Middle English is the name given by historical linguists to the diverse forms of the English language in use between the late 11th century and about 1470, when the Chancery Standard, a form of London-based English, began to become widespread, a process aided by the introduction of the printing press to England by William Caxton in the late 1470s. By that time the variant of the Northumbrian dialect (prevalent in Northern England) spoken in southeast Scotland was developing into the Scots language. The language of England as used after this time, up to 1650, is known as Early Modern English.
Unlike Old English, which tended largely to adopt Late West Saxon scribal conventions in the period immediately before the Norman conquest of England, written Middle English displays a wide variety of scribal (and presumably dialectal) forms. However, this written diversity does not necessarily mean that there was a greater variety of spoken forms of English than could be found in pre-Conquest England. Further, these written forms may not always be an accurate representation of the English as spoken at that time, although they are generally assumed to be more accurate representations of speech than those found in Old English texts. Rather, this diversity suggests the gradual end of the role of Wessex as a focal point and trend-setter for writers and scribes, the emergence of more distinct local scribal styles and written dialects, and a general pattern of transition of activity over the centuries that followed, as Northumbria, East Anglia, and London successively emerged as major centres of literature, each with their own particular interests.
 Eleventh to fourteenth centuries
 Sample passage of Old English (Late West Saxon) of the 11th century
(Note that the letters þ and ð both transcribed [î�] and [ð].)
- Syððan wæs geworden þæt he ferde þurh þa ceastre and þæt castel: godes rice prediciende and bodiende. and hi twelfe mid. And sume wif þe wæron gehælede of awyrgdum gastum: and untrumnessum: seo magdalenisce maria ofþære seofan deoflu uteodon: and iohanna chuzan wif herodes gerefan: and susanna and manega oðre þe him of hyra spedum þenedon.
A literal translation, using descendants of the original words where possible (bold words are explanations), might be
- "Sith (since) [it] was worthen (had come to happen) that he fared through the towns: God's rich (kingdom) predicating and boding, and he [had] twelve (disciples) with (him), and some wives (women), that were healed of suffocating ghosts and un-upright-nesses: Mary, Magdalene, out of whom seven devils out-went, and Johanna, wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others that (gave) him of their speeds ("speed" used to mean "success" or "bounty" - compare "Godspeed") "
The typical modern translation is
- "And it came to pass afterward, that he went throughout every city and village, preaching and showing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him, and certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, and Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance."
- 'Translation of Luke ch.8 v.1'3, from the New Testament
 The 11th century
- Norman French in the Kingdom of England
The transfer of power in 1066 resulted in only limited culture shock. But the top levels of English-speaking political and ecclesiastical hierarchies were removed. Their replacements spoke Norman French and used Latin for administrative purposes. Thus Norman French came into use as a language of polite discourse and literature, and this fundamentally altered the role of Old English in education and administration, even though many Normans of the early period were illiterate and depended on the clergy for written communication and record-keeping. Although Old English was by no means as standardised as modern English, its written forms were less subject to broad dialect variations than was post-Conquest English. Even now, after nearly a thousand years, the Norman influence on the English language is still apparent, though it did not begin to affect Middle English until somewhat later.
Consider these pairs of Modern English words. The first of each pair is derived from Old English and the second is of Anglo-Norman origin: pig/pork, chicken/poultry, calf/veal, cow/beef, wood/forest, sheep/mutton, house/mansion, worthy/honourable, bold/courageous, freedom/liberty.
The role of Anglo-Norman as the language of government and law can be seen in the abundance of Modern English words for the mechanisms of government which derive from Anglo-Norman: court, judge, jury, appeal, parliament. Also prevalent in Modern English are terms relating to the chivalric cultures which arose in the 12th century, an era of feudalism and crusading. Early on, this vocabulary of refined behaviour began to work its way into English: the word 'debonaire' appears in the 1137 Peterborough Chronicle; so too does 'castel' (castle) which appears in the above Biblical quotation, another import of the Normans, who made their mark on the English language as much as on the territory of England itself.
