Geoffrey Chaucer as a sociolinguistic observer

Seminar Paper, 2007

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3

Katharina Schäfer (Author)


Table of contents

1. Introduction
1.1 About this term paper
1.2 Chaucer’s life
1.3 The Canterbury Tales

2. Chaucer as a sociolinguistic observer

3. Chaucer’s use of dialects
3.1 Dialects of Middle English
3.2 Dialect as a tool for describing the Miller
3.3 Dialect in direct speech of the Reeve’s Tale and Prologue

4. Chaucer’s vocabulary
4.1 General information
4.2 Madame Eglentyne - An example for Chaucer’s use of French borrowings
4.3 The high and low - Dealing with registers

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

1.1 About this term paper

Students might wonder why they still have to cope with Chaucer’s writings 600 years after his death. You could convince some of them with the fact that Chaucer is often referred to as “the Father of English Poetry” because he was the first author who wrote in his mother tongue when English just started to re-establish itself after the Norman Conquest. I was convinced when I learned about his use of dialects and his rich vocabulary (Hughes 2000: 125ff.).

Centuries before the first dictionary was available, he used a wide range of words from various origins and worked with intellectual or technical terms as well as vulgar expressions. He also switched playfully between colloquial, formal and professional speech. Additionally he used different dialects to create his characters. Due to all this we can imagine how the Englishmen and -women of the 14th century spoke because “we have the sense of hearing the authentic uncensored ring of everyday speech” (Hughes 2000: 126). Chaucer had not been able to give this heritage to later generations if he would not have been a great sociolinguistic observer, i.e. if he wouldn’t have watched people surrounding him closely and if he wouldn’t have paid attention to the way they talk. That impresses me and I therefore want to examine Chaucer’s use of dialects and vocabulary in his famous work The Canterbury Tales.

I will start with an overview of Chaucer’s life. Biographical background information should make clear how he got into contact with different people, i.e. with different expressions and dialects. Afterwards, I will give a short description of The Canterbury Tales. In the second part of my term paper I will make some introductory comments and then focus on Chaucer’s use of dialects and on his vocabulary. In the end it should be possible to draw a conclusion if Chaucer indeed can be called sociolinguistic observer or maybe not.

1.2 Chaucer’s life

It is worthy to take Chaucer’s biography into account because his career provides an explanation for his ability to describe people of many kinds. As George Lyman Kittredge puts it:

Chaucer’s own birth and station […] had brought him into easy contact with both high and low; and his experience as burgher, soldier, courtier, officeholder, and diplomatic agent had given him unparalleled opportunities for observation, which his humorously sympathetic temperament had impelled him to use to the best advantage. (Kittredge 1963: 160)

Concrete facts about Chaucer’s life are rather vague.1 Scholars are still debating about correct dates, because documents or other certain proofs are lacking. He was born about the year 1343 in London, the exact date and location are not known. As the son of a successful wine trader family he belonged to the English middle class. Never- theless he spent most of his life in an around courts of Edward III and Richard II. The first time Chaucer is mentioned in an official document is in 1357, in the household accounts of Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Ulster and later wife of the third son of Edward III. Probably his father had some connections which enabled his son to become the noblewoman's page. As a page he had to perform basic housekeeping duties and he must have acquired an education in good manners. In 1359 Chaucer was sent to northern France as a soldier, where Edward III led a great military operation. Near Rheims he was taken prisoner but the king contributed some money to his ransom and he was freed in the following year.

Later on he worked as a professional courtier (a kind of civil servant). On various diplomatic missions he travelled to different European countries. It is taken for granted, that it was in Italy and France where he got to know the works of writers such as Dante (1265-1321) and Boccaccio (1313-1375) which have influenced his own literary work. It is also generally assumed that due to his profession he knew people of all classes and of different nationality. That should be one explanation for Chaucer’s extraordinary use of registers. Another one is that he knew Latin and French very well. He is presumed to have studied at the Inns of Court, a law-school in London, where he probably learned Latin. He definitely learned French to work for the courts and his literary career actually started with the translation of a French poem called Roman de la Rose. In the 1380s he wrote Troilus and Criseyde, an eight thousand line poem. Some say, if he would not have written The Canterbury Tales, he now would be remembered for this dramatic love-story.

Chaucer died on the 25th of October 1400 and was buried in Westminster Abbey in London. That was his right because of the jobs he had performed and the new house he had leased nearby. In 1556 an admirer built a more elaborate tomb. Today this part of Westminster Abbey is known as the Poets’ Corner, Chaucer was the first writer buried in this area.

1.3 The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a collection of 24 tales. The plot starts in a small tavern in Southwark near London where a narrator (who is supposed to be Chaucer himself) meets and joins twenty-nine pilgrims who are travelling to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket in Canterbury. The host of the tavern suggests that each of pilgrims tells two stories, one on the way to Canterbury and one on the way back. He wants to award the best story with a free meal.

