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Middle English is the name given by historical philologists to the diverse forms of the English language spoken in England from around the 12th to the 15th centuries— from after the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror in 1066 to the mid- to late-1400s, when the Chancery Standard , a form of London English, began to become widespread, a process aided by the introduction of the printing press into England by William Caxton in the late 1400s. The language as spoken after this time is more commonly known as Early Modern English.
Unlike Old English, which tended largely to adopt Late West Saxon scribal conventions in the immediate pre-Conquest period, Middle English as a written language displays a wide variety of scribal (and presumably dialectal) forms. (See, for example, A. McIntosh, M.L. Samuels et. al., A Linguistic Atlas of Late Medieval English (4 vols, Aberdeen, 1986) for a comprehensive survey of the post-1400 period.) It should be noted, though, that the diversity of forms in written Middle English signifies neither greater variety of spoken forms of English than could be found in pre-Conquest England, nor a faithful representation of contemporary spoken English (though perhaps greater fidelity to this than may be found in Old English texts). Rather, this diversity suggests the gradual end of Wessex's role as a focal point and trend-setter for scribal activity, and the emergence of more distinct local scribal styles and written dialects, and a general pattern of transition of activity over the centuries which follow, as the north east, East Anglia and London emerge successively as major centres of literary production, with their own generic interests. (The north east, for example, is during the fourteenth to fifteenth century a major source of devotional handbooks and spiritual writing, due in part to, and in part a cause of, the significance and influence of Richard Rolle.) Far from being suddenly liberated to write down the language of the common people (an idea which itself proves irresistable as a comic device to a lot of medieval writers, including Chaucer), scribes continued to be instructed by other scribes, and some scribal archaisms persist for a long time. While the old accusation that there were no fixed spelling conventions in Middle English betrays a lack of understanding of extreme dialectal variation, conventions were largely scribal productions and could be highly localised, and often demonstrate some startling scribal takes on the relationship between certain configurations of letterforms and the spoken words they represent. (In Norfolk and Suffolk, for example, the initial 'sh-' sound of words like 'shall' is often represented as an 'x', resulting in 'xal', 'xould', etc.)
Literary and Linguistic Cultures
Middle English was one of the three languages current in England. Though never the language of the church, which was always Latin, it lost status as a language of royal and courtly life, literature and documentation, being largely supplanted by Anglo-Norman. It remained, though, the spoken language of the majority, and may be regarded as the only true vernacular language after about the mid-twelfth century, with Anglo-Norman becoming, like Latin, a learned tongue of the court. The twelfth-century Jersey-Norman poet Wace, in the Roman de Brut , plays on the idea that one may tell a noble of English descent in the court because he swears in English. The use of Anglo-Norman in the court in this early period may not, though, be the elitist strategy it has seemed to some historians, but rather a necessity, given that until the early- to mid-thirteenth century at least England was part of a distinctively Norman political regnum. 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 eleventh to mid-twelfth century, Old English texts, especially homilies, saints' lives (most frequently Bede's Martyrology ) and grammatical texts, continued to be copied, used and adapted by scribes, of whom the one known as the Tremulous Hand of Worcester is among the most famous, though anonymous. From the later twelfth and thirteenth century there survives huge amounts of written material of various forms, from lyrics to saints' lives, devotional manuals to histories, encyclopaedias to poems of moral (and often immoral) discussion and debate, though much of it remains unstudied in part because it evades or defies modern, arguably quite restricted, categorisations of literature and literariness. Middle English is more familiar to us as the language of Ricardian Poetry and its followers, the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century literature cultures clustered around the West Midlands and around London and East Anglia: the poetry of the Alliterative Revival , William Langland and the Gawain Poet, or of London writers heavily influenced by European conventions and the city's emergent cultures of literary and artistic power and patronage (what might be called, punningly, 'capital investments'), such as Chaucer and Lydgate, Hoccleve and Gower, Thomas Malory or William Caxton, or of more mystical or esoteric thinkers like Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich or Margery Kempe, though even these might defy easy generic categorisation, and the work of gifted Chaucerians like Gower and Hoccleve, and in particular of Chaucer himself in his Canterbury Tales and other shorter poems, consistently revalues and reinvents older traditions which it nevertheless refuses to abandon entirely.
