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Middle English

Middle English is the name given to an early form of the English language that was in common use from roughly the 12th to the 15th centuries— from after the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror in 1066 to around the introduction of the printing press by William Caxton in the late 1400s. It was one of the three languages spoken in England. It was commonly perceived as the language of the peasant and the butcher, not of the king and the nobles who spoke Anglo-Norman, or of the clergy who spoke Latin. However, a large degree of multilingualism should be assumed amongst all classes. And it should also be clear that Middle English was not simply a language for the poor and unlearned; it was the language of Layamon, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, Margery Kempe, Thomas Malory, and many other poets, historians, and religious writers.

English before 1100 is called Old English or Anglo-Saxon; English after 1500 is called Early Modern English.




Syððan wæs geworden þæt he ferde þurh þa ceastre and þæt castel: godes rice prediciende and bodiende. and hi twelfe mid. And sume wif þe wæron gehælede of awyrgdum gastum: and untrumnessum: seo magdalenisce maria ofþære seofan deoflu uteodon: and iohanna chuzan wif herodes gerefan: and susanna and manega oðre þe him of hyra spedum þenedon;
-- Translation of Luke 8.1-3 from the New Testament

In 1066, the Normans, led by William the Conqueror, invaded and conquered England, while maintaining their control over northern France. As a result, England became more closely tied politically to feudal western Europe, and became trilingual: French, Latin, and English were spoken, written, and read.

This profoundly changed the English language. This is attributable to the introduction into England not just of a new language, Anglo-Norman French, but of new political structures that relied upon that language and of a long-lasting involvement by the English in the continental possessions of the Anglo-Norman realm. Although it is possible to overestimate the degree of culture shock which the transfer of power in 1066 represented (especially given the strong Anglo-Norman connections under both Edward and Harold), the removal from the top levels of an English-speaking political and ecclesiastical hierarchy, and their replacement with a Oïl language-speaking one, both opened the way for the introduction of French as a language of polite discourse and vernacular literature and fundamentally altered the role of Old English in education. Although Old English was by no means as standardised as modern English, its written forms were less subject to broad dialect variations than post-Conquest English.

Even now, after a thousand years, the Norman influence on the English language is still visible. Consider these words derived from Old English: pig, cow, dog, sheep, and house.

And a set of overlapping words (in Modern English) derived from Anglo-Norman French: pork, beef, court, judge, jury, parliament, honor (or honour), and courage.

The triplicate vocabulary of English comes from this Norman period. For instance, English has three words meaning roughly "of or relating to a king": kingly from Old English, royal from French and regal from Latin. Each carries its own nuance.

The Old English kingly brings to mind a fabled king; the French royal, the ample pomp of a medieval court; and the Latin regal, the noble expression and manner of a king, an abstract king.

Deeper changes occurred in the grammar. Bit by bit, the wealthy and the government anglicized again, though French remained the dominant language of literature and law for several centuries, even after the loss of the majority of the continental possessions of the English monarchy. The new English did not look the same as the old. Old English had a complex system of inflectional endings, but these were gradually lost and simplified in the dialects of spoken English. Soon the change spread to its increasingly diverse written forms. This loss of case-endings can again be traced back to the loss of written standards for English, and not just to the influence of French-speaking layers of the population. English remained, after all, the language of the majority. It certainly was a literary language in England, alongside Anglo-Norman and Latin from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. In the later fourteenth century, Chancery Standard (or London English) - itself a phenomenon produced by the increase of bureaucracy in London, and a concomitant increase in London literary production - introduced a greater deal of conformity in English spelling. While the fame of Middle English literary productions tends to begin in the later fourteenth century, with the works of Chaucer and Gower, an immense corpus of literature survives from throughout the Middle English period.


After standardization of the language, English began to appear almost in its modern form:

And it is don, aftirward Jesus made iourne bi cites & castelis prechende & euangelisende þe rewme of god, & twelue wiþ hym & summe wymmen þat weren helid of wicke spiritis & sicnesses, marie þat is clepid maudeleyn, of whom seuene deuelis wenten out & Jone þe wif off chusi procuratour of eroude, & susanne & manye oþere þat mynystreden to hym of her facultes
-- Luke 8.1-3

A text from 1391: Geoffrey Chaucer's Treatise on the Astrolabe .

Construction: Key points

With its simplified case-ending system, Middle English is closer to modern English than its pre-Conquest equivalent. The caveat, of course, is the necessary instability of the term 'Middle English', which encompasses a number of dialects and regions over a 500-year period. Some general principles, though, may be observed.


Despite losing the slightly more complex system of inflexional endings, Middle English retains two separate noun-ending patterns from Old English. Compare, for example, the early Modern English words 'engel' (angel) and 'nome' (name):

  sing.      nom/acc:        engel         nome
             gen:            engles*       nome
             dat:            engle         nome
  plur.      nom/acc:        engles        nomen
             gen:            engle(ne)**   nomen
             dat:            engle(s)      nomen
  * cf. Sawles Warde (The protection *of the soul*)
  **cf. Ancrene Wisse (The Anchoresses' Guide)

The strong -s plural form has survived into Modern English, while the weak -n form is rare (oxen, children, brethren). These noun rules themselves break down significantly, and in later Middle English, as in Modern English, syntax and prepositions govern the behaviour of nouns more than case endings.


