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|Region||England, some parts of Wales, south east Scotland and Scottish burghs, to some extent Ireland|
|Era||developed into Early Modern English, Scots and Yola in Wexford by the 16th century|
Middle English describes dialects of English in the history of the English language between the High and Late Middle Ages, or roughly during the three centuries between the late 12th and the late 15th century.
Middle English developed out of Late Old English in Norman England (1066–1154) and was spoken throughout the Plantagenet era (1154–1485). The Middle English period ended at about 1470, when the Chancery Standard, a form of London-based English, began to become widespread, a process aided by the introduction of the printing press to England by William Caxton in the late 1470s. By that time the variant of the Northumbrian dialect (prevalent in Northern England) spoken in southeast Scotland was developing into the Scots language. The language of England as used after 1470 and up to 1650 is known as Early Modern English.
Unlike Old English, which tended largely to adopt Late West Saxon scribal conventions in the period immediately before the Norman conquest of England, written Middle English displays a wide variety of scribal (and presumably dialectal) forms. This diversity suggests the gradual end of the role of Wessex as a focal point and trend-setter for writers and scribes, the emergence of more distinct local scribal styles and written dialects, and a general pattern of transition of activity over the centuries that followed, as Northumbria, East Anglia, and London successively emerged as major centres of English literature, each with their own particular interests.
Middle English literature of the 12th and 13th centuries is comparatively rare, as written communication was usually in Anglo-Norman or in Medieval Latin. Middle English became much more important as a literary language during the 14th century, with poets such as Chaucer and Langland.
Important texts for the reconstruction of the evolution of Middle English out of Old English are the Ormulum (12th century), the Ancrene Wisse and the Katherine Group (early 13th century, see AB language) and Ayenbite of Inwyt (ca. 1340).
The second half of the 11th century is the transitional period from Late Old English to Early Middle English. Early Middle English is the language of the 12th and 13th centuries. Middle English is fully developed as a literary language by the second half of the 14th century. Late Middle English and the transition to Early Modern English takes place from the early 15th century and is taken to have been complete by the beginning of the Tudor period in 1485.
Transition from Old English 
- Norman in the Kingdom of England
The Norman conquest of England in 1066 resulted in only limited culture shock. However, the conquest saw the replacement of top levels of English-speaking political and ecclesiastical hierarchies by the Norman-speaking rulers who used Latin for administrative purposes. Thus Norman came into use as a language of polite discourse and literature, and this fundamentally altered the role of Old English in education and administration, even though many Normans of the early period were illiterate and depended on the clergy for written communication and record-keeping. Even now, after nearly a thousand years, the Norman influence on the English language is still apparent, though it did not begin to affect Middle English until somewhat later.
Consider these pairs of Modern English words. The first of each pair is derived from Old English and the second is of Anglo-Norman origin: pig/pork, chicken/poultry, calf/veal, cow/beef, wood/forest, sheep/mutton, house/mansion, worthy/honourable, bold/courageous, freedom/liberty.
The role of Anglo-Norman as the language of government and law can be seen in the abundance of Modern English words for the mechanisms of government that derive from Anglo-Norman: court, judge, jury, appeal, parliament. Also prevalent in Modern English are terms relating to the chivalric cultures that arose in the 12th century, an era of feudalism and crusading. Early on, this vocabulary of refined behaviour began to work its way into English, imports of the Normans who made their mark on the English language as much as on the territory of England itself.
This period of trilingual activity developed much of the flexible triplicate synonymy of modern English. 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.
Likewise, Norman and — later — French influences led to some interesting word pairs in English, such as the following, which both mean "someone who defends":
- Warden from Norman, and
- Guardian from French (Both "warden" and "guardian" are derived from Germanic.)
- Old and Middle English
The end of Anglo-Saxon rule did not of course change the language immediately. Although the most senior offices in the church were filled by Normans, Old English continued in use in chronicles such as the Peterborough Chronicle until the middle of the 12th century. The non-literate would have spoken the same dialects as before the Conquest, though these changed slowly until written records of them became available for study, which varies in different regions. Once the writing of Old English comes to an end, Middle English has no standard language, only dialects that derive from the dialects of the same regions in the Anglo-Saxon period.
