Sure, I could read a version with original spelling in a modern font, and towards the end I probably will. but for the moment, the novelty of reading a handwritten manuscript hasn't worn off, so I'm persisting. It took a bit of time to get the hang of the handwriting and grammar, so in the interests of helping others follow in my footsteps, here is an illustrated guide to reading the manuscript.
Letters and the AlphabetI will write letters in uppercase to make them easily identifiable, but I'm really talking about the lowercase versions.
Spelling and Vocabulary
- If the modern spelling ends in ION, the Middle English spelling might end in IOUN ("Religioun," above).
- If you don't understand a word, try swapping two letters side-by-side and then changing the vowel. "Sorwe" is "sorrow," "arwes" are "arrows," "thurgh" is "through," "widwe" is "widow," and "aks" is "ask" (yes, Futurama got it right!).
- Third person pronouns are often missing their T's. "Hem" is "them," "her" is "their," "hey" is "they." This isn't always the case: "them" and "they" also appear in the manuscript. and as mentioned earlier, "hir" is "her."
- Contractions can be made with "thou" if the previous word ends in a T. For instance, "knowestow" is a contraction of "knowest thou." "Hastow" is a contraction of "hast thou."
- Sometimes words will have an E appended to the end. There are lots of reasons to do this: to denote that a word is the object of the sentence, or to denote the definite rather than indefinite form, or because the author needed an extra half syllable to make the line scan correctly. If you ignore all unexpected trailing E's, you can read stuff just fine (though you might have the grammar wrong if you try to write). In particular, remember that "hire" often means "her," since it's just "hir" but used as the object of the sentence.
- Random vocabulary:
- Oon = one
- Twey = two
- Thre = three
- Prik = shoot (with arrows)
- Eek = also
- Solempne = solemn
- Moot = must
- Woot or wot = know(s), as in "God woot" or "they wot noght," or "for wel ye woot"
- Koude = could, is able to
- Doon, dooth = various conjugations of do (done and doth)
- Wele = prosperity, related to "well" as in good health
- Wood = mad/crazy
- War = aware of, wary of
- Whilom = Once upon a time
- Soote = sweet
- Swich = such
- Clepe = to be named ("Istanbul was once ycleped Constantinople")
- Highte = named (synonym of "cleped," I think)
- Natheles or nathelees = nonetheless
- Wight = person
- Anon or anoon = immediately/soon
- Everichoon = everyone or each one
- Axe = ask (alternate spelling of "aks", discussed above)
- Yow = you
- Certes = certainly
- Mo = more (perhaps Notorious B.I.G. was a scholar of Middle English?)
Further Tips and Resources
- The first few pages are much dirtier and more stained than the rest. If you have trouble with them, try again a few pages later; it's much easier.
- I found it was immensely helpful to read aloud (remember back in kindergarten when you did this? It still works!). Reading out loud helps to sound out and recognize words, because they were written phonetically (the dictionary wouldn't be invented until 350 years later, so people were free to spell however they wanted). Not only does reading aloud help you sound out words, it gives you a better sense for the meter of the poem, and it makes it easier to get the rhymes right when they have unusual spelling. I half want to bring up Saint Ambrose, who impressed the heck out of Saint Augustine with his ability to read silently (which was an unusual feat at the time!), but those events took place in the fourth century, and I don't know if silent reading was still unusual a millennium later when Chaucer was around.
- Here is an invaluable guide to the prologue. It's great because it sets things in an historical context (for instance, when the Prioresse is described as not putting her fingers in her sauce at dinner, this is a huge compliment because silverware hadn't yet been introduced to England so everyone ate with their hands. To eat soup without getting your fingers dirty was an impressive feat indeed). This book will help you get the hang of things, and it's very good at defining unusual words that you won't recognize (and that I haven't included above because they've only come up once so far). It's fantastic, and I wish I could find its equivalent for the rest of the Tales. I picked up a copy on eBay, and am now the proud owner of a century-old book.
- Librarius has this great feature where you can click on certain words to see their definitions. Unfortunately, the words I really want to know about are often not clickable. but it covers the whole Tales, so it's better than nothing.
If you have any further questions/suggestions, I'd be happy to answer them and add them above.
Now that you've got some idea what's going on, here are the first few lines to start you off:
Here bygynneth the book of the tales of Caunt'bury
Here begins the book of the Canterbury Tales