Chaucer's Vocabulary and the Evolution of Language

Chaucer's Vocabulary and the Evolution of Language

Exploring Chaucer's Middle English vocabulary and how vocabularies evolve over time, with new words being born and old words falling out of use.

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1. The Vocabulary of Chaucer By Colin FitzGerald February 19, 2007

2. 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 persons lifespan. Vocabularies, like people, evolve with time as new words are born and old words die. Most words however, simply change with the times.

3. 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. Chaucers 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.

4. 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.

5. Chaucers Vocabulary How large was Chaucers vocabulary? Many English scholars have estimated Chaucers vocabulary to be around 12,000 words, or about one-third the size of Shakespeares vocabulary. In addition, statistics show that over 6200 words (52% of Chaucers 12,000 word vocabulary) are considered borrowed from Romance languages alone.

6. Chaucers Vocabulary Loan words in Chaucers vocabulary In The Parsons Tale , Chaucer employs the word fruyt (fruit), and in The Second Nuns 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.

7. Chaucers 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.

8. Chaucers Vocabulary How diverse was Chaucers vocabulary? Chaucers 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.

9. Chaucers 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 Chaucers writing as his writing became more complex, rhythmic, and systematized.

10. Chaucers Vocabulary Effects of variation in Chaucers English In Chaucers poem entitled Troilus and Criseyde , he states, And for ther is so gret diversiteIn 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!

11. Chaucers Vocabulary Effects of loan words in Chaucers 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 Chaucers 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.

12. Chaucers Vocabulary Morphological effects in Chaucers English Many words in Chaucers 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.

13. Chaucers Vocabulary Phonological effects in Chaucers English Consonants in Chaucers 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.

14. Chaucers 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

15. Works Consulted Burnley, David, A Guide to Chaucers Language (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983). Cannon, Christopher, The Making of Chaucers English: A Study of Words (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Elliot, Ralph W.V., Chaucers 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).


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