Exploring Middle English

The earliest form of the English language is now known as Old English. Between about 1100 and 1450 it changed and developed into what we now call Middle English. In the following centuries it gradually took the form of Modern English.

Let’s go back in time to see what printed English looked like 600 years ago. Here are the opening lines from ‘The Canterbury Tales’, a very long poem by Geoffrey Chaucer (approx. 1340–1400). I have reproduced them in a font which is close to the style used in the earliest printed books. Study these four clues first, and then have a go at reading the lines.


Here is the extract again in a modern font. You will be able to read it but perhaps not understand it!

Whan  that Aprille with his shoures sote

The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,

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 y-ronne

And smale foweles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open yë

(So priketh hem nature in hir corages),

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,

To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;

And specially from every shires ende

Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende...


Here is a possible modern English translation:


  When April with his showers sweet

  The drought of March has pierced unto the root

  And bathed each vein with such power

  To generate fresh strength within the flower;

  When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,

  Quickened again, in every wood and heath,

  The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun

  Into the Ram one half his course has run,

  And many little birds make melody

  That sleep through all the night with open eye

  (So Nature urges them on to ramp and rage)

  Then people long to go on pilgrimage,

  And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,

  To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.

  And specially from every shire's end

  Of England they to Canterbury wend...


If you were transported in a Time Machine to 1350, you might have difficulty understanding what people are saying. You can find some clues in the Chaucer’s rhyming words.

licour (liquor) rhymed with flour

breeth (breath) rhymed with heeth (heath). The double-e was probably pronounced similarly to the ea in our word ‘real’.

melodye rhymed with the old word for eye. The last e was pronounced, as it is at the end of modern German words.

corage and pilgrimage rhyme. They are from French words, and so the ending was pronounced in the same way as it is in modern French, a bit like ‘-arj’.


You can see how some of our modern words looked, as they evolved from Old English into Middle English. Some examples:

Ø     shoures became showers

Ø     droghte became drought

Ø     veyne became vein

Ø     sonne became sun

Ø     nyght became night

You can also see words which have changed almost beyond recognition.

Ø          sote means ‘sweet smelling’ in this poem. It is a form of the Old English and Middle English word swete meaning sweet. Old English was related to Old Norse, where the word was sœtr. This became sætur in modern Icelandic, which is closely related to the ancient language of the Norsemen (Vikings).

Ø          vertu means power but in modern English, virtue means a quality of goodness. This word did not come into English until the 12th century, well after the Norman Conquest. Vertu is an Old French (Anglo-French) word for ‘moral strength’, form Latin virtus meaning manhood, strength, power.

Ø          means eye. The Old English word was ege and eage where the g was pronounced softly, somewhere between the ch in the Scottish word ‘loch’ and the y in ‘yell’. In early Middle English, it became eie and ehe. In spoken English, these would have sounded like the first two letters in the way we say ‘yes’. Chaucer’s spelling seems to be a poetic adaptation of what the word sounded like.

Ø          corage means heart. You can see the link when you consider the word ‘courage’. It comes from a Latin suffix cor- meaning heart. We still tell people to ‘have heart’ when we mean ‘be brave’.

Here are notes on some of the other words.

Zephyrus is the Latin form of Zephyros, the name of the god of the west wind. It is used poetically to mean the west wind. Poets and imaginative writers still use zephyr to mean the west wind, a wind, or a breeze.

The Ram is a region of the sky in the 12 areas designated by the Zodiac. We know it by its Latin name Aries. If you are an unscientific person, you probably believe that these signs have some sort of influence over you, but that isn’t a topic for this course! It is used here to mean that the sun has passed through that region of the heavens, thus telling us that it is late in April.

Eke was a verb meaning to increase or grow. It came from Old English eacan and is related to Old Norse auka to increase, and to Latin augere to increase. From this original meaning, we have the term ‘to eke out’ meaning to make a supply of something such as food last a long time.

Eke was also a connecting word meaning ‘also’. That form came from Old English eac and is related to Old Norse and Gothic auk meaning also. It is also related to Latin autem meaning but, and au meaning or.

Couthe is related to uncouth, meaning having bad manners, being rough in behaviour. The negative form originally meant unknown in the sense of unfamiliar, to describe someone’s bad behaviour in polite company.

Strand as a noun is used in poetry to mean a shore or beach. A foreign strand is a foreign, faraway country. In late Old English, about 1,000 years go, it was strand related to similar words in other European languages having meanings to do with shore, coast, edge, border.

Its use as a verb, meaning to run aground, did not arise until about the 17th century. The figurate meaning, to leave someone without help, came about 200 years later.

The other use of strand relates to threads and fibres in string and rope. It first appeared in print in English in the 15th century. Although it appears to be related to other words in European languages, scholars do not really know where it came from. Many dictionaries will tell you ‘Origin unknown’.

Halwes were shrines in which remains of dead saints were stored so that pilgrims could visit and pray. Forms of ancestor worship are found throughout history and in many cultures. They were holy places. The word is related to the Middle English word halgien, to hallow, to make holy, which came from Old English halgian. Meanwhile, the original and full name of Halloween was All Hallow Even. It was the evening before All Saints Day in the Christian calendar. Earlier, in the Celtic calendar, it was the last day of the year, and the time when witches were abroad! The Christian church adopted the date but changed the meaning from evil to good. And, as we have seen, to hallow means to make holy. So there’s the connection.

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