The English Language in the Middle English Period

Transformation and Evolution

Term Paper, 2012

38 Pages

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Chapter 1: The English language in the Middle English Period
1.1- Historical background
1.2- The Scandinavian influence on the English language
1.3- The Norman influence on the English language
1.4- Main grammatical changes undergone during the Middle English Period
1.4.1- The substantive
1.4.2- The pronoun
1.4.3- The adjective
1.4.4- The adverb
1.4.5- The verb Strong verbs Weak verbs
1.4.6- Syntax
1.5- The Middle English dialects
1.6- The formation of the National Literary Language
1.7- The rise of Standard English.
1.8- The importance of the study of the evolution of the English language for students of the English language Program.





So intimate is the relation between the language and the people who speak it, that the two cannot be thought of in a separate manner. A language lives only as long as there are people who speak and use it, for language is communication; it is a social need - man’s need to communicate one with the other in a community!

The English language of today reflects many centuries of development. Thus, it reflects the political and social events that have taken place in the course of English history.

The language we now call English is actually a blend of many languages. It is the result of invasions, conquests and political and social changes that mainly occurred during the Middle English Period. English since then has been absorbing vocabulary from a huge number of sources. French, the language of diplomacy for Europe for centuries, Latin, the language of the church, and Greek, the language of philosophy and science, contributed many words, especially the more "educated" ones. Other European languages have left culturally specific words. The American Indian languages, Australian Aborigine languages, and the languages of Africa and India gave us many hundreds of words, especially for the innumerable species of plants and animals of the world. On top of all this, there is the steady creation of new words and new uses for old words by the many subcultures of the English speaking world.

This research is aimed at illustrating these transformations which resulted in the rising of a national standard language. The purpose is to enhance the cultural awareness and linguistic knowledge of language students by analyzing the etymology of the English vocabulary; due to English language learners need a solid knowledge of vocabulary to improve their second language proficiency. It is also hoped that this paper will contribute to develop a correct spelling of the English vocabulary.

Each word in English seems to have its own compass, some pointing to phonology, some to morphology, some to history, and some pointing one direction in one syllable and another in the next. Someone who can spell in English either understands the polar north of entire fleets of words or, more likely, has memorized the individual words they need to know. Either way, spellers of English, though they may not realize it, are constantly navigating the challenging waters of intercultural communication.

But, why is spelling so hard?

Blame the alphabet. You can never tell what sound a letter is going to make. Sometimes a letter doesn’t make any sound at all, is silent –and then you will find a letter (like “x” in box) that makes more than one sound in one appearance. As Bryson (1990, 120) points out: “We have some forty sounds in English, but more than two hundred ways of spelling them. We can render the sound “sh” in up to fourteen ways (shoe, sugar, passion, ambition, ocean, champagne, etc.)… If you count proper nouns, the word in English with the most varied spellings is air with a remarkable thirty eight: Aire, Ayr, heir, e’er, ere, and so on.”

Essentially, the Latin alphabet with its phonological significations was used to signify Old English. Of course, the inventories of phonemes were not identical for the two languages. Stevick (1968, 276) writes: “The least satisfactory fit of the alphabet to English was a carryover from Latin –the limitation to five vocalic graphemes for a language that had many more than five vowels. “ That is why “y” is sometimes called into action as a vowel and why so often in English words it takes two letters to represent one vowel sound. As Stevick goes on to say, “The subsequent history of English spelling reflects at all points the inadequate set of vocalic symbols” (276).

Blame the dictionary. Before the dictionary, there was no way to establish correct spelling, and spelling varied widely. The dictionary became a snapshot of the language, and words, once they were collected and fixed, didn’t change as rapidly. Sounds, though, were not captured and so continued to change even while words stayed put in the dictionary. The gentlemen who made dictionaries –notably Samuel Johnson with is Dictionary of the English Language published in 1755 and Noah Webster with his American Dictionary of the English Language published in 1828—were collectors more than prescriptive linguists. Though Webster was a powerful voice for reform, especially in making English more American, his dictionary successfully revised the spelling of only a handful of words.

Blame the Dutch typesetters, who were paid by the line and so stuck additional letters into words. Blame the printing press. According to Peters (1968, 274), “The discrepancies between the way we currently pronounce and spell words may be attributed, in large measure, to the fact that our spelling, mostly inherited from Late Middle English, has remained more or less fixed since c. 1650, unlike the pronunciation of those Late Middle English words.” Peters uses as an example of this pronunciation slippage the word knight which, in the Middle English Period was pronounced the way it looks.

Blame it on the history of the English, those British Isles invaded many times by different languages and then invading other isles and continents with other languages with which to mix. Colonies were like a linguistic semipermeable membrane.

