The English Middle Period

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    The English Middle Period:

    A great deal happened to our language between the time of Beowulf and the time of The Canterbury

    Tales. If you compare the lines in Old English that are printed on page 29 with the selection in Chaucers

    Middle English on page 52, you will see that Chaucers language is on the whole understandable to a

    modern reader-whereas the Old English lines are incomprehensible, except for a few scattered words

    \The difference between Old English and the English of Chaucers time were a result of the changes in

    both the grammatical system and the vocabulary of the language. The most noticeable chance in the

    grammatical system was the disappearance of grammatical endings on words. As an example, look at

    the various forms of the expression the day in the Old English and in Chaucers English.

    Old English

    Singular Plural

    Nominative Se Daeg Tha Dagas

    Accusative Thone Daeg Tha DagasGenitive Thaes Daeges Thara Daga

    Dative Thaem Daege Thaem Dagum

    Instrumental Thy Daege Thaem dagum

    Modern English

    Singular Plural

    Nominative, Accusative The day The dayes

    Genitive The dayes

    A glance at the listing above shows that in Middle English the system of grammatical endings became

    greatly simplified. We do not know exactly why the Old English grammatical endings changed or

    disappeared. One reason, however, was probably the tendency in spoken English to hurry over

    unaccented syllable, leaving out unimportant sounds.

    From the point of view of language historians, it is these grammatical changes that mark the

    division between old English and Middle English. The Norman Conquest did not have a direct influence

    on these changes: they had begun to take place about a century before the Conquest, and they were

    essentially complete within about a century after it.

    The Conquest did, however, have a great influence on the changes in vocabulary that took place

    during the Middle English period. The Normans brought the French language into England; and, by the

    close of the Middle English period, more than ten thousand French words had been assimilated into

    English.

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    The rate of borrowing was slow at first. During the first two centuries following the Conquest,

    French remained the language of the Norman rulers and English the language of the common people.

    The two groups did not intermingle to any great extent. Only to have made their way into English during

    this time, and many of those words were of the kind that people of the humbler classes would be likely

    to learn from their masters- words like dame, sir, noble, and servant.

    The overwhelming flow of French words into English began about the middle of the

    thirteenth century. Political ties between England and Normandy were cut at this time, and the

    Normans who stayed in England began to consider themselves English, most of them learned English

    and began using it in their daily affairs. Landowners, government officials, judges, and lawyers gradually

    began to conduct their transactions in English instead of French. In changing to English from French,

    however, they continued to employ a great many French terms.

    Some of these were terms for which there were no exact equivalents in English-for

    instance, governmental terms such as parliament, council, and mayor. But many of the other terms

    introduced from French at this time were commonplace words like people, city, village, air, river, carry,

    join, move, and push. Of course, there were already words in English to express these ideas. What

    happened to native vocabulary when this flood of French words poured into the language? Sometimes a

    French word completely replaced the English word. French people, for instance, soon replaced English

    leod. Very often, however, the words from both languages continued in use. We thus have French city

    along with the native English borough, French village along with the native English town, and so forth.

    Although French was the chief language from which Middle English derived new words, it was

    not the only one, Churchmen and scholars of the period continued to borrow words from Latin, just as

    their Anglo-Saxon predecessors had done. Another source of new words was opened when trade sprang

    up between England and the Low Countries during the late Middle Ages. A number of our commercial

    terms-for instance, freight and mart- were borrowed from Dutch or Flemish at this time.

    One extremely significant development that took place in Middle English was the gradual

    adoption of a standard written language. During the early part of the period, there was no such thing

    asstandard English; people wrote in their own local dialects and spelled according to their own

    pronunciations. From about 1400 on, however, people in all parts of England tended to make their

    written English conform to the usage of London dialect. Local differences continued to exist in the

    spoken language, but they practically disappeared from written English.

    The passage by Chaucer(page 52) and Malory (pages 83-86) represent the London dialect of

    Middle English at somewhat different historical stages .The ballad ion pages 44-47 are not in MiddleEnglish h(Middle English versions no longer exist), but in a dialect directly descended from the Middle

    English dialect of northern England and southern Scotland. Although this dialect is still spoken in parts of

    Scotland, it is rarely used today as a written language. English speaking people the world over now write

    the standard language that developed from the London dialect of Chaucers day.

    If a group of Americans were transported to the London of Chaucers day, they would find it

    impossible either to make themselves understood or to understand that was said to them. The reason

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    for this is that English pronunciation changed greatly between Chaucers time and Shakespeares. The

    changes were so extensive that Middle English and Modern English sound like tow different languages.

    The changes were result of what is called the Great Vowel Shift.

    The most important changes involved the pronunciation of vowel sounds. In middle Englishas

    in Latin and in most modern foreign languages that are written in the Latin alphabet-the letter arepresented the sound ah, while a long e sounded like our long a, and long I and y like our long e. a long

    o was always pounced oh, and a long u(often spelled ou) was oo. Thus the Middle English pronunciation

    of care might sound to us like car; sheep would sound to us like shape; my would sound like me; to

    would sound like toe; and south would sound like sooth. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,

    however, ht pronunciation of all the long vowel sounds gradually shifted. By Shakespeares time most of

    the long vowels had acquired the values that they still have today.

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