- 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;
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 literature and fundamentally altered the role of Old English in education and administration (see above). 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 Modern English words derived from Old English: pig, cow, wood, sheep, house, worthy, bold.
Contrast these with this set of related but overlapping Modern English words (in Modern English), all derived from Anglo-Norman French: pork, beef, forest, mutton, mansion, honourable (or honorable), 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. Also prevalent are terms relating to the chivalric cultures which arose in the twelfth century as a response to the requirements of feudalism and crusading activity. Early on, this vocabulary of refined behaviour begins to work its way into English: the word 'debonairte' appears in the 1137 Peterborough Chronicle, but so too does 'castel', another Norman import that makes its mark on the territory of the English language as much as on the territory of England itself.
This period of trilingual activity developed much of the flexible triplicate synonymity of modern English. 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.
Deeper changes occurred in the grammar. Bit by bit, as we have seen, 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. Gradually the change spread to be reflected its increasingly diverse written forms. This loss of case-endings was part of a general trend from inflectional to fixed-order words which occurred in other Germanic languages, and cannot be attributed simply 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 not 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
Construction: Key points
With its simplified case-ending system, Middle English is closer to modern English than its pre-Conquest equivalent. The caveat, as discussed above, 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 spekest), and the third person in -eþ (he comeþ). (þ 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. binden -> bound), 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 3e acc. þe 3ow, ow gen. þin 3ower, ower dat. þe 3ow, ow
['3' representing Middle English character 'yogh', a 'y/gh' sound.]
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 -> 'Tro-i-lus', not 'Troy-lus').
'r' sounds may typically have a light roll, though this is disputed.
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 provides a version of spoken Middle English that if pronounced might sound quite stilted or force, but it 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. This is even more so the case in earlier Middle English rhyming verse like Havelok or King Horn .) 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'.
Knowledge of phonology
We know how Middle English was spoken in several ways. First, after the introduction of rhyming 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. The twelfth-century writer Orm (or Orrm) in his Orrmulum used double lettering to indicate his pronunciations and to make a plea for scribal correctness. 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. Later attempts at orthography ranged from the comic – Chaucer's complaint against his scribe, Adam Pinkhurst, in 'To Adam Scriveyn' – to the serious and long-lasting: the attempt to avoid documentary confusion in record-keeping by standardising Chancery English, developing a form which, with the advent of printing, provided the basis from which the literary cultures of early modern English were to emerge.
Selected Further Reading
- Bennett, J.A.W., Middle English Literature, ed./compl. Douglas Gray (Oxford, 1986)
- Burrow, J.A. and Thorlac Turville-Petre, A Book of Middle English, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 2004)
- Cannon, Christopher, The Grounds of English Literature (Oxford, 2004)
- Kurath, Hans and Sherman M. Kuhn, Middle English Dictionary (Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1956-). See also Online Version.
- Laing, Margaret, Catalogue of Sources for a Linguistic Atlas of Early Medieval English (Cambridge, 1993)
- McIntosh, A., M.L. Samuels et. al., A Linguistic Atlas of Late Medieval English (4 vols, Aberdeen, 1986) [Specialist, but interesting]
- Mosse, Fernand, A Handbook of Middle English, trans. James A. Walker (Baltimore, 1952)
- Sisam, Kenneth, Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose (Oxford, 1921, many times repr.)
- Swan, Mary and Elaine Treharne, Re-writing Old English in the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, 2000)
- Treharne, Elaine, ed., Old and Middle English, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 2004)
- 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)
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