History of the English Language

Middle English

The Middle English period (1150-1500)
was marked by significant changes in the English language. Because of the Norman Conquest and the circumstances afterward and the way that the language began changing during the Old English period, Middle English had changes in its grammar and its vocabulary. As a result, the changes in grammar changed the English language from a “highly inflected language to an extremely analytic one, and those in vocabulary, “involved the loss of a large part of the Old English word-stock and the addition of thousands of words from French and Latin,” state Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable in their text, A History of the English Language.

Middle English Timeline from http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Words04/history/index.html#mid

1066-1075 William crushes uprisings of Anglo-Saxon earls and peasants with a brutal hand; in Mercia and Northumberland, uses (literal) scorched earth policy, decimating population and laying waste the countryside. Anglo-Saxon earls and freemen deprived of property; many enslaved. William distributes property and titles to Normans (and some English) who supported him. Many of the English hereditary titles of nobility date from this period.

English becomes the language of the lower classes (peasants and slaves). Norman French becomes the language of the court and propertied classes. The legal system is redrawn along Norman lines and conducted in French. Churches, monasteries gradually filled with French-speaking functionaries, who use French for record-keeping. After a while, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is no longer kept up. Authors write literature in French, not English. For all practical purposes English is no longer a written language.

Bilingualism gradually becomes more common, especially among those who deal with both upper and lower classes. Growth of London as a commercial center draws many from the countryside who can fill this socially intermediate role.

1204 The English kings lose the duchy of Normandy to French kings. England is now the only home of the Norman English.

1205 First book in English appears since the conquest.

1258 First royal proclamation issued in English since the conquest.

ca. 1300 Increasing feeling on the part of even noblemen that they are English, not French. Nobility begin to educate their children in English. French is taught to children as a foreign language rather than used as a medium of instruction.

1337 Start of the Hundred Years' War between England and France.

1362 English becomes official language of the law courts. More and more authors are writing in English.

ca. 1380 Chaucer writes the Canterbury tales in Middle English. the language shows French influence in thousands of French borrowings. The London dialect, for the first time, begins to be recognized as the "Standard", or variety of English taken as the norm, for all England. Other dialects are relegated to a less prestigious position, even those that earlier served as standards (e.g. the Wessex dialect of southwest England).

1474 William Caxton brings a printing press to England from Germany. Publishes the first printed book in England. Beginning of the long process of standardization of spelling.

Take a look at the history of Middle English on the following site for more information:

What else would you like to find out about the Middle English period? Scroll down and click on the online resources to find out more about this period. As you browse these sites, keep your eyes open for changes such as:
·        Reduction of Inflections
·        The Noun--By Early Middle English there were only two ways of showing plurality--s or es
·        Adjective--Weak declensions no longer showed a “distinction” between the singular and the plural
·        The Pronoun--There was more of a reliance on the “juxtaposition, word order, and the use of prepositions to make a clear relation of words in a sentence.”
·        Verbs
·        The Loss of Gender
·        Syntax or Sentence Structure

Middle English Grammar
Middle English Pronunciation

Taken from http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/images_GVS/ME_Pronunciation2.jpg

Geoffrey Chaucer
Now, lets take a look at some texts from the Middle English time period.  One of the most famous texts during this time period is Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.  Browse through the following sites to learn more about Chaucer's work.
The English Language in the Fourteenth Century    

Listen to a Middle English reading of Chaucer's work
        http://courseweb.stthomas.edu/medieval/chaucer/middleenglish- main.swf

To read and listen to other texts from the Middle English period, follow these links:

Ready to move on to Early Modern English?
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