The Universe of Discourse

Fri, 05 Jun 2020

You can learn to read Middle English

In a recent article I quoted this bit of Middle English:

Ȝelde ȝe to alle men ȝoure dettes: to hym þat ȝe schuleþ trybut, trybut.

and I said:

As often with Middle English, this is easier than it looks at first. In fact this one is so much easier than it looks that it might become my go-to example. The only strange word is schuleþ itself…

Yup! If you can read English, you can learn to read Middle English. It looks like a foreign language, but it's not. Not entirely foreign, anyway. There are tricks you can pick up. The tricks get you maybe 90 or 95% of the way there, at least for later texts, say after 1350 or so.

Disclaimer: I have never studied Middle English. This is just stuff I've picked up on my own. Any factual claims in this article might be 100% wrong. Nevertheless I have pretty good success reading Middle English, and this is how I do it.

Some quick historical notes

It helps to understand why Middle English is the way it is.

English started out as German. Old English, also called Anglo-Saxon, really is a foreign language, and requires serious study. I don't think an anglophone can learn to read it with mere tricks.

Over the centuries Old English diverged from German. In 1066 the Normans invaded England and the English language got a thick layer of French applied on top. Middle English is that mashup of English and French. It's still German underneath, but a lot of the spelling and vocabulary is Frenchified. This is good, because a lot of that Frenchification is still in Modern English, so it will be familiar.

For a long time each little bit of England had its own little dialect. The printing press was introduced in the late 15th century, and at that point, because most books were published in or around London, the Midlands dialect used there became the standard, and the other dialects started to disappear.

[ Addendum 20200606: The part about Midlands dialect is right. The part about London is wrong. London is not in the Midlands. ]

With the introduction of printing, the spelling, which had been fluid and do-as-you-please, became frozen. Unfortunately, during the 15th century, the Midlands dialect had been undergoing a change in pronunciation now called the Great Vowel Shift and many words froze with spelling and pronunciations that didn't match. This is why English vowel spellings are such a mess. For example, why are “meat” and “meet” spelled differently but pronounced the same? Why are “read” (present tense) and “read” (past tense) pronounced differently but spelled the same? In Old English, it made more sense. Modern English is a snapshot of the moment in the middle of a move when half your stuff is sitting in boxes on the sidewalk.

By the end of the 17th century things had settled down to the spelling mess that is Modern English.

The letters are a little funny

Depending on when it was written and by whom, you might see some of these obsolete letters:

  • Ȝ — This letter is called yogh. It's usually a ‘y’ sound, but if the word it's in doesn't make sense with a ‘y’ try pretending that it's a ‘g’ or ‘gh’ instead and see if the meaning becomes clearer. (It was originally more like a “gh-” sound. German words like gestern and garden change to yesterday and yard when they turn into English. This is also why we have words like ‘night’ that are still spelled with a ‘gh’ but is now pronounced with a ‘y’.)

  • þ — This is a thorn. It represents the sound we now write as th.

  • ð — This is an edh. This is usually also a th, but it might be a d. Originally þ and ð represented different sounds (“thin” and “this” respectively) but in Middle English they're kinda interchangeable. The uppercase version looks like Đ.

Some familiar letters behave a little differently:

  • u, v — Letters ‘u’ and ‘v’ are sometimes interchangeable. If there's a ‘u’ in a funny place, try reading it as a ‘v’ instead and see if it makes more sense. For example, what's the exotic-looking "haue”? When you know the trick, you see it's just the totally ordinary word “have”, wearing a funny hat.

  • w — When w is used as a vowel, Middle English just uses a ‘u’. For example, the word for “law” is often spelled “laue”.

  • y — Where Middle English uses ‘y’, we often use ‘i’. Also sometimes vice-versa.

The quotation I discussed in the earlier article looks like this:

Ȝelde ȝe to alle men ȝoure dettes: to hym þat ȝe schuleþ trybut, trybut.

Daunting, right? But it's not as bad as it looks. Let's get rid of the yoghs and thorns:

Yelde ye to alle men youre dettes: to hym that ye schuleth trybut, trybut.

