Language in The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is written in Middle English, which bears a close visual resemblance to the English written and spoken today. In contrast, Old English (the language of Beowulf, for example) can be read only in modern translation or by students of Old English. Students often read The Canterbury Tales in its original language, not only because of the similarity between Chaucer’s Middle English and our own, but because the beauty and humor of the poetry—all of its internal and external rhymes, and the sounds it produces—would be lost in translation.

The best way for a beginner to approach Middle English is to read it out loud. When the words are pronounced, it is often much easier to recognize what they mean in modern English. Most Middle English editions of the poem include a short pronunciation guide, which can help the reader to understand the language better. For particularly difficult words or phrases, most editions also include notes in the margin giving the modern versions of the words, along with a full glossary in the back. Several online Chaucer glossaries exist, as well as a number of printed lexicons of Middle English.

The Order of The Canterbury Tales

The line numbers cited in this SparkNote are based on the line numbers given in The Riverside Chaucer, the authoritative edition of Chaucer’s works. The line numbering in The Riverside Chaucer does not run continuously throughout the entire Canterbury Tales, but it does not restart at the beginning of each tale, either. Instead, the tales are grouped together into fragments, and each fragment is numbered as a separate whole.

Nobody knows exactly in what order Chaucer intended to present the tales, or even if he had a specific order in mind for all of them. Eighty-two early manuscripts of the tales survive, and many of them vary considerably in the order in which they present the tales. However, certain sets of tales do seem to belong together in a particular order. For instance, the General Prologue is obviously the beginning, then the narrator explicitly says that the Knight tells the first tale, and that the Miller interrupts and tells the second tale.

The introductions, prologues, and epilogues to various tales sometimes include the pilgrims’ comments on the tale just finished, and an indication of who tells the next tale. These sections between the tales are called links, and they are the best evidence for grouping the tales together into ten fragments. But The Canterbury Tales does not include a complete set of links, so the order of the ten fragments is open to question. The Riverside Chaucer bases the order of the ten fragments on the order presented in the Ellesmere manuscript, one of the best surviving manuscripts of the tale. Some scholars disagree with the groupings and order of tales followed in The Riverside Chaucer, choosing instead to base the order on a combination of the links and the geographical landmarks that the pilgrims pass on the way to Canterbury.