As a general rule (and all these rules are general), the first person singular of present tense verbs ends in -e (ich here), the second person in -(e)st (þou liest), and the third person in -eþ (he comeþ). (&thorn is pronounced like th). This varies according to dialect and time. -e and -en often represent the subjunctive singular and plural, while the imperative frequently has no ending in the singular and an -eþ suffix in the plural (listeþ, lordynges).

In the past tense, weak verbs are formed by an -ed(e), -d(e) or -t(e) ending. These, without their case endings, also form past participles, together with past-participle prefixes derived from the old English ge-: i-, y- and sometimes bi-. Strong verbs form their past tense by changing their stem vowel (e.g. winden -> wounden), as in Modern English.


Post-Conquest English inherits its pronouns from Old English:

            singular               plural
  First Person
  nom.      ich, I                 we
  acc.      me                     us
  gen.      min, mi                ure
  dat.      me                     us
  Second Person
  nom.      þu                     ge
  acc.      þe                     gow, ow
  gen.      þin                    gower, ower
  dat.      þe                     gow, ow
  Third Person
            masc.       neut.      fem.           pl.
  nom.      he          hit        ho, heo, hi    hi, ho, heo
  acc.      hine        hit        hi, heo        hi
  gen.      his         his        hire, hore     hore, heore
  dat.      him         him        hire           hom, heom

First and second pronouns survive largely unchanged, with only minor spelling variations. In the third person, the masculine accusative singular became 'him'. The feminine form developed into 'she', but unsteadily - 'ho' remains in some areas for a long time. The lack of a strong standard written form between the eleventh and the fifteenth century makes these changes hard to map.

Speaking Middle English

English before about the mid-sixteenth century follows European vowel pronunciation:

  'a' as in modern 'father'
  long 'e' as in modern 'there'
  short 'e' as in modern 'egg'
  'i'/vowel 'y' as in modern 'see'
  long 'o' as the oa in modern 'oar'
  short 'o' as in modern 'on'
  'u' as in modern 'do'

Diphthongs are generally pronounced as close but separate vowels (e.g. Troilus).

'r' sounds typically have a light roll.

Generally, all letters in Middle English words are pronounced. (Silent letters in Modern English come from pronunciation shifts but continued spelling conventions.) Therefore 'knight' is pronounced 'k-n-i-g-h-t' (with 'gh' as the 'ch' in German 'nacht' or Scots 'loch'), not 'nite'.

Final 'e's are pronounced, unstressed - they do not, as in Modern English, affect pronunciation of central vowels. (In Modern English the 'e' changes the short 'i' in 'fin' to a long 'i' in 'fine'. In Middle English f-i-n-e would be pronounced something like 'feena'.) The exception to this is where the next word begins with a vowel, or sometimes an 'i' or an 'h', in which case the final -e elides and is unpronounced. All this is important for making sense of metre in Middle English verse, e.g.

  Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
  And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
  To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
         (Chaucer, Canterbury Tales)

Words like 'straunge' are disyllabic. 'Palmeres' is trisyllabic. (As you can hear from a read-through, the emphasis is more on regular stress patterns than on absolute syllabic regularity.) Final 'e's are pronounced in 'straunge', but not in 'kowthe', where the next letter is the 'i' of 'in'. The final 'e' on 'ferne' is pronounced this time, despite being before an 'h'.

The vast differences between Old English and Middle English (and indeed Modern English) have led some to claim English is a glorified creole. See Middle English creole hypothesis for a discussion.

Knowledge of phonology

We know how Middle English was spoken in several ways. First, after the introduction of rhyme verse, we can compare rhyme words to estimate a vowel length and position. If, for example, "great" rhymes with "height" in one verse and "height" rhymes with "might" in another, and "might" does not rhyme with "smote," then we can gather what the value of the vowel was. Secondly, orthography will indicate, to some degree, vowel length and consonant position. Some authors used double lettering to indicate their pronunciations. Thirdly, meter tells us the stresses of words. For those texts in prose, of course, these indications of stress and pronunciation are less easily resolved.

When we compare documentary evidence within regions, we can reconstruct the phonology of particular dialects. Comparing these against one another can indicate language change through the language itself. The study of local dialects and the processes of language change is known as philology.

Even in the earliest Middle English era, works such as the Peterborough Chronicle and the Ormulum supply us with evidence on Middle English dialect and change. One particular difficulty for the study of Middle English dialects and language stems from the survival of these texts in manuscript: the scribe of a work and the author of a work may not share the same dialect. In such cases, there are sometimes dialectal mixtures preserved, and it can be difficult at times to separate the dialect of the original text and that introduced by the scribe's re-writing of the text whilst employing his own (local) spellings. Even in the case of holograph manuscripts (texts copied by the author) such as the Ormulum, there are complexities in the relationship between orthography (how words are written) and phonology (how they might have sounded): Ormm, the author of the Ormulum, changed his orthographical system midway through the writing of his text, leaving us with essentially two sets of 'acceptable' spellings for many words, despite his privileging of the latter system.

See also

Further Reading

  • Wallace, D. The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature (Cambridge, 1999)
  • Wogan-Browne, J. The Idea of the Vernacular: an Anthology of Middle English Literary Theory, 1280-1520 (Exeter, 1999)

Last updated: 02-05-2005 11:25:13
Last updated: 02-19-2005 10:59:35