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Middle English

Middle English is the name given to the English language roughly from the 11th to the 15th centuries: after the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror in 1066 and before the introduction of the printing press. It was the language of the peasant and the butcher, not of the king and the nobles, who spoke French. It was the language of Geoffrey Chaucer.

English before 1000 is called Old English or Anglo-Saxon; after 1500 comes the era of modern English.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Construction: Key points
3 Speaking Middle English



Syððan wæs geworden þæt he ferde þurh þa ceastre and þæt castel: godes rice prediciende and bodiende. and hi twelfe mid. And sume wif þe wæron gehælede of awyrgdum gastum: and untrumnessum: seo magdalenisce maria ofþære seofan deoflu uteodon: and iohanna chuzan wif herodes gerefan: and susanna and manega oðre þe him of hyra spedum þenedon;

-- Translation of Luke 8.1-3 from the New Testament

When the Vikings conquered England, they had also conquered northern France and became gallicized (as in English they became anglicized). In 1066, led by William the Conqueror, these gallicized Vikings, the Normans, attacked, conquered, and ruled England (and still ruled northern France). England became more closely tied politically to feudal western Europe, and became trilingual: French became the language of the king and the nobles, Latin the language of the priest and professor, and English the language of the people.

This profoundly changed the English language. This is attributable to the introduction into England not just of a new language, Norman French, but of new political structures which relied upon that language. Although it is possible to overestimate the degree of cultural shock which 1066 represented (especially given the strong Anglo-Norman connections under both Edward and Harold), the removal of the top levels of an English-speaking political and ecclesiastical hierarchy, and their replacement with a French-speaking one, both confirmed the position of French as a language of polite discourse and vernacular literature and removed the standard (Wessex) dialect of Old English and its role in education. Although Old English was by no means as standardised as modern English, its written forms were less subject to broad dialect variations than post-Conquest English.

Even now, after a thousand years, the Norman class-system is still visible in English: the words for common things are derived from Old English, for example: pig, cow, dog sheep farmer house.

The words for things used by the rich and the ruling class are derived from middle French, for example: pork, beef, court, judge, jury, parliament, honor, courage, rich and study.

Archer and fletcher are special cases. Although there is no particular reason why we kept the English version-archer and the French word fletcher has fallen, it is more than likely the archers themselves used the word 'archer' and the generals used the word 'fletcher'.

Even the word for the less wealthy classes came from the mouth of the francophone: poor.

The triplicate vocabulary of English comes from this Norman period. For instance, English has three words meaning roughly "of or relating to a king": kingly from Old English, royal from French and regal from Latin. Each carries its own nuance.

The Old English kingly brings to mind a fabled king; the French royal, the ample pomp of a medieval court; and the Latin regal, the noble expression and manner of a king, an abstract king.

Deeper changes occurred in the grammar. Bit by bit, the wealthy and the government anglicized again, though French remained the dominant language of literature and law for several centuries. The new English didn't look the same as the old. Old English had a complex system of inflectional endings, but these were gradually lost and simplified in the dialects of spoken English, and soon the change spread to its increasingly diverse written forms. This loss of case-endings can again be traced back to the loss of written standards for English, and not just to French-speaking occupation. English remained, after all, the language of the majority, but more a spoken than a written one, and certainly not a literary one until, arguably, the fourteenth century, as the Chancery Standard introduced a greater deal of conformity in English spelling, and writers like Chaucer and Gower began to expand the range and word-stock of the language (largely through French and Latin borrowing) in an attempt to establish it as a medium capable of serious literature.


After standardization of the language, English began to appear almost in its modern form:

And it is don, aftirward Jesus made iourne bi cites & castelis prechende & euangelisende þe rewme of god, & twelue wiþ hym & summe wymmen þat weren helid of wicke spiritis & sicnesses, marie þat is clepid maudeleyn, of whom seuene deuelis wenten out & Jone þe wif off chusi procuratour of eroude, & susanne & manye oþere þat mynystreden to hym of her facultes

-- Luke 8.1-3

Construction: Key points

With its simplified case-ending system, Middle English is closer to modern English than its pre-Conquest equivalent. The caveat, of course, is the necessary instability of the term 'Middle English', which encompasses a number of dialects and regions over a 500-year period. Some general principles, though, may be observed.

