Middle English

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Middle English refers to the English language as it was from about the middle of the eleventh century until around the end of the fifteenth century.

For about 300 years following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Norman kings and their high nobility spoke only a variety of French called Anglo-Norman. English continued to be the language of the common people. Various contemporary sources suggest that within fifty years of the Invasion most of the Normans outside the royal court had switched to English, with Norman French remaining the prestige language of government and law largely out of social inertia. For example, Orderic Vitalis, a historian born in 1075 and the son of a Norman knight, said that he learned French only as a second language. The influence of French has led to many near-synonyms in modern English, which tend to be used by people of different social classes, by the same people in different contexts, mean slightly different things, or a combination of all three. Serviette, for example, entered the language from French in the late fifteenth century, and is a word sometimes associated with the English middle classes. The alternative napkin also tends to refer to a plainer cloth.

While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued until 1154, most other literature from this period was in Old French or Latin. A large number of Norman words were taken into Old English, with many doubling for Old English words (examples include, ox/beef, sheep/mutton, and so on). The Norman influence reinforced the continued changes in the language over the following centuries, producing what is now referred to as Middle English. Among the changes was an increase in the use of a unique aspect of English grammar, the "continuous" tenses, with the suffix "-ing". English spelling was also influenced by French in this period, with the /θ/ and /ð/ phonemes being spelt th rather than with the Old English letters þ and ð, which did not exist in French. The greatest writer of the Middle English period is Geoffrey Chaucer, whose poetry includes the first appearances in English of thousands of French loanwords, among them "army", "virtue", and "courage".

English literature started to reappear around 1200, when a changing political climate and the decline in Anglo-Norman made it more respectable. By the end of that century, even the royal court had switched to English. Anglo-Norman remained in use in limited circles somewhat longer, but it had ceased to be a living language.

Middle English text sample

From The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, 14th century

Here bygynneth the Book of the Tales of Caunterbury
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

Glossary:

  • soote: sweet
  • swich licour: such liquid
  • Zephirus: the west wind (Zephyrus)
  • eek: also
  • holt: wood
  • the Ram: Aries, the first sign of the Zodiac
  • yronne: run
  • priketh hem Nature: Nature pricks them
  • hir corages: their hearts