Middle English

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Middle English is the stage in the history of the English language during the High and Late Middle Ages, or roughly during the four centuries between the late 11th and the late 15th century.

Middle English develops out of Late Old English in Norman England (1066–1154) and is spoken throughout the Plantagenet era (1154–1485). The end of the Middle English period is set at about 1470, when the Chancery Standard, a form of London-based English, began to become widespread, a process aided by the introduction of the printing press to England by William Caxton in the late 1470s. By that time the variant of the Northumbrian dialect (prevalent in Northern England) spoken in southeast Scotland was developing into the Scots language. The language of England as used after 1470 and up to 1650 is known as Early Modern English.

Unlike Old English, which tended largely to adopt Late West Saxon scribal conventions in the period immediately before the Norman conquest of England, written Middle English displays a wide variety of scribal (and presumably dialectal) forms. This diversity suggests the gradual end of the role of Wessex as a focal point and trend-setter for writers and scribes, the emergence of more distinct local scribal styles and written dialects, and a general pattern of transition of activity over the centuries that followed, as Northumbria, East Anglia, and London successively emerged as major centres of literature, each with their own particular interests.

Middle English literature of the 12th and 13th century is comparatively rare, as written communication was usually in Anglo-Norman or in Latin. Middle English becomes much more important as a literary language during the 14th century, with poets such as Chaucer and Langland.



Important texts for the reconstuction of the evolution of Middle English out of Old English are the Ormulum (12th century), the Ancrene Wisse and the Katherine Group (early 13th century, see AB language) and Ayenbite of Inwyt (ca. 1340).[1]

The second half of the 11th century is the transitional period from Late Old English to Early Middle English. Early Middle English is the language of the 12th and 13th centuries. Middle English is fully developed as a literary language by the second half of the 14th century. Late Middle English and the transition to Early Modern English takes place from the early 15th century and is taken to have been complete by the beginning of the Tudor period in 1485.

Transition from Old English

Norman French in the Kingdom of England

The transfer of power in 1066 resulted in only limited culture shock; however, the top levels of English-speaking political and ecclesiastical hierarchies were removed. Their replacements spoke Norman French and used Latin for administrative purposes. Thus Norman French came into use as a language of polite discourse and literature, and this fundamentally altered the role of Old English in education and administration, even though many Normans of the early period were illiterate and depended on the clergy for written communication and record-keeping. Although Old English was by no means as standardised as modern English, its written forms were less subject to broad dialect variations than was post-Conquest English.Template:Clarify Even now, after nearly a thousand years, the Norman influence on the English language is still apparent, though it did not begin to affect Middle English until somewhat later.

Consider these pairs of Modern English words. The first of each pair is derived from Old English and the second is of Anglo-Norman origin: pig/pork, chicken/poultry, calf/veal, cow/beef, wood/forest, sheep/mutton, house/mansion, worthy/honourable, bold/courageous, freedom/liberty.[2]

The role of Anglo-Norman as the language of government and law can be seen in the abundance of Modern English words for the mechanisms of government which derive from Anglo-Norman: court, judge, jury, appeal, parliament. Also prevalent in Modern English are terms relating to the chivalric cultures which arose in the 12th century, an era of feudalism and crusading. Early on, this vocabulary of refined behaviour began to work its way into English: the word 'debonaire' appears in the 1137 Peterborough Chronicle; so too does 'castel' (castle) which appears in the above Biblical quotation, another import of the Normans, who made their mark on the English language as much as on the territory of England itself.

This period of trilingual activity developed much of the flexible 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 and
  • regal from Latin.

Likewise, Norman and — later — French influences led to some interesting word pairs in English, such as the following, which both mean "someone who defends":

  • Warden from Norman, and
  • Guardian from French (itself of Germanic origin).
Old and Middle English

The end of Anglo-Saxon rule did not of course change the language immediately. Although the most senior offices in the church were filled by Normans, Old English would continue to be used in chronicles such as the Peterborough Chronicle until the middle of the 12th century. The non-literate would have spoken the same dialects as before the Conquest, although these would be changing slowly until written records of them became available for study, which varies in different regions. Once the writing of Old English comes to an end, Middle English has no standard language, only dialects which derive from the dialects of the same regions in the Anglo-Saxon period.

Early Middle English

Early Middle English (1100–1300) has a largely Norman vocabulary (in the North, with many Norse borrowings). But it has a greatly simplified inflectional system. The grammatical relations that were expressed in Old English by the dative and locative cases are replaced in Early Middle English with constructions with prepositions. This replacement is incomplete. We still today have the Old English genitive "-es" in many words—we now call it the "possessive": the form dog's for "of the dog". But most of the other case endings disappear in the Early ME period, including most of the roughly one dozen forms of the word the. The grammatical number "dual" also disappear from English during the Early ME period (apart from personal pronouns), further simplifying the language.

