Intimidated is a brief video introducing Middle English
This page also offers a few tools to help you as you work on translating Middle English. First, while translation is not simply a matter of substituting modern words for Middle English ones, both the task and your reading of Middle English in general will go more smoothly if you learn some Middle English vocabulary by heart. Here, then, is a list of common (and/ or commonly mistranslated) Middle English words:
|and||can sometimes mean if|
|anon||right away, soon|
|as||as, as if, like|
|atte||at, at the|
|avoid||leave, send away; sometimes dismount|
|busk||go, hasten, prepare|
|can, kan||know, be able|
|cheer(e)||appearance; can mean entertainment|
|clenly (-lich)||handsomely, completely|
|devyse||tell of, describe|
|dress||set in position|
|enprise||try (can be spelled emprise)|
|er, or||before, formerly|
|fewter||to fix a spear or lance in its rest (the fewter)|
|gar||to cause (someone to do something)|
|gyse||manner, way, guise|
|hende||handy, courteous, gentle|
|keep, kepe||care for, guard|
|kith||country, native land|
|konne||learn, know how to|
|list||to wish; it pleases|
|maugre||in spite of|
|ne||nor, not (double negatives are OK)|
|noot||know not, do not know|
|no force||[I] don’t care|
|o, oo, on, oon||one|
|or||can be or, but can also mean before|
|quit(e)||to avenge; to acquit oneself|
|rash||to dash, slash|
|rede||advice; to advise, interpret, read|
|sentence||opinion, subject matter, saying|
|speed, spede||be successful|
|stint, stente, stynte||stop; put an end to|
|swithe||fast, quick, very|
|war||(be) aware of|
|wene, ween||think, believe|
|whilom||once (upon a time)|
|wight||person or strong|
There are some online resource that can help you translate Middle English. The Middle English Dictionary is full of information, but can be difficult to figure out at first. Be sure to select Headwords (with alternate spellings) in the pull-down menu on the left. Make lavish use of truncation, since spelling can be quite variable. While the Oxford English Dictionary is not a specialized tool for Middle English, it does preserve some archaic words and spellings, so it might also be useful (the link takes you to the UBC Library connection page; if you are visiting this page from elsewhere, you can go directly to the OED site, or see whether your institution has institutional access).
Below are the opening lines of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with a range of translations to give you a sense of how different people have approached the task of translating this complex alliterative verse. Note that some of the translations differ as to the meaning of individual words, as well as in their style.
Siþen þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye,
þe bor3 brittened and brent to brondez and askez,
þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wro3t
Watz tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erthe:
Hit watz Ennias þe athel, and his highe kynde,
þat siþen depreced prouinces, and patrounes bicome
Welne3e of al þe wele in þe west iles.
Fro riche Romulus to Rome ricchis hym swyþe,
With gret bobbaunce þat bur3e he biges vpon fyrst,
And neuenes hit his aune nome, as hit now hat;
Ticius to Tuskan and teldes bigynnes,
Langaberde in Lumbardie lyftes vp homes,
And fer ouer þe French flod Felix Brutus
On mony bonkkes ful brode Bretayn he settez
Where werre and wrake and wonder
Bi syþez hatz wont þerinne,
And oft boþe blysse and blunder
Ful skete hatz skyfted synne.
Since the siege and the assault was ceased at Troy,
The walls breaches and burnt down to brands and ashes,
The knight that had knotted the nets of deceit
Was impeached for his perfidy, proven most true,
It was high-born Aeneas and his haughty race
That since prevailed over provinces, and proudly reigned
Over well-nigh all the wealth of the West Isles.
Great Romulus to Rome repairs in haste;
With boast and with bravery builds he that city
And names it with his own name, that it now bears.
Ticius to Tuscany, and towers raises.
Langobard in Lombardy lays out homes,
And far over the French Sea, Felix Brutus
On many broad hills and high Britain he sets,
Where war and wrack and wonder
By shifts have sojourned there,
And bliss by turns with blunder
In that land’s lot had share. [Marie Boroff, 1967]
When the siege and the assault had ceased at Troy,
and the fortress fell in flame to firebrands and ashes,
the traitor who the contrivance of treason there fashioned
was tried for his treachery, the most true upon earth –
it was Aeneas the noble and his renowned kindred
who then laid under them lands, and lords became
of well-nigh all the wealth in the Western Isles.
When royal Romulus to Rome his road had taken,
in great pomp and pride he peopled it first,
and named it with his own name that yet now it bears;
Tirius went to Tuscany and towns founded,
Langaberde in Lombardy uplifted halls,
and far over the French flood Felix Brutus
on many a broad bank and brae Britain established
where strange things, strife and sadness,
at whiles in the land did fare,
and each other grief and gladness
oft fast have followed there. [J.R.R. Tolkien, published 1975]
After the siege and the assault of Troy, when that burg was destroyed and burnt to ashes, and the traitor tried for his treason, the noble Æneas and his kin sailed forth to become princes and patrons of well-nigh all the Western Isles. Thus Romulus built Rome (and gave to the city his own name, which it bears even to this day); and Ticius turned him to Tuscany; and Langobard raised him up dwellings in Lombardy; and Felix Brutus sailed far over the French flood, and founded the kingdom of Britain, wherein have been war and waste and wonder, and bliss and bale, ofttimes since.
[Jessie Weston, 1898]
After the siege and the assault of Troy, when the city was burned to ashes, the knight who therein wrought treason was tried for his treachery and was found to be the truest on earth. Aeneas the noble it was, and his high kindred, who vanquished great nations and became the rulers of wellnigh all the western world. Noble Romulus went to Rome with great show of strength, and built that city at the first, and gave it his own name, as it is called to this day. Ticius went into Tuscany and began to set up habitations, and Langobard made his home in Lombardy; whilst Brutus, far over the French sea by many a full broad hill-side, the fair land of Britain
Where war and wrack and wonder
Often were seen therein,
And oft both bliss and blunder
Have come about through sin. [Ernest J. B. Kirtlan, 1912]
When the siege and the assault were ended at Troy,
The city laid waste and burnt into ashes,
The man who had plotted the treacherous scheme
Was tried for the wickedest trickery ever.
It was princely Aeneas and his noble kin
Who then subdued kingdoms, and came to be lords
Of almost all the riches of the western isles.
Afterwards noble Romulus hastened to Rome,
With great pride he gave that city its beginnings,
And calls it by his own name, which it still has.
Tirius goes to Tuscany and sets up houses,
Langobard in Lombardy establishes homes,
And far over the French sea Felix Brutus
On many broad hillsides settles Britain
Where war and grief and wonder
Have visited by turns,
And often joy and turmoil
Have alternated since. [James Winny, 1992]
Once the siege and assault of Troy had ceased,
with the city a smoke-heap of cinders and ash,
the turncoat whose tongue had tricked his own men
was tried for his treason – the truest crime on earth.
Then noble Aeneas and his noble lords
went conquering abroad, laying claim to the crowns
of the wealthiest kingdoms in the western world.
Mighty Romulus quickly careered towards Rome
and conceived a city in magnificent style
which from then until now has been known by his name.
Ticius constructed townships in Tuscany
and Langobard did likewise, building homes in Lombardy.
And further afield, over the Sea of France,
on Britain’s broad hill-tops, Felix Brutus made
And wonder, dread and war
have lingered in that land
where loss and love in turn
have held the upper hand. [Simon Armitage, 2008]