The Middle English period in the history of English

1. Time dimension

Middle English is a term pertaining to the stage in the development of the English language, placed on the language change continuum roughly from the beginning of the 12th to the end of the 15th century. The approximate borderlines between this and the two other stages, ie. earlier Old English and later Modern English, are determined by both intralinguistic and extralinguistic criteria. The intralinguistic ones include: the loss of inflectional endings marking nouns, adjectives and verbs in different syntactic contexts, a process observable from around the 12th century, and the transformation of the long vowel system, known as the Great Vowel Shift, starting in the 15th century (Moessner 2003: 6-7). The extralinguistic criteria accounting for the dividing lines are the Norman Conquest in 1066, accelerating the process of language change at the one end, and the introduction of printing in 1476 in England, slowing down the process at the other.

The chronological division of English with the changes that affected the language and the parallel extralinguistic historical events that mark the borders between the periods is presented below.

Figure 1. Schematic presentation of the most significant phases in the history of the English language.

timeline period historical event linguistic change

about 1500 Modern English the introduction of printing (by William Caxton in London) the Great Vowel Shift; all long stressed vowels undergo a qualitative change
about 1100 Middle English the beginning of French reigns in England the loss of most inflectional endings
about 450 Old English the invasion of Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons and Jutes) on the British Isles

2. Social dimension

Starting from the time when the Norman Duke William the Conqueror took power over her in 1066, medieval England witnessed gradual though profound changes in the social status of the English language. With the beginning of foreign reigns, English-speaking people holding all the high (administrative, ecclesiastical, educational, cultural, etc.) positions in the country were replaced by the French and so the vernacular was reduced to the status of a spoken language of uneducated people from lower social strata (Baugh and Cable 1978: 116).

The need of at least elementary communication between the newcomers and the native speakers set the ground for language contact which had a major impact on the language of the lower prestige, ie. English. With time, when the bonds with France weakened and the Anglo-Normans assimilated with the previously conquered nation the prestige of the vernacular was enhanced while the use of French was less and less frequent.

The influence of French is most visible in the domain of lexicon, although there were also some important changes in grammar, which resulted from the contact between the two languages, such as:

Some of the other languages which had influence on the shape of English were: Scandinavian, due to the Viking invasions, which started in the end of the 8th and lasted to the middle of the 11th century and resulted in the settlement and assimilation of the conquering and the conquered people, Latin, through writing, and Dutch, through trade activities during the later Middle English period. The impact of the Celtic language, although in close aeral proximity to English, is negligible.

3. Geographical dimension

One of the most striking features of the Middle English period is the lack of language uniformity and a plethora of dialects into which the language was fragmented. "The language differed almost from county to county, and noticeable variations are sometimes observable between different parts of the same county" (Baugh and Cable 1978: 189). All the varieties have been classified into five large groups of dialects:

The explanation for such a diversity in speech and writing lies in the following facts:
Later, with the economic development, a growing number of places to work across the country and the demand for hands to work (especially after the Black Death, the plague that stroke in 1348 and decimated the population), the intercommunication grew. Also, in the 14th century, on the basis of the East Midland dialect and with some admixture of numerous other dialects, a London dialect emerged. This was the predecessor of the present-day standard English (Blake 1992: 18). The process of standardisation was accelerated by the introduction of printing at the end of the 15th century in London. A printed word spreading around the country started to serve as the model of "proper" spelling and also the printed language was less prone to change.


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Last modified: Thu May 20 15:55 GMT +02:00 2005
by Aleksandra 'kereish' Kos
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