Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales were written in Middle English during the 14th Century, the period after the loss of Old English inflexions and before the standardisation of spelling due to the introduction of the Caxton printing press. Chaucer wrote during the years in which foreign loan words were fully integrated into the English vernacular as a result of invasions such as the Norman Conquest of 1066, the developing trade routes, and the expansion of learning associated with the Renaissance. It can be argued that his influence allowed for foreign words to be embedded and accepted into the language. It was relatively easy for loans to be adopted by Middle English because it had lost the inflections system, thus new words could ‘cohere with the syntactic structures of the borrowing language’. Middle English morphology consisted mostly of a manipulation of the existing vocabulary; therefore affixation and compounding were common.
The Canterbury Tales passages:
The first 60 lines of ‘The Miller’s Tale’ and ‘The Man of the Law’s Tale’ supply two contrasting characters. I accessed the passages from the Electronic Literature Foundation (ELF) website. I was able to compare the use of lexis and word formation, and able to comment on whether any differences were deliberate to suit a purpose.
Categorising the words:
Each word was systematically looked up in a combination of three locations: The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Henry Stratmann’s Middle English Dictionary (MED) and Norman Davis’ A Chaucer Glossary. The OED was useful in providing the etymology of words and indicating the morphology. The MED filled gaps when the OED in some cases did not provide a comprehensive account of certain words, or it faltered due to irregular spelling between sources. In most cases I used both sources together in order to strengthen the given etymologies. Davis’ Glossary was particularly useful since it allowed me to investigate root words, and words written in Chaucer’s spelling which were yet to be standardised as in either of the other two dictionaries. However, referring to three sources resulted in inconsistences. There were discrepancies on etymology, in which case I gave preference for the OED, because it was thorough, and supplied connections to other words through hyperlinks. The preface of the MED acknowledges that although it was an achievement of learning, it however had ‘certain serious practical defects’ but without ‘limitations of scope’ it wouldn’t have been completed in time. The total 120 lines identified words of the following origins: Old English, Old French, French, Latin, Frisian, Old Norse, Anglo Norman, Middle English and Middle Dutch. I counted and categorised the words, but in order to avoid a skew overly favouring Chaucer’s employment of Old English words, I did not count the grammatical function words – the finite class of words including pronouns, articles, demonstratives, auxiliaries, prepositions and conjunctions, since they are all decedent from Old English. However, I included function words that presented interesting cases of word-formation. To identify the use of Old English function words, I counted the total words and can compare this number with the other recorded data counts of content words. Lexical content words - nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs add substance and meaning, thus will allow me to fully assess the basis for Middle English lexicon. I counted each content word once and disregarded repetition, to avoid any element of bias favouring a particular word. The graphs included portray the origins of content words based on the initial use of the word.