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I'd always figured that the distinction between Middle English and Modern English is that if we can still read it today (e.g., Shakespeare) it's Modern, and if we can't (e.g., Chaucer) it's Middle.

But I wonder if that distinction is really correct. Could it be that Chaucer's unreadabilily is really a matter of just spelling; that is, that the spoken English of his day is perfectly understandable, and the only thing that makes it difficult is the system used to put words on paper?

To test this, I ran a 30-line sample of Chaucer through my spellchecker. In other words, I made the changes that are obvious enough that a machine can spot it. (Where the machine gave several choices, it was not difficult to choose among them! I also made a few changes that were phonetically obvious. For example, his solas became modern solace.) Here's the result. Odd words are in red, and make up about 5% of the total.

Would you agree it's pretty easy to read? And thus, that only Chaucer's spelling, not his wording, is unfamiliar?
    Whilom there was dwelling at Oxford
    A rich gnof, that guests held to board,
    And of his craft he was a carpenter.
    With him there was dwelling a poor scholar,
    Had learned art, but all his fantasy
    Was turned for to learn astrology,
    And koude a certain of conclusions,
    To demand by interrogations,
    If that men asked him in certain hours
    When that men should have drought or else showers,
    Or if men asked him what should befall
    Of every thing; I may not reckon hem all.
    This clerk was cleped hende Nicholas.
    Of deerne love he koude and of solace;
    And therto he was sly and full private,
    And like a maiden meek for to see.
    A chamber had he in that hostelry
    Alone, without any company,
    Full fetisly ydight with herbs sweet;
    And he himself as sweet as is the root
    Of licorice, or any cetewale.
    His almagest, and books great and small,
    His astrolabe, [be]longing for his art,
    His augury stones laying far apart,
    On shelves couched at his bed’s head;
    His press covered with a folding [cloth] red;
    And all above there lay a gay psaltery,
    On which he made a-night’s melody
    So sweetly that all the chamber ring;
    And Angelus ad Virginem he sang;
 
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Some observations: (1) Most modern editions of Chaucer standardize the spelling and are diplomatic texts (i.e., they incorporate editorial/critical emmendations, etc.; (2) Middle English may be readable, but the phonology was fairly different: e.g., the vowels had their continental values, final e was pronounced as a schwa, gh (or ʒh) were similar to German ch (as in Bach), so I'd say that most people would need training to understand spoken Middle English; (3) some vocabulary is different, archaic words or different meanings.


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(A side note: Goofy's link gives page-images of Caxton's 1476 and 1483 printings Chaucer died in 1400, and we have earlier manuscripts. There seems to be some variance; more on that elsewhere.)
 
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Yes, Caxton edited his editions from MSS, and he made choices and used his orthography.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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quote:
Originally posted by zmježd:
Yes, Caxton edited his editions from MSS, and he made choices and used his orthography.
You're saying that Caxton deliberately changed the spelling that Chaucer had written? Can you direct me to substantiation?

(Let's put it in the other thread I just now opened, so that in this thread we won't forget the "readability" question.)
 
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You're saying that Caxton deliberately changed the spelling that Chaucer had written? Can you direct me to substantiation?

You might find this shocking, but there was no standard orthography in Chaucer's or Caxton's day. There had been one before the Norman invasion and conquest, when most of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms' chancelleries were adopting the Wessex dialect of Old English because of Alfred's pre-eminence. Caxton actually started a trend to standardize English spelling. Most of his printers were not native English speakers, being in the most of the Low Countries and Germany. Spelling didn't really jell until around the late 17th or early 18th centuries.

