Middle English

Middle English
Englisch, Inglis, English
RegionEngland, some parts of Wales, south east Scotland and Scottish burghs, to some extent Ireland
Eradeveloped into Early Modern English, Scots, and Yola and Fingallian in Ireland by the 16th century
Early form
Language codes
ISO 639-3enm
ISO 639-6meng
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Middle English (ME) is a period when the English language, spoken after the Norman conquest (1066) until the late 15th century, underwent distinct variations and developments following the Old English period. Scholarly opinion varies but the Oxford English Dictionary specifies the period of 1150 to 1500.[2] This stage of the development of the English language roughly followed the High to the Late Middle Ages.

Middle English developed from Late Old English, and saw significant changes to its grammar, pronunciation, and orthography. Writing conventions during the Middle English period varied widely. Examples of writing from this period that have survived show extensive regional variation. The more standardized Old English language became fragmented, localized, and was for the most part, being improvised.[2] By the end of the period (about 1470) and aided by the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439, a standard based on the London dialect (Chancery Standard) had become established. This largely formed the basis for Modern English spelling, although pronunciation has changed considerably since that time. Middle English was succeeded in England by the era of Early Modern English, which lasted until about 1650. Scots language developed concurrently from a variant of the Northumbrian dialect (prevalent in northern England and spoken in southeast Scotland).

During the Middle English period, many Old English grammatical features either became simplified or disappeared altogether. Noun, adjective and verb inflections were simplified by the reduction (and eventual elimination) of most grammatical case distinctions. Middle English also saw considerable adoption of Norman French vocabulary, especially in the areas of politics, law, the arts and religion. Conventional English vocabulary retained its mostly Germanic etiology, with Old Norse influences becoming more apparent. Significant changes in pronunciation took place, particularly involving long vowels and diphthongs which in the later Middle English period, began to undergo the Great Vowel Shift.

Little survives of early Middle English literature, due in part to Norman domination 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 writers including John Wycliffe and Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales remains the one of most studied and read works of the period.[4]


Transition from Old English

Transition from Late Old English to Early Middle English occurred in the latter part of the 11th century.

The influence of Old Norse aided the development of English from a synthetic language with relatively free word order, to a more analytic or isolating language with a more strict word order.[2][5] Both Old English and Old Norse (as well as the contemporary antecedents of the latter, Faroese and Icelandic) were synthetic languages with complicated inflections. The eagerness of Vikings in the Danelaw to communicate with their southern Anglo-Saxon neighbors resulted in the erosion of inflection in both languages.[5][6] Old Norse may have had a more profound impact on Middle and Modern English development than any other language.[7][8][9] Simeon Potter notes: "No less far-reaching was the influence of Scandinavian upon the inflexional endings of English in hastening that wearing away and leveling of grammatical forms which gradually spread from north to south.".[10]

Viking influence on Old English is most apparent in the more indispensable elements of the language. Pronouns, modals, comparatives, pronominal adverbs (like "hence" and "together"), conjunctions and prepositions, show the most marked Danish influence. The best evidence of Scandinavian influence appears in extensive word borrowings, yet no texts exist in either Scandinavia or in Northern England from this period to give certain evidence of an influence on syntax. The change to Old English from Old Norse was substantive, pervasive, and of a democratic character.[5][6] Like close cousins, Old Norse and Old English resembled each other, and with some words in common, they roughly understood each other;[6] in time the inflections melted away and the analytic pattern emerged.[8][11] It is most "important to recognise that in many words the English and Scandinavian language differed chiefly in their inflectional elements. The body of the word was so nearly the same in the two languages that only the endings would put obstacles in the way of mutual understanding. In the mixed population which existed in the Danelaw these endings must have led to much confusion, tending gradually to become obscured and finally lost." This blending of peoples and languages happily resulted in "simplifying English grammar."[5]

While the influence of Scandinavian languages was strongest in the dialects of the Danelaw region and Scotland, words in the spoken language emerge in the tenth and eleventh centuries near the transition from the Old to Middle English. Influence on the written language only appeared at the beginning of the thirteenth century, likely because of a scarcity of literary texts from an earlier date.[5]

The Norman conquest of England in 1066 saw the replacement of the top levels of the English-speaking political and ecclesiastical hierarchies by Norman rulers who spoke a dialect of Old French known as Old Norman, which developed in England into Anglo-Norman. The use of Norman as the preferred language of literature and polite discourse fundamentally altered the role of Old English in education and administration, even though many Normans of this period were illiterate and depended on the clergy for written communication and record-keeping. A significant number of words of French origin began to appear in the English language alongside native English words of similar meaning, giving rise to such Modern English synonyms as pig/pork, chicken/poultry, calf/veal, cow/beef, sheep/mutton, wood/forest, house/mansion, worthy/valuable, bold/courageous, freedom/liberty, sight/vision, eat/dine.