The spelling is a little funny

Here's the big secret of reading Middle English: it sounds better than it looks. If you're not sure what a word is, try reading it aloud. For example, what's “alle men”? Oh, it's just “all men”, that was easy. What's “youre dettes”? It turns out it's “your debts”. That's not much of a disguise! It would be a stretch to call this “translation”.

Yelde ye to all men your debts: to him that ye schuleth trybut, trybut.

“Yelde” and “trybut” are a little trickier. As languages change, vowels nearly always change faster than consonants. Vowels in Middle English can be rather different from their modern counterparts; consonants less so. So if you can't figure out a word, try mashing on the vowels a little. For example, “much” is usually spelled “moche”.

With a little squinting you might be able to turn “trybut” into “tribute”, which is what it is. The first “tribute” is a noun, the second a verb. The construction is analogous to “if you have a drink, drink!”

I had to look up “yelde”, but after I had I felt a little silly, because it's “yield”.

Yield ye to all men your debts: to him that ye schuleth tribute, tribute.

We'll deal with “schuleth” a little later.

The word order is pretty much the same

That's because the basic grammar of English is still mostly the same as German. One thing English now does differently from German is that we no longer put the main verb at the end of the sentence. If a Middle English sentence has a verb hanging at the end, it's probably the main verb. Just interpret it as if you had heard it from Yoda.

The words are a little bit old-fashioned

… but many of them are old-fashioned in a way you might be familiar with. For example, you probably know what “ye” means: it's “you”, like in “hear ye, hear ye!” or “o ye of little faith!”.

Verbs in second person singular end in ‘-st’; in third person singular, ‘-th’. So for example:

  • I read
  • Thou readst
  • He readeth
  • I drink
  • Thou drinkst
  • She drinketh

In particular, the forms of “do” are: I do, thou dost, he doth.

Some words that were common in Middle English are just gone. You'll probably need to consult a dictionary at some point. The Oxford English Dictionary is great if you have a subscription. The University of Michigan has a dictionary of Middle English that you can use for free.

Here are a couple of common words that come to mind:

  • eke — “also”
  • wyf — “woman”

Verbs change form to indicate tense

In German (and the proto-language from which German descended), verb tense is indicated by a change in the vowel. Sometimes this persists in modern English. For example, it's why we have “drink, drank, drunk” and “sleep, slept”. In Modern German this is more common than in Modern English, and in Middle English it's also more common than it is now.

Past tense usually gets an ‘-ed’ on the end, like in Modern English.

The last mystery word here is “schuleth”:

Yield ye to all men your debts: to him that ye schuleth tribute, tribute.

This is the hard word here.

The first thing to know is that “sch-” is always pronounced “sh-” as it still is in German, never with a hard sound like “school” or “schedule”.

What's “schuleth” then? Maybe something do to with schools? It turns out not. This is a form of “shall, should” but in this context it has its old meaning, now lost, of “owe”. If I hadn't run across this while researching the history of the word “should”, I wouldn't have known what it was, and would have had to look it up.

But notice that it does follow a typical Middle English pattern: the consonants ‘sh-’ and ‘-l-’ stayed the same, while the vowels changed. In the modern word “should” we have a version of “schulen” with the past tense indicated by ‘-d’ just like usual.

“Schuleth” goes with ‘ye’ so it ought to be ‘schulest’. I don't know what's up with that.

[ Addendum 20200608: “ye” is plural, and ‘-st’ only goes on singular verbs. ]

Prose example

Let's try Wycliffe's Bible, which was written around 1380ish. This is Matthew 6:1:

Takith hede, that ye do not youre riytwisnesse bifor men, to be seyn of hem, ellis ye schulen haue no meede at youre fadir that is in heuenes.

Most of this reads right off:

Take heed, that you do not your riytwisnesse before men, to be seen of them, else you shall have no meede at your father that is in heaven.

“Take heed” is a bit archaic but still good English; it means “Be careful”.

Reading “riytwisnesse” aloud we can guess that it is actually “righteousness”. (Remember that that ‘y’ started out as a ‘gh’.)

“Schulen“ we've already seen; here it just means “shall”.