To be an effective English speller, an understanding of all these linguistic origins is helpful. That’s why, in spelling bees, the first question from a contestant faced with a difficult word is often about its derivation. For there are laws guiding the alphabetic representation of sounds, but the laws differ from language to language. Sometimes when words are brought in to English, their original spellings are maintained, and sometimes they are given new, English spellings.

Language is hard. Language is hard because it is immense, the result of human history; it is smoothed over once in a while, perhaps, but it is still quite bumpy. It is complex because it is a part of human society with rules that go beyond grammar to manners. Spelling reminds us that to learn English is to study history and anthropology. The English language students should be able to recognize and analyze properly the transformations of the language throughout its history. Therefore, as a result of the idea of making this research, a scientific problem emerges

Scientific problem: What elements resulted as determinants in the rising of a national standard language?

Objective: To determine the elements that resulted as determinants in the rising of a national standard language

Idea to be defended: The determination of the elements that resulted as determinants in the rising of a national standard language will contribute to the knowledge and cultural awareness of the English Language Program students.

Scientific tasks:

- To make a deep bibliographical review to determine the transformations English language undergone during the Middle English Period; especially in its grammar, syntax and pronunciation.
- To determine the regularities regarding the economic, political and social situation of the English speaking territories during the Middle English Period.

Theoretical methods:

1- Analytic-Synthetic: It was taken into account to analyze and summarize the information related to the different grammatical and syntactical changes English suffered during the Middle English Period.
2- Historical-logical: It was used to deepen in the historical relation between society and language that eventually leads to the rising of a national standard language.

Empirical methods:

1- Analysis of documents: It was used to analyze the scientific information about the topic contained in books and magazines.

Practical contribution: This paper will contribute to the cultural awareness of the students by enhancing the knowledge they already have from History lessons about the behavior of the incipient English society. Also, it will deepen in the original elements of the language which are studied during the program.

CHAPTER ONE “The English Language in the Middle English Period”


When we speak of the Middle English Period we must take into account the historical events and transformations that took place between the 12th and the 15th centuries in Britain, and which directly affected the development of the English language.

It is evident that the approximate dates fixing the boundaries between the three main periods covered by the history of the English language are very close to important events in the social and political life of the country. Thus 1100 follows close upon 1066, the year of the Normand Conquest, and 1500 is close to 1485, the year when the War of the Roses came to an end.

This period was marked by momentous changes in the English language; changes more extensive and fundamental than those that have taken place at any time before or since. Some of these changes were the result of the Norman Conquest and the social political conditions which followed in the wake of the event. Some of these, to a lesser degree, were the result of the Scandinavian invasions and the lengthy contacts with the Old Scandinavian language which became apparent precisely in the Middle English Period.

But who were the Scandinavians and just how deeply did they influence the English language?

The migration of the ancient Germans from the 2nd to the 5th centuries led to the geographical separation of tribal groups and consequently to the independent development of their tongues. The Germanic people began their attacks along the Rhine and the Danube from the North Sea to the Black Sea, which lasted for three centuries. These tribes are traditionally subdivided into three groups: East, North and West.

The North Germanic tribes which had settled in the Scandinavian region remained isolated for several hundred years. In the 8th century, these sea-rovers, also known as the Northmen or Danes, began their raids on Britain and gradually occupied the greater part of Britain. Other groups settled in France, hence the name of Normandy given to that region of France.

The Scandinavian attacks upon England can be marked in three well-defined stages:

- The early raids beginning in 787 and continuing until 850. The raids of this period were simple plundering attacks upon towns and monasteries near the coast.
- The second stage was the work of large armies and was marked by widespread plundering in all parts of the country and by intensive settlements. The Danes concentrated their attacks on the strongest of the Anglo-Saxon cities, Wessex, and were halted by King Alfred in 878. The Treaty of Wedmore was signed by King Alfred of Wessex and Guthrum, the Dane, establishing a line running from Chester to London to the east of which would become the territory subject to Danish law and is hence known as Danelaw.
- The third stage of the Scandinavian incursion covers the period of political adjustment and assimilation from 878 to 1042 under Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder and grandson, Athelstan. The English began a series of counterattacks and by the middle of the century a large part of eastern England, though still strongly Danish in blood and customs, was once more under English rule.

The amalgamation of the two races, Angle-Saxon and Scandinavian was greatly facilitated by the close kinship that existed between them. No social or cultural distinctions were made between native and settlers. Since the dialects belonged to the same linguistic group, their languages were very much alike, but the intermixture of languages in the regions of Scandinavian settlement had a considerable effect on the English language which became apparent in Middle English records. Of the linguistic levels, we find that the word-stock was the most affected by the Scandinavian influence.

The Norman Conquest in 1066 was a turning point in English history; it was the historical event which was to have the greatest effect on the English language.

