Middle English

The term Middle English refers to the various forms of the English language spoken during the Norman Invasion of 1066 through approximately 1470. After this time, the Chancery Standard (an English version which emerged from London) became popular, and advances in technology (printing press and such) promoted the spread of this language. Middle English differed from its predecessor, Old English, in that its written form showcases a number of scribal forms. Also, Middle English changed significantly due to the influence of Norman French following the Norman invasion of 1066. These changes include:
  • the loss of inflections
  • less freedom in word order
  • loss of grammatical gender
  • more phonetic spelling
  • final -e pronounced, as well as all consonants
  • emergence of Middle English dialects: Northern, Midland, Southern, Kentish,
  • the eventual dominance of the London dialect as the standard spoken and written language, due to London’s importance as a commercial center and seaport, as well as its proximity to the court in Westminster.

To get a sense of the extent of the changes brought about by Norman French, “By the 13th century approximately 10,000 French words had come into English.” Further, though spelling became more standard in the language, words were often spelled according to the French rules: “The Norman scribes listened to the English they heard around them, and began to spell it according to the conventions they had previously used for French.” These spelling changes include introducing qu for cw (queen for cwen); gh (instead of h) in such words as night and enough; ch (instead of c) in such words as church; ou for u (as in house); the use of c before e (instead of s) in such words as cercle (‘circle’) and cell.

For Further Reference:
University of St. Thomas website on Middle English

Around 1400, the dominant ruling class began to use Middle English in their writings and speech, helping to spread changes in language. In addition, the political climate in England was tumultuous and regimes were continually being brought up and down. With the invention of the printing press, however, a firm structure of language began to take hold on a more universal scale.

Norman Conquest of 1066 and beyond
October 14, 1066 marks the changing point in England's history. It is on this day that William the Duke of Normandy (known as William the Conqueror) would gain control of England. Not only was William not a direct heir to the throne, but he was a foreigner. This would bring an elite Anglo-Norman speaking class to England. The Normans were of Viking ancestry and their language in the 11th century was Norman French; in fact their language and culture was very much French.

English, which had been a written language since the conversion to Christianity, was rapidly dropped as the language for royal and legal charters and proclamations, not reappearing until Simon De Montfort's Parliament issued the Provisions of Oxford in 1258.

English did remain with the lower classes, however as a result, it was not written. The replacement language was usually Latin, though often duplicated in French. French was the language of the royal court, the legal system, and the church. The use of French was reinforced by the fact that many of the new aristocracy and religious houses had extensive holdings in France. This state of affairs changed slightly in 1204 when King John lost Normandy, but did not really end until after the English were finally expelled from France at the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453.

William the Conqueror ruled England and Normandy until his death in 1087. He was succeed by his three sons, William II followed by Henry I. The kings of England that followed continued to rule England and Normandy until King John (or "Bad King John" no other British monarch was named John after his rule) lost Normandy to Philip Augustus of France through a series of wars concluding in 1214. King John's rule left England in civil war, forcing barons to compose the Magna Carta to limit the King's power that John had thoroughly abused.

Although almost unheard of in the course of history, through many years and circumstances, the Normans who were now living in England gradually adopted English as their language. Of course, they mixed Norman French influence with Latin ancestry to it. Therefore, the new English language did not look the same as the old: for as well as undergoing changes in vocabulary, the complex systems of inflected endings which Old English had was gradually lost or simplified in the dialects of spoken Middle English. This change was gradually reflected in its increasingly diverse written forms too. The loss of case-endings was part of a general trend from inflectional to fixed-order words that also occurred in other Germanic languages, and cannot be attributed simply to the influence of French-speaking layers of the population. English remained, after all, the language of the vast majority. It
remained and evolved in the lower and middle classes. Language literary works were written in Latin or French until English reemerged in the 14th Century. Middle English would become richer than Old English, adding 10,000 French words to its vocabulary, among other attributes.

