Monday, September 15, 2008

Can’t you understand plain English?

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye,
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages:
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.

It is English, you know. Fourteenth-century English. It’s the first eighteen lines of the Prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Here’s a translation of these eighteen lines into modern English, made in 1949 by Theodore Morrison. It’s found in The Portable Chaucer (Viking Press, 1949, p. 61):

As soon as April pierces to the root
The drought of March, and bathes each bud and shoot
Through every vein of sap with gentle showers
From whose engendering liquor spring the flowers;
When zephrs have breathed softly all about
Inspiring every wood and field to sprout,
And in the zodiac the youthful sun
His journey halfway through the Ram has run;
When little birds are busy with their song
Who sleep with open eyes the whole night long
Life stirs their hearts and tingles in them so,
On pilgrimages people long to go
And palmers to set out for distant strands
And foreign shrines renowned in many lands.
And specially in England people ride
To Canterbury from every countyside
To visit there the blessed martyred saint
Who gave them strength when they were sick and faint.

Both versions, by the way, are written in iambic pentameter. You know, tah-DUM tah-DUM tah-DUM tah-DUM tah-DUM. To make true pentameter rhythm, you have to say Canterb’ry. Or Caunterb’ry. Veddy English, ay wot?

You can blame this post on Ruth Hull Chatlien, who mentioned in a post of hers on Saturday that she will never forget the first four lines of the Canterbury Tales in Middle English and that she used to know 18 lines of it, which she was required to memorize for a class in college. I thought it only fair to inflict it on the rest of you.

Here is the piéce de resistance, (or as the French would say, the pee-ESS-da rih-zis-TAWHNSS): an audio version of the eighteen lines in Middle English, complete with a rather bizarre phonetic rendering of what you are hearing. (My own phonetic renderings, of course, are not the least bit bizarre.)

Plus here’s a little something extra (a lagniappe, as it were) for making it all the way through this post: the Canterbury cathedral (photo copyright Sacred Destinations, 2007).


  1. After listening to the video it is a good thing I am alive today rather than then. I would have had to feign deafness back then because I wouldn't have understood more than a few words.

    But that said, I love the rhythm and melody of the words. No matter that I would not have understood.

  2. But Vonda, of course you would have understood! If you were alive back then, Middle English would have been your native tongue, the one you learned at your mother's knee. Modern English is what would have sounded like a foreign language!

  3. Believe it or not, we studied the Canterbury Tales in high school. I recall making a report about each of the travellers. I had to search magazines to find pictures of people that would fit the parts. Yeah, that old Middle English is difficult to understand when listened to, but not so hard to figure out if you're reading the words on a page. At least, in my opinion.

  4. I shall save the video until I can listen in peace, but I do find language - and the evolution of language - absolutely riveting.

    Very interesting post, my friend!

  5. I want to know how they KNOW that was the right pronunciation - I studied Chaucer at university and I didn't know then and I don't know now. I've been to Canterbury too - I remember the glorious cathedral - - and the rest of it seemed like a mass of dull shopping centres. Very disappointing.

  6. Oh, Bob. This was quite wonderful. My favorite lines were always, "And smale fowles maken melodye,
    That slepen al the night with open ye." I love the whimsy in that description. And I so enjoyed hearing the prologue read. Now I want to rememorize the whole 18 lines. The late Dr. Rudolph (my prof) would be proud.

    Sorry I took so long to answer, but if you've been over at my place, you know that we've been having technology issues such as Chaucer could never have imagined. I think (hope) it's resolved and now I'm trying to catch up.

  7. Thanks to everyone for commenting!

    Vonda, how are the language lessons coming along?

    Jeannelle, I learned the 18 lines as a senior in high school also. English IV with Mr. D. P. Morris.

    Jay and Daphne, I'm honored to have English commenters on my blog!

    Ruth, glad you liked the post. I was hoping that you would be surprised and pleased. Now I'm hoping that your computer is restored to full health.