At this point in my investigation, I have not yet begun my work with Chaucer proper. Presently, I am engaged in preparatory study. I ordered a handy guide on Chaucer’s dialect of Middle English– a handy little booklet by Peter G. Beidler called A Student’s Guide to Chaucer’s Middle English— and so have been busy reading and re-reading those pages.
Although immensely helpful, and you can expect a full review of his book forthcoming, some aspects of it have given me trouble. Namely, his presentation of phonetics.
The first and second times I read through the concerning sections I could only shake my head in confusion; I was so lost– why did he want me to phonetically transcribe both the modern and Middle English word, why did I need to memorize these phonetic symbols (were the symbols like words?), did the symbols and vowels cooperate to the consonants, and so on. Never before being exposed to phonetics or the International Phonetic Alphabet, I felt marooned on a desert isle.
I am proud to say, however, that I have made some headway and many of those previous questions have been resolved. I can now separate the ‘oil’ and ‘water,’ the ‘fog’ from the ‘mist’ and so on.
So, with all of that being said, here are some of my notes from Beidler’s pamphlet.
(Bold indicates middle English words whereas brackets indicates the sounds in the International Phonetic Alphabet)
In the phonetic alphabet, one symbol represents one and only one sound. This means that when you transcribe the phonetics of words, sounds is the measuring stick by which you use to transcribe– the phonetics of a word will often be shorter than the word itself. In regards to the symbols used to denote the phonetics, those are simply symbols and not to be taken as meaning specific letters.
In Chaucer, the s was voiced as [z] when it came between two vowels. However, it was voiceless when came intervocalic. To unpack this a bit, and to understand the deeper ramifications of ‘voiced’ and ‘voiceless,’ let’s delineate the difference between each term.
When something is voiceless, for instance, it is a sound made with your teeth and tongue, not your vocal cords; accordingly, the reverse is true of voiced, where you make the sounds of the word with your vocal cord.
But, moving on, in regards to plurals, and words ending with an ‘s,’ would be to Chaucer voiceless [s]. However, they would be voiced if they came before a word beginning with a vowel.
The double ss would be voiceless even when intervocalic. Additionally, when transcribing the phonetics of a middle English word with the ss, one would add only a single phonetic symbol. Double consonants are transcribed only once.
An initial s following a word ending in a vowel is still a voiceless [s].
In certain situations consonants which are silent in modern English would be strictly pronounced in Middle English: k and g before an n would be distinctly pronounced; gn in French loan-words had the [n] sound; l before d, f, k, m would be distinctly pronounced; wbefore r was pronounced; h after w was pronounced with an expulsion of air, similar to the modern day pronunciation of ‘whew!’; g after n in stressed syllables would have been pronounced as in the modern ‘finger,’ while unstressed positions, the ng combination would be pronounced as [nk].
The “schwa,” the upside-down ‘e’ seen at the end of many Middle English words, is pronounced similarly to the modern ‘a’ in ‘above.’ It has the “-uh” sound. As a side note, though in Chaucer’s time this schwa had ceased to be pronounced in day-to-day conversation, Chaucer’s writings seem to demand of the reader to understand the nuance of pronouncing the letter in specific situations.
Of the schwa’s pronunciation in Chaucer’s writing, scholars have determined that it is pronounced when it appears at the end of a line of poetry, unless it is the only vowel in a word; also, occasionally, it is pronounced when the iambic meter requires it pronounced at the end of a line; if permitted by the metrical configuration, the final -e is either slurred or blended if it is before a word beginning with a vowel.