Middle English (characteristics)

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This page forms part of an etymology course that gives an outline of the development of English. It is written in a sequence that you may want to follow. The best place to start, if you want to follow the whole course, is Etymology course, or, if you are only interested in English, Development of English. You may also arrive at any of these articles from other links. For more information about the history of English, you should of course read a good history of the language, such as Baugh (1993), Strang (1970), or Crystal (2005)

The development from the very Germanic and highly inflected language Old English into Middle English was in two main directions. Like Old English, Middle English was a language that varied greatly over time and space. Several distinct dialects can be distinguished through the period. All language development is of course continuous, and children can understand their parents, but the cumulative change from Middle English to the present Modern English means that Middle English is hard to read for modern English speakers without some teaching. So none of what follows is absolute truth. It must always be read with an understanding that it describes general trends, not actual changes. With that in mind, no precise dates can be given to define the period of Middle English. , Old English is the most appropriate name for the language spoken in some parts of the country into the thirteenth century; in other parts, Middle English was developing as early as the eleventh century. (More at Middle English (History).) A thumbnail sketch of the main features of Middle English follows.

  • Although Middle English retained much Germanic structure and basic vocabulary, the inflections were much simplified: for most everyday purposes, a speaker of Modern English finds no difficulty in the structures, inflection and word order of fourteenth century English.
  • The word order of Middle English becomes, as a result of the loss of inflections, much more important. The basic Subject + Verb + Complement word order of Modern English became paramount now.
  • The phonetics of Middle English were very different. The large changes in pronunciation of vowels involved in the Great English Vowel Shift were accompanied by shifts in the realisation of consonants, particularly in pronouncing many letters that are 'silent' in Modern English, e.g. kn-, -gh- and wr-.

The difficulties that students find in reading Chaucer and other Middle English writers lies in the vocabulary, and above all in the unfamiliar appearance of the vocabulary.

  • Spelling had not been standardised. It was largely phonetic (writers tried to represent the sounds of words as closely as possible), and as the phonetics of Middle English were very different from those of Modern English (see Great English Vowel Shift for more detail), it can be hard to recognise even familiar words. It may help readers to point out that every letter written was normally pronounced.
  • Not all the vocabulary of Middle English is familiar. Not only were many words used to represent features of real life which no longer exist (like ploughing with horses and knightly jousting with lances), or which have less importance to us (such as monasteries and direct royal government), but the vocabulary of English was greatly enriched by words drawn from the Romantic elements of French. It is for this reason more than any other that our present-day English can boast a bigger vocabulary than most European languages, and has - with the possible exception of Mandarin Chinese - the largest vocabulary of any known language. English has a Germanic and a Romance heritage, and this allows such subtleties of usage as are permitted by the near synonyms kingly, regal and royal, which are derived from Old English (Germanic), Latin (Italic) and French (Romantic - and therefore indirectly from the Latin) respectively. Minster is an Old English word, but we also have the French-derived equivalent cathedral.

You can see Project Gutenberg's e-text of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (in Skeat's edition of 1890 (2nd edition)) at [[1]], and at Librarius at [[2]] ("Private use and educational use is free"). In the alliterative tradition, Tolkien and Gordon's edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2nd ed, 1967) is at [[3]], and Piers Ploughman can be read at [[4]]. Menner's edition of Purity is at [[5]]. Various facsimiles of the original manuscripts can be accessed on line, not least in Wikipedia.