8. The Rise of Middle English: Words and Sounds

1. Describe the (socio-)linguistic situation in the Middle English period (What languages were used on the British Isles and what was their status? Why do we have a record of so many ME dialects?). In the light of this situation, try to explain the origin of expressions like "last will and testament" in legal English.


-linguistic situation in England between 1066 and 1500, -political and social events that led to the Norman Conquest → French as the language of England. -major impact on the development of English, especially on its lexicon – massive borrowings from French, some borrowing from Latin, and the loss of many native words. - transition from OE to ME also came with changes in the writing system and in phonology – consonant, vowel changes, development of diphthongs, lengthening/shortening of vowels.


Languages spoken on the British Isles & their status:

• French: -after the Norman Conquest nobility replaced by William with Normans to ensure loyalty -close connections between England and Normandy, but also England and the rest of France, Anglo-French aristocracy indifferent to learning English, monolingual nobility, church officials, archbishops, abbots; French-speaking Norman troops garrisoned in England - written and spoken by the ruling class, was the higher or prestige dialect, the one to be imitated

• Latin -continued to be the official language of laws, petitions to parliament, official proclamations, and court records.

• English -90 per cent of the population continued to speak English, few English texts produced in the West Midland and South dialect areas suggests that at least some of the nobility spoke English natively - typically as a lower or socially stigmatized dialect spoken mostly by peasants, artisans, and laborers,

-bilingualism: intermarriage, business; small group of knights, merchants, monks, etc.,

-ON influence becoming visible, Norwegians & Danes settling in, +newcomers,

-change from variation in spoken language, not many writings in English → more rapid, infrequency of keeping records – no standard dialect, when writing improvising from more known langauges, geographic+social isolation

5 regional dialects (4 of them known from OE): Northern (OE Northumbrian) West and East Midland (OE Mercian) Kentish (OE Kentish) Southwestern (OE West Saxon) -dialectical situation fluid and complex, typical features of one dialect can appear elsewhere → Northern dialect quick to change, migrating towards London later on, eg. Within the East Midland dialect 7 different spellings of church, signs of being from all over the country → shows an overlap of spellings, coexistence with each other -each dialect influenced by being in contact with other language: North: ON, South: French arrivals, London as a center of nobility, Midlands: universities, churches → Latin

“last will and testament” -terms used interchangeably, it might appear that historically will=real property & testament=disposition of personal property will=OE, willan; mind, determination, purpose; desire, wish, request; testament=Lat., testamentum, last will, publication of will, it also signified holy scripture, late 13th C


From a socio-linguistic perspective the situation on the British Isles gets even more complicated as a new language enters the linguistic environment by way of Norman conquerors: French. When William the Conqueror successfully invaded England, he did what was natural and sought to replace the Anglo-Saxon nobility with his own loyal Norman-French followers. Eventually a crushing number of earls and officials was of French origin. As a result the entirety of the social elite meaning kings, nobility and high church officials were primarily speakers of French, sometimes without any knowledge of English.

The majority of the population, however, spoke English. We’re talking about the general public outside of the elite, but excluding Norman troops stationed in England, in other words “the low men”. English was stigmatized, precisely because it was spoken by peasants and because everything “cultivated” was written or spoken in French. But because of intermarriage and the understandable and unavoidable necessity for communication between the nobility (including their entourage) and the original inhabitants of England, groups of bilingual speakers developed: knights, landlords, monks, priests, stewards, merchants, bailiffs and eventually even men of law (although throughout the time laws were still primarily written in Latin). But we will return to the law group in a minute.

Hence we end up with three primary languages used in England. English, Latin and French. Latin was still a language of laws, petitions, government materials and court records, but as time went on, French ended up taking places which were previously held by Latin or English: these include writings from monasteries and literature read and produced in court. Few English text are written and English is mainly a spoken language for hundreds of years. Due to the lack of writings in English and because of the fact that governmental affairs were settled in other languages, there is a lack of any standardized form of English language (not that there was one before, but now it is as far from it as it can get.) This in combination with the relative geographical separation leads to a great rise in dialectic versions of English, which in turn probably leads to grammatical changes in English, because changes from French included primarily lexical changes. Some of the dialects corresponded with the previous dialects of OE, but their situation probably became more fluid and less discernable. Writers of the time were aware of the sheer amount of differences and were describing the possible causes for this phenomenon as well as lamenting the resulting “decline” of English. And so we end up with writings like John of Trevisa’s translation of Ralph Higden’s Latin Polychronicon, which provides information on this topic.

