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A page from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
|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 (ME) refers to the dialects of the English language spoken in parts of the British Isles after the Norman conquest until the late 15th century. This stage of the development of the English language roughly followed the High to the Late Middle Ages.
Middle English developed out of Late Old English seeing many dramatic changes in its grammar, pronunciation and writing customs. The Middle English period ended about 1470, when a London-based dialect became the main standard (Chancery Standard), aided by the invention of the printing press. Unlike Old English, which adopted similar writing customs, written Middle English displays a wide variety of scribal forms. The language of England, as used after 1470 and up to 1650, is known as Early Modern English. By that time, the variant of the Northumbrian dialect (prevalent in Northern England and spoken in southeast Scotland) was developing into the Scots language.
During the Middle English period many Old English grammatical features were simplified or disappeared. This includes the reduction (and eventual elimination) of some grammatical cases, the simplification of noun and adjective inflection, and the simplification of verb conjugations. Middle English also saw a mass adoption of Norman-French vocabulary, especially words related to politics, law, the arts, religion and other courtly language. Much of this adoption was due to the emulation of the French-speaking Normans who occupied England at the time. Everyday English vocabulary remained mostly Germanic. Pronunciation changed dramatically during the middle period, especially vowel sounds and diphthongs, with the beginning of the Great Vowel Shift.
Little survives of early Middle English literature, most likely due to the occupation of French speaking Normans and the prestige that came with writing in French rather than English. During the 14th century a new style of literature emerged with the works of notable poets such as Geoffrey Chaucer and John Wycliffe. Poets wrote both in the vernacular and courtly English. Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales remains the most studied and read work of the period.
- 1 History
- 2 Phonology
- 3 Grammar
- 4 Orthography
- 5 Sample texts
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
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 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.
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 was the transitional period from Late Old English to Early Middle English. Early Middle English was the language of the 12th and 13th centuries. Middle English was fully developed as a literary language by the second half of the 14th century. Late Middle English and the transition to Early Modern English took 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/valuable, 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 behavior 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 (itself of Latin origin) 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 English possessive: e.g., the form "dog's" for the longer "of the dog". But most of the other case endings disappeared in the Early Middle 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 Middle 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 until the 14th century, 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 vernacular. It is also argued that Norse immigrants to England had a great impact on the loss of inflectional endings in Middle English. One argument is that, although Norse- and English-speakers were somewhat comprehensible to each other, the Norse-speakers' inability to reproduce the ending sounds of English words influenced Middle English's loss of inflectional endings. Another argument is that the morphological simplifications were caused by Romano-Britons who were bilingual in Old English and either Brittonic languages (which lack noun case) or British Latin (which may have lacked noun case, like most modern Romance languages).
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 of social change, with new rulers coming into positions of power, some of them from other parts of the country or from lower levels in society, many linguistic changes occurred. Towards the end of the 15th century a more modern English began to emerge. Printing began in England in the 1470s, which helped 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 uniform language, and the era of Modern English began.
Chancery Standard was largely based on the London and East Midland dialects, since those areas were both political and demographic centers of English society. 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".)
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 crystallize.
By the mid-15th century, Chancery Standard was used for most official purposes except by the Church, which still 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.
In the late 1490s and early 1500s, the early printer Richard Pynson favored Chancery Standard in his published works, and consequently pushed the English spelling further towards standardization.
Middle English phonology is speculative since it is preserved only as a written language. Nevertheless, there is a very large text corpus of Middle English and spelling was usually phonetic rather than conventional. The Middle English speech of London in the late 14th century is used as the standard Middle English dialect in teaching and when specifying "the" grammar or phonology of Middle English.
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 with 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 indicative 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 (the letter ‘thorn’) is pronounced, in this case, like the unvoiced th in "think", but, under certain circumstances, may be like the voiced th in "that"). The following table illustrates the conjugation pattern of but one dialect.
|strong verbs||weak verbs||present tense to be||present tense to have||present tense to want|
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.
The past tense of weak verbs is formed by adding an -ed(e), -d(e) or -t(e) ending. The past-tense forms, without their personal endings, also serve as past participles, together with past-participle prefixes derived from Old English: i-, y- and sometimes bi-.
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):
|Person (gender)||Subject||Object||Possessive determiner||Possessive pronoun||Reflexive|
|ic / ich / I
|me / mi
|min / minen [pl.]
|min / mire / minre
|min one / mi selven
|þou / þu / tu / þeou
|þi / ti
|þin / þyn
|þeself / þi selven
|him[a] / hine[b]
|his / hisse / hes
|his / hisse
|sche[o] / s[c]ho / ȝho
|heo / his / hie / hies / hire
|hio / heo / hire / heore
|hit / him
|us / ous
|ure[n] / our[e] / ures / urne
|us self / ous silve
|ȝe / ye
|eow / [ȝ]ou / ȝow / gu / you
|eower / [ȝ]ower / gur / [e]our
|Ȝou self / ou selve
|Third||From Old English||heo / he||his / heo[m]||heore / her||-||-|
|From Old Norse||þa / þei / þeo / þo||þem / þo||þeir||-||þam-selue|
Many other variations are noted in Middle English sources due to difference in spellings and pronunciations. See Francis Henry Stratmann (1891), A Middle-English dictionary (A Middle English dictionary ed.), [London]: Oxford University Press and A Concise Dictionary of Middle English from A.D. 1150 TO 1580, A. L. Mayhew, Walter W. Skeat, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1888.
