Chaucer and Evolving Grammar

Geoffrey Chaucer‘s verse in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales shows the beginning of a shift toward Modern English. However, some usage, spelling, and even archaic letters remain from Old English. The Canterbury Tales lacks the heavy Norman French influence of Modern English and has a great deal in common with modern German. The mechanics and vocabulary of Chaucer’s Prologue echo clearly the Germanic heritage of English in a grammar characterized by pure descriptive grammar.

Descriptive Grammar is the view that how frequently words and phrases are used determines whether they are correct. Examples include the use of "they" where proper grammar uses "one" or "you". Prescriptive Grammar is a set of rules for proper use of a language that are not relevant to actual usage. Examples include "For whom are you calling" over "Who are you calling for?"
Descriptive Grammar versus Prescriptive Grammar

In seeking to understand the mechanics of English, it is important to understand the march of the language through history. The first Germanic people arrived in England around 400 AD. It is this fact that places our language in the Germanic language branch (like German, Dutch and Swedish) rather than the Romance language branch (like French, Italian and Spanish). By 600 AD, English had become distinct from the local Celtic language. Multiple migrations by Scandinavian people continued during this era as well as many Viking attacks. English began to mix with Danish, and borrowed some words in common use today. In 1066 AD, William the Conqueror lead the Norman Conquest of England. This introduced Norman French to England, and the languages continued to be spoken alongside each other. The languages mixed and produced a language both like and unlike Modern English

Timeline of English
Timeline of English

Missing Letters

Canterbury Tales Cover
Canterbury Tales Cover

One of the most prevalent indicators of Old English carryover in the Middle English used by Chaucer is in the use of letters no longer in English (Freeborn, activity 13.3). The most prevalent of these is the thorn (Þ) which survives today only in Swedish (Cantrell). Excellent examples of this usage are seen in the infinitives yfalle (line 25) and ymages (line 420): These translate to “to fall” and “to improve” respectively (Chaucer). The linguistic processes of change eventually made the hard “th” plus a verb into the word to plus a verb. Like Modern English, the Prologue has distinct forms for verbs used as nouns. The thorn seems to indicate participles in several other places: Ybore (“carried”) (380), yteyed (“fastened” or “tied”) (459), and yshryve (“shriven” from shrive – for a priest to hear a confession or offer absolution) function as adjectival verbs. Yeve (“to give”) (223) is arguably a gerund.

Gerund – a verb form ending in –ing and functioning in a sentence as a noun. Infinitive – a verb proceeded by "to" functioning as a noun in a sentence, and usually introducing a phrase. Participle – a past-tense form of a verb functioning in a sentence as either a noun or adjective.

The Prologue shows evidence of more than one missing letter. It is very unlikely that yaf (“give” or “gave”) (177 et al.), started with either a thorn or an actual “y”. It is far more likely that this letter was an insular g (ᵹ) or even yough (ȝ) (Cantrell).

The ȝ (yogh) sound survives today in German and many other languages. It was a throaty "k" sound as in Bach, loch, or the High German word for "I" Ich. Insular g (ᵹ) is rendered today as "zh" in many cases. It is close to a French "j" or the Russian/Cyrillic "ж".
Definition of yogh and insular g.

Both of these sounds would likely develop into an English “g” with use. When The Canterbury Tales entered print in the 16th Century, it would not be surprising if the typesetter replaced this lost letter (as well as the thorn) with what letters he felt proper (and had in his set) (Freeborn, ch. 3).

 The Curse of the Publisher

It was with the introduction of the Gutenberg press in the 16th Century that English began a centuries-long regularization in spelling (Kremmer). Though changing the text of a document by a printer may seem unconscionable to modern writers, scholars believe this was a fairly common practice at the time (Freeborn, ch. 3). Handwriting could be ambiguous, faded, or contain letters not in the movable type set. Since English was purely descriptive in grammar at the time, some seem to have taken it on themselves to correct the English and even meter of some early writers (Freeborn, activity 13.3).

At the time Chaucer was writing, English was slowly gaining respect in Great Britain. Government documents were beginning to appear in English, legal cases were now conducted in English, and schools began to teach the children to speak English (Kremmer). Some historians cite the rising importance of the English speaking working class during the Black Death (Tillery). Chaucer references the saying of prayers in French in lines 121-123, and, given the ravages of plague, the association of the two may have led many to be less than enamored with the Norman French language. Many others historians cite the Hundred Years’ War as a key factor in the rise of both English nationalism and the English Language (“English”).

We Learnen Yspeake Anew

These myriad causes meant that Norman French (the predecessor to Modern French) and Middle English mixed and precipitated the Great Vowel Shift (“Great Vowel Shift (Gvs)”). This process has no clear beginning or end; rather, it is marked by a slow regularization of vowel sounds and vowel sound spellings in English. Since most Romance languages (such as French) center more on vowel sounds and Germanic languages (such as English and German) center more on consonant sounds, English took vowels from Norman French and consonants from a predecessor closer to German.

