The Difference Between Chaucer and Shakespeare
Language Hat quoted a letter that appeared in The New York Times, in which one Andrew Charig said,"Shakespeare wrote before English was standardized; Chaucer before it was English at all."
This was so breathtakingly wrong-headed that I decided to write a bit about it here. Chaucer is indeed English. I don't think any scholar of linguistics or of English would deny that. Mr Charig's error is just a silly one, and doesn't deserve to be belabored for its own sake. Perhaps he was dimly remembering someone saying that Beowulf was not really English (which I would pretty much agree with), and mistook Old English for Middle English, which happens all the time: any Chaucer scholar is used to patiently correcting people who speak of Chaucer's language as "Old English." But the perception that Chaucer is far more difficult and foreign than Shakespeare, and that there's a sort of watershed divide in the two centuries between them, is common. That's what I want to talk about.
Let's actually look at some. Here are two fairly typical stanzas, one from Chaucer's time and one from Shakespeare's. I picked these by opening books at random. They are both, as is common for both periods, on Roman topics: the first is about the rape of Lucrece, and the second about Saint Cecilia. Read them both and see which you think easier. The squiggles above the 'e's in the last line of the first selection, by the way, are simply an early way of writing a letter 'n'; and I've used 'f's as the closest approximation I have for the "tall 's'" used in manuscripts (for an 's' that is not final.)
This is Lucrece addressing a nightengale after her rape.
And for poore bird thou fing'ft not in the day,
As fhaming anie eye fhould thee behold:
Some darke deepe defert feated from the way,
That knowes not parching heat, nor freezing cold
VVill wee find out: and there we will vnfold
To creatures ftern, fad tunes to change their kinds,
Since mẽ proue beafts, let beafts bear gẽtle minds.
This recounts a Life of Saint Cecilia. She was an early saint, intensely committed to preserving her virginity.
This maiden, bright Cecilia, as her life sayeth,
Was comen of Romans, and of noble kind,
And from her cradle up fostered in the faith
Of Christ, and bore his gospel in her mind.
She never ceased, as I written find,
Of her prayer, and God to love and dread,
Beseeching him to keep her maidenhead.
The second is much easier to read. But I've played a bit of a trick on you, by letting you assume they're in chronological order. They're not. The first is Shakespeare, but in the original spelling: the second is Chaucer, in modernized spelling.
There are only two grammatical tip-offs here, which I'm betting only English scholars would catch: the participle "comen," (in the second line of Chaucer's stanza) which Shakespeare would not have used, and "knowes not" in the fourth line of the Shakespeare -- Chaucer would have said "knoweth not."
My point is that the chief reason Chaucer looks so much older to us is because of the universal editorial decision not to modernize his spelling. The grammatical differences are trifling. What really makes it look old is the Middle English spelling -- which is essentially the same as Elizabethan spelling.
Shakespeare is actually, in my opinion, more difficult to read than Chaucer, for a modern English reader: not because of any spelling or grammatical differences, but because the Elizabethans are far more fancy and ornate in their poetry. Look how straightforward Chaucer is! Of course, this is mature Chaucer -- The Legend of Good Women -- and that's immature Shakespeare -- The Rape of Lucrece. But they're both typical of their times. Shakespeare is by no means the most flowery of Elizabethan writers, and Chaucer is no simpler than most Middle English writers (Gower, for example, his main rival, is even easier.)
The only very important difference between Shakespeare's English and Chaucer's English is in pronunciation. The great vowel shift happened in between them -- that somewhat mysterious alteration that moved the sounds of all the English vowels away from the common European sounds for them. A second change was that 'e' in final position became silent: "name" became a one-syllable, not a two-syllable word. (Chaucer said "nahm-uh," Shakespeare said something quite like what we say.)
But neither of these changes is apparent on the written page. Nor are more minor changes, such as the fact that in Chaucer's English the 'k' and 'gh' in a word such as "knight" had not yet fallen silent. In fact, written Elizabethan English and written Middle English look very much alike: it takes more linguistic sophistication than the general reader usually has to tell them apart -- unless an editor has decided to modernize the spelling of one and not the other. Then they look very different indeed.
Here's the two passages as you'd see them in standard editions, for a college course:
'And for, poor bird, thou sing'st not in the day,
As shaming any eye should thee behold,
Some dark deep desert, seated from the way,
That knows not parching heat nor freezing cold,
Will we find out; and there we will unfold
To creatures stern sad tunes, to change their kinds:
Since men prove beasts, let beasts bear gentle minds.'
This mayden, bright Cecilie, as hir lyf seith,
Was comen of Romayns, and of noble kynde,
And from hir cradel up fostred in the feith
Of Crist, and bar his gospel in hir mynde.
She nevere cessed, as I writen fynde,
Of hir preyere, and God to love and drede,
Bisekynge hym to kepe hir maydenhede.