Middle English Phonology: General Principles

The most common vowel sound in American English is the "schwa," an "uh" sound produced in the middle of the mouth with the mouth half-open and the tongue hanging slack. Speech in Chaucer's time required a more open throat, and a more active tongue. Generally, Middle English "front vowel" sounds like "aee," "ee," "eh," and "ah" shift down one level (e.g., where you'd say "ee" say "eh," etc.). Middle English "back vowel" sounds like "au," "oo," "oh," and "aw" also shift down one level (where you'd say "au" say "oo," etc.). Consonants that now are silent often required active tongue, lip, and throat movement to sound them.  To see a diagram of the vowels' location in the mouth, click here.

[To hear the NSF researchers' sound files recreating the same dialogue as the speakers shift from Middle English to Early Modern English to Modern English, click here.]

Middle English Vowels (Before the "Great Vowel Shift" [c. 1400-1500])

  1. The final "e" on many words may be sounded if it helps the meter of an individual line.

    E.g., When that Aprille with his shoures sote
    The droughte of Marche hath perced to the rote

  2. For "aee" as in mod. white, say "ee" as in mod. sweet.

    E.g., Middle English "white"--<wheet or wheetuh>

    For "ee" as in mod. sweet, say "eh" as in mod. hate.

    E.g., Middle English "swete"--<swate or swatuh>


    For "eh" as in mod. hate, say "ah" as in mod. father.

    E.g., Middle Engilsh "hate"--<haht or hahtuh>

    "fate"--<faht or fahtuh>

  3. For "au" as in mod. house, say "oo" as in mod. fool.

    E.g., Middle English "hous"--<hoos>


    For "oo" as in mod. fool, say "oh" as in mod. boat.

    E.g., Middle English "fool"--<fohl>



    For "oh" as in mod. boat, say "aw" as in mod. law.

    E.g., Middle English "boat"--<bawt>


Middle English Consonants

  1. If a word contains the Germanic "gh," sound it as a soft, nearly guttural sound between a modern "g" and a modern "k."

    E.g., knight, right, bright

  2. If a word begins with "kn" sound the "k" softly.

    E.g., knight, knave, knee, knife

  3. If a word contains an "r," you may roll it lightly like a Spanish or Scots "r" if you can.

    E.g., "I, wrecche womman, no fors though I spille.
    Wommen are born to thraldom and penance..."

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