Early Middle English 
Early Middle English (1100–1300) has a largely Anglo-Saxon vocabulary (with many Norse borrowings in the northern parts of the country), but a greatly simplified inflectional system. The grammatical relations that were expressed in Old English by the dative and locative cases are replaced in Early Middle English with prepositional constructions. This replacement is, however, incomplete: the Old English genitive "-es" survives in the modern Saxon genitive—it is now called the "possessive": e.g., the form "dog's" for the longer "of the dog". But most of the other case endings disappeared in the Early Modern English period, including most of the roughly one dozen forms of the definite article ("the"). The dual grammatical number (expressing exactly two of a thing) also disappeared from English during the Early Modern English period (apart from personal pronouns), further simplifying the language.
Deeper changes occurred in the grammar. Gradually, the wealthy and the government anglicised again, although Norman (and subsequently French) remained the dominant language of literature and law for a few centuries, even after the loss of the majority of the continental possessions of the English monarchy. The new English language did not sound the same as the old; for, as well as undergoing changes in vocabulary, the complex system of inflected endings Old English had, was gradually lost or simplified in the dialects of spoken Middle English. This change was gradually reflected in its increasingly diverse written forms as well. The loss of case endings was part of a general trend from inflections to fixed word order that also occurred in other Germanic languages, and therefore cannot be attributed simply to the influence of French-speaking sections of the population: English did, after all, remain the language of the vast majority. It is also argued that Norse immigrants to England had a great impact on the loss of inflectional endings owing to their semi-mutually comprehensible (to the native English speakers) vocabulary, but lack of capability to reproduce their endings; or that the morphological simplifications were caused by Romano-Britons bilingual in Old English and Brittonic (which lacks noun case) or British Romance (which may have lacked noun case, too, like most modern Romance languages do).
Late Middle English 
The Late Middle English period was a time of upheaval in England. After the deposition of Richard II of England in 1399, the House of Plantagenet split into the House of Lancaster and the House of York, whose antagonism culminated in the Wars of the Roses (1455–1487). Stability came only gradually with the Tudor dynasty under Henry VII.
During this period, social change, men coming into positions of power, some of them from other parts of the country or from lower levels in society, resulted also in linguistic change. Towards the end of the 15th century a more modern English was starting to emerge. Printing began in England in the 1470s, which tended to stabilise the language. With a standardised, printed English Bible and Prayer Book being read to church congregations from the 1540s onward, a wider public became familiar with a standard language, and the era of Modern English was under way.
Chancery Standard 
Chancery Standard was largely based on the London and East Midland dialects, for those areas were the political and demographic centres of gravity. However, it used other dialect forms where they made meanings clearer; for example, the northern "they", "their" and "them" (derived from Scandinavian forms) were used rather than the London "hi/they", "hir" and "hem." This was perhaps because the London forms could be confused with words such as he, her, and him. (However, the colloquial form written as "'em", as in "up and at 'em", may well represent a spoken survival of "hem" rather than a shortening of the Norse-derived "them".)
In its early stages of development, the clerks who used Chancery Standard would have been familiar with French and Latin, which must have influenced the forms they chose. Chancery Standard was not the only influence on later forms of English—its level of influence is disputed and a variety of spoken dialects continued to exist—but it provided a core around which Early Modern English could crystallise.
By the mid-15th century, Chancery Standard was used for most official purposes except by the Church (which used Latin) and for some legal purposes (for which Law French and some Latin were used). It was disseminated around England by bureaucrats on official business, and slowly gained prestige.
The early printer Richard Pynson in the late 1490s and early 16th century favoured Chancery Standard in his published works, and consequently pushed the English spelling further towards standardisation.
With its simplified case-ending system, the grammar of Middle English is much closer to that of modern English than that of Old English. Compared to other Germanic languages, it is probably the most similar to that of modern West Frisian, one of English's closest relatives.
Middle English retains only two distinct noun-ending patterns from the more complex system of inflection in Old English. The early Modern English words engel (angel) and name (name) demonstrate the two patterns:
Some nouns of the engel type have an -e in the nominative/accusative singular, like the weak declension, but otherwise strong endings. Often these are the same nouns that had an -e in the nominative/accusative singular of Old English. (These in turn inherited from Proto-Germanic ja-stem and i-stem nouns.)
