This page was created mainly for its author's amusement, but you might find it useful when confronted with a recording of medieval English songs: try to pronounce the titles by the familiar rules of modern English and you'll find the results sound just plain silly.
The term Middle English refers to various dialects spoken in England from about the 12th to the 16th century. They're easy to recognize by the fact that many of the words resemble modern English, but the spellings often appear quite strange. In spelling and pronunciation, Middle English is often more like German than modern English, though one can still detect many of the idiosyncracies that make English one of the most difficult languages to pronounce consistently. The following is intended to give general advice rather than exact formulas: the trick is to sound authoritative and plausible, if not always exactly right.
Follow the usual European rules and you'll usually be right. Do not follow the rules of modern English; English vowels underwent a major transformation in Elizabethan times (called the "Tudor vowel shift"). Before then, they behaved more like the vowels in any normal European language.
|e||ay or eh (whichever seems more appropriate)|
|e (final)||uh, an unstressed schwa like the German final e; though often it may instead be silent, especially when the next word begins with a vowel|
|i||ih, as in "bit"|
|u||u as in "full", or yoo as in "cue"|
Some of these are pretty weird. Pay attention.
|ai, ay||iy, like the word "eye"|
|ew||oowa or ua, as in "truant"|
|ow||oo, as in "boot"|
Most English consonants haven't changed much in the past 500 years, so you'll usually be okay pronouncing them like modern English. Here are two notable exceptions:
|gh||kh or sch, like German "ich", e.g. night = nihkht|
|s||s, usually, but sometimes also z (like German)|
It wasn't until the last 300 years or so that English schoolteachers decided a single word should have one and only one spelling. Thus in Middle English one often sees alternate spellings (which may indicate alternate pronunciations) of a single word, even within the same text. Poets often used this to their advantage and chose the spelling of their words so as to fit them properly into the meter. The same criterion sometimes determines whether or not a final e is pronounced in any given word. The moral is: do not look for consistency, it isn't there.