An Introduction to Middle English

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  • An Introduction toMiddle English

    Edinburgh University Press

    Simon Horobinand

    Jeremy Smith

  • An Introduction to Middle English

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  • Edinburgh Textbooks on the English Language

    General EditorHeinz Giegerich, Professor of English Linguistics (University of Edinburgh)

    Editorial BoardLaurie Bauer (University of Wellington)Derek Britton (University of Edinburgh)Olga Fischer (University of Amsterdam)Norman Macleod (University of Edinburgh)Donka Minkova (UCLA)Katie Wales (University of Leeds)Anthony Warner (University of York)

    An Introduction to English SyntaxJim Miller

    An Introduction to English PhonologyApril McMahon

    An Introduction to English MorphologyAndrew Carstairs-McCarthy

    An Introduction to International Varieties of EnglishLaurie Bauer

    An Introduction to Old EnglishRichard Hogg

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  • An Introduction toMiddle English

    Simon Horobin and Jeremy Smith

    Edinburgh University Press

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  • In memory of David Burnley

    Simon Horobin and Jeremy Smith, 2002

    Edinburgh University Press Ltd22 George Square, Edinburgh

    Typeset in Jansonby Norman Tilley Graphics andprinted and bound in Great Britainby MPG Books Ltd, Bodmin, Cornwall

    A CIP record for this book is available from the British Library

    ISBN 0 7486 1480 X (hardback)ISBN 0 7486 1481 8 (paperback)

    The right of Simon Horobin and Jeremy Smithto be identified as authors of this workhas been asserted in accordance withthe Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

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  • Contents

    Abbreviations viiTo readers viii

    PART I

    1 Introduction 11.1 The purpose of this book 11.2 How to use this book 21.3 A note about technical terms 3Recommendations for reading 4

    2 What did Middle English look like? 72.1 Introduction 72.2 A passage from The Canterbury Tales 82.3 Linguistic analysis 112.4 Evidence for Middle English 132.5 Two illustrations 142.6 Editing Middle English 19Exercises 20Recommendations for reading 22

    3 Middle English in use 263.1 Introduction 263.2 Who used Middle English? 263.3 For what was Middle English used? 303.4 The dialects of Middle English 313.5 Written standardisation 343.6 The standardisation of speech 36Exercises 38Recommendations for reading 38

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    4 Spellings and sounds 404.1 Some preliminaries: the relationship between speech

    and writing 404.2 Reconstructing ME pronunciation 424.3 Middle English sounds and spellings: an outline history 444.4 Chaucerian transmission 464.5 Middle English sound-systems 504.6 Middle English writing-systems 60Exercises 64Recommendations for reading 65

    5 The lexicon 695.1 Some preliminaries: the word and its structure 695.2 The origins of ME vocabulary 705.3 Some notes on meaning 775.4 Word geography 795.5 Chaucers lexicon 805.6 Vocabulary and style 81Exercises 84Recommendations for reading 85

    6 Grammar 896.1 Some preliminaries 896.2 Syntax 926.3 Morphology 103Exercises 118Recommendations for reading 119


    7 Looking forward 1267.1 Language change 1267.2 Language and text 133Exercises 139Recommendations for reading 139

    Appendix: Middle English texts 142Discussion of the exercises 170References 173Index 178


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  • Abbreviations

    > becomes< derives fromC consonantCHEL Cambridge History of the English LanguageCSD Concise Scots DictionaryEETS Early English Text SocietyEME Early Middle EnglishEModE Early Modern EnglishETOTEL Edinburgh Textbooks on the English LanguageGenAm General AmericanHTE Historical Thesaurus of EnglishIPA International Phonetic AlphabetLALME A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval EnglishLME Late Middle EnglishLOE Late Old EnglishME Middle EnglishMED Middle English DictionaryMEOSL Middle English Open Syllable LengtheningModE Modern EnglishMS(S) manuscript(s)NF Norman FrenchOE Old EnglishOED Oxford English DictionaryOF Old FrenchON Old NorsePDE Present-Day EnglishRP Received PronunciationV vowel; verbWS West Saxon


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  • To readers

    This book is designed as a linguistic introduction to Middle Englishfor undergraduate students who have already encountered the language,perhaps through reading Chaucers works or having undertaken ageneral survey course on the history of the English language. We haveattempted to make the book a bridge between elementary surveys ofthe kind to be found in beginners readers and more sophisticated (andtheoretically oriented) work; thus in the last chapter we point forwardto issues which are part of recent scholarly debate. Our view is that it isimportant for all students, as colleagues in the discipline, to be aware ofcurrent controversies; however, we have tried to avoid such contro-versies in the body of the book so that not too strong a party-line ispushed. Even so, it would be foolish to deny that there is an overarchingapproach, which may be defined as linking concerns often described aslinguistic (theory-centred) with philological (text-centred) ones.

