How to pronounce Middle English

Chaucer's English falls between the trickier Germanic endings of Old Anglo-Saxon and the later Great Vowel Shift. There are many similarities to Modern English, especially when it comes to consonants. In other words, it should be easy for you to learn the basics.

Middle English spelling was in a period of transition. If you traveled around England in 1300 and asked five literate people to spell a word, they might have given you five different spellings. Geoffrey Chaucer made a rough attempt to standardize spelling, but even he spells the same word various ways in his works. We'll look at dialects other than "Chaucer English", but we'll use his speech and spelling as a starting point.

You may also want to hear longer streams of sound. If so, you can listen to the Canterbury Tales Prologue on this site as well.

Middle English Consonants

Most consonant sounds act like English. Since consonants in most words are nearly identical to their Modern English counterparts, let's focus on the differences.

  • By default, the letters /th/ and /f/ are voiceless like in "thing" and "fish". They are only voiced (like "this" and "of") between two vowels:

    ferne, fowles, forward, oft VS. fyfe, ofer, efer
    that, thoghte, thonder VS. bathen, sothe, fother

  • The letters /gh/ or /h/ (depending on spelling) represent the 'hard h' sound in German "ach" or Scottish "loch" between /a/, /o/, /u/ and a consonant. They represent the 'soft h' of German "ich" or English "heehee!" between /e/ or /i/ and a consonant:

    night, ih VS. ynogh, oght, draught

  • The combination /wh/ represents the sound of "h" + "w" (like an "h" pronounced just before the start of the Modern English version of the word):

    whanne, what, who VS. wende, wo, wissen

  • The two letters /ng/ sound like "finger", not like the simple velar 'n' of "singing":

    fingeres

  • The letter /s/ sounds like "seem", unless it's between two vowels, then it's like "please":

    seyde, sothe VS. cosin

  • The sound of /r/ is typically "trilled", like Spanish "r" (but not "rr").

    rood, ferne

  • The /k/ is pronounced in word initial /kn/:

    knight (or kniht)

  • Especially in older texts (closer to Old English), special characters appear, notably the letter þ ("thorn") and the letter ð ("edh"). Þorn and eð represent the sound /th/, and follow the pronunciation guide for /th/ above.

Middle English Vowels

Vowels are a bit trickier, but here are a few rules to get you pronouncing Middle English vowels in no time. Note that long vowels come before a single consonant or on their own at the end of a word. Short vowels, on the other hand, are found before two consonants or before a single consonant at the end of a word. Any vowel written double (aa, ee, oo, uu) is long.

  • Before two consonants (or before a single consonant at the end of a word), vowels tend to be short. /a/ sounds like "pat", /e/ like "let", /i/ like "sit", /o/ like British "rob", /u/ like a shorter version of "soon".

  • When it's not stressed ("unstressed" or "unaccented"), the vowel /e/ tends to have a neutral schwa sound, like /e/ in "angel":

    engel, tendre

  • Long /a/ sounds like a lengthened version of "father" (pronounced for a slightly longer time). Short /a/ sounds more like "pat".

    name (or naame) VS. bak

  • Long /e/ sometimes sounds like the /e/ of "they" and other times like the /e/ of "let" (both sounds held out for a longer time). Short /e/ sounds like "let":

    sweete, breeth, mete VS. tendre

  • Long /i/ or /y/ sounds like "seem", while short /i/ or /y/ sounds like "sit" or "seem" pronounced for a shorter amount of time:

    my, ire VS. ynogh

  • Long /o/ sometimes sounds like "boo" and other times like British "rock" (both for a slightly longer time). Short /o/ always sounds like the /o/ in British "rock":

    good, wo VS. oft, holt

  • Long /u/ sounds like "cue", while short /u/ sounds like "full":

    nature VS. unstraunge

  • The diphthong /ei/ is spelled "ei", "ey", "ay" or "ai", and sounds a bit like "whey":

    they, day

  • In older inscriptions, documents, works and texts (nearer to Old English), you may find vowels with a macron (a bar) written above (like nāme). The macron simply tells you that the vowel is long, and follows the pronunciation guides above for long vowels.