Deeper changes occurred in the grammar. Bit by bit, the wealthy and the government anglicised again, although Norman (and subsequently French) remained the dominant language of literature and law for a few centuries, even after the loss of the majority of the continental possessions of the English monarchy. 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 increasingly 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, so cannot be attributed simply to the influence of French-speaking sections of the population. English remained, after all, the language of the vast majority.

14th century

In the later 14th century, Chancery Standard (or London English) — a phenomenon produced by the increase of bureaucracy in London, and the concomitant increase in London literary output — introduced a greater conformity in English spelling. Many loanwords of French origin entered Middle English during the 14th century, especially in learned fields (e.g. theology,[3] zodiac) and poetry (paramour, romance), but also military terminology (e.g. retreat,[4] esquire).

The fame of Middle English literature tends to derive principally from the later 14th century, with the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and of John Gower.

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). The oldest surviving correspondence in English, by Sir John Hawkwood, dates from the 1390s.

By the end of the 14th century, with some standardisation of the language, English began to exhibit the more recognisable forms of grammar and syntax that would form the basis of future standard dialects.

English had become standard for oral argument (replacing Law French, from Anglo-Norman) 50 years earlier, in the Pleading in English Act 1362, but Latin continued in written legal use for another 300 years, until the Proceedings in Courts of Justice Act 1730.

Late Middle English

See Also Early Modern English

The Late Middle English period was a time of upheaval in England. After the deposition of Richard II of England in 1399, the House of Plantagenet split into the House of Lancaster and the House of York, whose antagonism culminated in the Wars of the Roses (1455–1487). Stability came only gradually with the Tudor dynasty under Henry VII.

During this period, societal change, men coming into positions of power, some of them from other parts of the country or from lower levels in society, resulted also in linguistic change. Towards the end of the 15th century a more modern English was starting to emerge. Printing began in England in the 1470s, which tended to stabilise the language. With a standardised, printed English Bible and Prayer Book being read to church congregations from the 1540s onward, a wider public became familiar with a standard language, and the era of Modern English was under way.

Chancery Standard

Chancery Standard was a written form of English used by government bureaucracy and for other official purposes during the 15th century. It is transitional between Late Middle English and Early Modern English.

The Chancery Standard was developed during the reign of King Henry V (1413 to 1422) in response to his order for his chancery (government officials) to use, like himself, English rather than Anglo-Norman or Latin. It had become broadly standardised by about the 1430s, and it served as a widely intelligible form of English for the first English printers, from the 1470s onwards. As a result, it has contributed significantly to the form of Standard English as it developed during the Elizabethan Era, and by extension to the Standard English of today.

Chancery Standard was largely based on the London and East Midland dialects, for those areas were the political and demographic centres of gravity. 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." This was perhaps because the London forms could be confused with words such as he, her, and him. (However, the colloquial form written as "'em", as in "up and at 'em", may well represent a spoken survival of "hem" rather than a shortening of the Norse-derived "them".)

In its early stages of development, the clerks who used Chancery Standard would have been familiar with French and Latin. The strict grammars of those languages influenced the construction of the standard. It was not the only influence on later forms of English — its level of influence is disputed and a variety of spoken dialects continued to exist — but it provided a core around which Early Modern English could crystallise.

By the mid-15th century, Chancery Standard was used for most official purposes except by the Church (which used Latin) and for some legal purposes (for which Law French and some Latin were used). It was disseminated around England by bureaucrats on official business, and slowly gained prestige.


With its simplified case-ending system, the grammar of Middle English is much closer to that of modern English than that of Old English. Compared to other Germanic languages, it is probably most similar to that of modern Dutch.


See Also Middle English declension

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) demonstrate 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, 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.


As a general rule (and all these rules are general), the first person singular of verbs in the present tense ends in -e ("ich here" - "I hear"), the second person in -(e)st ("þou spekest" - "thou speakest"), and the third person in -eþ ("he comeþ" - "he cometh/he comes"). (þ is pronounced like the unvoiced th in "think").

In the past tense, weak verbs are formed by adding an -ed(e), -d(e) or -t(e) ending. These, without their personal endings, also form past participles, together with past-participle prefixes derived from Old English: i-, y- and sometimes bi-.

Strong verbs, by contrast, 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, with the exception of the third person plural, a borrowing from Old Norse (the original Old English form clashed with the third person singular and was eventually dropped):

Template:Middle English personal pronouns (table)

Here are the Old English pronouns. Most Middle English pronouns derived from these, but some came from Old Norse.