    We envisage our book being used, at an early stage, as part of anundergraduate Honours course on Middle English. In order to enhanceits usefulness (and indeed to keep overall costs down) we have supplieda reader of illustrative texts, but ideally students will supplement thiswith other collections. We especially recommend Burnley 1992.

    The authors would like to acknowledge with gratitude the patienceand tolerance of Sarah Edwards and James Dale. We are also muchindebted to the very helpful and detailed comments on the first draftmade by Donka Minkova and Heinz Giegerich, which saved us frommany infelicities, drew attention to flaws, and were invaluable in clarify-ing and correcting our arguments. We were also very grateful for earlysight of parts of the companion ETOTEL volume on Old English,by Richard Hogg. However, we take full responsibility for any errors ofomission or commission which remain.

    Although we collaborated closely in the writing of the book, JJS wasprimarily responsible for Chapters 1 to 7; SCH undertook the editingand annotation of the Appendix of Texts, and supplied textual materialat various points elsewhere.


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  • 1 Introduction

    1.1 The purpose of this book

    The purpose of this book is to introduce you to Middle English (ME),the form of the English language which was spoken and written inEngland between c.1100 and c.1500. If you have read any of the poetryof Geoffrey Chaucer, who died in 1400, then you have read a kind ofME. It is hoped that when you have finished working with this book, youwill have a good understanding of the range of linguistic choices avail-able to writers like Chaucer. We also hope that you will understand howME came into being as a distinct form of English, and how the studyof ME helps you to engage with key questions about the processes oflinguistic change.

    ME may be distinguished from Old English or Anglo-Saxon (OE),the form of the language spoken and written before c.1100, and fromModern English (ModE), which is the term used to categorise Englishafter c.1500. The ME period thus corresponds roughly with thecenturies which lie between the Norman Conquest of 1066 and WilliamCaxtons introduction of printing in 1475. All three periods can befurther subdivided chronologically; thus ME is sometimes divided intoEarly ME (EME) and Late ME (LME), dividing roughly in the middleof the fourteenth century correlating with the approximate date forthe birth of Chaucer (c.1340). These historical states of the languagemay be contrasted with Present-Day English (PDE). A chronologicaltable appears as Figure 1.1.

    Figure 1.1

    Old English (Anglo-Saxon) up to c.1100Middle English c.1100c.1500

    Early Middle English c.1100c.1340Late Middle English c.1340c.1500

    Modern English from c.1500Present-Day English


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  • ME is, of course, descended from OE, but it differs from it in a numberof ways. Contact with other languages from the end of the OE periodonwards, notably with Old Norse (the language of Viking invaders) andwith varieties of French, affected the status and appearance of Englishin a very profound way. At the end of the ME period, the status of theEnglish language changed again, and this change led in turn to changesin linguistic transmission and structure which are sufficient for scholarsto distinguish a new language-state, that is ModE.

    Of course, it is important to remember that the transitions from OE toME, and from ME to ModE, were gradual ones. People did not shift fromone language-state to another overnight. But it is generally accepted byscholars that there are certain common characteristics of the varieties ofME which distinguish them from earlier and later states of the language.We will be discussing these common characteristics later in this book.

    1.2 How to use this book

    There is no single correct way to work with this book. We assume thatmost of you will be studying with teachers, all of whom will have (quiterightly) their own views as to what is the correct way to learn about ME.However, we are also aware that many of you will be working more orless by yourselves, and that is why we have supplied some suggestions forfurther reading in the Recommendations for readings at the end of eachchapter.