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 are derived from Anglo-Norman: court, judge, jury, appeal, parliament. There are also many Norman-derived terms relating to the chivalric cultures that arose in the 12th century; an era of feudalism and crusading.

Words were often taken from Latin, usually through French transmission. This gave rise to various synonyms including kingly (inherited from Old English), royal (from French, which inherited it from Vulgar Latin), and regal (from French, which borrowed it from classical Latin). Later French appropriations were derived from standard, rather than Norman French. Examples of resultant cognate pairs include the words warden (from Norman), and guardian (from later French; both share a common Germanic ancestor).

The end of Anglo-Saxon rule did not result in immediate changes to the language. The general population would have spoken the same dialects as they had before the Conquest. Once the writing of Old English came to an end, Middle English had no standard language, only dialects that derived from the dialects of the same regions in the Anglo-Saxon period.

Early Middle English

Early Middle English (1150–1300)[12] 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 instrumental cases are replaced in Early Middle English with prepositional constructions. The Old English genitive -es survives in the -'s of the modern English possessive, 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 personal pronouns (denoting exactly two) also disappeared from English during this period.

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 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[13] 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 due to similar morphology, the Norse-speakers' inability to reproduce the ending sounds of English words influenced Middle English's loss of inflectional endings.

Important texts for the reconstruction of the evolution of Middle English out of Old English are the Peterborough Chronicle, which continued to be compiled up to 1154; the Ormulum, a biblical commentary probably composed in Lincolnshire in the second half of the 12th century, incorporating a unique phonetic spelling system; and the Ancrene Wisse and the Katherine Group, religious texts written for anchoresses, apparently in the West Midlands in the early 13th century.[14] The language found in the last two works is sometimes called the AB language.

More literary sources of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries include Lawman's Brut and The Owl and the Nightingale.

Some scholars[15] have defined "Early Middle English" as encompassing English texts up to 1350. This longer time frame would extend the corpus to include many Middle English Romances (especially those of the Auchinleck manuscript ca. 1330).

14th century

From around the early 14th century there was significant migration into London, particularly from the counties of the East Midlands, and a new prestige London dialect began to develop, based chiefly on the speech of the East Midlands, but also influenced by that of other regions.[16] The writing of this period, however, continues to reflect a variety of regional forms of English. The Ayenbite of Inwyt, a translation of a French confessional prose work, completed in 1340, is written in a Kentish dialect. The best known writer of Middle English, Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote in the second half of the 14th century in the emerging London dialect, although he also portrays some of his characters as speaking in northern dialects, as in the "Reeve's Tale".

In the English-speaking areas of lowland Scotland, an independent standard was developing, based on the Northumbrian dialect. This would develop into what came to be known as the Scots language.

Late Middle English

The Chancery Standard of written English emerged c. 1430 in official documents that, since the Norman Conquest, had normally been written in French.[16] Like Chaucer's work, this new standard was based on the East-Midlands-influenced speech of London. Clerks using this standard were usually familiar with French and Latin, influencing the forms they chose. The Chancery Standard, which was adopted slowly, was used in England by bureaucrats for most official purposes, excluding those of the Church and legalities, which used Latin and Law French (and some Latin), respectively.[17]

The Chancery Standard's influence on later forms of written English is disputed, but it did undoubtedly provide the core around which Early Modern English formed.[citation needed] Early Modern English emerged with the help of William Caxton's printing press, developed during the 1470s. The press stabilized English through a push towards standardization, led by Chancery Standard enthusiast and writer Richard Pynson.[18] Early Modern English officially[according to whom?] began in the 1540s after the printing and wide distribution of the English Bible and Prayer Book, which made the new standard of English publicly recognizable, and lasted until about 1650.

Other Languages
asturianu: Inglés mediu
brezhoneg: Krennsaozneg
español: Inglés medio
français: Moyen anglais
Frysk: Midingelsk
한국어: 중세 영어
Bahasa Indonesia: Bahasa Inggris Pertengahan
íslenska: Miðenska
Limburgs: Middelingels
Nederlands: Middelengels
日本語: 中英語
norsk nynorsk: Mellomengelsk
occitan: Anglés mejan
português: Inglês médio
Simple English: Middle English
slovenščina: Srednja angleščina
svenska: Medelengelska
Türkçe: Orta İngilizce
中文: 中古英语