Features of the Middle English



In the development of the English language the Middle English is the stage during the High and Late Middle Ages, or roughly during the four centuries between the late 11th and the late 15th century. Middle English developed out of Late Old English in Norman England (1066-1154). The Middle English period ended at 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. At the beginning of the period English is a language that must be learned like a foreign tongue; at the end it is Modern English.

The Middle English period (1150–1500) was marked by momentous changes in the English language, changes more extensive and fundamental than those that have taken place at any time before or since. Some of them were the result of the Norman Conquest and the conditions which followed in the wake of that event. Others were a continuation of tendencies that had begun to manifest themselves in Old English.
Decay of Inflectional Endings

The changes in English grammar may be described as a general reduction of inflections. Endings of the noun and adjective marking distinctions of number and case and often of gender were so altered in pronunciation as to lose their distinctive form and hence their usefulness. To some extent the same thing is true of the verb. This leveling of inflectional endings was due partly to phonetic changes, partly to the operation of analogy. The phonetic changes were simple but far-reaching.

Loss of Grammatical Gender

Another feature of the middle English is the Loss of Grammatical Gender. Old English had grammatical genders (m., f., and n.), like the modern continental languages. And like its modern counterparts, Old English sometimes exhibited a disparity between grammatical and biological gender. Hence þæt wif, “the woman” (n.), se stan, “the stone” (m.), or seo giefu, “the gift” (f.). But starting in the tenth century, we begin to see the loss of grammatical gender in Old English. This loss begins in the north of England and over the next few centuries spreads south, until grammatical gender is completely gone from the language by the middle of the fourteenth century. The loss of grammatical gender is pretty much complete in Northumbria by the beginning of the eleventh century. By the middle of that century the loss becomes apparent in texts from the Midlands and is largely complete there by the beginning of the thirteenth century, although some Midlands dialects retain vestiges of grammatical gender until the end of the thirteenth century. The south of England loses grammatical gender over the course of the late-eleventh through thirteenth centuries, and Kent is the last holdout, maintaining grammatical gender into the middle of the fourteenth century.



Middle English Syntax

For the most part, Middle English syntax (or sentence structure) is similar to Modern English. The default, or basic, word order is Subject-Verb-Object. The most direct way to avoid this kind of ambiguity is through limiting the possible patterns of word order. The process of development from the highly synthetic stage of Old English (see § 40) to the highly analytic stages of Late Middle English and Modern English can be seen in the Peterborough Chronicle. Written in installments between 1070 and 1154, this text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronide spans the period from Old English to Early Middle English. Within the continuations of the text it is possible to trace first a significant loss of inflections and afterwards a corresponding rigidity of word order, making clear the direction of cause and effect.

French Influence on the Vocabulary

 French influence is much more direct and observable upon the vocabulary on the middle English. Where two languages exist side by side for a long time and the relations between the people speaking them are as intimate as they were in England, a considerable transference of words from one language to the other is inevitable. The number of French words that poured into English was unbelievably great. There is nothing comparable to it in the previous or subsequent history of the language.