The medieval period was a time of notable scholarship and enlightenment (not to mention some excellent music) (oops, I just mentioned the music). So I feel that, in honour of Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, William of Ockham, and Duns Scotus, it is appropriate to conduct a word tasting of medieval with a bit of Q&A.

Q: Is it spelled medievalmediaeval, or mediæval?

A: Yes.

Q: Is medieval said with three or four syllables?

A: Yes.

Q: Come on, man.

A: Both versions are in use. In fact, there are quite a few ways to say it, all of them established and accepted on both sides of the Atlantic (no word on the antipodes): the first syllable can be said “med,” “mid,” or “meed,” and the i can be pronounced or not (however, you should not say “med-eye-evil”). A quick Twitter poll got about a two-to-one ratio of three-syllable sayers over four-syllable sayers.

Q: What is the difference between the medieval period and the middle ages?

A: Whether you prefer your terminology to come from Latin or Anglo-Saxon. The word medieval comes from Latin medium (‘middle’, in case it’s not obvious) and ævum (‘age’). (This does not mean that people between the ages of about 40 and 65 are medieval. But they could be if they want.) That -eval is also seen in primeval (from the ‘first age’) and coeval (‘of the same age’).

Q: When was the medieval period?

A: Um. Well, it started after the fall of the Roman Empire, so the Early Middle Ages began around AD 500 (also known as 500 CE). That was before Anglo-Saxons even invaded Britain. But the High Middle Ages, the glory days of the medieval era, started around AD 1000 (which is also about the time Old English shaded into Middle English), and the Late Middle Ages – which had plagues and things like that and sloped into the Renaissance – started around 1300 and ended around 1500 (which is also when Middle English graduated to Early Modern English). But it’s fuzzy, not least of which because the Middle Ages are typically defined as having been before the Renaissance, and the Renaissance started at different times in different parts of Europe and, let’s be honest, kind of overlapped with the medieval period, because the future does not arrive at the same speed everywhere and for all people. Oh, and outside of Europe, which is most of the world, they had their own cultural developments at their own speed and in their own ways. I heartily encourage studying cultures all around the world through history, because they’re absolutely fascinating. You also get insights into your own perspectives.

Q: The medieval era wasn’t a great time to live, was it?

A: If you require central heating, indoor plumbing, and internet, the medieval period may not be for you. But people in nearly all places and times find ways to be happy, and there was certainly a lot of great culture. Intellectual advancements. Splendid art. Excellent music. Here, listen to this.

Q: But weren’t they the “dark ages”?

A: You’re thinking of the Early Middle Ages, which are sometimes called the “dark ages” not because they were dim and nasty but just because we don’t have all that much surviving information from the time – more gets dug up (literally) every year, but, you know, it was a while ago, and not nearly as many things got written down then, either.

Q: So you’re saying the medieval era wasn’t evil.

A: Not medi-evil, not maxi-evil, just people being people. It had its wars and nasty politics and so on, to be sure, but so do we. And yes, we know more and understand more now than they did then, but they knew more and understood more than the people who came before them. Just bad luck that medieval sounds that way.

2 responses to “medieval

  1. Hi James, Replying rather than commenting because WordPress absolutely refuses to accept my email address as valid – given up trying to change my password, as the email is clearly the problem. From the antipodes, the four-syllable pronunciation has been usual, but I notice this seems to be shifting. I wonder if it’s because, reflecting interest stimulated by games and related movies and books, the word is being said more often by more diverse people. But it might just be our well documented fondness for the line of least linguistic resistance.

    I don’t know, but would be very interested if anyone does, whether this might be a point of divergence with Australian speech. The crucial differences are diametric rather than subtle, so it baffles me that people confuse us. The big one is our tendency to replace pure vowels with diphthongs, and drawl diphthongs or even split them to produce extra syllables. The Aussies, or at least educated urban Aussies, head the opposite way, flattening out diphthongs to pure vowels – but not the same pure vowel RP would prescribe in most instances. (The exception is the very broad Aus accent that inserts a neutral vowel sound before every single vowel – but you don’t hear that so often except in comedy and maybe rural places.)My guess is this would push them toward preferring the trisyllablic version, but not sure I’ve actually observed it, though I can hear them in my head!

    Hope you and Aina are well and weathering these strange times. Janet

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Hi, Janet! Your observations on Aussie versus Kiwi are interesting – I hadn’t thought of it that way, and now I’m listening for it! Aina and I are weathering this all as well as we can; she’s been working from home, and I am of course freelance so I’ve been working from… home, lately, because where else? But I’m watching a lot of travel videos. Watched a few on Australian train journeys, trying to listen for the distinctive phonology along with checking out the travel! (No need to watch the NZ train journeys; we’ve been! 🙂 )

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s