Middle English is the language spoken in England, Scotland, and Ireland during the Middle Ages. The marker of the beginning of the Middle English era is The Battle of Hastings and the marker of the end of it is the Great Vowel Shift.
| Middle English |
|Spoken in:||Great Britian, Ireland, United States. (England)|
|Total speakers:||varied over time|
|Basic word order:||SVO,|
|Morphological type:||Isolating (mostly)|
|unknown||Battle Of Hastings (1066) - Great Vowel Shift|
English has had 4 primary stages:
The separation of Anglo-Saxon from Middle English is marked by The Battle of Hastings in 1066. Although that is the official marker, the language took many years to become creolised. For more of whether English is a creole, see Middle English as a Creole. It was likely the 12th century or so before the two languages fully mixed and became Middle English. Before then, it was probably Anglo-Saxon spoken by the common folk and Norman French spoken by the Nobles and higher ups. Mostly likely there was a creole between the two in the stages before it was creolised, sometimes called Anglo-Norman. The separation of Middle English and the Modern English stages is the Great Vowel Shift.
Modern English words have many different origins, but a majority come from Anglo-Saxon, Old Norman French, and a little Old Norse. However in the global world today, many words from many other languages have entered the English language.
Middle English also has different stages, with earlier texts such as Brut, which has a heavy Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, to Geoffrey Chaucer, who helped to standardise English (do to the early printers such as William Caxton).
For more, try Middle English Dialects.
There are five major dialects of Middle English. Those are:
Northern Middle English
Southern Middle English
Kentish Middle English
Often the West Midlands and East Midlands dialects are put together and are called Midlands. The Northern dialect is often called Northumbrian dialect.
The most famous Middle English writer, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in the London dialect, which was a part of the Midlands dialect. The Northern Dialect has a heavy influence from Old Norse. The two primary texts in which dialect appears are The Reeve's Tale and The Second Shepard's Play. In the Reeve's Tale, by Geoffrey Chaucer, two Northern students have a run-in with a Midlands Miller. Chaucer uses the dialect for humourous effect. In the Second Shepard's Play which is written in the Northern dialect, a messenger tries to trick the shepards by using a Midlands or Southern accent, to no avail.
It should be noted that the pronunciation does differ by dialect.
|Approximants & glides||ʍ||w||j|
- Đ,ð and Þ,þ were still commonly used for /ð/ or /θ/, although th was beginning to be used.
- Ʒ,ʒ were used to represent gh in Older texts, later it was replaced with gh. It also was used for the sound /j/ which g had sometimes been.
- Occasionally Æ, æ is seen for /æ/.
- The Middle English r was likely trilled or flapped.
- The sound /ʧ/ was represented by tch, cch, and in some cases ch.
- The diagraph gh represented /ç/ when next to front vowels (i, e), and /x/ when next to back vowels (a, o, u). In older texts such as Brut this might be represented by h such as is seen in Anglo-Saxon texts.
- The diagraphs hw (or wh or rarely qu), hl, and hn (the latter two are rare, but exist) are pronounced /ʍ/, /ɬ/ and /n̯/ respectively.
- All letters are pronounced, and the combinations kn an gn were thusly pronounced /kn/ and /gn/ respectively.
- ci and ce are often pronounced was a /s/ sound.
- gi and ge, as well as j, were often pronounced /ʒ/ although sometimes it was /ʤ/.
- In most cases, the fricatives /s/, /f/, and /θ/ become voiced in the case of being between vowels or intervocalic (much like those in Anglo-Saxon). This means they become /z/, /v/, and /ð/ respectively. An example that was carried to Modern English might be irregular nouns such as wife vs. wives.
|High||iː - ɪ||yː - ʏ||uː - ʊ|
|Mid||eː - ɛ||ə/ʌ||oː - ɔ|
|All entries are: Tense - Lax|
Because the vowels are Pre-Great Vowel Shift, one should pronounce the vowels similar to Latin or German.
- i and y were pronounced /iː/ or /ɪ/.
- e or ee were pronounced /eː/ or /ɛ/.
- a in later periods was likely /æ/, but aa or a were also likely /aː/ or /a/.
- u in French loan words and a few words passed down from Anglo-Saxon could be pronounced /yː/ or /ʏ/.
- o or oo were likely pronounced /oː/ or /ɔ/.
- ou was pronounced /uː/ or /ʊ/ in many cases. In some cases it was pronounced /ow/.
- e at the end of a word was pronounced /ə/. Various other vowels could have been /ʌ/ if the conditions were right.
- au or aw could have been pronounced /aw/, /o/ or /ɔ/ depending on origin.
- ai or ay could have been pronounced /aj/ or /ej/ depending on origin and region.
- oi or oy were almost always /oj/.
Middle English, like Middle High German went through a series of vowel reductions. This would involve the vowels of non-stressed syllables. Those vowels would often become schwas /ə/. This is how different forms of verbs slowly became one standard verb form, from various possible endings in Old English. This also contributed to the loss of the case system. First a case ending would become a schwa, and then it could be dropped altogether.
Like most pre-standardised languages, Middle English did not have a consistent spelling system. In fact, the most famous of the Middle English writers, Geoffrey Chaucer is known to have spelt words many different ways, sometimes within a few lines of each other. Other reasons for different orthographies might have to do with the training of the scribe. A scribe with more French and Latin training would write the English diagraph wh or hw as qu. Other reasons for different spellings might have to do with the scribe's copying from an original work. If the original work had smudges, or was hard to read, then the wrong letter might have been written. Other cases the scribe changed lines to fit the purpose it served to him (most scribes were male). A religious scribe might change one of the haughtier stories from The Canterbury Tales to say something more to his liking.
