Middle English: the non-standard period

1. What were the specific roles of English and French in the Early ME society?

Context: 1066 Battle of Hastings → William the Conqueror

→ English Nobles replaced by Normans- the leaders= most influential sector of society,the higer classes

- Most of the Church leaders French as well

- but mass of the inhabitants of England= English-speaking peasants

French- language of upper class for more than 200 years

- Marked class more than national identity

- French used in writing conventions

- Bilingualism (French landowners in isolated areas, Engl. /Fr. intermarriages among lesser nobility)

→ French used on the top and English on the bottom of the social scale

--> Bilingualism (landowners in rural areas) --> large-scale borrowing from French --> less influence on word order and inflection, more on vocabulary

2. What were the major factors for re-emergence of English in the Early ME period?

  • 1234 - bishop protest at Winchester = dismissal of foreigners
    • dind't last long, soon returned but there were tensions
    • 1258 - Henry III - Provisions of Oxford
      • first proclamation since the Norman Conquest issued in French, Latin as well as English
      • meant to promote power-sharing between the barons and the king (recognition of parliament)
      • not accepted by the king = Barons' War (1258-1265)
  • Edward I
    • most office-holders English
    • changes in attitude towards English
      • knowledge of English = mark of an Englishman
      • English common language in all parts of the population (due to the merge of Norman French with the native population)
      • Of Arthur and of Merlin (before 1325) (translated): But every Englishman knows English./ Many a noble I have seen/ Who could not speak French.
  • consequences
    • decline of French - there were attempts to hold this decline
      • University of Oxford forced students to learn both English and French
      • Canterbury and Westminster novices forbidden to use English
      • French a foreign language
  • English as a written language, the use of English in courts and Parliament established in the middle of the 14th century
  • 15th century - English in private and public use; French still present in the Court and upper class

3.Explain the origin of the phonemic difference in voicing of English fricatives.

-Lexical borrowing from French --> the evolution of new phoneme;

-Contact with and borrowing of words with the phonotactic features of French led to contrasts between initial voiced and voiceless fricatives;

- The adoption of French loans with /v/ spelt ‹u ~ v› begins ca. 1200-50 and accelerates dramatically ca. 1300 (voice-valūe);


- Initial-fricative-voicing is a process that occurs in the West Country where the fricatives /s/, /f/, /θ/, /ʃ/ and /h/ are voiced to [z], [v], [ð], [ʒ]l. Initial /v/ from French --> meaning distinctions between words with /f/ and those with /v/ (ModE fon-van;

- /z/ was phonemicised thanks to the frequent occurrence of medial /-s-/ contrasting with /-z-/in OF; the effect of learned borrowings with initial /z-/ was negligible. The degemination of ME[-ss-] probably played a secondary role.

- /ð/ was phonemicised slowly and its distribution remains defective even in ModE. The medialcontrast between. The /ð/ of pronouns and conjunctions was aprosodically conditioned allophone. /ð/ owes its phonemic status mostly to analogical restoration (bath -bathe)

-Function words (articles) --> only weakly stressed while lexical words carried stress;

4. Comment on the loss of /w/ and /h/ in the early ME period.

  • postconsonantal /w/ disappeared before backround vowels, e.g. it disappeared in combinations such as /sw-/, which lead to so (as opposed to swā) or sword /sɔːd/ ( as opposed to sweord).
  • the loss of /h/, also known as h dropping, appeared in consonant clusters such as /hr-/, /hn-/ and /hl/ and before consonants as in (right), but it has been mostly retained before vowels. Dropping pre-vocalic /h/ is seen as violating the norms of good English (typical in Cockney ´ous instead of house). ! Initial prevocalic /h/ was not pronounced (and thus was ommited from writing) in loan woards (houre x oure - PDE hour).

5. Explain the principal mechanisms of short vowel lengthening and long vowel shortening in Middle English.

- In late OE, some long vowels shortened in closed syllables: e.g. OE cēp-te -> ME kĕpte

-Around the thirteenth century, some short vowels lengthened in open syllables: e.g. OE nŏ-su -> ME nōse

Changes in the vowel system in the ME period:

  • V + /l, r, n, m/ + voiced consonant → vowel lengthening / diphthongization
    • cild “child” – original /i/ → /iː/ (later → /aı/)

- but did not occur if a third consonant followed cildru “children” - /i/

  • ē before double consonants → shortened
    • If they were in stressed closed syllables before a ‘consonant group’

e.g. groups that resulted from compounding: scēaphirde e.g. doubled consonants: næ:ddre, læ:dde

      • mētanmētte → “meet” – “met”
  • Open syllable lengthening - general lengthening of vowels in open syllables (especially in the South)
    • /a/ as in faren “fare” → /ɑː/ in open syllables
    • /ɛ/ as in spere “spear” → /ɛː/ in open syllables
    • /ɔ/ as in boren “borne” → /ɔː/ in open syllables

consequence – today phonologically short vowels - /ɪ, e, æ, ɒ, ʊ, ʌ/ do not occur in open syllables

