Middle English begins to take shape around 1100 and holds the "title" as official language of England until approximately 1500. Though changes in language fall parallel to the Norman Invasion, the invasion did not lead to the change of language. Instead, it simply reflects the natural progression of language. There is a shift toward more Latin influence in Middle English vernacular.
Modern English--Britian's Modern English, which is not to be confused with today's Americanized English--evolves because of vowels. Oh yes, those 5 (sometimes 6) letters are powerful little gals. (Watch "The Letter People"; all the vowels are girls.) Around 1485, culture enters something known as "The Great Vowel Shift". This shift takes awhile, and most linguists and historians indicate that major vowel changes have settled themselves by 1800. Seeing as how Shakespeare's writing falls in the very early years of this movement, it could be argued he writes in Middle English, not Modern. By 1500, English is the language of high culture. Latin and French are still learned in school, but English is spoken and written by the elite.
The Canterbury Tales were written in Middle English which is so very cool to read. Yes, it's arduous and requires, at least for me, several readings to achieve fluidity, but the words are just crazy fun. (Or maybe I'm just crazy.) When reading, I easily see in some words the Germanic influence of the Anglo-Saxon invasion ('ich', meaning 'I') and Latin roots that should be familiar to all readers. My favorite thing about Chaucer's writing: the way he plays with language. I'm going to provide you with some of my favorite words. Some definitions/uses will be obvious; easy. Others will not. Don't take that as indication of your intellectual capacity, please. I will warn you that some of them are associated with sex; they're the most fun!
- compaignye: Company or group
- me thynketh: I think. (I just like the 'ynk' combination.)
- armee: army or expedition. This is the only usage of the word in the entirety of Middle English. Usually scribes use 'arivee' meaning 'amphibious landing'. But when talking about a Knight, 'armee' makes better sense.
- trouthe: This word has four meanings: fidelity to an oath; truth (reality); God; personal integrity. For gentilesse (the aristocracy), 'trouthe' is stationed as the most important thing of all. And 'trouthe' is not to be confused with 'honour' which is your standing in the world based upon what others think of you. Obviously, 'trouthe' and 'honour' can go hand-in-hand, but should a conflict between the two arise, as it does in the "Franklin's Tale," you should choose 'trouthe'.
- lewd: In Chaucer's day, this word meant low-class or common; it did not mean sexually offensive as it does today. However, since the lower classes were seen as offensive, the progression of the meaning is natural.
- estaat: Vocation, not your home.
- array: Clothing
- lust: Desire, but not sexual desire. Lust during the Middle Ages was primarily a reference to greed, ambition, or wanting for things--not sex--that you didn't (and possibly couldn't) possess.
- axe: Oh yes. To the woe of English teachers everywhere, this is the correct spelling for the Middle English verb 'ask'.
- quite: This word means 'to pay back'. Throughout the tales, Pilgrims 'quite' each other for their tales. The Miller 'quites' the Knight, the Reeve 'quites' the Miller, and the Merchant 'quites' them all. (To name a few.)
- queynte: Is very unpleasant given that it refers to a vagina. Sorry, but the reason that I find this interesting is because it also means 'clever'. Another reason it's interesting: it's similar in spelling and pronunciation to 'quite' (see above).
- likerous: inviting or desirable. When used in the noun form 'liker,' it replaces 'lust' in ME usage.
- grucche: If you think it looks a little like 'grouch,' you're on the right track. It means complain. Griselda vows to Walter that she will never 'grucche' in their marriage, regardless of what happens. He pretends to kill their children to test her devotion. When she passes those tests, he kicks her out of the house. Only then does she 'grucche'.
- priketh, prikke, prikyng, etc: These variations mean to incite or to move, as in the spirit priketh you; however, it's usually used in a subtext that implies a prikyng of a sexual nature.
- labour: To work...in the bedroom... Remember, estaat refers to your 'work' or employment. You also need to remember the idea that sex was a marriage debt, something the couple owed upon vow of marriage. The concept of 'working off debt' takes on entirely new meaning when you consider all of this.
- swonken: To work...in the bedroom... (Chaucer has lots of words for this.)
And my favorite of them all-----swynk: Which also means to work...in the bedroom, but when read in the phrase 'swynking in a pear tree,' it seems very innocent and fun. Oh merchant, you tell the best tale!