Peasant Revolt and the Rising Middle Class

In the wake of the Black Death, also known as the Great Plague of 1348/1349, England was left with, by most estimates, 2/3 to 1/2 of its pre-plague population. The feudal system, which tied serfs to their lands and made them beholden to their landlords, was threatened by the deaths of the tenants and peasants whose labor would bring in the necessary crops which would sustain lord and peasant alike. Great noble houses were brought to their knees as peasants were enticed to move to other manors and earn higher wages than the pre-plague market allowed. While there was a temporary boon in taxes due to the death tax paid by inheritors, the Crown and nobility suffered serious loss of income as other taxes were not raised due to the inability to maintain farmland and produce goods at the prior levels.
The middle group of yeomen and lesser gentry were expected to pay higher taxes based on their greater wealth in comparison with the lesser peasantry, a condition they found intolerable. Legislation passed in Parliament to keep wages low and to keep serfs from moving about seeking higher pay, but the peasantry staged many protests to this as they realized the change in their importance to the social structure. These uprisings against the lords and their manors culminated with the Peasant Revolt of 1381, in which Jack Straw, Wat Tyler, and John Ball, a fiery priest in Kent, inspired more than thirty thousand men to join their cause of putting an end to the economic suppression of the yeomen, lesser gentry, and peasants. Along with some nobles, in June of that year, they attempted to persuade King Richard II to change the current system into one that was fairer and treated everyone equally. Richard reneged on his agreement to meet the heads of this movement, and they stormed London, leaving a swath of destruction. (
http://pluto.clinch.edu/history/wciv1/civ1ref/peasvolt.htm) The peasant revolt failed, but instigated major changes in the English social structure.

The effects of the Black Death brought about the end of the manorial system. Now peasants who had been serfs before the plague could demand higher wages, and those who were still held to an estate could demand their freedom. With a higher standard of living, peasants rose in social importance while the landlords lost a great deal of income between 1347 and 1353. Peasants were now able to lease the land and farm it themselves.
The Black Death and the reign of King Edward III (1312-1377) brought another important cultural change in the official state language. The government and nobility at this time spoke French, but this controlling segment of society was greatly diminished by the Plague, so much so that commoners started filling positions that had previously been awarded to the French-Norman English elite. England became more isolated from France, and although there were rumors that the French wanted to extinguish the English language altogether, King Edward III used this to solidify and revive the English language. With this rising sense of nationalism and the rise of the peasantry to middle class, the language among commoners, English, became the official language. In 1362, English became the official language of the courts and Parliament when Parliament passed the Statute of Pleading, a statute decreeing that all pleas should be hereafter heard in English. Classic literature, such as Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and William Langland's The Vision of Piers Plowman were both written in the vernacular. Although this act didn't make English the official language of England, it is believed that French was no longer used as an official language in England by 1385, and was displaced by Chancery Standard.
It wasn't until the reign of Henry IV (1367-1413), that England had a King whose native language was English from birth. His coronation in 1399 was the first where a monarch made his address in English.

For Further Reference: BBC Middle Ages History

Recommended reading: In the Wake of the Plague by Norman Cantor, 2002.

Chancery Standard
Chancery Standard served as a form of English used by government bureaucracy during the late 14th century and played a major role in the formation of Modern English. It was based primarily in London, England. It was used beyond London by the 1430's.
King Henry V ordered his government officials (the chancery) to begin writing all government documents in English as opposed to Latin. The Chancery Standard was then created and employed by the government for official business because it could serve as a single, universal language for all government documents. During the early years of its implementation, the Chancery Standard was influenced by other languages of the time such as French and Latin, as well as dialectical influences from London and East Midlands. The government officials who would have been using the Chancery Standard in its early years would have been familiar with Latin and French, both of which contributed to the development of Middle English. The strict grammatical rules of Latin and French contributed to many of the rules of Middle English. By the 1400's the Chancery Standard was widely used in England, with the exception of the church and some legal documents. The church continued using Latin, while the legal documents were written in French and Latin. The Chancery Standard was later adopted in the printing presses for wide scale exposure. The English spoken after this point in time, up until 1650, is referred to as Early Modern English.

