When we talk of Chaucer’s languages, we must talk about it in a more abstract sense; Chaucer, after all, was someone who knew—fluently—several different languages and was a well-educated man, someone who lived in London, a center for people with varying understandings of what it means to speak English (this is the time of regional dialects, after all, and Chaucer blends together these dialects when speaking and writing). Something which is a watershed moment in English literary history.
Chaucer wrote in Middle English. In order to situate this form we must understand, however, that there are three main periods of English as a language: Old English, which blended together Germanic dialects and forms, spoken from the first settlements of the British Isles by the Anglo-Saxons in the fifth and sixth century A.D (think of Beowulf). This language was spoken until the middle of the eleventh century but ended soon after with the Norman Conquest and as new French words were introduced into the vocabulary of the Anglo-Saxon settlements. This is the beginning of Anglo-Norman; Middle English, accordingly, is the language that ultimately develops from Old English’s contact with the Norman Conquerors. Different in form, sound, and vocabulary it is spoken from around the ending middle of the eleventh century to about the fifteenth century. After the fifteenth century, a series of changes take place within the language ultimately culminate with modern English (Early Modern English, the language of Shakespeare, is perhaps the best identifier we have for linguistic evolutions concerning the evolution of Middle English to Modern English). Old, Middle, Modern: the three periods of English language.
Old English is a highly inflected language. This means that certain words added on the end and at the beginnings of words identify those words as being in the past, present, future, or even a-temporal. Whereas in our modern English we would need certain words to denote certain actions, in Old English that surplus-meaning would often be intrinsically tied to that word through minor linguistic shifts, thus, Old English was often shorter in form than Modern English. With Old English’s ‘case endings’ and Grammar Gender, it is as complex for the modern reader as Latin is for the modern reader.
Modern English, meanwhile, loses virtually of these old linguistic features (no case endings or inflections, etc.). The only words which survive from Old English to today are monosyllabic words—knew, God, man, woman, sky, earth… and so on. Words which survive from Latin are intellectual words denoting specific societal functions: cuisine, organization, administration, politics; polysyllabic vocabularies like this owe much to the French additions of later centuries.
Middle English, meanwhile, loses many of these inflections. Word order itself, instead of word endings, tell you of the relationship among words in a sentence. Nouns are no longer masculine, feminine, or neutral. Such linguistic fossils are needed for excavation because in Chaucer’s time French was spoken as the language of the elite. Chaucer, however, wrote in English.
To illustrate some of these linguistic shifts, and how Chaucer utilized the linguistic conventions of his day, we need to look at some plurals and nouns.
In Modern English, if you want to denote plurality then you need to either add a ‘s’ or an ‘en,’ as in “kids” or “brethren.” Sometimes, in modern English, if you want to make a plural, then you have recourse to an ancient method of linguistic denotation—you change the actual word itself; think Man to men, goose to geese, and so on. This feature of modern English was around during Chaucer’s day. But an additional feature which survives is the notion of strong verbs and weak verbs: strong verbs operate by changing tense through the changing of the root vowel: drink-drank-drunk, run-ran, and so on; the adding of a suffix, meanwhile, for so-called ‘weak verbs’ accomplished this same operation regarding tense: walk-walked, talk-talked, and so on. Specifically concerning early modern English, and to an extent Old and Middle English, we see pronoun operation playing a large role: second person pronouns—thee, thy, thou, thine—are the singular ‘you.’ To talk of ‘you’ in the plural, you would say: Yes, you, your, and yours. Such words work in Chaucer’s Middle English in the same way that ‘to’ and ‘vou’ work in French, they mark number and class. This was an important morphological feature of Chaucer’s language, as he often switched between the ‘to’ and ‘vou’ forms.
When speaking Chaucer’s language, a general rule is to pronounce everything—every letter or every word. Vowels, though, are hard due to the Great Vowel Shift. Syntax—Chaucer’s word order is influenced by the words in the poetic line; meaning, Chaucer’s language in writing would often conform to making the line scan. Chaucer’s form of Middle English, meanwhile, would ask a question by inverting words: to cite an example: “go you home” is a question. Negation and comparison, meanwhile, are accumulative (this is true even in Shakespeare). Double, triple, and even quadruple negation was grammatical in Chaucer.
Professor Seth Lerer then finishes the lecture with a protracted discussion on The Canterbury Tales “General Prologue,” specifically the first eighteen lines and argues that the resonance of the words are found at the local levels of language of his time; words in Chaucer, in other words, are used for their rhyming potential and so dialects are utilized to great effect.