The Middle English period was marked by momentous changes in the English language, changes more extensive and fundamental than those that have taken place at any time before or since. Some of them were the result of the Norman Conquest and the conditions which followed in the wake of that event. Others were a continuation of tendencies that had begun to manifest themselves in Old English. These would have gone on even without the Conquest, but they took place more rapidly because the Norman invasion removed from English those conservative influences that are always felt when a language is extensively used in books and is spoken by an influential educated class. The changes of this period affected English in both its grammar and its vocabulary. They were so extensive in each department that it is difficult to say which group is more significant. Those in the grammar reduced English from a highly inflected language to an extremely analytic one. Those in the vocabulary involved the loss of a large part of the Old English word-stock and the addition of thousands of words from French and Latin. At the beginning of the period, English is a language that must be learned like a foreign tongue; at the end it is Modern English.
The Middle English Noun.
The distinctive endings -a, -u, -e, -an, -um, etc. of Old English were reduced to <e>/[ə] by the end of the twelfth century. In the noun there is one inflectional relic left in the singular, the genitive -es, while one form serves for all in the plural:
Sing. Plur. Sing. Plur.
N stan stan-as ston ston-es
A stan stan-as ston ston-es
G stan-es stan-a ston-es ston-es
D stan-e stan-um ston ston-es
But it should be mentioned that in early Middle English only two methods of indicating the plural remained fairly distinctive: the -s or -es from the strong masculine declension and the -en (as in oxen) from the weak. And for a time, at least in southern England, it would have been difficult to predict that the –s would become the almost universal sign of the plural that it has become. Until the thirteenth century the -en plural enjoyed great favor in the south, being often added to nouns which had not belonged to the weak declension in Old English. But in the rest of England the -s plural (and genitive singular) of the old first declension (masculine) was apparently felt to be so distinctive that it spread rapidly. Its extension took place most quickly in the north.
Although the articles are closely connected with nouns, they are separate words with particular lexical meanings and grammatical properties.
It was during the Middle English period that the articles were isolated from other classes of words and became a class of words by themselves.
The definite article is an outgrowth of the OE demonstrative pronoun sē. The suppletivity observed in Old English was lost. The sound [s] of the OE nominative case, singular, masculine (sē) and feminine (sēo) was replaced by the sound [θ] on the analogy of the oblique cases (þæs, þæm, þone, etc.). With the development of ēo > ē, the forms þē and þēo fell together as þē, later spelt the.
The neuter form þæt, ME that, retained its full demonstrative force, while the was weakened both in meaning and form. Gradually they became two different words.
The lost all gender, case and number distinctions, and became entirely uninflected.
The indefinite article has developed from the OE numeral ān (‘one’), whose meaning sometimes weakened to “one of many”, “some” even in OE. The weakening of the meaning was accompanied by the weakening of the stress. The long [ā] was shortened in the unstressed ān, so that ān > an. Later the unstressed [a] was reduced in pronunciation to [ə]. The consonant [n] was usually lost before consonants but retained before vowels.
The ME Adjective.
In the adjective the leveling of forms had even greater consequences. Partly as a result of the sound-changes, partly through the extensive working of analogy, the form of the nominative singular was early extended to all cases of the singular, and that of the nominative plural to all cases of the plural, both in the strong and the weak declensions. The result was that in the weak declension there was no longer any distinction between the singular and the plural: both ended in -e (blinda > blinde and blindan > blinde). This was also true of those adjectives under the strong declension whose singular ended in –e. By about 1250 the strong declension had distinctive forms for the singular and plural only in certain monosyllabic adjectives which ended in a consonant in Old English (sing. glad, plur. glade). Under the circumstances the only ending which remained to the adjective was often without distinctive grammatical meaning and its use was not governed by any strong sense of adjectival inflection. Although it is clear that the -e ending of the weak and plural forms was available for use in poetry in both the East and West Midlands until the end of the fourteenth century, it is impossible to know the most usual status of the form in the spoken language.
The ME Adverb
Adverbs in the ME period are changed phonetically, like all other parts of speech, yet there were some other changes.
All primary adverbs existed in their slightly modified form – theer (there), then, ofte (often) etc.
Secondary adverbs, formerly made from the adjectives by means of adding the suffix –e were also in use, but with the gradual loss of the final –e in ME the distinction between adjective and adverb was lost, and a new phenomenon appeared – it started the so-called adverbial use of adjectives.
At the same time there appears a new and very productive way of forming adverbs – adding the suffix –ly. The very suffix was not quite new. It goes back to Old English suffix –lice, but earlier it was limited in use. Now quite distinct adverbs were made this way. Native adjectives as well as borrowed took it freely, and such formations very soon become prevalent in the language.
The ME Pronoun
All pronouns in ME with the exception of the personal ones lose the categories of gender and case, some lose their number – that is, agreeing with nouns they simplified their paradigm according to the changes in the system of the noun.
The loss was greatest in the demonstratives. Of the numerous forms of sē, sēo, þœt we have only the and that surviving through ME and continuing in use today. A plural tho (those) survived to Elizabethan times. All the other forms indicative of different gender, number, and case disappeared in most dialects early in the Middle English period.
In the personal pronoun the losses were not so great. Most of the distinctions that existed in OE were retained. However the forms of the dative and accusative cases were early combined, generally under that of the dative (him, her, hem). In the neuter the form of the accusative (h)it became the general objective case, partly because it was like the nominative, and partly because the dative him would have been subject to confusion with the corresponding case of the masculine. One other general simplification is to be noted: the loss of the dual number.
The ME Verb
The verb retained nearly all grammatical categories it had possessed in OE: tense, mood, person, number. Only the category of aspect was lost. The most important feature of the history of the verb in ME was the development of analytical forms to express new grammatical meanings.
1. The syntactical combinations of OE sculan (E. shall) and willan (E. will) with the infinitive developed into analytical forms of the future tense. As a result, the grammatical category of tense came to be represented not by binary oppositions ‘past – present’, but by ternary oppositions ‘past – present – future’.
2. Combinations composed of different forms of OE habban (E. have) and participle II of some verb developed into a set of analytical forms known as the perfect forms.
3. Word-combinations comprising different forms of OE bēon/wesan (E. to be) and the past participle of another verb developed into a set of analytical forms of the passive voice.