Vowel sounds were simply different before this as evidence by the first two lines of the Prologue where roote (root) and soote (sweet) rhyme (Chaucer). One of the most prevalent and noticeable changes from Chaucer’s English is the many vowel sounds of “y”. The practice of using “y” to represent a range of vowel and consonant sounds persists in Modern English but not to the extent of Chaucer’s time.

The phonetics in English (both in Chaucer’s time and today) come largely from Germanic influence. The practice of signaling a short vowel by following it with double consonants—a common practice in not only in Modern English but modern German as well—is already evident in the 14th Century. The words hadde (had), dette (debt) (283), and apparently calle (call) (286) illustrate this point. If this practice survived the last seven hundred years, we can reasonably assume unstressed vowels (ǝ) were common at the time as well. The practical importance is that unstressed vowels are a key element of English not found in Romance Languages.

Phonetics is the study of how spelling and sound are relative. German, Arabic, and Spanish are entirely phonetic languages in that the spellings and pronunciations match perfectly. English is not phonetic: A fact which give both first and second language students problems. Germanic languages have what is known as an unstressed vowel—vowels in unstressed syllables take an "uh" or "schwa" sound represented phonetically as ǝ.
Phonics and Unstressed Vowels defined

If You Start a Sentence with a Cart, You Can’t End It with a Horse

Perhaps most important, Chaucer’s grammar (and all English at the time) was entirely dictated by descriptive elements. It was not until the 18th Century that anyone began to call publicly for a prescriptive grammar standard. This is where many of our standards, which are often ignored in informal English, come from. The admonition against ending a sentence with a preposition is among these rules. Similar is a rule against splitting an infinitive, though it is very common in usage. Some even tried to impose Latin grammar rules on English (especially noticeable in the introduction of the objective case pronoun “whom”).

Among the most notable of these grammarians was Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels. One of his many complaints was what he saw as major grammatical errors and irregularities of use in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton (Stanton). Though some experts disagree with Swift’s standards, the famous author’s clout helped carry these standards forward to the twentieth century.


When The Canterbury Tales was written, English was still free from heavy French influence to mechanics, vocabulary, and phonology: Simply put, it was not the language it is today. Though formalized and prescriptive grammar schemes have arguably slowed linguistic changes (there is much more difference between Chaucer and Shakespeare than Hawthorne and King despite similar time frames), they have not stopped the change. This should be encouraging to those fretful grammarians who cringe at Facebook.

Beginning in Chaucer’s time, Middle English was greatly altered by geopolitical factors, social climate, and technological advances. Linguistic students should take heed of these factors as they have not vanished but rather accelerated at the speed of technology. Change is a necessary process of language, and Chaucer’s Prologue shows how drastic these changes can be in a relatively short time.

Works Cited

Cantrell, M. Asher. “12 Letters That Didn’t Make the Alphabet.” Mental Floss, 2012. Web. 23 June 2014.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Ed. Sinan Kökbugur. Librarius, 1997. Web. 20 June 2014.

“English.” Dictionary of Languages. London: A&C Black, 2004. Credo Reference. Web. 23 June 2014.

Freeborn, Dennis. “From Old English to Standard English.” Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan Ltd. n.d. Web. 23 June 2014.

“Great Vowel Shift (Gvs).” A Dictionary of Sociolinguistics. Edinburg: Edinburgh University Press, 2004. Credo Reference. Web. 23 June 2014.

Kremmer, Suzanne. “Chronology of Events in the History of English.” Words in English Public Website. Houston: Rice University, n.d.. Web. 23 June 2014.

Stanton, Robert. “EN 307 History of the English Language.” Boston: Boston College, 2014. Web. 24 June 2014.

Tillery, J. “Middle English: 1066 to 1500.” San Antonio: University of Texas San Antonio, n.d. Web. 23 June 2014.

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  1. Lina Rider

    The Middle English language, style of the poem of Chaucer’s time is proving to remain as much a problem for me as it was in High School. Which is the only hang up I have with these tales that I do like and enjoy.

  2. Chaucer exhibits many thought out themes, and presents many realistic behaviors from characters and responses from these characters to things other characters exhibit.

  3. Gus Oden

    The Canterbury Tales, lovely. I’ve read the ‘olde English’ version side-by-side with the Modern English. It requires a big bottle of Tylenol to get through it but it’s so very worth it.

  4. He makes reading Shakespeare almost easy.

  5. Fascinating read. I took an entire class on Chaucer my senior year of college.

  6. Cristobal

    Chaucer’s tales were amusing, but hard to understand without a good modern English translation.