This period of trilingual activity developed much of the flexible triplicate synonymy of modern English. For instance, English has three words meaning roughly "of or relating to a king":
- kingly from Old English,
- royal from French and
- regal from Latin.
Likewise, Norman and ' later ' French influences led to some interesting word pairs in English, such as the following, which both mean "someone who defends":
- Warden from Norman, and
- Guardian from French (itself of Germanic origin).
- Old and Middle English
The end of Anglo-Saxon rule did not of course change the language immediately. Although the most senior offices in the church were filled by Normans, Old English would continue to be used in chronicles such as the Peterborough Chronicle until the middle of the 12th century. The non-literate would have spoken the same dialects as before the Conquest, although these would be changing slowly until written records of them became available for study, which varies in different regions. Once the writing of Old English comes to an end, Middle English has no standard language, only dialects which derive from the dialects of the same regions in the Anglo-Saxon period.
 The 12th to 14th centuries
Deeper changes occurred in the grammar. Bit by bit, the wealthy and the government anglicised again, although Norman (and subsequently French) remained the dominant language of literature and law for a few centuries, even after the loss of the majority of the continental possessions of the English monarchy. The new English language did not sound the same as the old: for as well as undergoing changes in vocabulary, the complex system 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 inflections to fixed word order that also occurred in other Germanic languages, so cannot be attributed simply to the influence of French-speaking sections of the population. English remained, after all, the language of the vast majority.
It was also a literary language in England, the language of poets such as Chaucer and Langland, from the 12th to the 14th centuries, alongside Anglo-Norman and Latin. In the later 14th century, Chancery Standard (or London English) ' a phenomenon produced by the increase of bureaucracy in London, and the concomitant increase in London literary output ' introduced a greater conformity in English spelling. Although the fame of Middle English literature tends to derive principally from the later 14th century, with the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and of John Gower, a substantial body of literature survives from throughout the Middle English period. Early Middle English (1100'1300) has a largely Anglo-Saxon vocabulary (in the North, with many Norse borrowings). But it has a greatly simplified inflectional system. The grammatical relations that were expressed in Old English by the dative and accusative cases are replaced in Early Middle English with constructions with prepositions. This replacement is incomplete. We still today have the Old English genitive "-es" in many words'we now call it the "possessive": the form dog's for "of the dog". But most of the other case endings disappear in the Early ME period, including most of the roughly one dozen forms of the word the. Grammatical genders also disappear from English during the Early ME period (apart from personal pronouns), further simplifying the language.
 c. 1400
The ruling class began to use Middle English increasingly around this time. The Parliament of England used English from about the 1360s, and the king's court used mainly English from the time of King Henry V (who acceded in 1413). The oldest surviving correspondence in English, by Sir John Hawkwood, dates from the 1390s. With some standardisation of the language, English began to exhibit the more recognisable forms of grammar and syntax that would form the basis of future standard dialects:
And it is don, aftirward Jesus made iourne bi cites & castelis prechende & euangelisende þe rewme of god, & twelue wiþ hym & summe wymmen þat weren helid of wicke spiritis & sicnesses, marie þat is clepid maudeleyn, of whom seuene deuelis wenten out & Jone þe wif off chusi procuratour of eroude, & susanne & manye oþere þat mynystreden to hym of her facultes
'Luke ch.8, v.1'3
And it came to pass afterward, that he went throughout every city and village, preaching and showing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him, and certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, and Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance.
This was a time of upheaval in England. Four kings were deposed between 1399 and 1500, and one of them was deposed twice. New men came into positions of power, some of them from other parts of the country or from lower levels in society. Stability came only gradually, after 1485, with the Tudor dynasty. The language changed too'there was much change during the 15th century. But towards the end of that century a more modern English was starting to emerge. Printing began in England in the 1470s, which tended to stabilise the language. With a standardised, printed English Bible and Prayer Book being read to church congregations from the 1540s onward, a wider public became familiar with a standard language, and the era of Modern English was under way.
With its simplified case-ending system, the grammar of Middle English is much closer to that of modern English than that of Old English. Compared to other Germanic languages, it is probably most similar to that of modern Dutch.
