Chaucer's English

Middle English

Chaucer spoke and wrote the London dialect of fourteenth-century English. The English of the period from around 1100 to around 1500 is called by modern scholars Middle English, developing between Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon) and the Early Modern English of Shakespeare's era (which was followed by today's Modern English).

Personal pronouns

The way Chaucer's pilgrims address each other tells us a lot about how he sees their social class — and also a lot about how he presents their attitudes towards one another.

Second person personal pronouns

When addressing someone in the singular, people had a choice:

Polite usage - Ye, you, your

  • Used to social superiors, elders, people for whom you want to show respect
  • Often used by wives to husbands.

Familiar usage - Thou, thee, thy / thine

  • Used for social inferiors, children, and by husbands (often) to wives
  • Also used by equals, friends and lovers
  • Often used to God or pagan deities (but the ‘polite' form is also used for all these).

Plural address - Ye, you, your

  • People used the same forms for all people in the plural. 

Third person personal pronouns

Chaucer writes in the London dialect of Middle English:

  • He uses hir(e) for Modern English their (only northerners used their in the medieval period). Beware of this because it is easy to confuse with the feminine form hir(e)
  • He also has hem where Modern English has them (again, northerners used them).

Middle English verb forms

Like modern German, different endings were added to the verbs in Chaucer's time. Thus in the present tense of the verb to sing we get:

  • I singe
  • Thou singest
  • He/she/it singeth
  • We singe /singen
  • Ye singe / singen
  • They singe / singen.
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