Some examples of Chancery Standard:
adverbs take on -ly rather than -lich
third person singular of verbs have -s rather than -eth
-gh, as in "right"

For Further Reference: Wikipedia Chancery Standard

The Great Vowel Shift

The distinct difference between Middle English and Modern English is the pronunciation of long vowels; these major vowel changes, named the Great Vowel Shift (around 1350 - 1550 A.D.), mark the shift from Middle English to Modern English. From the 12th until the 18th century, the sounds of long vowels changed their places of articulation ("long" means that the vowels were held for a longer time than others). Linguists define vowels according to their point of articulation in the mouth and The Great Vowel Shift involved a regular movement of those points. Vowels could be high or low, depending where the tongue was placed in the mouth while that vowel was being articulated. They would be considered front vowels if the sound was made more toward the lips, and back vowels if the sound came more from the throat. During this shift, the high front and back vowels, /i/ and /u:/, both formed diphthongs /ai/ and /au/, respectively (that is, they went from being pronounced with a single sound to a double sound), while the front and back vowels both moved up. See chart below for further explanation:

Middle English
Modern English
---> /ai/
---> /i:/
---> /e:/ (later --> /i:/)
---> /e:/
---> /au/
---> /u:/
---> /o:/

The Great Vowel Shift was not a result of a variation in accent due to geographical location, for example; it was a systemic change: "a change in an entire sound system, in the course of which each element in that sound system had an effect on, or was the result of, the change in any other element of that system" (Inventing English, by Seth Lerer). Middle English was written using the Latin alphabet (as was Old English). The long vowels as seen in the above chart were assigned Latin letters and therefore sounds. As a result, one can equate reading Chaucer's long vowels and other Middle English writing to reading Latin or other European languages.
However, the Great Vowel Shift changed all this; by the end of the 16th century, the "e" in "sheep" sounded like that in Modern English "sheep" (IPA /i/). The pronunciation of English had diverged from its visual representations that a new alphabet was needed, so there were attempts to reform English spellings.

Middle English
Sounds like Modern
y,i "myne, sight"
e, ee "me, meet, mete" (close e)
e "begge, rede" (open e)
a, aa "mate, maat"
u, ou "hus, hous"
o, oo "bote, boot" (close o)
o "lof, ok" (open o)

For Further Reference: Harvard University Chaucer Course Website

Note: The consonants and the short vowels in Middle English and Modern English are pretty much the same.

Middle English Dialects

Linguists point out that “During the Middle English period (roughly 1100–1500) the English language is characterized by a complete lack of a standard variety,” whereas during the Old English period, West Saxon became the prominent, almost standard dialect (due to the support of Alfred the Great). During the Middle English period, English became a secondary language due to the political changes occurring in England: “After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the ruling classes spoke (Norman) French, while English lived on as the spoken language of the lower classes. In the absence of a high-prestige variety of English which might serve as a target for writers of English, each writer simply used his own variety of the language.” As a result, several distinct dialects emerged.

There are 5 distinct dialects of Middle English: Northern, Southern, Kentish,
West Midland, and East Midland.

external image dialects.gif

Northern: a continuation of the Northumbrian dialect of Old English.
Characteristics: Velar stops are retained (i.e. not palatalised) as can be seen in word pairs like rigg/ridge; kirk/church.
Southern: a descendant of the West Saxon dialect of Old English, only now the language spreads into a larger area that includes Cornwall. The Southern dialect also shares features with the Kentish and West Midland dialects.
Kentish: the most direct continuation of any of the Old English dialects, and Kentish covers nearly the same geographical locations.
Characteristics: The two most notable features of Kentish are (1) the existence of /e:/ for Middle English /i:/ and (2) so-called "initial softening" which caused fricatives in word-initial position to be pronounced voiced as in vat, vane and vixen (female fox).
West Midland: the most “conservative” of the dialect areas in the Middle English period, and this particular dialect is fairly well-documented in literary works. This region comprises the western half of the Old English dialect area Mercia.