Middle English retains only two distinct noun-ending patterns from the more complex system of inflection in Old English. The early Modern English words engel (angel) and name (name) demonstrate the two patterns:
The strong -(e)s plural form has survived into Modern English. The weak -(e)n form is now rare in the standard language, used only in oxen, children, brethren; and it is slightly less rare in some dialects, used in eyen for eyes, shoon for shoes, hosen for hose(s) and kine for cows.
As a general rule (and all these rules are general), the first person singular of verbs in the present tense ends in -e ("ich here" - "I hear"), the second person in -(e)st ("þou spekest" - "thou speakest"), and the third person in -eþ ("he comeþ" - "he cometh/he comes"). (þ is pronounced like the unvoiced th in "think").
In the past tense, weak verbs are formed by adding an -ed(e), -d(e) or -t(e) ending. These, without their personal endings, also form past participles, together with past-participle prefixes derived from Old English: i-, y- and sometimes bi-.
Strong verbs, by contrast, form their past tense by changing their stem vowel (e.g. binden -> bound), as in Modern English.
Post-Conquest English inherits its pronouns from Old English, with the exception of the third person plural, a borrowing from Old Norse (the original Old English form clashed with the third person singular and was eventually dropped):
Here are the Old English pronouns. Middle English pronouns derived from these.
First, Second and Third Person
The first and second person pronouns in Old English survived into Middle English largely unchanged, with only minor spelling variations. In the third person, the masculine accusative singular became 'him'. The feminine form was replaced by a form of the demonstrative that developed into 'she', but unsteadily''ho' remained in some areas for a long time. The lack of a strong standard written form between the eleventh and the fifteenth century makes these changes hard to map.
The overall trend was the gradual reduction in the number of different case endings: the dative case disappeared, but the three other cases were partly retained in personal pronouns, as in he, him, his.
Generally, all letters in Middle English words were pronounced. (Silent letters in Modern English come from pronunciation shifts, which means that pronunciation is no longer closely reflected by the written form because of fixed spelling constraints imposed by the invention of dictionaries and printing.) Therefore 'knight' was pronounced [ˈkniçt] (with a pronounced <k> and the <gh> as the <ch> in German 'Knecht'), not [ˈnaÉ�t] as in Modern English.
In earlier Middle English all written vowels were pronounced. By Chaucer's time, however, the final <e> had become silent in normal speech, but could optionally be pronounced in verse as the meter required (but was normally silent when the next word began with a vowel). Chaucer followed these conventions: -e is silent in 'kowthe' and 'Thanne', but is pronounced in 'straunge', 'ferne', 'ende', etc. (Presumably, the final <y> is partly or completely dropped in 'Caunterbury', so as to make the meter flow.)
An additional rule in speech, and often in poetry as well, was that a non-final unstressed <e> was dropped when adjacent to only a single consonant on either side if there was another short 'e' in an adjoining syllable. Thus, 'every' sounds like "evry" and 'palmeres' like "palmers".
 Archaic characters
The following characters can be found in Middle English texts. Ash may still be used as a variant of the digraph <ae> in many English words of Greek or Latin origin; and may be found in brand names or loanwords. á�Žogh lingers in some Scottish names as z, as in McKenzie with a z pronounced /j/. á�Žogh became indistinguishable from cursive z in Middle Scots and printers tended to use z when á��ogh wasn't available in their fonts. Thorn was similarly approximated with y, hence the archaic variant spelling of the, ye pronounced the same as the. Icelandic uses æ, ð, and þ; Faroese uses æ and ð; and Norwegian and Danish use æ. á�Žogh is not used, although Dutch g is pronounced similarly to one variant pronunciation of á��ogh. Wá��nn represented the barbarian pronunciation of the letter W. Due to its similarity to the letter 'P', it is often replaced with W, nowadays.
||[É¡], [É�], [j] or [dÊ�]
||[w] (Pronounced [Ê�] when in the consonant group HÆ¿)
These were direct hold-overs from the Old English alphabet (a Roman alphabet variant, which drew some additional letters from Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) Runes.