The characters of the pilgrims and the stories they are going to tell are very different. On the whole, they represent a wide variety of social classes and institutions. Namely:

- military (a Knight with his son, a Squire and a Yeoman)
- liberal professions (a Doctor, a Man of Law, an Oxfrod Clerk and the poet himself)
- agriculture (a Ploughman, a Miller, a Reeve and a Franklin)
- commerce (a Merchant and a Sailor)
- industry and trade (the Wife of Bath who is a cloth merchant, a Weaver, a Dyer and a Tapicer)
- provision trade (a Manciple of a college of law, a Cook, a Host)
- secular clergy (a Parson, two Nuns, a monk, a Prioress with her Priest, a Pardoner)

The collection of stories starts with a General Prologue in which each of the pilgrims is described by the narrator. Afterwards there are long sections spoken by each pilgrim him-/herself. These sections are subdivided in the pilgrim’s prologue and a pilgrim’s tale. Chaucer’s intended order of the tales is unknown. As he died before he could finish all of them, the story ends when the pilgrims are still on their way to Canterbury.

2. Chaucer as a sociolinguistic observer

The opinion that Chaucer studied and observed his environment intensively seems to be widely spread under scholars.2 They also agree on his outstanding ability to create very realistic characters. “Mankind was his speciality” (Kittredge 1963: 160) and that can be seen in The Canterbury Tales. Why he chose pilgrims as protagonists is hard to tell. He certainly had seen or met pilgrims on several occasions because in his time it was common to go on a pilgrimage. So he “had no need to borrow or invent: he needed only to observe” (Kittredge 1963: 149). Furthermore it was a clever way to combine charac- ters who normally wouldn’t meet or even join up. Like that, it was possible to represent the society of his time and so “he has painted in brief practically the whole English nation” (Legouis 1961: 143).

Each story told by one of the pilgrims can be seen as a long speech which expresses - directly or indirectly - certain personal traits. To compose this individuality Chaucer made use of different dialects and selected words with care. Before having a close look on these two aspects, one should consider why Chaucer decided to compose his major poetry in English. His mother tongue was back then the language of the ruled and not the language of the ruling minority: The upper class spoke French, official documents were written and events were held in French, who wanted to read sophisticated litera- ture had to turn to French or Latin. On top of that Middle English was, grammatically speaking, a rather unstructured language and no common standard was available. Burnley states to Chaucer’s decision for English:

It seems at first an inexplicable choice: […] a language lacking credible literary models, lacking an influential and wealthy clientele, lacking any stable standard and possessing a relatively restricted vocabulary. However, Chaucer could have answered all these objections. (Burnley 2000: 236)

3. Chaucer’s use of dialects

3.1 Dialects of Middle English

In general, Middle English authors used the language of their local origin for producing literary works. During the period of Middle English (c. 1100-c.1400) there existed five main regional dialects, namely the Northern, the West Midland, the East Midland, the Southwestern (or Southern) and the Southeastern (or Kentish) dialect. As Chaucer grew up in London, his speech can be identified with the South-East Midland, a subdialect of the East Midland (Peters 1980: 5).

“Variety is not only the spice of life; it may be the stuff of poetry” (Burnley 2000: 238), probably Chaucer himself could have said that. It seems to be certain that he was the first English writer who attempted to reproduce a dialect other than his own one. Today the use of dialects is a well-known literary device especially in producing comedy effects but in the fourteenth century it was an innovation.

The city of London in Chaucer’s time gave him great opportunities to hear all kind of dialects. As it was with a population of 35.000-40.000 (Grose 1967: 23) by far the largest city in Britain, it attracted people of all classes and professions from all British regions. One might argue - as for example Skeat (1868: 659) does - that Chaucer exploited different dialects mostly for matters of metric, i.e. in order to provide himself with a larger variety of rimes. This is probably true in some parts, in this chapter I would like to illustrate two examples where Chaucer definitely used dialects for characterizing purposes.


1 My overview of Chaucer’s life is mainly based on the introductions of Coghill (1958) and Grose (1967) and Kee (1966)

2 For evidence see for example Hughes (2000: 125ff.), Kittredge (1963: 146ff.), Staley (2000: 360) or Legouis (1961: 136 ff)

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Geoffrey Chaucer as a sociolinguistic observer
University of Cologne
Einführungsseminar Teil B: The English Lexicon
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
424 KB
Geoffrey, Chaucer, Einführungsseminar, Teil, English, Lexicon
Quote paper
Katharina Schäfer (Author), 2007, Geoffrey Chaucer as a sociolinguistic observer, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Geoffrey Chaucer as a sociolinguistic observer

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free