Home Random Page



Theme 9. General linguistic features of Middle English

1) Early Middle English (1066 1204):

  • Old English system of writing was still in use
  • decay of Anglo-Saxon literary practices; very little written English is preserved from this period
  • England in the 1066 became a bilingual country: Norman French is used as a prestige language; English - everyday folk language. French was the language of court, of law, of the literature of the period. Even now, after a thousand years, the Norman influence on the English language is still visible. Consider these pairs of Modern English words. The first of each pair is derived from Old English and the second is of Anglo-Norman French origin: pig pork

cow beef

sheep mutton

wood forest

house mansion

worthy honourable

bold courageous

The role of Anglo-Norman as the language of government and law can be seen by the abundance of Modern English words for the mechanisms of government derived from Anglo-Norman: court, judge, jury, appeal, parliament.

Let's look at some vocabulary that was borrowed in the "early" period. Besides so called obscure words like canon, countess, sermon, custom, virgin, purgatory, tournament, witness, constable, medicine, butler, abbey, crown, baron, there are others, and from other registers; such everyday words as "fruit, rich, poor, pay, mercy, change, very, catch" also enter English during the Early Middle period. But basically, words in what we might broadly term "administrative" - concepts used in Norman law, religion, and economics.

In many cases English words are connected with simpler, concrete, folks notions, whereas foreign ones refer to a more elevated style, have abstract and formal shade

begin- commence hearty- cordial smell odor

ask demand wish desire seethe boil

work labour life - existence


Sometimes use of some English words was restricted by certain phraseological units: OE dōm → doom: the day of doom, to meet ones doom; in usual juristic sense the word was replaced with judgment

Besides, English preserved some French words that became obsolete in France later and got out of use: able habile, certainty certitude.


Latin is a written language of the Church and secular documents. Indeed, there are examples of tri-lingual documents, for example, a medical treatise in which the writer shifts between English, Latin, and French in the middle of sentences. This period of trilingual activity developed 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

regal from Latin

English did not cease to be used in the court: it retained a cartulary function (being the language used in royal charters); nor did it disappear as a language of literary production. Even during what has been called the 'lost' period of English literary history, the late 11th to mid-12th century, Old English texts, especially homilies, saints' lives and grammatical texts, manuals to histories, encyclopedias to poems of moral (and often immoral) discussion and debate were being created

Scandinavian was still spoken in the Danelaw (The Vikings, or Danes, as the Anglo-Saxons called them, came from Denmark and Norway, and from 787 made many small attacks on England. Fighting continued until 878, when king Alfred made an agreement with the Vikings to divide England into two: the northern and eastern part, known as the Danelaw, was to be controlled by the Vikings, and the rest of England was to be controlled by King Alfred). Celtic prevailed in Wales and Scotland


the use of an orthography influenced by the Anglo-Norman writing system and the borrowing of large numbers of Anglo-Norman words


increase in dialectal differences, formation of literary dialects. In the epoch following the Norman Conquest there continued to exist and develop the same dialects as in the Old English period though named differently:


Northumbrian → Northern

Mercian → Midland

West Saxon Southern


1. Southern (Kentish and Southwestern) was spoken in counties south of the River Thames. Distinctive feature: pronunciation of initial s- and f- as z- and v-, respectively, e.g., ME words for the male and female fox - voxand vixen; the latter is kept in Modern English.

2. Midland (corresponding roughly to the Mercian dialect area of Old English times) was spoken from the Thames to southern Yorkshire and northern Lancashire. Its major distinctive feature: use of the older OE form for she as haorheo, rather than the newer emerging form of she.

3. Northern was spoken in the Scottish Lowlands, Northumberland, Cumbria, Durham, northern Lancashire, most of Yorkshire. Its most distinctive features are: a rich Scandinavian vocabulary and a set of sounds also keyed to certain Scandinavian habits of pronunciation. The language sounded old-fashioned, not participating in the major sound shifts that made the transition to Modern English pronunciation.


The main dialects in Middle English were similar to those of Old English, but they used different words, word endings and pronunciations. Understanding people from different areas, even those which were quite close, was difficult. There is a famous description by W. Caxton of a conversation in Kent between a farmers wife and some sailors from London (about 80 kilometers away). The sailors asked for some eggys but she did not understand this word because in her dialect eggs were eyren. Thinking that they must be speaking a foreign language, she told them she coude speke no frenshe (She couldnt speak French).

When people wrote, they used the words and pronunciations of their dialects. For example, the sound [] in the middle of words was spelt gh in the south and ch- in the north, so night pronounced [nit] at that time could be spelt as night or nicht. Sometimes a spelling from one dialect has survived, together with the pronunciation from another. For example busy is the spelling from one dialect, but the pronunciation from another.

No one of those literary standards was a "dialect" in opposition to a national "standard."

a greatly simplified inflectional system, e.g. the complicated grammatical relations that were expressed in Old English by means of the dative and accusative cases are replaced in Early Middle English with constructions that involve prepositions


inflection of most cases (e.g. dative and accusative) gave way to prepositional constructions (but for the OE genitive)


disappearance of grammatical genders


2) Central Middle English period (1204 to 1348):

  • rise in use of English, smoothing out of dialectal differences

3) Later Middle English (1348 to 1457):

1362 - English became the official language of legal proceedings; dialectal differences are still perceptible; the period is also characterized by increase in English writing, more common in legal documents than French or Latin by 15th century;

15th century - English completely replaced French at home, in education and government; Latin is still in use as the language of written communication;

basic lines of inflection as they appear in Modern English first established; reduction of inflectional system is underway;

z:\Documents and SettingsAdmin topic?idxStructId=102489&typeId=13beginning of standard English based on London (the East Midland dialect) dialect - in the hands of John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer, W. Caxton and other printers.


Late in the Middle English period, with the introduction of printing into England in 1475 and adoption by the printing industry (centered in London) of a standard in orthography and usage, there appeared the first inklings of modern Standard English.

Modern Standard English is strongly influenced by the dialect spoken in London and the surrounding counties in 1350-1450. It is the language of Geoffrey Chaucer who used the East Midland dialect, spoken in the Oxford, Cambridge and London triangle and used by government officials.

Before that time legal documents in England were still predominantly in French and Latin; during that time, there was an entire shift to English. The Royal council and the subsidiary courts began to conduct their business in English using Chancery English - a written form of English used by government bureaucracy and for other official purposes from the late 14th century. Due to the differing dialects of English spoken and written across the country at the time, the government required a clear and unambiguous form for use in its official documents. Chancery Standard was developed to meet this need. The standard was developed in response to the kings order for government officials to use English rather than Anglo-Norman or Latin.

Date: 2015-12-11; view: 1431

<== previous page | next page ==>
Theme 9. Short historical background | Theme 10. Phonetic, morphological and syntax features of Middle English
doclecture.net - lectures - 2014-2020 year. Copyright infringement or personal data (0.003 sec.)