Middle English (language)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

getty_Canterbury_pilgrims-463950021.jpg
A 19th-century painting of the pilgrims from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (c1343-1400). (Print Collector/Getty Images)

Definition

Middle English was the language spoken in England from about 1100 to 1500.

Five major dialects of Middle English have been identified (Northern, East Midlands, West Midlands, Southern, and Kentish), but the "research of Angus McIntosh and others . . . supports the claim that this period of the language was rich in dialect diversity" (Barbara A. Fennell, A History of English: A Sociolinguistic Approach, 2001).

Major literary works written in Middle English include Havelok the Dane, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Piers Plowman, and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The form of Middle English that's most familiar to modern readers is the London dialect, which was the dialect of Chaucer and the basis of what would eventually become standard English.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
    "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 . . .."
    ["When the sweet showers of April have pierced
    The drought of March, and pierced it to the root
    And every vein is bathed in that moisture
    Whose quickening force will engender the flower . . .."]
    (Geoffrey Chaucer, General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, late 14th century. Translation by David Wright. Oxford University Press, 2008)

     
  • Many Middle Englishes
    "Middle English varied enormously over time and by region; Angus McIntosh notes that there are over a thousand 'dialectically differentiated' varieties of Middle English. Indeed, some scholars go so far as to say that Middle English is 'not . . . a language at all but rather something of a scholarly fiction, an amalgam of forms and sounds, writers and manuscripts, famous works and little known ephemera.' This is a little extreme, but certainly prior to the later fourteenth century Middle English was primarily a spoken rather than a written language, and did not have official administrative functions in either a secular or religious context. This has resulted in a critical tendency to place English at the bottom of the linguistic hierarchy of medieval England, with Latin and French as the dominant languages of discourse, instead of seeing the symbiotic relationship between English, French, and Latin. . . .

    "By the fifteenth century Middle English was extensively used in the written documentation of business, civic government, Parliament, and the royal household." 
    (Rachel E. Moss, Fatherhood and Its Representations in Middle English Texts. D.S. Brewer, 2013)

     
  • The Vocabulary of Middle English
    - "In 1066, William the Conqueror led the Norman invasion of England, marking the beginning of the Middle English period. This invasion brought a major influence to English from Latin and French. As is often the case with invasions, the conquerors dominated the major political and economic life in England. While this invasion had some influence on English grammar, the most powerful impact was on vocabulary."
    (Evelyn Rothstein and Andrew S. Rothstein, English Grammar Instruction That Works! Corwin, 2009)


    - "The core vocabulary of [Middle] English comprised the monosyllabic words for basic concepts, bodily functions, and body parts inherited from Old English and shared with the other Germanic languages. These words include: God, man, tin, iron, life, death, limb, nose, ear, foot, mother, father, brother, earth, sea, horse, cow, lamb.

    "Words from French are often polysyllabic terms for the institutions of the Conquest (church, administration, law), for things imported with the Conquest (castles, courts, prisons), and terms of high culture and social status (cuisine, fashion, literature, art, decoration)."
    (Seth Lerer, Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language. Columbia University Press, 2007)
     
  • French Influence on Middle English
    - "From 1150 to 1500 the language is known as Middle English. During this period the inflections, which had begun to break down during the end of the Old English period, become greatly reduced. . . .

    "By making English the language mainly of uneducated people, the Norman Conquest [in 1066] made it easier for grammatical changes to go forward unchecked.

    "French influence is much more direct and observable upon the vocabulary. Where two languages exist side by side for a long time and the relations between the people speaking them are as intimate as they were in England, a considerable transference of words from one language to the other is inevitable. . . .

    "When we study the French words appearing in English before 1250, roughly 900 in number, we find that many of them were such as the lower classes would become familiar with through contact with a French-speaking nobility: (baron, noble, dame, servant, messenger, feast, minstrel, juggler, largess). . . . In the period after 1250, . . . the upper classes carried over into English an astonishing number of common French words. In changing from French to English, they transferred much of their governmental and administrative vocabulary, their ecclesiastical, legal, and military terms, their familiar words of fashion, food, and social life, the vocabulary of art, learning, and medicine."
    (A. C. Baugh and T. Cable, A History of the English Language. Prentice-Hall, 1978)

    - "French continued to occupy a prestigious place in English society, especially the Central French dialect spoken in Paris. This prompted an increase in the numbers of French words borrowed, especially those relating to French society and culture. As a consequence, English words concerned with scholarship, fashion, the arts, and food--such as college, robe, verse, beef--are often drawn from French (even if their ultimate origins lie in Latin). The higher status of French in this [late Middle English] period continues to influence the associations of pairs of synonyms in Modern English, such as begin-commence, look-regard, stench-odour. In each of these pairs, the French borrowing is of a higher register than the word inherited from Old English."
    (Simon Horobin, How English Became English. Oxford University Press, 2016)
     
  • A Fuzzy Boundary
    "[T]he transition from Middle to early modern English is above all the period of the elaboration of the English language. Between the late 14th and 16th centuries, the English language began increasingly to take on more functions. These changes in function had, it is argued here, a major effect on the form of English: so major, indeed, that the old distinction between 'Middle' and 'modern' retains considerable validity, although the boundary between these two linguistic epochs was obviously a fuzzy one."
    (Jeremy J. Smith, "From Middle to Early Modern English." The Oxford History of English, ed. by Lynda Mugglestone. Oxford University Press, 2006)
     
  • Chaucer on Changes in the "Forme of Speeche"
    "Ye knowe ek that in forme of speeche is chaunge
    Withinne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
    That hadden pris, now wonder nyce and straunge
    Us thinketh hem, and yet thei spake hem so,
    And spedde as wel in love as men now do;
    Ek for to wynnen love in sondry ages,
    In sondry londes, sondry ben usages."
    ["You know also that in (the) form of speech (there) is change
    Within a thousand years, and words then
    That had value, now wonderfully curious and strange
    (To) us they seem, and yet they spoke them so,
    And succeeded as well in love as men now do;
    Also to win love in sundry ages,
    In sundry lands, (there) are many usages."]
    (Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, late 14th century. Translation by Roger Lass in "Phonology and Morphology." A History of the English Language, edited by Richard M. Hogg and David Denison. Cambridge University Press, 2008)