Teach Yourself to Read Chaucer

Lesson 4: Chaucer's Vocabulary


The great majority of the words Chaucer uses are the same in meaning and function as their Modern English counterparts. They usually differ greatly in spelling. But this initial difficulty soon disappears as one reads through the text -- especially if one reads the text aloud. It is soon apparent that "y" and "i" are interchangeable and no one can have much difficulty with a phrase such as "the Frenssh of Paris." Indeed, in some ways Chaucer's vocabulary may be easier for a modern reader than it would have been for many unsophisticated Middle English readers.

This is because one of the most important characteristics of his language and syle is his practice of "borrowing" from mainly French and Latin. (Click here if you want a more detailed discussion of borrowing.) He and his contemporaries introduced ("borrowed") words into the English language, moving them practically unchanged from Latin or French into English. The words in bold face in the following passage are derived from French or Latin:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages),
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
Some of these words -- Aprill, March, pilgrimage -- had been in the language for centuries and seemed pure English to Chaucer's first hearers; others first appear in the fourteenth century and may still have sounded a bit "literary" to the hearers. The word inspired appears here for the first time in English, and its meaning (lit. "breathe into") was clear only to those who knew French or Latin and could realize its metaphoric force (the Latin Vulgate Bible has "inspiravit" for The King James' "breathed into" in Gen. 2:7, the account of the creation of man). A first-time modern reader may miss the metaphor, but the word "inspire" is now familiar, as are almost all the borrowings in this passage. Such borrowings are part of the "high style" that Chaucer introduced into English literature. (Click here if you want a more detailed discussion of style.)

However, the beginning reader should spend more of his or her time on the very common words, which do indeed differ from modern English, and which one must know to read Chaucer with ease. Special care must be taken with words which look like Modern English but often have meanings that have been lost (Stephen A. Barney calls them "false friends"; they seem familiar and often have the modern meanings we expect, but they frequently do not and may mislead the reader).

Read through a list of very common Chaucerian words; do not try to memorize them, but read slowly and note the meanings well.

These are basic Middle English words that will appear frequently in Chaucer's works and offer the greatest difficulty to beginning readers; time spent on these lists will amply repay its expenditure.

Pay special atention to the conjunctions (repeated here):

al although, even if
for, for that because
als, al so as
for to in order to
and, and if if
other, outher or
but, but if if, unless
or... or either... or
eek/eke also
sin/syn since
forthy therefore
sithe(n) since
forwhy because
ther(as) where
wher whether; also used to introduce a question
The auxiliary ("helping" or "modal") verbs should also be considered carefully:

Do, did have their modern meanings but they are also used as causative verbs: And for oure owne tresor doon us hange (And have us hanged for our own treasure).

Gan, gonne are used for periphrastic plurals somewhat like modern "do" and "did": And homward gonne they ride.

Kan, koude Most often means "can, know how to" but it can also be a transitive verb meaning "know" She koude muchel of wandryng (She knew much of wandering)."

Let, leet usually means "allow, permit" but it is also used as a causative" duc Theseus leet crye (Duc Theseus had [caused to be] announced).

May, mighte usually have their modern meanings but they often carry the older meaning of "can, could": "I se," quod he, "as wel as ever I mighte ("I see," he said, "as well as I ever could.")

Mot(e), moot have two contrary senses, "may" and "must": Also moote I thee ("As I may prosper"), A man moot nedes love (A man must by necessity love).

Shal, shullen have their modern meaning (How shal the world be served? but they are also used with a sense of obligation ("must"): Whoso shal telle a tale (Whoever must tell a tale). Shal, shullen are also sometimes used with an understood verb of motion: for I shal to Surrye (For I must go to Syria).

Wol, will, wolde usually mean "will" or "would" but they may also carry the meaning "desire, want to": He wolde the see were kept (He wanted the sea to be guarded), That I wol lyve in poverte wilfully? (That I want to live in voluntary poverty?).

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Last modified: Feb, 10, 2001
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