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Teach Yourself to Read Chaucer


Lesson 5: Chaucer's Grammar

 

Middle English grammar is very much like our own. Except for a few unfamiliar forms, it offers few problems to the beginning reader, and what follows is therefore a very brief treatment of a few matters that may prove difficult in a first reading. Advanced students may wish to consult the section on Language in The Riverside Chaucer, pp.xxxiv-xlii, or The Canterbury Tales Complete, pp.xxix-xxxvi). A more extended treatment is also available in the section on Language on the Geoffrey Chaucer Website (once there click on "Grammar" in the upper left corner and use the back button to return to this page.) These resources should prove helpful to students whose primary interest is in the language, and they will prove interesting at a later stage of your study (when you are beginning to feel comfortable with Chaucer's language). Right now, all one needs is a brief treatment of the inflections.

 

Nouns

Middle English nouns have the same inflections as modern English -- Nominative: freend("friend"), Possessive: freendes ("friend's"), Plural: freendes ("friends"). Aside from the spelling and the fact that in Middle English the -es is always pronounced, the inflections are the same as ours.

Exceptions to the rule are much the same in both forms of the language. Some plurals are formed by a change in vowels ("men," "geese," "mice," etc.) The word keen is the only one of these plurals that does not survive in Modern English.

In Modern English we have a few old plurals with "-en" ("oxen," "brethren"); Chaucer has more of these forms:

asshen ("ashes") been ("bees") doghtren ("daughters") eyen ("eyes") hosen ("hose") sustren ("sisters") toon ("toes")
The word "children" in both Middle and Modern English is a combination of the "-en" plural with an older plural in "-r."

 

Pronouns

The pronouns are about the same in Modern English as in Middle English. The only exception is the third person plural (hir = "their," hem = "them"):

Singular
CaseFirst PersonSecond PersonThird Person
NominativeI, ichthouhe, she, hit (it}
Possessivemy, minethy, thinehis, hire, his (its)
Objectivemetheehim, hire, hit (it)

Plural
CaseFirst PersonSecond PersonThird Person
Nominativeweyethey
Possessiveoureyourhire, hir(e)
Objectiveusyouhem

Note that "his" is the possessive form of both the masculine and the neuter pronoun; in Aprill with his shoures soote the pronoun his means "its."

Chaucer often uses pronouns in the French manner -- singular pronouns (thee, thou. etc.) used for addressing children, servants, or intimates, the plural (ye, you, etc.) used as "the pronoun of respect," for addressing superiors (like French "tu" and "vous"). Chaucer is not completely consistent in this usage, but it is worth noting, since often the choice of pronoun defines the social relationships of the speakers.

 

Verbs

The Middle English verb forms largely survive in archaic and biblical usages, and forms such as "doth" and "goest" are therefore familiar to modern readers. So too is the distinction between regular (or "weak") conjugations, which signal the preterite with "-ed," and irregular (or "strong") verbs, with the past signalled by a change in the root vowel (like Modern "sang," "ran," etc.) The folowing forms should therefore present few problems. Note that the forms on the chart are the most common ones; variants with omission of final n or doubling of vowels (be, ben, been are not shown:

Regular Verbs"Strong" Verbs"To be"
Infinitivelovensingenben, been
Ilovesingam
thoulovestsingestart
he, she, itlovethsingethbeth
we, you, theylovensingenben
Ilovedsongwas
thoulovedestsongewere
he, shelovedesonge, soongweren
we, theylovedensongenweren
Past Participle(y)lovedsonge(n)(y)been
Imperative Sing.(y)lovesingbe
Imperative Pl.loveth singethbe, beth
Subjunctivelove singebe, were

 

The subjunctive survives in Modern English ("If I were king") and has the same forms, but it is used far more often in Middle English.

Two sets of contracted forms are common in Chaucer but completely lacking in Modern English. The first combines the negative ne with a following verb beginning with a vowel, h-, or w-:

nam = ne + am ("am not")
nam = ne + art ("art not")
nis = ne + is ("is not")
nas = ne + was ("was not")
nere = ne + were ("were not")

nath = ne + hath ("has not")
nadde = ne + hadde ("had not")

nil = ne + wil ("will not")
nilt = ne + wil ("will not")
nolde = ne + wolde ("would not")

noot = ne + wot ("know not")
niste = ne + wiste ("knew not")

In representatuons of speech some of these forms (singular second person) are further contracted with a following thou, as in niltow ("will thou not"). A similar contraction occurs in forms such as artow ("art thou") and in forms such as ridestou ("do you ride").

The other very common contracted forms are those in which the stem ends with -t, -d, -th, or -s and -eth follows:

bit = biddeth ("asks")
rit = rideth ("rides")
rist = riseth ("rises")
fint = findeth ("finds")
halt = holdeth ("holds")
stant = stondeth ("stands")
worth = wortheth ("gets on")
Somewhat similar is the form lixt for liest ("lies").

 

Modifiers

Adjectives and Adverbs are much the same in Middle English as in Modern. The only notable difference is the use of final -e in the "strong" (or "definite") and "weak" ("indefinite") declensions of thre adjective. In the "strong" declension there is no -e in the singular; the final -e is used in all other cases: the "weak" declension has -e in all cases. This is not a matter that you need much bother with; it is useful merely as a way of explaining why sometimes an -e appears on an adjective and sometimes it does not:

A yong knight ("strong")
Two yonge knightes ("weak")
For a more detailed treatment of Chaucer's grammar see the sources suggested in the first paragraph above.
Return to Index | Or go on to Lesson 6.

Last modified: Apr, 10, 2008
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Gold Texts on this page prepared and maintained by L. D. Benson (ldb@wjh.harvard.edu)