Characteristics: The retention of the Old English rounded vowels /y:/ and /ø:/ which in the East had been unrounded to /i:/ and /e:/ respectively.
East Midland: the dialect out of which the later standard developed.

Characteristics: In general those of the late embryonic Middle English standard.

The following chart shows the relationship between Old English and Middle English dialects.

Old English
Middle English


East Midland
West Midland

West Saxon

Scholars point out that “In general, southern Middle English dialects tend to be more conservative (i.e. preserve more of the phonological and morphological features of Old English) and northern dialects more progressive.”

For Further Reference:
University of Duisberg-Essen
Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Harvard University Chaucer Course Website

Geoffrey Chaucer
of Middle English

Perhaps the most well-known author of this time period is Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), whose most famous work is The Canterbury Tales. The entire work in Middle English can be found here. The story features a group of pilgrims on a journey to Canterbury Cathedral to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. Two of the stories are written in prose, while the remaining twenty-two are in verse. Chaucer intended to have twenty pilgrims tell two tales on their trek and two on the way back, plus a prologue for each pilgrim, but he never did finish. He was frustrated and tried to destroy what he had written but didn't; luckily his family saved his writings.

An Audio Recording of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

The Language of the Canterbury Tales
The work was written in the London dialect and many comparisons and contrasts can be made between Old English and Modern English. Let us examine an excerpt from The Merchant's Prologue.

Middle English IPA Transcription Modern English
'Wepyng and waylyng, care and oother sorwe
I knowe ynogh, on even and a-morwe,'
Quod the Marchant, 'and so doon oother mo
That wedded been.'[18]

ˈweːpɪŋ and ˈwailɪŋ ˈkaːr and ˈoːðər ˈsorwə
iː ˈknɔu əˈnoːɣ on ˈeːvən and aˈmorwə
ˈkwod ðə ˈmartʃant and ˈsɔː ˈdoːn ˈoːðər ˈmɔː
ðat ˈwedded ˈbeːn[9]

'Weeping and wailing, care and other sorrow
I know enough, in the evening and in the morning,'
said the Merchant, 'and so does many another
who has been married.'

The E at the end of Words:
Chaucer's generation of English-speakers was among the last to pronounce e at the end of words (so for Chaucer the word <care> was pronounced
[kaːrə],not /kɛər/ as in Modern English).

Elided Syllables
When ending in a vowel was followed by a word beginning in a vowel, the two vowels were elided into one syllable, as seen here with care andLetters-
The ð is no longer used to convey th now seen in Middle English and Modern English.
Verb Conjugations
The verb quod was conjugated in the 3rd person form, where this is no longer the case in Modern English. The person of speech does not change the past tense verb ending.

Word Order
In Old English, the word order didn't really matter, for example, "my brown horse" or "brown mine horse." Modern English, however, brought more rigid grammatical rules involving less acceptable variation. the adjective always comes.

Other Authors
Another prominent author of the time period was William Dunbar, whose most famous piece is "The tretis of the twa mariit women and the wedo". The poem can be found in the original Middle English here. Dunbar lived from approximately 1460 to 1520, though there is no definite evidence as to the exact dates of his birth and death. John Gower, another well-known author of the time period, was born in approximately 1325 and died in 1408. He wrote "Confessio amantis", which can be found here. Robert Henryson lived from approximately from 1430 to 1506 and wrote "The Testament of Cresseid", "The morall fabillis of Esope the Phrygian", "Orpheus and Eurydice", as well as other minor poems. William Langland (approximately 1330-1400) wrote The vision of Piers Plowman.