Middle English nouns had long lost the noun genders that had been dying in the Anglo-Saxon era. There were were a few endings which did imply feminine and masculine, such as the feminine ending -esse, which is where we get the ending -ess in Modern English.
There are two numbers in Middle English, since the Dual number from Old English was dropped. This leads the two numbers, Singular and Plural which are still in Modern English. The common ending for the plural was written -es. Quite a few irregular nouns still existed and have various endings.
The case system was pretty much settled into the forms that exist in English today. There were two forms, the general form, and the genitive.
In Middle English there are two standard types of articles: Definite Articles and Indefinite Articles. By the Middle English era, the Modern standard articles were pretty stable as the and a/an. The indefinite article may have been used more often as an, especially in the early centuries of Middle English, because it reflects the original spelling and the words shared roots with the number one. Other spellings of it could include on, ane, anne, en, enne, and ene. The definite article had other forms including de, þeo, te, þea, þie, and the contracted form th'.
The pronouns of Middle English were relatively similar to the ones in the following era of Early Modern English. They had shifted a little bit from Anglo-Saxon, but they still had some traits from the previous age. The noted use of the second person plural thu, also spelt thou, thow, or þu, was preserved from earlier forms of English, but likely shifted its usage to be informal.
It should also be noted how possessive pronouns more commonly used the predicate form as the adjective form. In essence, the original form was likely similar to a vs. an for forms such as thy vs. thyn and my vs. myn. (Remember the y is pronounced /i/, not like modern English /aj/)
|Case||First Person||Second Person||Third Person|
|Sing.||Plur.||Sing.||Plur.||Sing. Masc.||Sing. Fem.||Sing. Neut.||Plur.|
|Subjective||I, ich, ik||we||thu||yow, you||he||she, sche||hit||thei, they, thai,|
|Objective||me||us||the, thi, thee||ye, yow||him, hym||here, hire,||hit||hem, em, them, theime|
|Possessive||myn/my||oure||thyn/thy||youre, your||his/hys||here/hire/hir||his, hys||theirs, their|
Verbs in Middle English are more inflected than those of Modern English but slightly less than those of Old English. The infinitive in Middle English is usually a -en and/or -e. This ending is still used in Dutch and German today.
The present tense was used slightly differently than it is in Modern English. It is used much more like Modern Spanish or High German. The present progressive was being using, but it was more common to see the present tense used for things going on at moment. The present participle has the ending -ynge, which evolves into -ing in the Modern form.
The endings in the present are more numerous than they are in the Modern form. They are as follows:
|Infinitive||Loven to love||Killen to kill|
The future tense is formed much the way the future tense is formed in Modern English. The only difference is that shall (used as forms schullen, shallen, etc) and will (forms as willen, wellen, etc) had a difference in meaning. This difference is that will indicated desire or wish (much like High German Wollen), so saying I will go there was similar to I want to go there, and shall was involved indifference of the will, so saying I shall go is similar to I'm gonna go without desire to do so. The verb to go was not used to form the future tense, but the verb to be with an infinitive construction could have been.
The simple past was formed in Middle English by adding -ed- between the stem and the ending of the verb. In many irregular verbs, as in Modern English, the vowel changes instead of an ending being attached.
The perfect tense is formed in a way very similar to the modern form. The verb to have(n) is used with the past form of the verb, which in regular verbs has the suffix -ed, or a vowel stem change (and/or another type of ending). Both irregular and regular verbs have the potential to have the prefix y- added to them in the Perfect tense, which came from the Anglo-Saxon prefix ge-. The regular verbs are as follows:
|1st person||have yloved||haven yloved||have ykilled||haven ykilled|
|2nd person||hast yloved||haven yloved||hast ykilled||haven ykilled|
|3rd person||hath yloved||have yloved||hath ykilled||haven ykilled|
Modals and Auxiliaries
Unlike Modern English, Middle English Modals actually had infinitive forms.
List of Modals:
- willen - will, to want,
- schulen - should, shall, ought,
- moten - can, should, must
- magen - to be able,
- witen - to know
- cunnen - can, to able able,
- thurfen- need,
The key auxiliaries were haven (or hauen) and ben (or bien).
|Infinitive||ben to be||haven to have|
|1st person||am (em)₊||are(n)||have||han (haven)|
|2nd person||art (ert)||are(n)||hast (havest)||han (haven)|
|3rd person||is (es)||are(n)||hath (haveth)||han (haven)|
|1st person||was (wes)||were(n)||hadde||hadden|
|2nd person||wast (wer)||were(n)||haddest||hadden|
|3rd person||was (wes)||were(n)||hadde||hadden|
|1st person||have (y)ben||han (y)ben||have (y)had(de)||han (y)had(de)|
|2nd person||hast (y)ben||han (y)ben||hast (y)had(de)||han (y)had(de)|
|3rd person||hath (y)ben||han (y)ben||hath (y)had(de)||han (y)had(de)|
₊The ( ) s represent one variation in spelling. There are often many other possible variations, but it is impractical to write them all here.
The most well known text in Middle English is The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. In that, there are many famous stories, such as The Knight's Tale, The Reeve's Tale, The Wife of Bath's Tale, The Nun's Priest's Tale, amongst many others. Other major texts include Brut, The Second Shepard's Play, The Play of Noah, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, La Mort d'Arthur, Everyman, Piers Plowman, amongst others.
Sources and Further Readings
This Page is by Timothy Patrick Snyder.
Article:Is Middle English a Creole?
Ann S. Haskell, ed. A Middle English Anthology. Garden City, New York. Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1969.
Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1990.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. reprinted, edited by Howard, E.J. & Wilson, G.D., New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1937.
Finegan, Edward. "English." The World’s Major Languages.
Ryan, Brandy. "Middle English as Creole." Chass. 2005 .