Middle English Grammar

My firm belief is that if you read Chaucer aloud to yourself, you will not need to "know" middle English grammar but will find that you understand it quite naturally; however, if you are having difficulty, these notes may help.

Pronouns in Middle English retain inflection, that is, endings which indicate what their grammatical role is; if you've ever studied Russian, German, Latin or Ancient Greek, this concept will be familiar to you. If not, think of our modern English pronouns: we use "I" for the subject of a sentence ("I hit Arnold"), "me" for the object ("Arnold hit me"), "my" for the possessive, also known as the gentive ("my head hurt"). Middle English is not much different, but preserves a distinction we have lost between the singular and plural of the second person.

Singular

Plural

First Person

Subject

I, ich, ik (northern dialect)

we

Object

me

us

Possessive

my, myn

oure

Second Person

Subject

thow (artow? wiltow? thynkestow?)

yow

Object

thee

ye

Possessive

thyn

youre

Third Person

Subject

he, she, hit

they

Object

hym/him, hire/here, hit

hem

Possessive

his, hir/hire/here, his

hire/here

Nouns: Most nouns form the plural by adding -s or -es, like in modern English.

glotoun

glotouns

shour

shoures

fowel

foweles

A few form a plural in -en:

eye

eyen

child

children

suster

sustren

hose

hosen

Adjectives: Some have a "weak" form, which adds an -e wehn used with definite articles, demonstratives and pronouns:

the yonge sonne

a yong Squier

this goode man

a good Wif

All add -e in the plural: goode men, olde thynges

Most form the comparative and superlative as in modern English; sometimes the vowel is shortened: strong, strenger, strengest and long, lenger, lengest

Some are irregular (and remain so in modern English):

good

bettre

bet

badde

werse

werste

muchel

moore

mooste

litel

lasse/lesse

leeste

Adverbs are formed by adding -e, -liche, and -ly:

lyght (light),

lyghte (lightly)

hoot (hot)

hoote (hotly)

playn (plain)

playnly (plainly)

sorweful (sorrowful)

sorwefulich (sorrowfully)

Verbs: In the present tense, regular verbs add -e, -est, eth in the singular and -e(n) in the plural: I bidde thi go forth, thow biddest me, he biddeth yow, they bidden us, etc.

In the past tense, many "strong" verbs change stem vowel (as in modern Eng):

Present

Past

I see

I saugh, saw, (many variants possible)

I bere

I bar

I singe

I sange, soong

To be and to go are irregular, as in most languages:

Present

Past

I am

we be(e)n, aren

I was

we were(n)

thou art

ye be(e)n, aren

thou were(n)

ye were(n)

he/she/hit is

they be(e)n, aren

he/she/hit were(n)

they were(n)

Some irregular verbs to watch out for:

Present

Past

Meaning

I yeve, thou yevest

yaf/gaf

give

I do, thou doost

dide

do

I go, thou goost

wente

go

I wil, thou wilt,they wollen

wolde

will/want

I have, thou hast, he hast, they haven, han

hadde

have

I woot, thou woost, he woot, they witen

wiste

know, discover

I can, thou canst, he can,they connen

coude

know how, know

I may, thou mayst, he may, they mowen

myghte

to be able to

I mot, thou most, he mot,they moten

moste, muste

must, to have to

If this is not enough grammar for you, check out Harvard's Chaucer Page for more.


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