Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - The Language of Chaucer

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The Language of Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales

With careful study, the language of Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales is usually clarified and understood as the beautiful verse narrative it is. There is, however, the common problem that comes when one is unable to comprehend it in Middle English enough to coherently study it. The question has been raised as to whether it might be more useful to study a translated version of the poem so that it can be understood on first reading. The main problem with this idea is that in nearly every translation, the great beauty of the language is lost in translation, thus subtracting a great deal of the poem's power and charm. Some gloss, however, is required to make it accessible for the average reader. Therefore, the best answer is moderation between translation and language which captures the beauty in a manageable form.

Such a form is presented in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, from which can be pulled the following four lines:

Whan that April with his showres soote

The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veine in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flowr; (ll. 1-4)

The above is a mix of the original spelling with some gloss (in side notes) and spelling translations meant to aide in reading, but not change the poem completely. With relatively little study in the pronunciation of Middle English, most readers could understand and read aloud the poem with its intended lyricism. After some getting used to, it reads almost smoothly, and with concentration is certainly coherent.

In the original manuscript, the reading is difficult enough that coherency is less feasible. The original spe...

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... pick up the themes, true, but in reality they are only half of the Chaucer experience.

While there are a variety of modern translations which completely reorient The Canterbury Tales for today's readers, most fall short in expressing the impressive control that Chaucer had over his native language. Changes can be made to his text if we want to understand it, but the best of these modifications interferes little or not at all with the authentic reading; this way the rich sound of the original is maintained and upheld.


Brewer, Derek. Tradition and Innovation in Chaucer. London: Macmillan, 1982.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Pp. 3-328. In the Riverside Chaucer. Larry D. Benson, ed. Boston: Houghton, 1987.

Delasanta, Rodney. "Language and The Canterbury Tales." Chaucer Review 31.3 (1997), 209-231.
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