  7. ericespo7

    I found it interesting how you point out how Modern English both arises out of a heavy influence of the French language, but that a sense of English nationalism arose out of defining Englishness against the French. An interesting paradox of history that lives in our language!

  8. WICKEDg

    You can’t claim to be an educated speaker of English if you haven’t read at least some Chaucer.

  9. LeifPannell

    I see why Chaucer is still so highly regarded after so long. Also surprisingly sensitive to the female perspective for the period in which it was written.

  10. The Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare’s Macbeth inspired me to study British Literature as opposed to American Literature my freshman year of college.

  11. This is an interesting article. I am most appreciative of my senior english professor who required us to memorise the prologue in the Middle English text…aside from making the stories more personal, it made us appreciate the creativity of such a historic figure.

  12. Well. I know as an English teacher, I am supposed to love The Canterbury Tales and there is a lot of language in there that is teachable, especially from an evolution of linguistics point of view. But it was just tough for me to get into.

  13. Chaucer has a rare gift with words and descriptions.

  14. Great! I always try to keep up with my intellectual expansion by revisiting some classical literature.

  15. Nof

    This was an amazing article. I studied some of the Canterbury Tales last semester and it was pretty intense. But ultimately enjoyable. This article makes very specific and strong points. It’s well written!

  16. It’s very pleasing to read an article with a healthy descriptivist viewpoint at its core. Thanks for a nice historical overview!

  17. This is a great article, it is very important for people that love the English to know and understand where the language has been and evolved from. The section of background information was very informative to learn about the history of English. English truly is an amazing language that has undergone so much over time.Along with Shakespeare and the Great Vowel Shift I personally believe that Chaucer’s work was one of the biggest impacts on English. Like discussed in this article the bridge that Chaucer makes between Middle English and Modern Day English. I don’t exactly agree that Chaucer is the gap between Old and Middle English, although some of the words do share some similar characteristics I do not see such a connection when comparing Chaucer to a epic such as Beowulf. Chaucer use a form of English that is more phonetic than Old English and I think this is what really separates the two. Overall I really enjoyed this article and the information that it provided its always good to brush up on the history of the English language!

  18. I’ve always loved focusing especially on the orthographic elements that dropped out of English between, say, 900 and 1650. I suppose, after spending a few centuries mixing up þ and þ, certain linguistic forces tend to work these sorts of conflicts out.

  19. Matt Phillips

    Nice piece. This one required a lot of research. Had to memorize the first 25 lines of Canterbury Tales as an undergrad––it helped us learn how the language worked back then. I found it interesting and intriguing. Chaucer was a genius…

  20. Very interesting. It would be nice to see our language draw out more Germanic roots. English after all is very similar to German when it comes to core vocabulary. Book=Buch Fire=Feuer to have is haben. So much similiarity. One Old and Middle English word I really like is aglich. It basically means monstrous.

  21. Thorn (þ) is used today in Icelandic, but not Swedish (such as in this headline from “Þingmenn koma sér loks saman um siðareglur”). While þ did become Ye (but still pronounced “the”) for typesetting reasons (þ being less available), the y- prefix on weak verbs looks more like a variation on the Germanic ge- prefix that was used in Old English, and there does seem to be a lot of interchange between g, y, and ȝ in Middle English.

  22. Nice to see the prescriptive-descriptive distinction in linguistics being drawn on here. Worth a read.

  23. Chaucer did NOT write in Old English (which was a very different language than today’s English) but instead he wrote in a newer hybrid language ‘Middle English’ that was a fusion of Anglo-Saxon & French. The Norman French offered Anglo-Saxons a higher level of technology and culture at the time. So between 1066 & 1350 there was an infusion of French vocabulary that allowed expression on new ways of life, law, governance, worship, education, arts, literature, etc. This process is similar to what we see in the evolution of modern English during our life time. When I was a child, there was no internet, wifi, dvd, drama-queens, and hundreds of other terms that are now part of our everyday language.

    Think of life in Anglo Saxon times. First of all, Romans had been gone for almost 500 years when the Normans invaded in 1066. During that 500 years Germanic peoples displaced the Celtic peoples who had been ruled by Romans. So the germanic Angles, Saxons, Norse & Jutes were not romanized peoples. The Latin influence in post 1066 English came through French. AnglonSaxon farmers did not speak Latin. But they did speak a base that still exists today in English house & farm language (house, wife, children, mother, father, pigs, cows, etc).

    There is much more recent research coming out on this topic. The days of 19th century pro-Old English biais & minimized influences of French are gone by.

    I speak both English & French fluently since childhood. Everyday English ranges from truly about 40 to 60% French vocabulary, increasing in percentage as we move between venues like from a farm to a law office or from homelife to commerce… or if we talk about war or the arts.

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