The strong -(e)s plural form has survived into Modern English. The weak -(e)n form is now rare in the standard language, used only in oxen, children, brethren; and it is slightly less rare in some dialects, used in eyen for eyes, shoon for shoes, hosen for hose(s), kine for cows, and been for bees.
As a general rule (and all these rules are general), the first person singular of verbs in the present tense ends in -e ("ich here" — "I hear"), the second person in -(e)st ("þou spekest" — "thou speakest"), and the third person in -eþ ("he comeþ" — "he cometh/he comes"). (þ is pronounced like the unvoiced th in "think").
Plural forms vary strongly by dialect, with southern dialects preserving the Old English -eþ, Midland dialects showing -en from about 1200 onward and northern forms using -es in the third person singular as well as the plural.
In the past tense, weak verbs are formed by adding an -ed(e), -d(e) or -t(e) ending. These, without their personal endings, also form past participles, together with past-participle prefixes derived from Old English: i-, y- and sometimes bi-.
Strong verbs, by contrast, form their past tense by changing their stem vowel (binden -> bound), as in Modern English.
After the Conquest, English retained Old English pronouns, with the exception of the third person plural, a borrowing from Old Norse (the original Old English form clashed with the third person singular and was eventually dropped):
|First||ik / ich / I||me||my(n)||we||us||oure|
|Second||þou / thou||þee / thee||þy(n) / thy(n)||ȝe / ye||ȝow / you||ȝower / your|
|Third||Impersonal||hit||hit / him||his||he
þei / they
þem / them
þeir / their
|Feminine||ȝho / scho / sche||hire||hire|
Here are the Old English pronouns.
|1st||Singular||iċ||[ɪtʃ]||mec / mē||mē||mīn|
|Plural||wē||[weː]||ūsic||ūs||ūser / ūre|
|2nd||Singular||þū||[θuː]||þec / þē||þē||þīn|
The first and second person pronouns in Old English survived into Middle English largely unchanged, with only minor spelling variations. In the third person, the masculine accusative singular became 'him'. The feminine form was replaced by a form of the demonstrative that developed into 'sche', but unsteadily—'heyr' remained in some areas for a long time. The lack of a strong standard written form between the 13th and the 15th centuries makes these changes hard to map.
The overall trend was the gradual reduction in the number of different case endings. The accusative case disappeared, but the six other cases were partly retained in personal pronouns, as in he, him, his.
Generally, all letters in Middle English words were pronounced. (Silent letters in Modern English generally come from pronunciation shifts, which means that pronunciation is no longer closely reflected by the written form because of fixed spelling constraints imposed by the invention of dictionaries and printing.) Therefore 'knight' was pronounced [ˈkniçt] (with a pronounced <k> and the <gh> as the <ch> in German 'Knecht'), not [ˈnaɪt] as in Modern English.
In earlier Middle English all written vowels were pronounced. By Chaucer's time, however, the final <e> had become silent in normal speech, but could optionally be pronounced in verse as the meter required (but was normally silent when the next word began with a vowel). Chaucer followed these conventions: -e is silent in 'kowthe' and 'Thanne', but is pronounced in 'straunge', 'ferne', 'ende', etc. (Presumably, the final <y> is partly or completely dropped in 'Caunterbury', so as to make the meter flow.)
An additional rule in speech, and often in poetry as well, was that a non-final unstressed <e> was dropped when adjacent to only a single consonant on either side if there was another short 'e' in an adjoining syllable. Thus, 'every' sounds like "evry" and 'palmeres' like "palmers".
Archaic characters 
The following characters can be found in Middle English text, direct holdovers from the Old English Latin alphabet.
|Æ æ||Ash||[æ]||Ash may still be used as a variant of the digraph <ae> in many English words of Greek or Latin origin; and may be found in brand names or loan words.|
|Ð ð||Eth||[θ], [ð]||Eth falls out of use during the 13th century and is replaced by thorn.|
|Ȝ ȝ||Yogh||[ɡ], [ɣ], [j] or [dʒ]||Yogh lingers in some Scottish names as ⟨z⟩, as in McKenzie with a z pronounced /j/. Yogh became indistinguishable from cursive z in Middle Scots and printers tended to use ⟨z⟩ when yogh was not available in their fonts.|
|Þ þ||Thorn||[θ], [ð]||Thorn mostly falls out of use during the 14th century, and is replaced by th by 1400. It lingers on in archaic Early Modern English usage, where it was often approximated with ⟨y⟩, hence the archaic variant spelling of the as ye.|
|Ƿ ƿ||Wynn||[w] (the group ⟨hƿ⟩ represents [ʍ])||Wynn represented the Germanic /w/ phoneme, which had no correspondence in Vulgar Latin phonology (where classical /w/ had become /β/).
