Middle English



The Norman Conquest marks the end of Old English and the beginning of Middle English – the name given by linguists to the diverse forms of the English language in use between the late 11th century and about 1470, when a form of London-based English (the Chancery Standard), began to widespread. This process was aided by the introduction of the printing press in the late 1470s. (By that time the variant of the Northumbrian dialect was developing into the Scots language. The language of England as used after this time, up to 1650, is known as Early Modern English).

The Norman Conquest occurred when King Edward III of England called «The Confessor» died on January 5, 1066, after a reign of 23 years, leaving no heirs. The rivalry for the crown culminated in the Battle of Hastings and the destruction of the Anglo-Saxon rule of England. William, Duke Of Normandy, won the Battle of Hastings, he earned himself the title ‘Conqueror’. He marched to London and was crowned King in Westminster Abbey. In 1067, William started building the Tower of London, the great fortress which demonstrated his power and dominated the city of London.

For about 300 years after the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Norman kings and their nobility spoke only Anglo-Noman, which was a variety of Old Norman (a northern dialect of Old French) used in England during the Anglo-Norman period. English continued to be the language of the common people. Latin was used for administrative purposes.

Many of Modern English words for the mechanisms of government and law were derived from Anglo-Norman: court, judge, jury, appeal, parliament. There appeared a large number of Norman words which had doubles for Old English words. For example, the words for animals were separate from the words for their food products: e.g. beef and pork (from the Norman b?uf and porc) were the products of the Germanically named animals ‘cow’ and ‘pig’. There’s an example of other doubles from Old English and Anglo-Norman: chicken / poultry, calf / veal, sheep / mutton, wood / forest, house / mansion, worthy / honourable, bold / courageous, freedom / liberty. Most modern English speakers would consider a «cordial reception» (from French) to be more formal than a «hearty welcome» (Germanic). This period developed much of the triplicate synonymy of modern English. For instance, English has three words meaning «of or relating to a king»:

  • kingly from Old English,
  • royal from French and
  • regal from Latin.

Likewise, Norman and French led to some interesting word pairs in English:

  • Warden from Norman
  • Guardian from French (itself of Germanic origin).

Anglo-Norman (and subsequently French) remained the dominant language of literature and law for a few centuries. English was also a literary language in England from the 12th to the 14th centuries, the language of poets such as Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland. Middle English had no standard language, only dialects which derive from the dialects of the same regions in the Anglo-Saxon period. 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 which Old English had was gradually lost or simplified in the dialects of spoken Middle English. This change was gradually reflected in its diverse written forms too. The loss of case-endings was part of a general trend from inflections to fixed word order that also occurred in other Germanic languages. Grammatical genders also disappear from English during the Early Middle English period (apart from personal pronouns). (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) demonstate the two patterns:

strong weak
singular plural singular plural
nom/acc engel engles name namen
gen engles* engle(ne)** name namen
dat engle engle(s) name namen

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 and brethren; and it is slightly less rare in some dialects, used in eyen for eyes, shoon for shoes, hosen for hose(s) and kine for cows.

The Norman influence reinforced the continued changes in the language over the following centuries. Among the changes was an increase in the use of a unique aspect of English grammar, the «continuous» tenses, with the suffix «-ing». English spelling was also influenced by French in this period. The runic letters passed out of use: the /?/ and /?/ sounds being spelled th rather than with the Old English letters ? and ?, which did not exist in French. The rune “wynn” (? ?) was displaced by “double u” – w; the ligatures ? and ? fell into disuse. The digraphs ou, ie, and ch which occurred in many French borrowings and were regularly used in Anglo-Norman texts were adopted as new ways of indicating the sounds [u:], [e:], and [t?]. Later English adopted sh (also ssh and sch) to indicate the new sibilant [?] (ship) (from OE scip), dg to indicate [dз] alongside j and g; the digraph wh replaced the OE sequence of letters hw as in OE hw?t, ME what [hwat]. Long sounds were shown by double letters, e.g. ME book [bo:k].

Generally, all letters in Middle English words were pronounced: ‘knight’ was pronounced with a pronounced <k> and the <gh> as the <ch> in German ‘Knecht’), not [na?t] as in Modern English. All written vowels were pronounced. By Chaucer’s time, however, the final <e> had become silent in normal speech.

The ruling class began to use Middle English increasingly around this time. The Parliament of England used English from about the 1360s, and the king’s court used mainly English from the time of King Henry V (who acceded in 1413). Because of the differing dialects of English spoken and written across the country at the time, the government needed a clear and unambiguous form for use in its official documents. Chancery Standard was developed to meet this need. It was largely based on the London and East Midland dialects, for those areas were the political and demographic centres. 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.»

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