    However, we envisage most students using the book alongside agood collection of ME texts, moving between text and discussion. Weare strongly of the opinion that anyone hoping to understand how MEworks has to spend a good deal of time reading ME. A small collectionof annotated illustrative texts has been included as an Appendix, but youshould supplement these texts with your own reading; again we makesome suggestions in the Recommendations for reading.

    The body of this book is organised into three unequal parts, each ofthem corresponding to a distinct phase of study. In Part I we try to giveyou a broad-brush account of ME: its historical setting; how we knowabout it; how its appearance relates to its social functions during theMiddle Ages; and its general linguistic characteristics.

    In Part II, these linguistic characteristics are studied in greaterdepth, in terms of the levels of language: meaning (semantics), grammar,lexicon and transmission (speech and writing ). Meaning is expressedlinguistically through the grammar and lexicon of a language. Thelexicon (or vocabulary) of a language is its wordstock, whereas grammaris to do with the way in which words are put together to form sentences.


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  • In turn, the grammar and lexicon of a language are transmitted fromlanguage-users to other language-users through speech or throughwriting, which is a comparatively recent development in human history.

    These various levels of language are presented in two ways in Part II.First, they are described synchronically, that is at a single moment intime. The form of ME used here is the one with which most of you willbe to some degree familiar already, that is Chaucerian English of thekind used in London c.1400, which is used as a convenient point of refer-ence throughout. This section of each chapter may be regarded as coreinformation. Secondly, this Chaucerian usage is regularly placed withintwo contexts: diachronic, in which it is compared to earlier and laterstates of the language, including earlier and later varieties of ME, anddiatopic, that is in relation to the kinds of English used in other parts ofthe country.

    It should of course be emphasised that this privileging of Chaucerianusage is essentially a matter of convenience for modern readers, anddoes not necessarily reflect any special status which was accorded toChaucers English in the poets own lifetime. The evidence suggests thatLondon English did not become sociolinguistically privileged untilsome considerable time after Chaucers death in 1400.

    In Part III (the final chapter of the book) we move from description toexplanation, focusing selectively on those characteristics of ME whichpoint forward to ModE or back to OE. In this part of the book, we alsodiscuss how the study of ME enables us to engage with larger questionsto do with linguistic change and textual issues. The book is, therefore,designed as a progressive course in the study of ME, moving from basicto more advanced notions.

    1.3 A note about technical terms

    At this point it is perhaps worth raising the question of descriptive ter-minology. Without using descriptive terms, any discussion aboutlanguage is impossible. But we are aware that many readers of this bookwill be a little apprehensive about engaging with some of the necessarytechnicalities involved in learning about any language.

    We have tried to overcome this problem by using only terminologywhich is in very common agreed use, and by providing concise defi-nitions at strategic points throughout the book; these definitions arespecifically flagged in the thematic Index. Useful standard reference-books are cited in the Recommendations for reading below; studentswill also find it handy to look at other books in this series for fulleraccounts.


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  • Recommendations for reading

    It is important to see ME within its larger historical context, andstudents are recommended, before engaging with the detail of ME, toread a good narrative history. The following are recommended:

    Barber (1993) is a revised and updated version of the authors TheStory of Language (1964). It is a clear and useful single-volume account,perhaps the best now available for the beginning student.

    Baugh and Cable (1993) is probably the most widely used single-volumehistory, even though in parts it is somewhat outdated in light of modernresearch; the first version, by Baugh alone, dates from 1951. A newedition is in press (2002).

    Blake (1996) takes a novel approach to the history of English, focusingon the evolution of standard varieties. There are many good things inthis book, but its somewhat unusual orientation makes it perhaps notwholly appropriate for beginners.

    Graddol et al. (1997) is a good introductory textbook, organised aroundtopics in the history of English. It was originally designed for the OpenUniversity, and is admirably accessible. It is perhaps best used not in alinear way but as a source-book for seminar discussion.

    Millward (1989) is perhaps the best single-volume history to haveemerged in the USA. It is highly readable and full of entertaining anec-dotes; it also quite gently introduces students to theoretical notions ata fairly early stage. A limitation for European readers is that it usesUS linguistic conventions, and readers used to the conventions of theInternational Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) may be occasionally confused.

    Smith (1999), which deals with Old, Middle and Early Modern English,might be seen as a prequel to the cur...


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