[Addendum: This page has a quotation from Caxton about his editing the first edition of The Canterbury Tales.
quote:
"Of which book so incorrect was one brought to me six year passed, which I supposed had been very true and correct, and according to the same I did imprint a certain number of them, which anon were sold to many and divers gentlemen: of whom one gentleman came to me, and said that this book was not according in many places unto the book that Geoffrey Chaucer had made. To whom I answered, that I had made it according to my copy, and by me was nothing added nor diminished. Then he said he knew a book which his father had and much loved, that was very true, and according unto his own first book by him made ; and said more, if I would imprint it again, he would get me the same book for a copy. How be it, he wist well his father would not gladly part from it; to whom I said, in case that he could get me such a book true and correct, that I would once endeavour me to imprint it again, for to satisfy the author: whereas before by ignorance I erred in hurting and defaming his book in divers places, in setting in some things that he never said nor made, and leaving out many things that he made which are requisite to be set in it. And thus we fell at accord; and he full gently got me of his father the said book, and delivered it to me, by which I have corrected my book."
]

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I recognize that there was no standard spelling then (or even a century later). An author could spell a word in many different ways. Hell, Shakespeare spelled his own name six different ways!

But that's not the question. Caxton was not the author, he was the printer, working from some manuscript or other. Do we have any evidence that he deliberately changed the spellings used in that manuscript?

It appears not. Extant manuscripts may have varied, but it looks like Caxton was using not his own orthography but that of the text he had. ("I had made it according to my copy, and by me was nothing added nor diminished.")

But this is all in a separate thread I've started on the subject; maybe we should put it there.
 
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You're entitled to your opinion, but I quote: whereas before by ignorance I erred in hurting and defaming his book in divers places, in setting in some things that he never said nor made, and leaving out many things that he made which are requisite to be set in it. How do we know which MSS Caxton used? How do we know if any were Chaucer's original? How do we know how Chaucer spelled things? It just didn't matter to most people, and printers were people after all, not scanners.

In the case of the First Folio of Shakespeare's collected plays, the process of proofing went on while the page was being printed, and the corrections made after a number of pages had been printed, so that no two editions of the book are the same. Plus, early printers often used their own spelling, just as copyists had used their own in the years before printing was invented. You can often tell which dialect a copyist spoke by how they spelled words, independent from that of the author of a MS.

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Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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quote:
You're entitled to your opinion, but
You perhaps misunderstand the area in which we may disagee.

I agree with your second paragraph. And as to your first, I agree that Caxton, being human, surely made errors in typesetting the manuscript copy before him. (So too did the scrivener who had prepared that manuscript. Any typist, typesetter or scribe will make errors when transcribing from a prior copy.) In short, we agree that Caxton's printings will include changes, made inadvertantly, from the prior text he was copying from.

My sole issue with you is whether he made any deliberate changes (such as changing the spelling to what he thought more "proper"). That, of course, would be more systematic and regular, and because of that might be recognizable.

I read you as saying that Caxton did make such deliberate changes (perhaps I misrerad you). As best I can tell, though, he did not -- any changes he made were typos, not deliberate "corrections" -- and I just want to confirm (or refute) that.
 
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My sole issue with you is whether he made any deliberate changes (such as changing the spelling to what he thought more "proper"). That, of course, would be more systematic and regular, and because of that might be recognizable.

And that is where we disagree. It is my feeling, that for most educated people before the 18th century, spelling was not something that they particularly noticed or obsessed about. So, I don't even see Caxton, or his compositors, feeling that they were changing anything if they spelled things they way they did. You feel the opposite. At the present, I'd say that neither of our gut feelings is backed up by anything substatial. It would take either of us far more time than we have to gather the data to prove things one way or another. That's about all I can say.


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Reviving a thread If you live in the U.S., you are probably aware of a discussion recently of what has been called the most obscene word in the English language - the C-word.

The word was used way back in c. 1390 by none other than Chaucer. Here is a link to a discussion of it. It didn't appear to be obscene at that point. It was spelled, "queynte," so in a discussion I read about the word on Twitter they called it the "q" word. It means, "a clever or curious device or ornament," or "an elegant, pleasing thing."
 
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quaint and cunt are different words. quaint is a borrowing from French, cunt has an unknown etymology. Chaucer didn't use the word cunt as far as I know.
 
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Circular. Wikipedia says of cunt: “The word appears several times in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c. 1390), in bawdy contexts, but since it is used openly, does not appear to have been considered obscene at that time.” But the citation is the Sceptical Humanities post that Kalleh linked to, a post that quotes that sentence from Wikipedia. More importantly, the Sceptical Humanities post specifically says that Chaucer did not use the word.