Many of the authors from the time period are unknown, leading to a number of anonymous texts. One example is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the story of Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur's round table. He encounters a strange individual, a knight who is green from head to toe, not only in his clothing, but also his skin and hair. The mysterious green knight offers a challenge. Any man may strike the knight with his axe, but only if that man will agree to take a return blow a year and one day later. Sir Gawain accepts, and beheads the man. However, the green knight picks up his head and reattaches it. The story reflects the valued concepts of chivalry and loyalty. For more information, please click here.
Artist's Rendition of the Green Knight

Other anonymous works from the time period are Everyman, The Harley lyrics, The Alliterative Morte Arthure, Octovian, The Owl and the Nightingale, Pearl, Sawles warde, and The Siege of Jerusalem.

Pictures Courtesy of:

Gutenberg & the Printing Press

In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg completed his first movable type printing press with metal casts of letters. The device was refined and in widespread use by 1455. Scholars have stated that Gutenberg's invention changed the course of history by offering books and knowledge to the masses. external image Gutenberg_2.gif Although wood cut printing presses had been used in Europe before Gutenberg's movable type press, the process of carving an entire page from a block of wood was arduous and impractical.

A man named William Caxton, a wealthy merchant, took the printing press to England around 1473. Caxton first published a history of the Trojan War, as well as quotes from famous philosphers. He was also the one to publish what is probably the most famous literary piece of this time period, as mentioned above, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

The movable type printing press had an astounding effect on the world. Now, there was a way to print text/books that was much easier and faster than what the monks had been doing, copying by hand. When books were being hand-copied, this limited access not only to the small number of people who could afford their purchase, but also lead to discrimination of what works would be published. Only those books deemed important enough to be hand copied over the course of any number of weeks or months were actually reproduced. The advent of the printing press meant that not only could the common public access books because they were cheap and plentiful in numbers, but also that a much greater volume of titles could be produced and reproduced.
While the manner in which the press worked was not complex, like most ingenious ideas, the issue was not in its complexity but the inspiration to create the idea in the first place.

Watch the following video to see how the press likely functioned:
Gutenberg's invention did change the course of history by offering literacy to the masses, making education and knowledge accessible to every man, not just the noble man or the aristocrat. Additionally, with the spread of printing, language changed; English changed as more writers began to write poems and other pieces of literature in English.

For Further Reference:

Other Major "Technologies" of This Time Period
Although the Printing Press reigns as "technology supreme" of this time period, it is notable that there were other "technologies" of this time period important to language:
1. In China, circa 13th century, paper was invented. It made its way to Europe through Islamic Spain.
2. First introduced in Italy, the watermark was invented in 1282 to mark paper products and dicourage counterfeiting.
3. While the exact date is unknown, there is evidence that eyeglasses were invented in Italy between 1280 and 1300; were it not for their invention, some would not be able to read or write.

With these new technologies and the promotion of education, scholasticism and religion during this time period, certainly they had a profound impact on language.

A New Genre Emerges out of Necessity
With the spread of literate audiences, thanks to Gutenberg, monks, and the spread of Christianity (and its inevitable sects), Middle English proved a very tenuous time in the development of what we now consider Modern English. Religion, politics, war, and increased world travel all affected regional dialects, blending vocabularies, and imposed purism.
At this time, a new genre of literature emerged: religious guides for lay audiences. Instead of using the haughty, elevated text used by members of the upper court and clergy, these guides needed to be written in an intelligible language for an audience new to literacy. Authors of the time, religious guidance, in order to become accessible to the masses, blended with poetry, narrative, drama.
In her book Lay Piety and Religious Discipline in Middle English Literature, Nicole Rice examines the importance of discipline in one's religious life during this period. With the higher religious life as the goal for the common man, Rice elaborates on the religion-power-literature connection:, stating that the ideal included "...the superiority of secular clerical life, and against the regular religious orders, built upon [t]his vision of Christianity as a communal practice with the unadorned biblical text as its only legitimate source. The idea of priestly discipline as the ideal form of religious life was hardly novel."

For further Reference: