(Middle English)
The Norman conquest:
• The Normans were from Scandinavia (‘North men’) but
rapidly adopted French civilization and the French
• Æþelred the Unready, when driven into exile by the
Danes, took refuge in Normandy (1002).
• His son Edward the Confessor was raised in France and
when he returned to England he brought a number of
Normans with him.
• The English elected Harold (the earl of the West Saxon
earldom) as king but William, duke of Normandy,
challenged the election.
• 1066: the battle of Hastings
• The English nobility and clergy was
replaced with Normans
• demise of non-localised written standard
• The use of French vs. English was not based on
ethnicity but on class:
Þus com, lo, Engelond in-to Normandies hond.
And Þe Normans ne couÞe speke Þo bote hor owe spech,
And speke French as hii dude atom, and hor children dude also teche;
So Þat heiemen of Þis lond, Þat of ho blod come
HoldeÞ alle Þulke speche Þat hii of hom nome.
Vor bote a man conne Frenss me telÞ of him lute.
Ac lowe men holdeÞ to Engliss, and to hor owe speche ʒute.
Ich wene Þer ne beÞ in al the world contreyes none
Þat ne holdeÞ to hor owe speche, bote Engelond one.
Ac wel me wote uor to conne boÞe wel it is,
Vor Þe more Þat a mon can,Þe more wurÞe he is.
(Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, ~1300)
• The continued use of French (for almost two
centuries) is mainly due to the close connection
between England and France, see Figures 5.1
and 5.2 in the Companion.
• The attitude of the king and the upper classes
towards English was one of indifference.
• A substantial body of French literature was
written in England! (e.g. Wace’s Roman de Brut,
a legendary history of Britain written in the reign
of Henry II (1154-1189))
• But the fusion of Normans and English
was rapid.
(1) When and how did the upper class
learn English?
(2) How far down in the social scale was a
knowledge of French at all general?
(1) “a knowledge of English was not uncommon at
the end of the 12th c. among those who
habitually spoke French; [...] among
churchmen and men of education it was even
to be expected; and [...] among those [such as
stewards, bailiffs and knights] whose activities
brought them into contact with both the upper
and lower classes the ability to speak both
languages was quite general.” (B&C: 123)
(2) knights, inhabitants of towns (esp. trading
centres) and people living near London,
stewards, bailiffs and some free tenants
• Was ME a creole?
“The English-speaking majority among the
population of some ninety percent did not
unlearn their English after the advent of French,
nor did they intentionally modify its structures on
the French pattern–as Renaissance writers
modelled their language on Latin. Influence of
French on inflections and, by and large, on
syntactical sturctures cannot be proved, but
appears unlikely from what we know about
bilingualism in Middle English times.” (Görlach
The Reestablishment of English (12001500):
• The loss of Normandy (1204)
• The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453)
• The Black Death (1349) and the
increasing importance of towns
• The loss of Normandy (1204)  many nobles are forced
to choose between their lands in England and those in
• After 1250 the nobility of England was English.
• But during the reign of Henry III (1216-1272), as a result
of his French connections, three ‘inundations’ of
foreigners poured into England (from Poitou, Provence,
and Poitou again). This may have delayed the spread of
use of English by the upper classes.
• The barons and the middle class, led by Simon de
Montfort, react against the foreign influx (Provisions of
Oxford (1258), the Barons’ War (1258-1265)).
• By Edward I’s (1272-1307) time, England became
conscious of its unity.
• Latin and French as the languages of
administration and culture (French was an object
of cultivation at most European courts).
• An exception are the two proclamations issued
on October 18 and October 20, 1258 by Henry
III. They are both in French and English.
• They are the only official documents issued in
English between William’s 1067 writ affirming
the validity of laws dating to the reign of Edward
the Confessor and the proclamations from the
early 15th c.
In the 13th c., the knowledge of French as a vernacular declines; see
the bills presented to the justices in eyre at the close of the 13th c.
and Walter of Bibbesworth’s treatise (c. 1250) (
In the latter part of the 13th c. English was widely known among all classes of people.
At the beginning of the 14th c. English was once more known by everybody:
Riʒt is, þat Inglische Inglische vnderstond,
Þat was born in Inglond;
Freynsche vse þis gentilman,
Ac euerich Inglische can.
Mani noble ich haue yseiʒe
Þat no Freynsche couþe seye.
(Arthur and Merlin, c. 1325)
In the 14th c. English is making inroads into the church, the universities and the
schools (see John Trevisa’s translation (1385-1387) of Ranulph Hidgen’s
Polycronicon, c. 1327).
• Alonside the loss of Normandy, another
crucial event was the Hundred Years’ War
(1337-1453): French was the language of
the enemy.
• Improving condition of the labouring
classes and the middle class (the
craftsmen and the merchant class in
one reason was to the Black Death (134950), which resulted in a shortage of labour
(see also the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt).
The Opening of Parliament in English
(although statues were enrolled in French, which
had supplanted Latin around 1300, until the 15th
c.). English also appears at this time in the acts
of towns and guilds (which had been in French
alongside Latin).
The Statue of Pleading (all lawsuits to be
conducted in English, although enrolled in Latin)
• French goes out of use in the 15th c. It
remains as a language of culture and
• Although English was reestablished in the
14th c., it is only in the 15th c. that English
displaced both Latin and French as a
written language for official purposes (e.g.
wills, records of towns and guilds,
branches of the central government).
• The turning point seems to have been the
reign of Henry V (1413-1422).
... our mother-tongue, to wit the English tongue, hath in
modern days begun to be honourably enlarged and
adorned, for that our most excellent lord, King HenryV,
hath in his letters missive and divers affairs touching his
own person, more willingly chosen to declare the secrets
of his will, and for the better understanding of his people,
hath with a diligent mind procured the common idiom
(setting aside others) to be commended by the exercise
of writing.
((modernised) translation of a Latin memorandum
recording the Brewers’ Guild of London’s 1422 decision
to use English as the language of their accounts and
• Henry V’s decision is to be linked to his view of French
as the language of England’s enemy: English becomes a
‘national’ language
• Strang (1970): ME is “par excellence, the dialectal phase of
• The literature written in ME reflects the changing fortunes of English:
1150-1250  the Period of Religious Record:
The Ancrene Riwle, The Ormulum (but also Layamon’s Brut, The
Owl and the Nightingale)
1250-1350  Period of Religious and Secular Literature (numerous
1350-1400  Period of Great Individual Writers: Geoffrey Chaucer
(1340-1400), John Gower, William Langland, John Wycliffe (d.
1384), the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
15th c.  the Imitative/Transition Period: John Lydgate, Thomas
Hoccleve, John Skelton, Stephen Hawes; Thomas Malory, William
Caxton; the Scottish Chaucerians (Robert Henryson, William
Dunbar, Gawin Douglas, David Lindsay)
• Some differences:
Present plural
Present participle
• Perception of different varieties (but not clear if it is just a literary
William of Malmesbury, De Gestis Pontificum Anglorum (‘About the
acts of the bishops of the English’; c. 1125): harshness of the
Yorkshire dialect, incomprehensible to Southerners.
Giraldus Cambrensis, Description of Wales (12th c.), Bk. I, ch. 6: the
language of Devonshire perceived as more archaic and less
The author of the Cursor Mundi (‘The Runner of the World’, i.e. the
text ‘runs over’ the history of the word; c. 1300) ‘translates’ a story
from southern English into northern English.
Trevisa’s translation of Higden’s Polychronicon (c. 1385):
for men of þe est wiþ men of þe west, as it were vnder þe same partie of
heuene, acordeþ more in sownynge of speche þan men of þe norþ wiþ men
of þe souþ; þerfore it is þat Mercii, þat beeþ men of myddel Engelond, as it
were parteners of þe endes, vnderstondeþ bettre þe side langages,
Norþerne and Souþerne, þan Norþerne and Souþerne vnderstondeþ eiþer
Al þe longage of þe Norþumbres, and specialliche at ʒork, is so scharp,
slitting [=harsh], and frotynge [=grating] and vnschape [=formless], þat we
souþerne men may þat longage vnneþe vnderstonde.
Chaucer (in Troilus and Criseyde):
And for ther is so gret diversite
In Englissh, and in writyng of oure tonge,
So prey I god that non myswrite the,
Ne the mys-metre for defaute of tonge.
• The first dialect story (see Crystal 2004):
Northern features in the speech of
students Aleyn and John in The Reeve’s
Tale, e.g.:
Oure maunciple, I hope he wil be deed.
Northern: hope = think
Southern: hope = hope
What are, if any, the attempts at
standarization in the ME period?
• Ormulum (late 12th c., northern
Linconshire, East Midlands dialect):
... loke wel þatt he an boc staff wríte twiʒʒess,
... look well that he a letter
write twice
þær itt upp o þiss boc is wrǐtten o þatt wise.
everywhere there it up on this book is written on that way
see also PDE: written vs. write
Orm doubles the consonant after a vowel
(or uses  over the vowel) to mark it
He doesn’t double the consonant (or uses
 over the vowel) to mark it as long.
• AB language (found in the Corpus Christi
manuscript containing Ancrene Wisse ‘Guide for
Anchoresses’ and MS Bodley 34), south-west
Midland area, 13th c.
• Two of the hands in the Auchinleck [ˌɔː.kɪnˈlek, xɪnˈ-, ˈ--- ] manuscript of romances (produced in
London around 1340) share a number of
features. (
• Similarities are also found in the Chaucerian
• ‘Central Midlands Standard’ (14th c.), used in
(Wycliffite) religious writings but also medical
treaties and other secular works.
• In the 15th c. (1417) the Signet Office started
producing the personal correspondence of the
king in English (rather than French). These
documents were copied in the Chancery (the
office of the chancellor), where other
administrative documents sent from all over the
country were also enrolled.  ‘Chancery
• The notion of ‘Chancery Standard’ has
been (in part) disputed (see Benskin 1992,
• For example, the spread of Chancery
usages depended on the type of writing.
Writers and copysts of verse tended to
imitate the language of Chaucer and John
Gower rather than the language of
administrative documents.
• Although 15th c. poets initiated a tradition
of regarding Chaucer as the father of the
English language, some scholars claim
that it was probably to Henry V that the
development of English (i.e. the functional
spread of English) was to be attributed.
• More generally, the emergence of the East
Midlands dialect of London as the new
standard was due to London being the
political and commercial centre of
• Before Henry V there are only two administrative
documents (also issued in French) in English, namely
Henry III’s October 1258 letters (see Machan 2003).
• Remember that a standard language (in the modern
sense) became established only about 200 years later, in
the 18th c. ( concern with ‘correctness’).
• Two forces which contributed to standarisation (from the
16th c.) were also printing (introduced into England by
William Caxton in 1476) and religious writings (The
Bible, cf. the King James Bible, and The Book of
Common Prayer).
• The elaboration of English (Caxton’s
And for as moche as this present booke is not
for a rude vplondyssh man to laboure therin ne
rede it but onely for a clerke & a noble
gentylman that feleth and vnderstondeth in
faytes of armes in loue, & in noble chyualrye
Therfor in a meane moderate and readable
terms bytwene bothe, I haue reduced &
translated this sayd booke in to our englysshe,
not ouer rude ne curyous, but in suche termes
as shall be vnderstanden, by goddys grace,
accordynge to my copye.
And certaynly our langage now vsed varyeth ferre from that whiche was
vsed and spoken whan I was borne For we englysshe men ben borne
vnder the domynacyon of the mone, whiche is neuer stedfaste but euer
wauerynge wexynge one season and waneth & dyscreaseth another
season And that comyn englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from
a nother. In so moche that in my dayes happened that certayn marchauntes
were in a shippe in tamyse, for to haue sayled ouer the see into zelande
and for lacke of wynde, thei taryed atte forlond, and wente to lande for to
refreshe them; And one of theym named sheffelde, a mercer, cam in-to an
hows and axed for mete. and specyally he axyd after eggys And the goode
wyf answerde, that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaiuzt was
angry, for he also coude speke no frenshe, but wolde haue hadde egges
and she but couldn't get vnderstode hym not And thenne at laste a nother
sayd that he wolde haue eyren then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstod
hym wel Loo, what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, egges or eyren
certaynly it is harde to playse euery man by cause of dyuersite & chaunge
of langage. For in these dayes euery man that is in ony reputacyon in his
countre, wyll vtter his commynycacyon and maters in suche maners &
termes that fewe men shall vnderstonde theym And som honest and grete
clerkes haue ben wyth me, and desired me to wryte the moste curyous
termes that I coude fynde And thus bytwene playn rude & curyous, I
stande abasshed.
• Records of everyday English in the 15th:
private letters, e.g.
– the Paston family (from Norfolk)
– the Stonor family (from Oxfordshire)
– the Cely family (from London)
– John Shillingford (Mayor of Exeter 1447-50)
• The elaboration of English is related to the
evolution of standardized spelling.
• This means that by the 16th c. the spelling
no longer contained much phonological
• The elaboration of English is also related
to the emergence of prestigious forms of
pronunciation (see Puttenham’s quote
• It is possible that accents had social
implications by the late 15th c.
George Puttenham (c.1520-90), The Arte of English Poesie (1589),
‘Of Language’:
This part in our maker or Poet must be heedyly looked vnto, that it
be naturall, pure, and the most vsuall of all his countrey: and for the
same purpose rather that which is spoken in the kings Court, or in
the good townes and Cities within the land, then in the marches and
frontiers, or in port townes, where straungers haunt for traffike sake,
or yet in Vniuersities where Scholers vse much peeuish affectation
of words out of the primatiue languages, or finally, in any vplandish
village or corner of a Realme, where is no resort but of poore
rusticall or vnciuill people: neither shall he follow the speach of a
craftes man or carter, or other of the inferiour sort, though he be
inhabitant or bred in the best town and Citie in this Realme, for such
persons do abuse good speaches by strange accents or illshapen
soundes, and false ortographie. But he shall follow generally the
better brought vp sort, such as the Greekes call [charientes] men
ciuill and graciously behauoured and bred.
Our maker therfore at these dayes shall not follow Piers plowman
nor Gower nor Lydgate nor yet Chaucer, for their language is now
out of vse with vs: neither shall he take the termes of Northern-men,
such as they vse in dayly talke, whether they be noble men or
gentlemen, or of their best clarkes all is a matter: nor in effect any
speach vsed beyond the riuer of Trent, though no man can deny but
that theirs is the purer English Saxon at this day, yet it is not so
Courtly nor so currant as our Southerne English is, no more is the
far Westerne mans speach: ye shall therfore take the vsuall speach
of the Court, and that of London and the shires lying about London
within lx. myles, and not much aboue. I say not this but that in euery
shyre of England there be gentlemen and others that speake but
specially write as good Southerne as we of Middlesex or Surrey do,
but not the common people of euery shire, to whom the gentlemen,
and also their learned clarkes do for the most part condescend, but
herein we are already ruled by th'English Dictionaries and other
bookes written by learned men, and therefore it needeth none other
direction in that behalfe.
From OE to ME:
Changes in morphology and syntax, see
also Companion 7.4, 7.6-7.10.
These changes were not ‘caused’ by the
Norman Conquest. Rather, the Norman
Conquest accelerated already existing
changes, which could now go forward
unchecked (see B&C: 167).
• Decay of inflectional endings (which was
more rapid in the north):
-m > -n > ø
-a, -u, -e, -an, -um > -e []
• From to a synthetic to an analytic
• Nouns:
-e extended by analogy to the Nom. Sing.
e.g. OE stān > ME stone
-(e)s taken to be a marker of plurality
alongside –en, the latter being initially
favoured in the south
• Adjectives:
all distinctions are lost (the Nom. form is used)
except with short monosyllables ending in a
• Determiners:
sē, sēo, þæt  tho (until Elizabethan
times), the, that
þēs, þēos, þis  this, these, those
• Pronouns:
- the dative replaces the accusative
• Verbs:
- reduction in the number of strong verbs. One third died
out early in the ME period. More than half have now
disappeared from the standard language (and even
those which have survived have undergone changes).
This has been due e.g. to the analogical extensions of
weak forms.
E.g. bow, brew, burn, climb, flee, flow, help, mourn, row,
step, walk, weep
Remember that both weak and strong forms often
coexisted (e.g. stope and stepped).
Some strong participles have remained in
use after the verbs became weak, e.g.
beaten, cloven, graven, hewn, laden,
molten, mown, (mis)shapen, shaven,
sodden, swollen.
• Replacement of grammatical gender
(which apparently proceeded in parallel
with the weakening of inflections) with
natural gender. There are some interesting
examples even in OE:
Etað þisne hlāf, hit is mīn līchama (Ælfric)
Eat this bread it is my body
(The influence of French is direct here.)
• Adoption of about 10,000 words (75% still currently in
use) from French
• Two stages: before 1250 and after 1250
• Before 1250:
1) less numerous (~ 900; the largest group associated
with the church)
2) more likely to show the influence of Anglo-Norman
3) different conditions from the following period, when
people accustomed to use French turned to English (
a very large number of common French words between
1250 and 1400; but in the 15th c. most words came from
literary rather than colloquial channels.)
Governmental and administrative words
Ecclestiastical words
Army and navy
Fashion, meals and social life
Art, learning and medicine
Originally OE words and French words often
compete and specialise:
ox vs. beef
sheep vs. mutton
swine vs. pork
calf vs. veal
Sometimes the competition is between English
(popular), French (literary), Latin (learned):
time – age – epoch
rise – mount – ascent
• Why are ModE words sometimes different from their
ModF cognates?
1) phonetic changes in French
2) borrowing from AN rather than Central French
• Phonetic changes in French:
OF feste > ME feste > ModE feast
OF feste > ModF fête
OF juge [dZ], chant [tS] > ModE judge [dZ], chant [tS]
OF juge [dZ], chant [tS] > ModF juge [Z], chant [S]
vs. ModE chaperone [S], rouge [Z]
• Anglo-Norman/French vs. Central French
caitiff [k] < AN caitif [k] vs. CF chaitif [tS]
ModE carry [k] vs. ModF charrier [S]
AN cachier [k] > ModE catch
CF chacier [tS] > ModE chase (vs. ModF chasser)
ModE warrant (from AN [w-]) vs. ModF garantir
ModE quit (from AN [kw-]) vs. ModF quitter [k-]
OF fruit (stress on u)
> AN frut [y] > ME fruit [(I)U]
> CF fruít (stress on i)
AN reial > ModE real
CF royal > ModE royal
AN –arie > ModE –ary (salary)
CF –aire (cf. ModF salaire)
• Curtailment of OE processes of derivation:
- the use of prefixes declines (exceptions:
over-, under-)
- the decline of suffixes is, however, less
- self-explaining compounds were also
• Another source of borrowing was Latin,
e.g. through the Wycliffe translation of the
Bible (end of the 14th c.).
• The introduction of unusual words from
Latin is especially manifest in the literature
of the 15th c., especially in the productions
of the Scottish Chaucerians, e.g. Dunbar
( aureate terms).
• The languages of the Low Countries
(Flemish, Dutch, Low German) also had
an impact on the vocabulary ( trade).