Middle English: the emergence of Standard English

1) Describe the principal socio-political changes in the late Middle English period and their influence on linguistic development in England.

Political and social overview:

- 13th century – stability and population growth

- 1315-17 – The Great Famine --> decrease of population

- 1348 and the following years – the first wave of the Plague --> 20 – 50 % population decrease

- 1337 – 1453 – the Hundred Years’ War --> loss of almost all continental lands

                                   --> resentment towards all French
                                   --> unjust taxes - Peasant's Revolt (1381)
                                   --> geographical mobility - contact of varieties
                                   --> social mobility

- 1455 – 1485 – the Wars of the Roses --> weakening of feudal power and strengthening of merchant classes

- religious matters - Lollardy - movement led by J. Wycliffe demanding changes in the Church --> challenging Latin

2) Comment on the decline of French and Latin and specify what areas were still dominated by either of the two languages at the end of the ME period?

Languages in then England:

a) Latin - language of laws and of the Church

       - with questioning of the habits of the Church came challanging of Latin
       - De heretico comburendo - the ban of translations of the Bible into English
       - familiarization of the mass population with Lollard's Bible represented a threat to the Church

- in scholarly writing present until EModE

b) French - decrease during the Hundred Year's War

- became a language of 'culture and fashion rather than an economic or political necessity'

c) English - language of rural people and merchants

        - minor documents - wills, municipal proclamations, merchants' documents, guilds rules

- later spoken in courts (written still Latin)

3) CHARACTERIZE THE EMERGENT STANDARD OF THE ME PERIOD AND HOW IT BECAME ESTABLISHED. == - people from various parts moved to London (centre of government, administration, trade) - London English began to function as a standard

    - koinéization (dialects levelling) - spoken
    - Chancery English - written

- people from North came to London and got to the upper class - reflected in London (later Standard) English

- the Midlands variety best for StE - in the middle, neither radical nor too conservative, Oxbridge

- Chancery English - official documents, letters of the men of affairs

- the wave theory - prestigious varieties moving to neighbouring areas


  • for three centuries following the Norman Conquest there no single form of English recognised as a norm (of a language differentiated into a great number of regional dialects)
  • beginning of the 13th century: people from all over England moving to London and bringing their divergent dialects with them (a medieval melting pot of regional, social and individual varieties)

Changes in socio-historical context

  • the decline of French and growing centralization of the conduct of national business --> called for the development of a written standard form of English suitable as an administrative language for communication throughout the kingdom (minimal exceptions, maximum application)

Context of the emergent standard

  • language contact
  • waning feudal system
  • the emerging middle class
  • increasing social mobility
  • the economic and political opportunity offered by the more and more powerful guilds (social climbing)
  • the necessity that people understand the law moved English into the centre of learned attention

East Midlands

  • in the 14th century, a major population centre (centre of wool and grain exportation)
  • = most populous and prosperous area
  • geographically and linguistically well suited for the development of the standard
    • in the middle
    • its language not extreme, a land of compromise
    • universities of Oxford and Cambridge (intellectual leadership)


  • attracted more and more people
  • = centre of government, administration, trade and commerce
  • largest city, concentration of power
  • London English becomes a “national language” --> takes on the force of a standard

Two central forces driving standardization

  1. the spoken language of everyday life – degree of levelling (koineization), variety of Midlands laced with Northern features
  2. Chancery English – written, influenced by the language of the Chancery, the government administration (used in official records), a high degree of uniformity

London English

  • prominence of Midlanders and Northerners in the London City government
  • English becomes the language of court
  • widely accepted as a written standard everywhere (x spoken language still considerably varied)

Wave theory

  • applicable to the expansion of London English
  • language variety adopted by prominent people --> adopted in neighbouring areas
  • = spreading like waves around a stone thrown into a pond
  • London --> neighbouring areas --> distant areas

4) Name the innovations of the late ME period in the pronominal system, in the system expressing verbal categories and in the word order.

Pronominal system

You singular

  • started to by used instead of thou
  • due to French influence (upper class and bureaucrats) x sg. vous more consistent
  • sg. you used for pagan deities x thou for Christian God
  • shift towards you = a sign of respect; sg. you used between equals x who uses though indicates his/her superiority → thou became more of an “insult”, you used more and more as a polite form


  • emergence in 15th century
  • influenced by French on x on appears only as a subject, while earliest forms of one were non-nominal case → French probably not that important
  • (gradual loss of indefinite man – similarity to man “man” and the problems of agreement and anaphoric references → more suitable candidates for indefinite references (you, they, we, people)

Relative pronouns

  • þat replaced by what (early ME) and by which (late ME)
  • that as non-restrictive probably began in ME, but were essential in ModE

Periphrastic structures

  • ME was the beginning of widespread phrasal/periphrastic structure
  • occurred already in OE, but the auxiliary status was hard to determine
  • two words (auxiliary have and also be combined with past participle) took over the function of a single word with and inflectional ending
  • affected the progressive, the modal auxiliaries in place of the subjunctive and periphrastic do

Word order

  • most prominent change was gradual move from accusative object before verb to accusative object after the verb (by 1500 98% of accusative objects are after verb)

5) How did borrowing of the late ME period affect the structuring of English vocabulary?

  • The structure of vocabulary in Middle English also reflects the cultural and socio-political development and moreover had influence on the shift in meaning of these words
  • Borrowings from Dutch – trade -
  • French and Latin – loan words
    • exist alongside the Germanic equivalents - often causing changes in meanings
    • doublets – in literature and elsewhere appear both – style and educating of readers (making them understand)
    • effect – a) disappearance of some Germanic words b) shifts in meaning – usually stylistic - division of words origin regarding the register (the concept, especially English X Latin, still present)
    • English origin – everyday language of lower classes; French – sometimes slight differences, sometimes difficult and had to be learned; Latin – most bookish, advanced words
    • in Early Modern English there was a great influence of Rennaisance – more Latin
    • loan words - presence of Romance origin words had the effect on morphology etc.

6) Discuss the influence of printing on the development of English.

  • The role of printing - important development influencing the evolution of Standard English
  • however not seen as an improvement by all – fear of the access of masses to information – inability to control the interpretation – similar to the fear of Wycliffe’s Bible
  • William Caxton – first printer in England (1473) – only 25 years after Gutenberg’s invention
  • Printing came to England right at the time of Standardization of English (written Chancery English)