 Chancery Standard
Chancery Standard was a written form of English used by government bureaucracy and for other official purposes from the late 15th century. It is believed to have contributed in a significant way to the development of the English language as spoken and written today. Because of the differing dialects of English spoken and written across the country at the time, the government needed a clear and unambiguous form for use in its official documents. Chancery Standard was developed to meet this need.
The Chancery Standard was developed during the reign of King Henry V (1413 to 1422) in response to his order for his chancery (government officials) to use, like himself, English rather than Anglo-Norman or Latin. It had become broadly standardised by about the 1430s.
Chancery Standard was largely based on the London and East Midland dialects, for those areas were the political and demographic centres of gravity. However, it used other dialect forms where they made meanings clearer; for example, the northern "they", "their" and "them" (derived from Scandinavian forms) were used rather than the London "hi/they", "hir" and "hem." This was perhaps because the London forms could be confused with words such as he, her, and him. (However, the colloquial form written as "'em", as in "up and at 'em", may well represent a spoken survival of "hem" rather than a shortening of the Norse-derived "them".)
Note that in legal usage, English had become standard for oral argument (replacing Law French, from Anglo-Norman) 50 years earlier, in the Pleading in English Act 1362, but Latin continued in written legal use for another 300 years, until the Proceedings in Courts of Justice Act 1730.
In its early stages of development, the clerks who used Chancery Standard would have been familiar with French and Latin. The strict grammars of those languages influenced the construction of the standard. It was not the only influence on later forms of English ' its level of influence is disputed and a variety of spoken dialects continued to exist ' but it provided a core around which Early Modern English could crystallise.
By the mid-15th century, Chancery Standard was used for most official purposes except by the Church (which used Latin) and for some legal purposes (for which Law French and some Latin were used). It was disseminated around England by bureaucrats on official business, and slowly gained prestige.
Chancery Standard provided a widely intelligible form of English for the first English printers, from the 1470s onwards.
 Sample text
The following is the beginning of the general Prologue from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, which is in Middle English and Modern English.
- Original in Middle English:
- Whan that AueryÅ�Å� wt his shoures soote,
- The droghte of Marcä�, hath perced to the roote;
- And bathed euery veyne in swich lycour,
- Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
- Whan zephirus eek wt his sweete breeth,
- Inspired hath in euery holt and heeth;
- The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne,
- Hath in the Ram, his half cours yronne;
- And smale foweles, maken melodye,
- That slepen al the nyght with open iye;
- So priketh hem nature, in hir corages,
- Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrymages;
- And Palmeres for to seeken straunge strondes,
- To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes;
- And specially, from euery shyres ende,
- Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende;
- The holy blisful martir for to seke,
- That hem hath holpen whan þt they weere seeke.
- Translation into Modern English: (by Nevill Coghill)
- When in April the sweet showers fall
- And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
- The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
- As brings about the engendering of the flower,
- When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
- Exhales an air in every grove and heath
- Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun
- His half course in the sign of the Ram has run
- And the small fowl are making melody
- That sleep away the night with open eye,
- (So nature pricks them and their heart engages)
- Then folk long to go on pilgrimages,
- And palmers long to seek the stranger strands
- Of far off saints, hallowed in sundry lands,
- And specially from every shires' end
- Of England, down to Canterbury they wend
- The holy blissful martyr, quick
- To give his help to them when they were sick
In modern prose:
When April with its sweet showers has pierced the drought of March to the root, bathing every vein in such liquid by which virtue the flower is engendered, and when Zephyrus with his sweet breath has also inspired the tender plants in every wood and field, and the young sun is halfway through Aries, and small birds that sleep all night with an open eye make melodies, their hearts pricked by nature, then people long to go on pilgrimages, and pilgrims seek foreign shores and distant shrines known in sundry lands, and especially they wend their way to Canterbury from every shire of England to seek the holy blessed martyr, who has helped them when they were sick.
 See also
- Brunner, Karl (1962) Abriss der mittelenglischen Grammatik; 5. Auflage. Tübingen: M. Niemeyer (1st ed. Halle (Saale): M. Niemeyer, 1938)
- Brunner, Karl (1963) An Outline of Middle English Grammar; translated by Grahame Johnston. Oxford: Blackwell
 External links