Although Sceptical Humanities notes that the Cambridge, University Library II.3.26 manucript does use the word once in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue. I don’t know if this manuscript is original or a later copy where the spelling might have been changed.

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Wife of Bath's Prologue

Note the translation in Line 450. This is from Shu. Sorry I just linked to an online discussion of it - should have linked to this.

Too bad arnie isn't around - he is an expert on Chaucer.
 
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I think it is translated cunt because quaint no longer has that meaning. According to the OED, quaint used in this way was a pun or euphemism. The Sceptical Humanities post that you link to says the same thing.

I think it is not true that Chaucer used the word cunt several times in The Cantebury Tales (as wikipedia says) and spelled it with a q.

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Also Wikipedia says '"Quaint" was probably pronounced in Middle English in much the same way as "cunt"'. I am skeptical, we know that Middle English qu was pronounced /kw/.
 
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Wow, you don't even believe the master translators. Good for you for being so confident!
 
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Wait what?

The translation is not really relevant to my point. They translated deel as “bit”, but deel is not the same word as “bit”.

You said Chaucer used the word, but in the text of The Wife of Baths Prologue that you provided, he didn’t use the word!

If you think that queynte is the same word... how do you know?

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Hmm... "Bit" is French slang for penis. Any connection in this discussion?
 
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I don't purport to be a translator of Chaucer, goofy. But others spend their entire lives at it. You may be right, but I have to go with the experts at this point. No big deal.

You must not believe much of what is translated from Chaucer because many of his spellings are different from the translations, not just cunt and queynte. You must think this is wrong: "Goode lief, taak keep" translated as "Good dearie, see you keep." How would you translate that?

Surely the word was just a word then, and not offensive like it is today. That's much like the way "gay" is used today, versus how it used to be used.

Sometimes I get the feeling here that you like to argue with me, just to argue. I could be wrong, but there are very few posts of mine that you agree with.
 
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Kalleh, I'm not saying the translation is wrong. I don't care about the translation. I'm taking issue with something you wrote:

quote:
The word was used way back in c. 1390 by none other than Chaucer. Here is a link to a discussion of it. It didn't appear to be obscene at that point. It was spelled, "queynte," so in a discussion I read about the word on Twitter they called it the "q" word. It means, "a clever or curious device or ornament," or "an elegant, pleasing thing."


I'm not writing about this because I like to argue with you. I'm writing about it because as far as I can tell, what you wrote is not true. The very blog post that you link to says that it is not true. cunt was not spelled queynte; it did not used to mean "a clever or curious device or ornament," or "an elegant, pleasing thing," and it might have been obscene in Chaucer's day.

queynte was a different word, the ancestor of modern quaint, and it was used as a euphemism for cunt. It is listed as a different word in the OED, it is not simply a variant spelling of the other word.

The word certainly might have been offensive then, since Chaucer didn't use it, he used the euphemism queynte instead.

This has nothing to do with the translation. It matters not how the word is translated. You seem to be saying that because queynte is translated cunt, they are therefore the same word. But this is not how translation works! As I wrote, deel was translated as bit.
quote:
Wy, taak it al! lo, have it every deel!
Why take it all, lo, have it every bit;


By your logic, that means that deel and bit are the same word.

If you have read something somewhere that provides evidence that Chaucer used the word, please let me know.

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Ah well. This conversation would be best in person, I think.

Just like the spelling isn't exactly "cunt," neither is it "quaint." I doubt "quaint" is meant because it is an adjective. It seems to me, as the blog I cited says, "the pleasing thing" was the beginning to the latter use of "cunt." Clearly, the context is right for the word.

Some discussions come off better in person, and this might be one of them. I am hoping to get to Canada this year for a nursing conference, and it would be great to meet you again.
 
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“Queynte”, spelled later as “quaint”, is a noun meaning “the female genitals”. It is related to the adjective "quaint", which is borrowed from French, derived from the Latin word “cognitus” meaning “known”.

One of the citations in the OED is none other than Chaucer.
quote:
c1390 Chaucer Miller's Tale 3276 This hende Nicholas Fil with this yonge wyf to rage and pleye..and pryuely he caughte hire by the queynte.