1. Nouns

Despite losing the slightly more complex system of inflexional endings, Middle English retains two separate noun-ending patterns from Old English. Compare, for example, the early Modern English words 'engel' (angel) and 'nome' (name):

 sing.      nom/acc:        engel         nome
            gen:            engles*       nome
            dat:            engle         nome
 plur.      nom/acc:        engles        nomen
            gen:            engle(ne)**   nomen
            dat:            engle(s)      nomen

* cf. Sawles Warde (The protection *of the soul*) **cf. Ancrene Wisse (The Anchoresses' Guide)

The strong -s plural form has survived into Modern English, while the weak -n form is rare (oxen, children, brethren). These noun rules themselves break down significantly, and in later Middle English, as in Modern English, syntax and prepositions govern the behaviour of nouns more than case endings.

2. Verbs

As a general rule (and all these rules are general), the first person singular of present tense verbs ends in -e (ich here), the second person in -(e)st (þou liest), and the third person in -eþ (he comeþ). This varies according to dialect and time. -e and -en often represent the subjunctive singular and plural, while the imperative frequently has no ending in the singular and an -eþ suffix in the plural (listeþ, lordynges).

In the past tense, weak verbs are formed by an -ed(e), -d(e) or -t(e) ending. These, without their case endings, also form past participles, together with past-participle prefixes derived from the old English ge-: i-, y- and sometimes bi-. Strong verbs form their past tense by changing their stem vowel (e.g. winden -> wounden), as in Modern English.

3. Pronouns

Post-Conquest English inherits its pronouns from Old English:

           singular               plural
 First Person
 nom.      ich, I                 we
 acc.      me                     us
 gen.      min, mi                ure
 dat.      me                     us
 Second Person
 nom.      þu                     3e
 acc.      þe                     3ow, ow
 gen.      þin                    3ower, ower
 dat.      þe                     3ow, ow
 Third Person
           masc.       neut.      fem.           pl.

nom. he hit ho, heo, hi hi, ho, heo acc. hine hit hi, heo hi gen. his his hire, hore hore, heore dat. him him hire hom, heom

First and second pronouns survive largely unchanged, with only minor spelling variations. In the third person, the masculine accusative singular became 'him'. The feminine form developed into 'she', but unsteadily - 'ho' remains in some areas for a long time. The lack of a strong standard written form between the eleventh and the fifteenth century makes these changes hard to map.

Speaking Middle English

English before about the mid-sixteenth century follows European vowel pronunciation:

 'a' as in modern 'father'
 long 'e' as in modern 'there'
 short 'e' as in modern 'egg'
 'i'/vowel 'y' as in modern 'see'
 long 'o' as the oa in modern 'oar'
 short 'o' as in modern 'on'
 'u' as in modern 'do'

Diphthongs are generally pronounced as close but separate vowels (e.g. Troilus).

'r' sounds typically have a light roll.

Generally, all letters in Middle English words are pronounced. (Silent letters in Modern English come from pronunciation shifts but continued spelling conventions.) Therefore 'knight' is pronounced 'k-n-i-g-h-t' (with 'gh' as the 'ch' in German 'nacht' or Scottish 'loch'), not 'nite'.

Final 'e's are pronounced, unstressed - they do not, as in Modern English, affect pronunciation of central vowels. (In Modern English the 'e' changes the short 'i' in 'fin' to a long 'i' in 'fine'. In Middle English f-i-n-e would be pronounced something like 'feene'.) The exception to this is where the next word begins with a vowel, or sometimes an 'i' or an 'h', in which case the final -e elides and is unpronounced. All this is important for making sense of metre in Middle English verse, e.g.

 Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
 And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
 To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
        (Chaucer, Canterbury Tales)

Words like 'straunge' are disyllabic. 'Palmeres' is trisyllabic. (As you can hear from a read-through, the emphasis is more on regular stress patterns than on absolute syllabic regularity.) Final 'e's are pronounced in 'straunge', but not in 'kowthe', where the next letter is the 'i' of 'in'. The final 'e' on 'ferne' is pronounced this time, despite being before an 'h'.

The vast differences between Old English and Middle English (and indeed Modern English) have led some to claim English is a glorified creole. See Is Middle English a Pidgin? for a discussion.