on translating Middle English
you're working with the help of a translation, it's important that you
should understand how it relates to (or departs from) the original, so
that you don't make errors in close reading; and not all Middle English
works have been translated, so there are times when you will need to do
your own translations.
There is currently no satisfactory student's
dictionary of Middle English, and your most useful resources are likely to
be those Middle English readers which include grammatical information and
a glossary (e.g., for early Middle English, Early Middle
English Verse and Prose, ed. J. A. W. Bennett and G.V. Smithers, with
a glossary by Norman Davis (Oxford: Clarendon, 1966, 2nd edn. 1968) or
(where they exist) editions of the individual works with notes and
The multi-volume Middle English Dictionary, ed. Hans
Kurath and Sherman M. Kuhn (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan
Press, 1956-) is the standard reference work, but can still be usefully
supplemented by the Oxford English Dictionary. Both are now
available on-line by subscription (the former as part of the Middle
English Compendium); University of Southampton on-campus users can
access the Middle English Dictionary at http://ets.umdl.umich.edu/m/mec/
and the OED at http://dictionary.oed.com.
basic introduction to the terminology and concepts used in
dictionaries and grammars of Middle English, see the Introduction
to Traditional Grammar.
main pitfall in translating Middle English is not the unfamiliar words but
the words which look the same and mean something different (e.g. nice
means 'foolish', do can mean 'cause to' or 'put'). If your
translation doesn't make sense, look up the words you think you
follows from this that it is often misleading to translate a Middle
English word by the word which has descended from it in Modern English;
and even where the basic sense has remained the same, the overtones may be
different (in particular, a word which was in ordinary colloquial usage in
Middle English may seem archaic to us: e.g. thou). Always
translate sense-for-sense, not word-for-word.
In the same
way, word-order which was normal in the Middle Ages (whether in ordinary
prose or in poetry) can seem unnatural and contorted if carried over to
your translation; you should feel free to modernize it (though make sure
you have understood the syntax of the original first).
English uses inflexions to indicate grammatical relationships to a greater
degree than Modern English, so it's important that you should be aware of
the implications of different inflexional forms. In particular, make sure
that you can recognize the different forms of the personal pronouns and
the basic verb-endings, both of which can vary from dialect to dialect in
Middle English (see below). You will need a knowledge of both, for
instance, to recognize impersonal verbs (often without a preliminary 'it'
or 'there'): e.g. him liketh doesn't mean 'he likes' but 'it
pleases him', me thinketh not 'I think' but 'it seems to me'.
Middle English: dialects and spelling
For most of the Middle English period (c. 1100-1500) there was no
national standard written language of the kind we have now, with a single
set of grammatical forms and a fixed spelling.
vocabulary but grammatical forms may vary from dialect to dialect. In
particular, you should look out for different pronoun-forms and
During the Middle Ages, they/their/them forms of the third person
plural pronoun (derived from Old Norse) move southwards to replace the
older Southern he/here/hem forms (derived from Old English). They
is the first form to move south, followed by their; Chaucer in the
late fourteenth century has they/here/hem for 'they/their/them',
Caxton in the late fifteenth century they/their/hem. One reason why
the Northern forms were ultimately successful is that they got rid of the
ambiguity of early Middle English he (which could mean 'he',
'their', or even in some dialects 'she') and hir(e), her(e) (which
could mean either 'her' or 'their'); you will need to watch out for this.
These vary both from north to south, and with the passage of time. In the
fourteenth century there were three main patterns:
Northern: I love(s), thou loves, he/she loves, we/you/they love
Midlands: I love, thou lovest, he/she loveth, we (etc.) loven
Southern: I love, thou lovest, he/she loveth, we (etc.) loveth
Northern pres. pple. lovand; Southern loving
Northern past pple (strong verbs) drive(n); Southern ydrive.
Be prepared for spelling-variation even within the same text. Reading
aloud sometimes helps (Middle English spelling is roughly phonetic, though
not always systematically).
If you are using a glossary or a dictionary, it's always advisable to read
the introductory notes on alphabetisation and cross-referencing first, as
words may not be listed in the place you expect to find them. Note
---both u and v can represent either a vowel or a consonant:
so vnto = 'unto', haue = 'have'. V is usual at the
beginning of words, u elsewhere; so vuel = uvel 'evil'.
---y and i represent the same vowel-sounds (not different
ones, as in Old English). Y is often used where we would use i: so
Middle English inherited a number of special characters from Old English,
supplementing the characters of the standard Latin alphabet; some editors
replace them by their modern equivalent, but not all, and you should be
able to recognize them if they occur:
runic letter 'thorn' is
an equivalent for the modern digraph 'th'; its upper-case form is a larger
version of its lower-case form.
a modified form of the letter 'd', can also be used as an equivalent for 'th';
it has separate lower-case and upper-case forms.
letter 'yogh', originally a form of the letter g used in
Anglo-Saxon MSS, was specialized in the Middle English period to represent
a variety of sounds:
1. the sound of MnE y consonant: 3ow 'you', e3e
2. the sounds represented (though we no longer pronounce them) by MnE gh:
ny3t 'night' (pronounced as in German Ich), no3t
'nought' (pronounced as in Scottish loch).
3. (rarely) the sound represented by MnE z.
The upper-case form is a larger version of the lower-case form.
runic letter 'wyn'
represents w. Not usually reproduced by editors these days, but
you may come across it in manuscripts. Be careful not to confuse it with p
(wyn has a more tapered bowl, and a descender curving to the left)
or with thorn (which has an ascender rising above the body of the
letter). The upper-case form is a larger version of the lower-case form.
'Thorn' and 'eth' (but not 'yogh' and 'wyn') are still used in modern
Icelandic, and can be accessed through the 'Symbol' function under
'Insert' on the Microsoft Word toolbar. It's acceptable in an undergraduate essay to transcribe 'thorn'
and 'eth' as th, and 'wyn' as w. 'Yogh' is more difficult to
transcribe, since it has several different values; ideally, you need a
font which includes it (Times Old English is the best), but if you don't
have access to this, perhaps the best
expedient is to use the number '3' (as I have above), though this loses
the distinction between lower-case and upper-case forms. Don't try to
reproduce the special characters by hand; this looks messy, and is
difficult to do consistently.
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