But now to the question of expressions such as “last will and testament” in legal English. Like I said lawyers became bilingual at the time of Norman rule, because the power of spoken and written word is the main facet of their profession. They adopted French and soon after merged with the elite. The proliferation of French into English made it fashionable to put nouns before adjectives, and this style was quickly adopted by lawyers. That is why we end up with legal terms such as court martial, accounts payable, attorney general or fee simple. With the re-establishment of English and a dropping number of speakers of French, lawyers were slow to cope and started fumbling about in a mixture of English and French: expressions such as “beat le dogg” or “fetch un sword” can be found in legal recordings of the time. Law was gradually turning from a French affair into a bilingual one and later futher on into a purely English field. And so, double barreled phrases combining close synonyms of English and French origins came into being. Expressions such as:

Last will and testament

Fit and proper

Free and clear

Goods and chattels

Had and received

Peace and quiet

Right, title and interest

Breaking and entering

(Nowadays we see more significant semantic differences between the two expressions than at the time, similar to doublets emerging from Latin)

Works Used

Brinton, Laurel J., and Leslie K. Arnovick. The English Langauge: A Linguistic History. Don Mills, Ont.: OUP Canada, 2011

Freedman, Adam. The Party of the First Part: The Curious World of Legalese. Macmillan, 2

2. Describe the process of vowel lengthening in Middle English. Explain the role the French lexical borrowings played in the quantitative changes (which is hinted at at p. 272).

- in ME we find changes regarding both the quality (place of articulation) and quantity (length) of vowels - vowel lengthening - quantitative change – affect the length of the vowel - there was one type of lengthening before ME - Old English lengthening affects certain vowels before sequences of a nasal + liquid OR nasal + stop - the most common clusters causing this lengthening were -nd, -mb,- rd,- ld - an important case of lengthening (beginning - the first half of the 13th century) is called open syllable lengthening (this is a type of syllable which ends in a vowel – either it is a vowel standing by itself or a vowel at the end of a syllable)

V(stressed) - CV(C) --> e.g. open; and CV(stressed) - CV(C) --> e.g. joyful

- the results of the change - a short stressed vowel in an open syllable of a two-syllable word (normally the first syllable of the word) is lengthened:

OE ME [a]-->[ā] talu --> tāle [æ]-->[ā] æcer --> āker [ɛ]-->[ɛ](long)peru --> pere (long e) [ɔ]-->[ɔ](long)open --> open (long o) [ɪ]-->[e](long)bitela --> betel (long e) [ʊ]-->[o](long)duru --> dore (long o)

- however, this change is hard to predict from Modern English forms because the loss of the final e sound changes open syllables to closed syllables: CVCe > CVC

- also, in ME, open syllable lengthening led to some irregularities between singular and plural forms e.g. path – pathes, staf – staves, wish – wishes - in the singular, the short vowel is in a syllable that ends in a consonant (closed syllable, as in staf CCVC), but when the -es plural ending is added, the root syllable becomes open (as in staves CCV- CVC), and the vowel is lengthened

Explain the role the French lexical borrowings played in the quantitative changes (which is hinted at at p. 272).

- the borrowings of French words with a different accentual pattern from the native one (OE had a stress on the first syllable, while French on the last one) could well have caused the quantitative changes we find in Middle English BUT, English borrowed a lot of words from French, and those are the words ending with suffixes like: - ion, - ious, -ette and that might have contributed to the changes in accentual pattern as well as sound changes in ME

References: Brinton, Laurel J., and Leslie K. Arnovick. The English Langauge: A Linguistic History. Don Mills, Ont.: OUP Canada, 2011