  • More and more unstressed vowels – realized as schwa or lost in final position


------------------late OE (Wessex)-------------------------------------early 14th century (East)






--> By the end of the ME period,

  • Closed syllables are associated with short vowels

tal-ly remains short cēp-te becomes short

  • Open syllables are associated with long vowels

ta-lu becomes long cē-pan remains long

6. Sum up the main changes to English orthography in the Early ME period and explain their origins. ====

  • the first orthographic system connected with West Saxon was still used but grew outdated
  • new conventions began to shift → French influence
  • even though there were general effects of the changes no standard emerged in the early ME
  • Changes:
    • Non-Latin letters in disuse o
      • <ʒ> → <g> and <i>
      • <p> and <ð> replaced by <th>
      • <ae> interchanged with <a> or <e>
    • <u; uu; w> are now used instead of Wynn <p>
    • <y> used as a consonant for <j>
    • <ʒ> fully retired
    • <k> began to be used especially where <c> + <e; i> would lead to misinterpreation as <s> instead of <k>
    • OE grapheme combinantion <hw> →<wh> → thanks to the influence which used <h> as a diacritic in combinations such as -th, -ch etc.
    • in North and East Anglia <qu; u> and east Midlands <w> were also used for <hw>
    • <c> and <sc> were replaced by French <ch> and <sch>
  • Changes in vowels:
    • more challenging because of the great variety of pronunciations
    • OE /y/ → <e> in Southeast BUT! in Soutwest rounding was reatained → the French<u; ui; uy> occured
    • high back rounded /uː/ was spelled as <ou> in French fashion
    • OE raising of /a/ led to the use of <o> or <oo>
  • Ormulum o
    • 12th century East Midlands work; poetry; it wasn't praised because of its quality (used 15 beats iambic pentameter and it didn't rhyme) provides evidence of Old Norse in ME; includes English-Danish couplets
    • the use of spelling indicates the author's pronunciation :
      • short and long vowels are differentiated here
      • short vowels - followed by double consonant-letters:follc
      • long vowels - followed by only one consonants letters:god
      • such differentiation also indicates that this OE concept was lost

1. When did most French borrowings enter English and why? Why is the dating of the Old Norse borrowing relatively late?

  • Even though some of the borrowing had already taken place before the Norman Conquest, the most rapid and apparent wave of such happened between 1250 and the end of the 14th century
  • This was despite the fact that the widespread Anglo-French bilingualism had receded after the loss of Normandy
  • People had gradually started to use English among all social strata but proceeded to use some of the French vocabulary they were accustomed to
  • The dating of the Old Norse borrowing is late because it did not surface in the written language until the early Middle English period

2. How did contact with French affect English poetry?

  • between 1150 - 1250, the use of English was restricted to religion or didactics, with the poetry being virtually nonexistent
  • English poetry was influenced by French versification composed in England
  • Due to French being used as the language of the upper classes and literature, the influence of the traditions of French continental literature was cast on poetry written in England, leading to the abandonment of the Anglo-Saxon traditions.
  • The aforementioned influence is apparent in The Owl and the Nightingale, a work by an unknown author, which conforms to the metrical and rhyming conventions of French poetry

3. Characterise the dialectal situation in the Middle English period.

  • In terms of dialects, there were differences not only between the major regions but also within them; people from one regional area likely had difficulty to understand a dialect from another
  • The presumed variety of areas was compiled by analyzing the written documents written in the respective regions, such as East and West Midlands
  • There were also North-South distinctions that may be attributed to the influence of Old Norse

Changes in the ME verbal system

reduction in the number of strong verbs

eg. helpan – healp – hulpon – holpen became help - helped – helped

a unitary vowel instead of a vowel of the past singular and the past plural

the progressive is low in use- the OE auxiliary of the perfect tense ben disappears and hauen/habban stays

the need of more emphatic expressions introduces a higher use of modals and subjunctive

ME prefers naht alone to express negation

Passives: dative noun in subject (nominative) position

Rise of a new system of determiners

- Indefinite article develops from unstressed numeral oon ("one") to a/o/an

- Definite arcticle the appears, originating from OE se, changed by analogy with other plural th- forms and plural tho

- That (plural tho, later those) takes on the meaning of deictic distance. From the nominative/accusative singular of emphatic OE þis develops this/these pair of demonstratives

6. Sum up the ME development in the pronominal system

- Masculine DAT him and ACC hine develop into him

- Feminine DAT hire and ACC hie become hire

- Neuter DAT him and ACC hit become hit

- DAT plurals stay hem (them in the North); ACC plurals remain as hie

- Genitives act as adjectives rather that pronouns (my, mine, thy, thine)

- (o)on, "one", starts to develop its non-personal reference

- þe becomes þat almost everywhere; then it will gradually develop into what.

- whom, whose, which are not frequent until 14th century