The etymology in the OED is:

quote:
Etymology: < quaint adj. (compare later quaint n.2), either punningly after cunt n. or as a euphemistic substitution for that word.


It is quite clearly not the same word as “cunt”.

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quote:
Originally posted by Kalleh:
It seems to me, as the blog I cited says, "the pleasing thing" was the beginning to the latter use of "cunt."


No, the blog you cited says the exact opposite:

quote:

for the word that Chaucer uses is not “cunt,” but “queynte.” “Queint,” as a noun, literally means “a clever or curious device or ornament” (Middle English Dictionary) or an “elegant, pleasing thing” (Riverside Chaucer). When used to refer to a woman’s genitalia, it is both a euphemism and a pun.
...

According to McDonald, “cunt” was used to refer to the vagina without any suggestion of vulgarity until roughly the end of the fourteenth century. Chaucer, who died in 1400, was therefore writing The Canterbury Tales at a time when cunts were disappearing from polite society; consequently, he hinted at the word without actually using it.


https://skepticalhumanities.co...01/18/chaucers-cunt/

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Yes, that last emboldened part was what I was referring to. I guess you are right about not actually using the word, but certainly he was hinting at the word.
 
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Actually quaint used this way predates Chaucer, the earliest citation in the OED is
quote:

c1330 (▸?a1300) Sir Tristrem (1886) l. 2254 (MED) Hir queynt abouen hir kne, Naked þe kniȝtes knewe.

So many people seem confused about this. The New Yorker says
quote:

In the literature of the Middle Ages, Chaucer was the most famous writer to merrily invoke the C-word, or, in his case, the Q-word. His bawdy Wife of Bath promises, "You shall have quaint right enough at eve." A character in "The Miller’s Tale" is a proto-Donald Trump: "he caught her by the quaint," Chaucer writes. The term became more taboo over time...

https://www.newyorker.com/book...f-an-ancient-epithet

But Chaucer never used the word cunt (as far as I know) and it was probably taboo by the end of the 14th century.

The New Republic says
quote:

It has only been an obscene word since the seventeenth century anyway. Before that, we see "cunt" flowering all over medieval literature. In spellings like conte, kointe, queinte, quoynte, and quaint, medieval authors—notably Chaucer—punned on the word. As a noun it meant vulva, in a neutral sort of way. But as an adjective or adverb the word meant something slightly like our contemporary word "quaint"; its meaning ranged according to context, from "clever(ly)" and "wise(ly)" to "unusual" or "beautiful."

https://newrepublic.com/articl...713/whats-bad-c-word

But cunt never meant “clever(ly)" and "wise(ly)" or "unusual" or "beautiful” and it was probably taboo by the end of the 14th century.
 
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You win on this discussion. I was just thinking that words evolve over time and the Q-word could have eventually become the C-word. I never thought the word itself was used by Chaucer.

I thought Language Log might have discussed it, but they don't.
 
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quote:
Originally posted by Kalleh:
I was just thinking that words evolve over time and the Q-word could have eventually become the C-word.


I'm pretty confident that is not what happened. The sound change is unlikely in terms of sound changes from Middle English to Modern English. Plus we know that the word cunt predates Chaucer, the street Gropecuntelane is attested from c1230. Plus other Germanic languages have words that are pretty clearly cognate: Old Icelandic kunta, Old Frisian kunte, etc.

It is much more likely that Middle English writers for some reason didn't want to use the word, so queint meaning "A clever or curious device or ornament" or something similar was repurposed as a euphemism.
 
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I see a connection with the Latin name for "rabbit, " Oryctolagus cuniculus and cunt, which is a furrow or burrow. So, Bob, was Alice really going down her own cunt? Roll Eyes Freudian interpretation, perhaps.
 
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It’s tempting to connect the word to Latin cunnus or cuniculus but there are difficulties. If the English word is borrowed from the Latin, then where did the /t/ come from? If the English word and the Latin are cognate, then they should not both begin with /k/. I’m not sure that cunnus and cuniculus are related to each other.

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Goofy, offline, has convinced me that Chaucer hadn't meant to use "cunt." Goofy, though I sometimes get a little cranky when you disagree with me, I do appreciate your linguistic expertise here.
 
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