But who were the Normans and where did they come from?

On the northern coast of France directly across from England, there is a district extending some 75 miles back from the Channel and known as Normandy. It derives its name from the hordes of Northmen who settled there in the 9th and the 10th centuries, and who were descendants of the North Germanic tribes which had settled in the Scandinavian region.

A generation after Alfred reached an agreement with the Northmen in England, a somewhat similar understanding was reached between Rollo, the leader of the Danes in Normandy, and Charles, the Simple, King of France. In 912 the right of the Northmen to occupy this part of France was recognized, Rollo acknowledged the French King as his overlord and became the first Duke of the Normans.

For some years before the Norman Conquest the relations between England and Normandy had been fairly close. In 1002, Aethelred the Unready had married a Norman wife and when driven into exile by the Danes, took refuge with his brother-in-law, the Duke of Normandy. His son Edward had thus been brought up in France.

After the death of the Danish King Canute, the old Anglo-Saxon line was restored, and Edward the Confessor became King of England. William, Duke of Normandy, visited his court and it was rumored that Edward appointed him his successor. The court was still in the hands of the Anglo-Saxon Feudal lords, the most powerful of them being Earl Godwin of Wessex.

In 1066, upon Edward´s death, the Elders proclaimed Harold, Godwin´s son, King of England. As soon as the news reached William of Normandy, he assembled an army and with the support of the Pope, he landed in Britain. The English were defeated in October 1066 in the famous battle of Hastings, where Harold was killed.

The Norman Conquest provided the political superstructure corresponding to the Feudal system which had already developed in Britain. Through the confiscation of lands and the new division among the Normans, we may say that Feudalism was fully established in England. The essential political feature of Feudalism was the downward delegation of power and all power was based upon the ownership of lands. The King was the sole and ultimate owner of all lands.

The unit of agriculture economy was the Manor (lands distributed among William´s followers) which had been imposed upon the earlier township. Some of these manors were held by his vassals. The Manor with its lords, tenants and serfs produced practically all the necessities of life. Accordingly, it may be said that the economy had a close character and manors at the beginning were totally divorced from cities.


illustration not visible in this excerpt

In the period directly following the Norman Conquest, new economic relations began to take shape. With the increased interest in commercial profit, feudal oppression grew and the conditions of peasants deteriorated, social discontent showed itself in the Peasant´s Revolt of the 13th and 14th centuries.

The serfs began to leave the manors and became artisans and craftsmen. They settled in old towns and founded new ones near rivers and monasteries. In time new social groups came into being: the poor townspeople, (apprentices and artisans) and the town Middle Class (rich merchants).

The growth of commerce and industry; the growth of towns and strengthening of social ties between various regions and the circulation of money as a means of trade marked the end of feudal scattered economy and the need of a new Mode of Production: Capitalism.

These economic and political relations had a decisive influence on the language situation; they not only created the need for a unified national language, but also created the conditions for its development.

We can therefore conclude that the creation and unification of a national language is product of the new social and economic relations which began to take shape in the old Feudal society during the Late Middle English Period.


The Scandinavian invasions were not like the introduction of the Roman civilization years before, bringing the English into contact with a different civilization and introducing them to many new things, physical and spiritual, that they had never known before. The civilization of the invaders was very much like that of the English themselves if anything somewhat inferior it. Consequently, the Scandinavian elements that entered the English language are such as would make their way into it through the give and take of everyday life. Their character can best be conveyed by a few examples:

- Among nouns: band, bank, birth, eggs, fellow, kid
- Adjectives: awkward, flat, ill, low, meek, muggy, odd
- Common verbs: to bait, bask, call, cast, clip, gasp

It can be seen from the words listed above that in many cases the new words could have supplied no real need in the English vocabulary. They made their way into English simply as the result of the mixture of the two races.

The Scandinavian and the English words were being used side by side, and the survival of one or the other must often have been a matter of choice. Under such circumstances, a number of things might happen:

1- Where words in the two languages coincided more or less in form and meaning, the modern word stood at the same time for both its English and its Scandinavian ancestors.
Example: burn, cole, drag, fast.
2- Where there were differences of form, the English word often survived.
Example: bench, goat, heathen, yarn, few.
3- In other cases the Scandinavian word replaced the native word.
Example: window (wind-eye) drove out the appropriate English word eagpyrel (eye-thirl meaning eye-hole)
4- Occasionally both the English and the Scandinavian words were retained with a difference of meaning or use, as in:

38 of 38 pages


The English Language in the Middle English Period
Transformation and Evolution
English Language Program
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ISBN (Book)
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english, middle, period, transformation, evolution
Quote paper
Anet Beatriz Rumbaut Rivero (Author), 2012, The English Language in the Middle English Period, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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