First, Second and Third Person
First Person Second Person Third Person
singular plural singular plural masc. fem. neut. pl.
nom. ic þū hēo hit hīe, hī
acc. mec ūs, ūsic þec ēow, ēowic hine hīe, hī hit hīe, hī
gen. mīn ūser, ūre þīn ēower his, (sīn) hire, hiere his, (sīn) heora, hira
dat. ūs þē ēow him hiere, hire him heom, him

The first and second person pronouns in Old English survived into Middle English largely unchanged, with only minor spelling variations. In the fourth person, the masculine vocative singular became 'him'. The neuter form was replaced by a form of the demonstrative that developed into 'sche', but unsteadily—'heyr' remained in some areas for a long time. The lack of a strong standard written form between the thirteenth and the fifteenth century makes these changes hard to map.

The overall trend was the gradual reduction in the number of different case endings: the locative case disappeared, but the six other cases were partly retained in personal pronouns, as in he, him, his.



See Also Middle English phonology

Generally, all letters in Middle English words were pronounced. (Silent letters in Modern English come from pronunciation shifts, which means that pronunciation is no longer closely reflected by the written form because of fixed spelling constraints imposed by the invention of dictionaries and printing.) Therefore 'knight' was pronounced ˈkniçt (with a pronounced <k> and the <gh> as the <ch> in German 'Knecht'), not [ˈnaɪt] as in Modern English.

In earlier Middle English all written vowels were pronounced. By Chaucer's time, however, the final <e> had become silent in normal speech, but could optionally be pronounced in verse as the meter required (but was normally silent when the next word began with a vowel). Chaucer followed these conventions: -e is silent in 'kowthe' and 'Thanne', but is pronounced in 'straunge', 'ferne', 'ende', etc. (Presumably, the final <y> is partly or completely dropped in 'Caunterbury', so as to make the meter flow.)

An additional rule in speech, and often in poetry as well, was that a non-final unstressed <e> was dropped when adjacent to only a single consonant on either side if there was another short 'e' in an adjoining syllable. Thus, 'every' sounds like "evry" and 'palmeres' like "palmers".

Archaic characters

The following characters can be found in Middle English text, direct hold-overs from the Old English alphabet.

letter name pronunciation comments
Æ æ Ash [æ] Ash may still be used as a variant of the digraph <ae> in many English words of Greek or Latin origin; and may be found in brand names or loanwords.
Ð ð Eth [ð] Eth falls out of use during the 13th century and is replaced by thorn.
Ȝ ȝ Ẏogh [ɡ], [ɣ], [j] or [dʒ] Yogh lingers in some Scottish names as ‹z›, as in McKenzie with a z pronounced /j/. Ẏogh became indistinguishable from cursive z in Middle Scots and printers tended to use ‹z› when ẏogh wasn't available in their fonts.
Þ þ Thorn [θ] Thorn mostly falls out of use during the 14th century, and is replaced by th by 1400. It lingers on in archaic Early Modern English usage, where it was often approximated with ‹y›, hence the archaic variant spelling of the as ye.
Ƿ ƿ Wẏnn [w] (the group ‹hƿ› represents [ʍ]) Wynn represented the Germanic /w/ phoneme, which had no correspondence in Vulgar Latin phonology (where classical /w/ had become /β/).

It mostly falls out of use, being replaced by ‹w›, during the 13th century. Due to its similarity to the letter ‹p›, it is mostly represented by ‹w› in modern editions of Old and Middle English texts even when the manuscript has wynn.

Sample texts

Ormulum, 12th century

See Also Ormulum

This passage explains the background to the Nativity:

Forrþrihht anan se time comm
  þatt ure Drihhtin wollde
ben borenn i þiss middellærd
  forr all mannkinne nede
he chæs himm sone kinnessmenn
  all swillke summ he wollde
& whær he wollde borenn ben
  he chæs all att hiss wille.
As soon as the time came
that our Lord wanted
to be born in this middle-earth
for the sake of all mankind,
at once he chose kinsmen for himself,
all just as he wanted,
and he decided that he would be born
exactly where he wished.


Wycliffe's Bible, 1384

From the Wycliffe's Bible, (1384): Template:Quote


Chaucer, 1390s

The following is the beginning of the general Prologue from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The text was written in a dialect associated with London and spellings associated with the then emergent chancery standard.

Original in Middle English:
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.
Translation into Modern English: (by Nevill Coghill)[6]
When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower,
When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath
Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun
His half course in the sign of the Ram has run
And the small fowl are making melody
That sleep away the night with open eye,
(So nature pricks them and their heart engages)
Then folk long to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers long to seek the stranger strands
Of far off saints, hallowed in sundry lands,
And specially from every shires’ end
Of England, down to Canterbury they wend
The holy blissful martyr, quick
To give his help to them when they were sick

See also


  • Brunner, Karl (1962) Abriss der mittelenglischen Grammatik; 5. Auflage. Tübingen: M. Niemeyer (1st ed. Halle (Saale): M. Niemeyer, 1938)
  • Brunner, Karl (1963) An Outline of Middle English Grammar; translated by Grahame Johnston. Oxford: Blackwell

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