Chaucer’s Language

Border Decoration The Romaunt of the Rose

(border decoration from The Romaunt of the Rose England: c.1440-1450 University of Glasgow Library, MS Hunter 409 (V.3.7))


Chaucer’s life circumstances and language gifts contributed much to the development of the English language, and he is often credited with ‘founding’ or ‘inventing’ English literary language and, sometimes even, English as we know it.   The expansion of the vocabulary of English did not, however, begin with his writings.  In Old English, an extensive vocabulary was referred to as a “treasure box” or a “word hoard” to be unlocked in speech, and Norse words and many derived from Latin were added to that store.  That hoard also included rich resources for creating new words out of old ones (prefixes and suffixes to add to existing words, and an inclination toward compounding — as in modern day German) whereby English vocabulary was continually enlarged by its own means.  The watershed for Chaucer’s Middle English was the Norman Conquest in 1066, when the existing English language was quickly permeated by that of the French invaders, who immediately became its ruling class. The French brought with them social customs that became associated with ideal social behaviors, and the French words and phrases which entered English were believed to refine rough English expression. This process was well under way by the latter half of the fourteenth century when Chaucer began to write. Latin words had continued to enter the language (though at a lesser rate) in the same period. Of equal importance, however, was an ongoing antiquation of certain words and expressions. Chaucer embraced this process. As new synonyms or near-synonyms entered the language, English words came to seem less suited to the context of his work. As new words were created out of both French-derived elements or along the lines of Old English expansions, other words were continually falling out of the language.   

Chaucer, who inhabited the court, dabbled in legal work, and travelled throughout western Europe, would naturally (and necessarily) have spoken and written French, Latin, and Italian. It would be inaccurate to say, however, that Chaucer’s audience would have perceived hard distinctions between these languages. Just so, Chaucer was very much alert to the demands of writing literary works in English.  The language he formed for this task borrowed heavily from French and Latin, yet its formation can only be understood in the context of an England in which English, French, and Latin were all in active use. In the Canterbury Tales, for instance, words borrowed from French and Latin are more commonly found in the speech of socially-elevated characters, or in the tales which are concerned with highbrow matters. The peasant characters, by contrast, tend to use words derived from Old English and Old Norse. 

Chaucer’s vocabulary is thus built on a dynamic network of associations, in addition to the values assigned to it by its users and its audience, and, crucially, their ability to recognize the various verbal patterns, contexts, and genres within it. 

Following are some Germanic words that were naturalized in Chaucer’s London: 

  • algates (nevertheless) 
  • ay (always, ever) 
  • brennen (to burn) 
  • bresten (to burst, break) 
  • casten (to throw, utter) 
  • deyen (to die) 
  • rennen (to run) 

And here are some that that you will recognize from Modern English: both, callen, felawe, fro, geten, knyf, lawe, lowe, same, wing, wrong, wyndowe, they, though, til, dwellen. 

Following are some words drawn from the French: curteis, debonair, gentil, noble

A few Old Norse words include egg, husband, window, take, leg