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.
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 the Northumbria, East Anglia, and London successively emerged as major centers of English literature, each with their own particular interests.
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 'Canterbury', 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".
Toward latter part of Middle English, the Great Vowel Shift was changing the pronunciation of most long vowels from a Continental sound to a distinctly English sound. While Middle English was essentially written and spelled the way it sounded, the Great Vowel Shift caused many words to be pronounced differently from the Middle English spellings.
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 fell out of use during the 13th century and was replaced by thorn.|
|Ȝ ȝ||Yogh||[ɡ], [ɣ], [j] or [dʒ]||Yogh lingered 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 fell out of use during the 14th century, and was replaced by th by 1400. Anachronistic usage of the scribal abbreviation ("þe", i.e. "the") has led to the modern mispronunciation of thorn as ⟨y⟩ in this context, for instance, in the phrase "Ye Olde".|
|Ƿ ƿ||Wynn||[w] (the group ⟨hƿ⟩ represents [hw~ʍ])||Wynn represented the Germanic /w/ phoneme, which had no correspondence in Vulgar Latin phonology (where classical /w/ had become /β/).
It mostly fell out of use, being replaced by ⟨w⟩, during the 13th century. Due to its similarity to the letter ⟨p⟩, it was mostly represented by ⟨w⟩ in modern editions of Old and Middle English texts even when the manuscript has wynn.
The English language was in flux due to the influence from other languages.
The letter J, for example, was a foreign glyph used for multiple purposes. The letter originated as a simple typographical swash or variation on the letter i, and so it is often identical to it in sound. (For example, the word "wife" is often spelled wijf and "paradise" is paradijs in Middle English.) Illiterate, native speakers of Middle English would have known of no difference between instances of i and j. Sometimes, the written j was to be pronounced like a modern y rather than a homophone of jay. Many Hebrew names and words translated into English (via the Vulgate, the Septuagint, or the Greek New Testament) used the letter J for the Hebrew Yodh, which has a sound similar to y (as in Hallelujah). The yodh was commonly transliterated as the Greek letter iota (ɩ), which looks and sounds a lot like the Middle English i, although the yodh is really a voiced palatal approximant. Middle English words include Jerusalem, Juda, Jordan, Joseph, Joon, all of which are spelled similar in Modern English, however, the pronunciation would have followed the centuries-old Latin pronunciation, which used the voiced palatal approximant, similar to the y sound for each J (e.g. Yer-oo-sa-lem).
There were certain foreign words, notably from Old French, that used the letter j for a different sound. The word joie (modern "joy"), derived from Old French and used in Wycliffe's Bible, was pronounced with a // ; sound. The j from French sounded like the Old English // sound, which was spelled cȝ. As Middle English turned into Modern English, both j and dg would be used to represent these sounds as the ȝ glyph lost favor.
Just as Latin used both the U and the V for both the vowel "u" and the consonant "v," Middle English continued this diversity in writing. The letter "v" appeared at the beginning of a word whether it was the vowel or consonant, like vpon for "upon" and vois for "voice." The letter "u" served for either sound in the middle or at the end of a word, like euentid for "eventide" and þou for "thou."
Because Middle English was written primarily by scribes, clergymen, and educated laymen, many scribal abbreviations from Latin were used. Abbreviations were used for frequently used words and names. It was common for the Lollards to abbreviate the name of Jesus (as in Latin manuscripts) to ihc. The letters n and m were often omitted by placing a mark above an adjacent letter, so the word in was written as the letter i with a horizontal mark above it, like ī. The word þt supplanted "that" due to space concerns. Various forms of the ampersand replaced the word "and."
(all modern English translations are poetic translations, not word for word.)
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.
Epitaph of John the smyth, died 1371
man com & se how schal alle ded li: wen yolk comes bad & bare
moth have ben ve awaẏ fare: All ẏs wermēs yt ve for care:—
bot yt ve do for god ẏs luf ve haue nothyng yare:
yis graue lẏs John ye smẏth god yif his soule hewn grit
Translation by Patricia Utechin
Man, come and see how all dead men shall lie: when that comes bad and bare,
we have nothing when we away fare: all that we care for is worms:—
except for that which we do for God's sake, we have nothing ready:
under this grave lies John the smith, God give his soul heavenly peace
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.
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.
In modern prose:
When April with its sweet showers has pierced March's drought to the root, bathing every vein in such liquid by whose virtue the flower is engendered, and when Zephyrus with his sweet breath has also enlivened the tender plants in every wood and field, and the young sun is halfway through Aries, and small birds that sleep all night with an open eye make melodies (their hearts pricked by Nature), then people long to go on pilgrimages, and palmers seek foreign shores and distant shrines known in sundry lands, and especially they wend their way to Canterbury from every shire of England in order to seek the holy blessed martyr, who has helped them when they were sick.
In modern prose:
The books of those that wrote before us survive, and therefore we are taught about what was written then. For this reason it is good that we also in our time, here among us, write some material from scratch, inspired by the example of these old customs; so that it might, when we are dead and elsewhere, be left to the world's ear in the time coming after this. But because men say, and it's true, that when someone writes entirely about wisdom, it often dulls a man's wit who reads it every day. For that reason, if you permit it, I would like to take the middle way, and write a book between the two, somewhat of passion, somewhat of instruction, that whether of high or low status, people may like what I write about.
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|Middle English test of Wikipedia at Wikimedia Incubator|
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