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).