It mostly falls out of use, being replaced by ⟨w⟩, during the 13th century. Due to its similarity to the letter ⟨p⟩, it is mostly represented by ⟨w⟩ in modern editions of Old and Middle English texts even when the manuscript has wynn.
Sample texts 
Ormulum, 12th century 
This passage explains the background to the Nativity:
Forrþrihht anan se time comm
þatt ure Drihhtin wollde
ben borenn i þiss middellærd
forr all mannkinne nede
he chæs himm sone kinnessmenn
all swillke summ he wollde
and whær he wollde borenn ben
he chæs all att hiss wille.
As soon as the time came
that our Lord wanted
be born in this middle-earth
for all mankind sake,
at once he chose kinsmen for himself,
all just as he wanted,
and he decided that he would be born
exactly where he wished.
Wycliffe's Bible, 1384 
From the Wycliffe's Bible, (1384):
1And it was don aftirward, and Jhesu made iorney by citees and castelis, prechinge and euangelysinge þe rewme of God, 2and twelue wiþ him; and summe wymmen þat weren heelid of wickide spiritis and syknessis, Marie, þat is clepid Mawdeleyn, of whom seuene deuelis wenten 3out, and Jone, þe wyf of Chuse, procuratour of Eroude, and Susanne, and manye oþere, whiche mynystriden to him of her riches.—Luke ch.8, v.1–3
1And it was don aftirward, and Jhesus made iourney bi citees and castels, prechynge and euangelisynge þe rewme of 2God, and twelue wiþ hym; and sum wymmen þat weren heelid of wickid spiritis and sijknessis, Marie, þat is clepid Maudeleyn, of whom seuene deuelis 3wenten out, and Joone, þe wijf of Chuse, þe procuratoure of Eroude, and Susanne, and many oþir, þat mynystriden to hym of her ritchesse.—Luke ch.8, v.1–3
And it came to pass afterward, that he went throughout every city and village, preaching and showing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him, and certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, and Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance.
Chaucer, 1390s 
The following is the beginning of the general Prologue from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The text was written in a dialect associated with London and spellings associated with the then-emergent Chancery Standard.
Gower, 1390 
See also 
- Medulla Grammatice (collection of glossaries)
- Middle English creole hypothesis
- Middle English Dictionary
- Middle English literature
- Burchfield, Robert W. (1987). "Ormulum". In Strayer, Joseph R. Dictionary of the Middle Ages 9. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 280. ISBN 0-684-18275-0., p. 280
- Scott, Walter. Ivanhoe; chapter 1
- McWhorter, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, 2008, pp. 89-136.
- Ward, AW; Waller, AR (1907–21). "The Cambridge History of English and American Literature". Bartleby. Retrieved Oct 4, 2011.
- Holt, Robert, ed. (1878). The Ormulum: with the notes and glossary of Dr R. M. White. Two vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Internet Archive: Volume 1; Volume 2.
- Gleason, Paul (2002). "Don DeLillo, T.S. Eliot, and the Redemption of America's Atomic Waste Land". Underwords. Joseph Dewey, Steven G. Kellman and Irving Malin. Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp. p. 131.
- Richard Brodie (2005). ""John Gower's 'Confessio Amantis' Modern English Version"". "Prologue". Retrieved March 15, 2012.
- Brunner, Karl (1962) Abriss der mittelenglischen Grammatik; 5. Auflage. Tübingen: M. Niemeyer (1st ed. Halle (Saale): M. Niemeyer, 1938)
- Brunner, Karl (1963) An Outline of Middle English Grammar; translated by Grahame Johnston. Oxford: Blackwell
|Middle English test of Wikipedia at Wikimedia Incubator|
- A. L. Mayhew and Walter William Skeat. A Concise Dictionary of Middle English from A.D. 1150 to 1580
- Middle English Glossary
- Oliver Farrar Emerson, A.M., Ph.D. (ed.). A Middle English Reader. With grammatical introduction, notes, and glossary.