The Living Thing / Notebooks :

Historical English

I’m dabbling here; My interest in historical linguistics is strictly amateur. But I do find etymology addictive.

The correct medium for a largely oral history is of course audio. So check out Kevin Stroud’s History of English podcast.

C&C German.

Pronouncing Middle English

I’d like to read some Chaucer to entertain my Swiss flatmates. This is not trivial; a lot happened to English in the last millennium or so.


John Gardner:

[…] For instance, some specialists make consonants sound much like consonants in modern English, except clearer, more precise, while other specialists speak consonants as they would in Danish or, God help us, German. For the beginner there’s a valuable lesson in this: Chaucer’s Middle English is relatively easy to fake. What follows here are some notes on how to fake it convincingly, so that one gets pretty clearly the sound of Chaucer’s verse, making people who know the correct pronunciation believe momentarily that perhaps they’ve learned it wrong.

Read aloud or recite with authority, exactly as when speaking Hungarian — if you know no Hungarian — you speak with conviction and easy familiarity. (This, I’m told by Hungarians, is what Hungarians themselves do.) This easy authority, however fake, gets the tone of the language, its warmth and, loosely, outgoing character — not pushy like low-class German, not jaundiced or intimate-but-weary, like modern French, and not, above all, slurred to a mumble, like modern American. Make Middle English open-hearted, like Mark Twain’s jokes…


Slightly shaken, I continued. “One of these three was a man who knew things”—the closest translation for scholar, but unfortunately it also meant witch. The second elder looked triumphantly at the first. “So he spoke to the dead chief saying, ‘Tell us what we must do so you may rest in your grave,’ but the dead chief did not answer. He vanished, and they could see him no more. Then the man who knew things—his name was Horatio—said this event was the affair of the dead chief’s son, Hamlet.”

There was a general shaking of heads round the circle. “Had the dead chief no living brothers? Or was this son the chief?”

“No,” I replied. “That is, he had one living brother who became the chief when the elder brother died.”

The old men muttered: such omens were matters for chiefs and elders, not for youngsters; no good could come of going behind a chief’s back; clearly Horatio was not a man who knew things.

“Yes, he was,” I insisted, shooing a chicken away from my beer. “In our country the son is next to the father. The dead chief’s younger brother had become the great chief. He had also married his elder brother’s widow only about a month after the funeral.”

“He did well,” the old man beamed and announced to the others, “I told you that if we knew more about Europeans, we would find they really were very like us. In our country also,” he added to me, “the younger brother marries the elder brother’s widow and becomes the father of his children. Now, if your uncle, who married your widowed mother, is your father’s full brother, then he will be a real father to you. Did Hamlet’s father and uncle have one mother?”

His question barely penetrated my mind; I was too upset and thrown too far off-balance by having one of the most important elements of Hamlet knocked straight out of the picture. Rather uncertainly I said that I thought they had the same mother, but I wasn’t sure—the story didn’t say. The old man told me severely that these genealogical details made all the difference and that when I got home I must ask the elders about it.