I had to look up “meede”, which seems to have disappeared since 1380. It meant “reward”, and that's exactly how the NIV translates it:

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

That was fun, let's do another:

Therfore whanne thou doist almes, nyle thou trumpe tofore thee, as ypocritis doon in synagogis and stretis, that thei be worschipid of men; sotheli Y seie to you, they han resseyued her meede.

The same tricks work for most of this. “Whanne” is “when”. We still have the word “almes”, now spelled “alms”: it's the handout you give to beggars. The “sch” in “worschipid” is pronounced like ‘sh’ so it's “worshipped”.

“Resseyued” looks hard, but if you remember to try reading the ‘u’ as a ‘v’ and the ‘y’ as an ‘i’, you get “resseived” which is just one letter off of “received”. “Meede” we just learned. So this is:

Therefore when you do alms, nyle thou trumpe before you, as hypocrites do in synagogues and streets, that they be worshipped by men; sotheli I say to you, they have received their reward.

Now we have the general meaning and some of the other words become clearer. What's “trumpe”? It's “trumpeting”. When you give to the needy, don't you trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do. So even though I don't know what “nyle” is exactly, the context makes it clear that it's something like “do not”. Negative words often began with ‘n’ just as they do now (no, nor, not, never, neither, nothing, etc.). Looking it up, I find that it's more usually spelled “nill”. This word is no longer used; it means the opposite of “will”. (It still appears in the phrase “willy-nilly”, which means “whether you want to or not”.)

“Sothely” means “truly”. “Soth” or “sooth” is an archaic word for truth, like in “soothsayer”, a truth-speaker.

Here's the NIV translation:

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.

Poetic example

Let's try something a little harder, a random sentence from The Canterbury Tales, written around 1390. Wish me luck!

We olde men, I drede, so fare we:
Til we be roten, kan we nat be rype;
We hoppen alwey whil that the world wol pype.

The main difficulty is that it's poetic language, which might be a bit obscure even in Modern English. But first let's fix the spelling of the obvious parts:

We old men, I dread, so fare we:
Til we be rotten, can we not be ripe?
We hoppen alwey whil that the world will pipe.

The University of Michigan dictionary can be a bit tricky to use. For example, if you look up “meede” it won't find it; it's listed under “mede”. If you don't find the word you want as a headword, try doing full-text search.

Anyway, hoppen is in there. It can mean “hopping”, but in this poetic context it means dancing.

We old men, I dread, so fare we:
Til we be rotten, can we not be ripe?
We dance always while the world will pipe.

“Pipe” is a verb here, it means (even now) to play the pipes.

You try!

William Caxton is thought to have been the first person to print and sell books in England. This anecdote of his is one of my favorites. He wrote it the late 1490s, at the very tail end of Middle English:

In my dayes happened that certayn marchauntes were in a shippe in Tamyse, for to haue sayled ouer the see into zelande, and for lacke of wynde thei taryed atte Forlond, and wente to lande for to refreshe them; And one of theym named Sheffelde, a mercer, cam in-to an hows and axed for mete; and specyally he axyed after eggys; and the goode wyf answerde, that she coude speke no frenshe, And the marchaunt was angry, for he also coude speke no frenshe, but wolde haue hadde ‘egges’ and she understode hym not. And theene at laste another sayd that he wolde haue ‘eyren’ then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstod hym wel.

A “mercer” is a merchant, and “taryed“ is now spelled “tarried”, which is now uncommon and means to stay somewhere temporarily.

I think the only other part of this that doesn't succumb to the tricks in this article is the place names:

A map of
the route described in the paragraph, with London at the west, a
squiggly purple line proceeding eastward along the River Thames to the
sea, then stopping off in “Forland” on the eastern coast of Britain
near Margate, and preparing to make a short run straight east across
the North Sea to Middelburg in the Netherlands.

Caxton is bemoaning the difficulties of translating into “English” in 1490, at a time when English was still a collection of local dialects. He ends the anecdote by asking:

Loo, what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, ‘egges’ or ‘eyren’?

Thanks to Caxton and those that followed him, we can answer: definitely “egges”.

[ Addenda 20200608: More about Middle English. ]

[ Addendum 20211027: An extended example of “half your stuff is sitting on the sidewalk” ]

[ Addendum 20211028: More about “eke” ]

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