The Vocabulary of Chaucer
By Colin FitzGerald
February 19, 2007
The Making of a Vocabulary
• What a vocabulary is and how it forms.
– A vocabulary is a set of words known to a
specific person or entity and understood in a
particular language. (e.g. – Chaucer and his
Middle English vocabulary)
– A vocabulary forms over a person’s lifespan.
Vocabularies, like people, evolve with time as
new words are born and old words die. Most
words however, simply change with the times.
Lexicon and Syntax
• What are lexical words and syntax?
– Lexical words are the actual content words of
any given piece of writing and syntax pertains
to the way in which the lexical, and to some
extent, the function words are arranged.
– Chaucer’s syntax is reflective of the general
changes in Middle English syntax. The loss of
grammatical gender and the deterioration of
inflectional endings were significant changes.
Loan Words
• What are loan words?
– Loan words are words taken directly from
other languages and incorporated as such
into a particular language with little to no
translation during the borrowing process.
– Chaucer borrowed thousands of words, most
of which coming from neighboring French and
other Romance (Italic) languages including
Spanish and Italian.
Chaucer’s Vocabulary
• How large was Chaucer’s vocabulary?
– Many English scholars have estimated
Chaucer’s vocabulary to be around 12,000
words, or about one-third the size of
Shakespeare’s vocabulary.
– In addition, statistics show that over 6200
words (52% of Chaucer’s 12,000 word
vocabulary) are considered borrowed from
Romance languages alone.
Chaucer’s Vocabulary
• Loan words in Chaucer’s vocabulary…
– In The Parson’s Tale, Chaucer employs the
word fruyt (fruit), and in The Second Nun’s
Tale, he uses the word peple (people). Both
words were borrowed from French.
– Middle English saw a great deal of interaction
and mixing with French primarily as a result of
the Norman Invasion of England by William
the Conqueror in the year 1066.
Chaucer’s Vocabulary
• What is Middle English?
– The term given by linguistics experts to the
diverse forms of the English language spoken
in England between the year 1066 and the
middle fifteenth century.
– Unlike Old English, which tended to be
spoken rather than written, Middle English
benefited greatly from the advent of better
technologies including the printing press.
Chaucer’s Vocabulary
• How diverse was Chaucer’s vocabulary?
– Chaucer’s vocabulary is considered by many
English scholars to be a mixed dialect, which
stemmed from the static Central Midlands
dialect and the dynamic London dialect.
– The London dialect comprised the state of the
English language in London during the latter
half of the fourteenth century. It became the
version of English later used by Parliament.
Chaucer’s Vocabulary
• Effects of the Central Midlands dialect…
– From this dialect, Chaucer gained a slew of
loan words. The Scandinavian influences in
this region had a profound impact on his
vocabulary. (200+ words from Old Norse)
– These Scandinavian lexical borrowings
became more commonplace in Chaucer’s
writing as his writing became more complex,
rhythmic, and systematized.
Chaucer’s Vocabulary
• Effects of variation in Chaucer’s English…
– In Chaucer’s poem entitled Troilus and
Criseyde, he states, “And for ther is so gret
diversite…In Englissh and in writyng of oure
tonge” (Book V, lines 1793-4).
– Chaucer was also known to spell the word
“such” at least five different ways…(e.g. –
‘swich’, ‘swech’, ‘soch’, ‘sych’, & ‘schch’)
These variations surely constitute diversity!
Chaucer’s Vocabulary
• Effects of loan words in Chaucer’s English
– Loan words, particularly French loan words,
were seen as being more elegant and
sophisticated than words taken from Old
English dialects; a stylistic presupposition.
– This stylistic presupposition of Chaucer’s was
probably a result of the fact that he spoke and
wrote French while working as a squire in the
Courts of Kings Edward III and Richard II.
Chaucer’s Vocabulary
• Morphological effects in Chaucer’s English
– Many words in Chaucer’s vocabulary contain
evidence of the relinquishment of numerous
grammatical inflections commonly associated
with Old English words.
– This loss of grammatical inflections is
symbolic of the greater transition that
occurred between Old English and Middle
English over the course of just five centuries.
Chaucer’s Vocabulary
• Phonological effects in Chaucer’s English
– Consonants in Chaucer’s vocabulary were
treated relatively the same way as they are in
Modern English. Consonant clusters however
were treated very differently.
– Examples of such consonant clusters include
‘kn’ as in knyf, ‘ng’ as in yonge, ‘wh’ as in
whan, and ‘gn’ as in gnoff. These words all
contain Chaucerian consonant clusters.
Chaucer’s Vocabulary
• Chaucer coined over 2000 words in the
English Language.
• List of random nouns coined by Chaucer…
– Absence – the state of being absent
– Bribery – the act of larceny or robbery
– Cadence – the rhythmic flow of sounds
– Delicacy – the quality of being delicate
– Governance – the action of governing
Works Consulted
• Burnley, David, A Guide to Chaucer’s Language
(Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983).
• Cannon, Christopher, The Making of Chaucer’s English:
A Study of Words (New York, NY: Cambridge University
Press, 1998).
• Elliot, Ralph W.V., Chaucer’s English (London, UK:
Andre Deutsch, 1974).
• Horobin, Simon, The Language of the Chaucer Tradition
(Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2003).
• Sandved, Arthur O., Introduction to Chaucerian English
(Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 1985).

The Vocabulary of Chaucer