Middle English Language Prior to

the arrival of William the Conqueror, the common English language was Old English, which reflected its Germanic roots more distinctly than Middle English. The Norman Conquest, however, changed this. The Norman French influence, and the subsequent development of an Anglo-Norman culture, deeply affected the way English was spoken and written. English went into a decline, and when it reemerged, it was permanently changed.

Scholars agree there were at least five dialects of Middle English: Southern, West Midlands, Northern, East Midlands, and Kentish. Many believe, however, that there were many more dialects than these five, and scholarly debates continue. Eventually, the East Midlands dialect—the one spoken in London—emerged as the strongest of these, becoming the standard for spoken and written language. This dialect was not a direct descendant of West Saxon, the old English dialect with the most surviving materials. Moreover, English was rarely written down during the Anglo-Norman period, so by the time it became regularly written down again, there was an even poorer match between written and spoken language than in old English. French scribes introduced additional spelling errors. Many of these became frozen when the printing press arrived, leaving a language today that does not match phonetically and graphemically.

Phonologically, the consonant inventory was much like Present Day English with a few exceptions, most notably in final syllables. All Old English diphthongs became pure vowels, but the French influence provided several new diphthongs. Middle English retained two of the graphemes not used in the Latin alphabet, the thorn and the yogh (3). Occasional use of the ash (®) and eth (5) remained. The consonant inventory was very similar to Present Day English, with the French influence making the occurrence of letters rarely used in Old English (j, v, q, and z) more common.

The most significant change between old English and Middle English was the loss of the inflectional system. No longer a synthetic, inflected language, Middle English became an analytic language dependent upon word order to create syntactical structure. Nouns were reduced from five cases to two (possessive and nonpossessive), just as they are in Present Day English. Adjectives lost all inflections. Syntax became the determining factor of sentence meaning.

Forms of the first and second pronouns remained relatively unchanged, but the dual pronoun found in old English was lost. The use of ye as a polite form of address is found from the late 13th century, and is modeled on French practice. In general, you or ^ou was used between equals and to inferiors, while ye was used to address a superior. Indefinite and relative pronouns became more defined, and late Middle English witnessed the beginnings of reflexive and reciprocal pronouns.

Like Old English and Present Day English, Middle English verbs had only two tenses: past and present. The present tense was used to express habitual actions and general truths as well as current activities and, occasionally, the future. By late Middle English (the 14th century), the historical present was developed and regularly used in literature, especially romances. Historic present allows the narrative of past events to place the audience in the midst of the action. Middle English verbs also had the same three moods as those in Old English and Present Day English: indicative, subjunctive, and imperative.

Finally, Middle English had a much larger lexicon than Old English. Aside from the huge infusion of French loanwords, Middle English also absorbed words from the Scandinavian languages, Latin, Celtic languages, Dutch, and other Continental languages.

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