The Making of Middle English
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Modern English has its roots in the language of the Germanic dialects of the tribes of north-western Europe who invaded Britain in the fifth century after the withdrawal of the Romans. The language of these tribes came to be called englisc. In the ninth century, there was another wave of invaders, the Vikings, from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway who also influenced englisc. Today, we call englisc Old English (OE). Old English was the language of the Anglo-Saxon people until 1066.

The Norman invasion England in 1066, brought French (F) into the land. The arrival of French precipitated changes that were already occurring in Old English. The Normans (North-men, descendants of Danes), spoke a French influenced by Germanic dialect. This dialect was Norman French. This led to the unusual situation, in which the common people spoke one language (English), and the aristocrats another (Norman French). Naturally, the two languages began to mix together into what we now call Middle English.

By the 13th century approximately 10,000 French words had come into English. About three-quarters of these French loans are still in the language today. These new words duplicated words that existed in Old English from Anglo-Saxon times. Sometimes one word would supplant the other or both would co-exist, but develop slightly different meanings. For example, doom (OE) and judgment (F), hearty (OE) and cordial (F), and house (OE) and mansion (F).

Not only did Norman French bring great changes to Old English, spelling changes also occurred. The Norman scribes listened to the English they heard around them, and began to spell it according to the conventions they had previously used for French, such as qu for cw (queen for cwen).
The scribes also introduced gh (instead of h) in such words as night and enough, and ch (instead of c) in such words as church. Another change introduced was ou for u (as in house). Yet one more change was the use of c before e (instead of s) in such words as cercle (‘circle’) and cell.

Other changes that take place as Old English evolves in to Middle English are:

  • the loss of inflections
  • less freedom in word order
  • loss of grammatical gender
  • more phonetic spelling
  • final -e pronounced, as well as all consonants
  • emergence of Middle English dialects: Northern, Midland, Southern, Kentish,
  • the eventual dominance of the London dialect as the standard spoken and written language due to London’s importance as a commercial center and seaport, as well as its proximity to the court in Westminster.

By the later fourteenth century a demand for English had developed, and literary works in English were wanted not because their audience had no French but because they preferred English. John Gower wrote works in Latin, French, and English -- the latter, his Confessio Amantis, written at the request of King Richard himself.

However, despite the growing dominance of the London dialect, there were still many variances between Middle English dialects which caused confusion at times as people from one dialect area of England traveled to another.

This text, which talks about the confusion caused by the different Middle English dialects, is part of William Caxton's prologue to the Eneydos (his translation of the French version of the Latin poem The Aeneid by Virgil), printed in 1490. The following Flash file is Caxton’s story in Middle English and English. Challenge yourself and first click on the Middle English version and try to determine what the whole story is about. Then click on the English version to see if you were correct!

Listen to the Middle English Story! Use your back button of your browser to return to this page.

 

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