View Full Version : Medieval English

10-03-2008, 01:47 PM
I'm preparing to transport my modern-day character to Norman England in 1231, but I'm a bit worried about the language barrier.

Can anyone please enlighten me on the differences between 13th century spoken English and modern day spoken English?

Thanks in advance...

Ol' Fashioned Girl
10-03-2008, 02:11 PM
Medievalist is The Source for the information you seek. I'm betting she'll be along soon to give you some guidance.

10-03-2008, 02:15 PM
Just going from doing Chaucher's Tales at school years ago. The teacher brought in an audio cassette of someone reading the book as how it would have sounded then; although a lot of the words were spelled quite similar to modern day English, the pronounciation sounded quite German actually!

Knight sounded something like nicht, but that is the only word I can remember :)

take care,

10-03-2008, 02:38 PM
You could also look at Piers Plowman which is about a century later and also The Symonie.

The short answer is that the differences are likely to be vast.

Also consider that many of the nobles would still have spoken Norman French

10-03-2008, 02:49 PM
Did you read Chaucer at school? He's late 1300's but if you based your Old English on him you wouldn't be far out and you'd have a lot of translated text to use.

I started the Old English part of my book with a couple of lines of conversation which the 21th century time traveller heard. My MC learnt Chaucer at school in the original language (as I did). But I only include the language a couple of times more in the book and use modern English from then on - but I'm careful when the ancients speak. I nearly had one of my fighting men called a 'thug'. Of course, Thuggies were Indian followers of Kali who murdered by strangulation and were discovered by Europeans in the late eighteenth century. Medieval England had not heard of them so the word Thug would not have been in their language. In one TV cartoon show set in Medieval times, one of the nobles comments that something 'is not my cup of tea'! It really shows them up.

So it is best to have a good idea of what words were used in those days and what were not.

Barb D
10-03-2008, 04:34 PM
Connie Willis' Doomsday Book transports a mid-21st century historian to 1348. The MC is well-prepared, and has studied Middle English, Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, Old German, and Church Latin. Plus, she has an interpreter implant.

I'm taking the easy way out; my MCs are transported to 16th century Denmark by magic coin, and I've made the magic extend to automatic translation - like speaking in tongues on Pentacost.

10-03-2008, 07:17 PM
You might try here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_English

10-04-2008, 12:39 AM
My Chaucer's has both the original and the modern texts. There is a huge difference. For me, I can read the original but it takes a great deal of effort. Going back in time and trying to speak it would be very, very difficult. So would being understood speaking Modern English.

10-04-2008, 12:43 AM
I memorized the opening stanzas of the Canterbury Tales in medieval English and loved it. There is a great difference in the sound though. The written "Aprille" is pronounced "Ape-reel" "when" is pronounced "wan" and "perced" (aka pierced) ws pronounced with the accent on the second syllable 'per-SED'.

I think it would take some getting used to the sound of Medieval English and would require a knowledge of Norman French--but I don't think it would be impossible for a character to pick it up by ear if he/she had a gift for languages.

10-04-2008, 01:48 AM
If you'd studied Middle English before, it probably wouldn't be insanely difficult to figure out how to speak and understand it, especially if you have some knowledge of French (not even Norman French, necessarily) and are skilled at learning languages.

The main thing to keep in mind is the fact that Chaucer's Middle English was 1. London dialect, and 2. written in verse (for the Canterbury Tales, at least).

If your character is somewhere else, like off in the Northwest of England or something, then the dialect will be much harder. It's the difference between reading Chaucer and Gawain and the Green Knight. They were written around the same time, but are vastly different. I can read Chaucer pretty well, but Gawain...well, let's just say I didn't get far before switching to Modern English.

As for the verse, people didn't speak in rhyme while Chaucer is in rhyme. Sometimes, the natural pronuciation of a word wouldn't be exactly as you'd say it in the poem. Stresses were placed differently in poetry, and syllables might be drawn out. If you take a look at something like Chaucer's Treatise on the Astrolabe you'll see what regular writing, and probably speech, would have been like.

But, yeah, in general...it sounds more French/German-ish (depending on the word) than Modern English.To me, at least. Though, at the same time, I only know about later 14th century Middle English...It's quite possible that 13th century Middle English would have been closer to Old English (and, thus, probably closer to that of Gawain instead of Chaucer's works) so it would sound much more German and would have tons of words that you probably wouldn't know unless you'd learned them before.

Deb Kinnard
10-04-2008, 05:53 AM
I would suggest you give your character a learning curve, like Connie Willis did in her masterful DOOMSDAY BOOK. When your character first travels, have him fail to understand what's said. All you need to show this is a sentence or two. Then perhaps a word or two pokes through, and he begins to learn to understand what's said around him.

Naturally, for fictional purposes his learning curve will be a LOT shorter than it would be for a real person. In 1231 there would be much more unfamiliar language than Chaucer is to us, so you'll have to research a few phrases in the beginning. After his learning curve has come a ways, a reasonable approximation of the language will be enough. You might toss a middle-English word in here and there, afterward, making sure the meaning is clear from context.

Moreover, your use of language will depend on what sort of people he encounters. In 1231, the upper classes will still be speaking French. The villeins and middle-class sorts will be speaking English. So what he learns will depend on the folks he hangs out with.

10-04-2008, 02:30 PM
Thanks all, this has been really useful so far. Looks like I've got my work cut out...

I'm also wondering if anyone has any insight into how well my character's modern English might be understood by 13th century folk...

I've been reading a few Middle English texts, but many of them are poetry and I wonder sometimes if people really would have spoken in the same manner. For example (and this may well be a stupid question :o ) did they really use thee/thou/thy in conversation? And why are there suffixes on swell(en), will(en), dwell(en) - would they have been used in speech or are they just there for poetry's sake?

10-04-2008, 07:03 PM
I'm also wondering if anyone has any insight into how well my character's modern English might be understood by 13th century folk...

My guess would be not at all

Deb Kinnard
10-05-2008, 01:22 AM
I differ. If you look at source texts, you'll see a few basic words you can read, identical to what we use now. But these are very basic: and, the, to, but, you (sometimes). Items like that. My gut feeling is that for the most part, my speech would be all but unintelligible to my ancestors.

Here's where you can get your character on a different part of his learning curve, if you decide to do it this way: he'd have to learn to speak slowly, very clearly, and in the most elementary modern-English words he could find. He'd adapt, inevitably, to using the more archaic words he's hearing spoken around him.

10-05-2008, 01:57 AM
Google "Great Vowel Shift".