Middle English Training for English 240:
Because we will be reading extensively in Middle English, you should begin teaching yourself how to read it. The first difficulty to overcome is that the sound of English long vowels (ā, ē, ī, ō, and ū) changed in something linguists call the "Great Vowel Shift." Click here to see where the vowels were sounded in the human mouth. Click here for sample words in Middle English and a link to a NSF page where you can hear samples of the sounds before (Middle) and after (Modern) English long vowels shifted. If you know French or any other Romance language, you'll be at an advantage because Middle English long vowels sounded like they do now in Modern French (and you should know the reason why! ). Consonant sounds also changed. As Middle English blurred into Early Modern English, they stopped pronouncing the "silent" consonants that make English spelling so delightful (e.g., knight, known, variable, sight). This caused the language to lose many of its Germanic sounds inherited from Anglo-Saxon or "Old English." Both changes may have had a lot to do with human laziness, though other socio-political factors may have been involved. Middle English is a much more "athletic" language to pronounce. Until you know the rules for "elision" or dropping syllables, sound out every syllable of every word you read (including the "kn," "le," and "gh" of the words above). To get started, click here to go to Larry D. Benson's online site for the Harvard Chaucer seminar. The site contains sound files you can use to teach your ear to hear and your voice to produce Middle English sounds.
Many Middle English words have fallen out of use, and others have changed their meanings over time. The Oxford English Dictionary (available at the Library via "All Electronic Databases") will show you words' oldest meanings first, and that will help you begin to understand how the language's meaning changed. For a good example, try "harlot," which in Chaucer's day allowed him to say, of a Canterbury pilgrim, "he was a gentle harlot" and mean a compliment. Add to my own "hard word list" as you learn new Middle English terms. It's what every literate Elizabethan had to do when reading Chaucer, so you and Shakespeare are having the same trouble.
To test your ability to read Middle English before our practice conferences, try to translate these short prose passages before our first conference: John Purvey, General Prologue, Wicliffite Bible (ca. 1395); Anonymous, translator of Trotula's De Passionibus Mulierum Curandorum ("the Trotula major"). Reading Middle English poetry will be more difficult at first, but once you have gotten used to the changed spelling ("say it the way it looks") and learn some of the words now lost from the language, you will become proficient. Students who practice several times a week by reading out loud usually can make the transition by the third week of class. Don't be afraid to call me for help. Point me to the passage and, while we're both looking at it, we can figure it out together.