It’s time to get ye olde brain ready for Middle English. While similar to modern English, this early form of the language would probably be unrecognizable by modern English speakers. Not only do the spellings and words look different, but the pronunciations were as well.
To bulk up your Middle English knowledge, explore some examples of Middle English words and their meanings. You can check out a few famous texts written in Middle English as well.
What Is Middle English?
If you thought that English just came in one form, then you would be dead wrong. Like any language, English has grown and morphed to become the diverse language it is today.
Middle English is the version of the language that falls between Old English and Modern English. It started around 1100 A.D. and shifted to Early Modern English around 1500 A.D. Middle English itself is also broken down into three different periods, including Early Middle English, Central Middle English and Late Middle English. The version of Middle English with the most publicity is Central Middle English.
Central Middle English: London Dialect
Sometimes called the London dialect, Central Middle English was spoken from about 1250 to 1400. One of the reasons that this period is so famous is because of the writers.
Not only did Geoffrey Chaucer write The Canterbury Tales during this time, but you also have “The Lover’s Confession” by John Gower and works like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. These Middle English works that are still read today are what really make the language shine. The shift from Middle English to Modern English is typically credited to John Milton.
To get a good idea of what Middle English looked like, explore some common Middle English words with their modern meanings.
Common Middle English Examples
There are a few common words you’ll likely encounter in various Middle English texts. Since spelling wasn’t as standardized at the time, these words might have slightly different spellings in different works. Review a few common Middle English words and their meanings here.
- Al be that - Although
- Anon - At once; at another time
- Bet - Better
- Can - Know; be able
- Cas - Happening now; chance
- Coy - Quiet
- Echo - Each one
- Everich - Every; every one
- Forthy - Therefore
- Han - Have
- Ich - I
- Kan - Know; know how to; can
- Lite - Little
- Moot - May; must; ought to; so
- Nat - Not
- Noon - None; no
- Nyce: foolish
- Pryme - 9 A.M.
- Rede - Advise; interpret; read
- Shaltow - You shall
- Thilke - This; that; at that
- Tho - Those; then
- Unnethe - Scarcely
- Ynogh - Enough
Middle English Period in Literature
Middle English isn’t something you are going to encounter on the street today (unless you are at a medieval festival). Typically, you’ll find it in English class as you read Middle English texts. Before diving into The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, review a few Middle English vocabulary words you might come across.
The Canterbury Tales
Written by Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales uses verse and prose to describe the journey of pilgrims to the Canterbury Cathedral. There are 24 stories in all, including “The Knight’s Tale” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” Just a few Middle English words you might find interesting include:
- Array - Arrangement or condition
- Bane - Destruction
- Boote - Remedy
- Certeyn - Certain
- Deel - Part or bit
- Devyse - Trick or device
- Fetis - Well made
- Gentle - Noble
- Hende - Handy or courteous
- Leef - Dear
- Mete - Food
- Ny - Near
- Paas - Pace or slow walk
- Routh - Pity
- Siker - Trusty
- Verray - True
While vocabulary words are great, it’s important to view Middle English in action. Check out this “The Knight’s Tale” excerpt from The Canterbury Tales:
Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duc that highte Theseus;
Of Atthenes he was lord and governour,
In Modern English, the three lines could be rewritten like this:
Once, as old histories tell us,
There was a duke who was called Theseus;
He was lord and governor of Athens,
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Written by an anonymous author, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a Middle English Arthurian poem. It tells the story of the chivalric romance between Sir Gawain and Lady Bertilak. A few common vocabulary words you might find in this Middle English work are:
- Apprise - Inform people
- Burnish - Polish
- Courtly - Refined appearance
- Din - Harsh noise
- Espy - Catch the eye
- Fetter - Shackles; restrained in shackles
- Gilded - Made or covered in gold
- Hauberk - Chainmail covering the neck and shoulders
- Implore - Beg
- Liege - Lord
- Mirth - Merriment
- Popinjay - Parrot
- Revel - Unrestrained merriment
- Stout - Dependable or courage
- Unsullied - Clean or spotless
- Verily - In truth
- Wayward - Undisciplined; resist guidance
Check out this excerpt from part one of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in its original Middle English:
And neuenes hit his aune nome, as hit now hat;
Tirius to Tuskan and teldes bigynnes,
Langaberde in Lumbardie lyftes vp homes,
And here are the same lines in a modern English translation:
And names it with his own name, which it now has;
Tirius turns to Tuscany and founds dwellings;
Longobard raises home in Lombardy;
Old English vs. Middle English vs. Early Modern English
The transformation of the English language had some very distinct leaps.
- Coming into existence in about the 5th century, Old English came from the West Germanic language, varied by region and used different letters.
- In Middle English, beginning around the 12th century, you start to see the formation of modern English. While spelling was not standardized, word order starts to take place in the writing.
- Modern English, the early version of which started around the 16th century, is where standardization of pronunciation and silent letters really start to shine. Shakespeare’s “thy” and “thine” might sound weird today, but they are a huge leap from Old English texts.
Exploring Middle English
While Middle English might seem like a whole other language, especially if you are trying to read it for the first time, it’s really not. It’s just an early form of the English language. Now that you’ve looked at Middle English, you might want to give modern slang words a try. They are truly epic!