By Kamil Wiśniewski Sep 4th, 2007
The period of Middle English covers the period between the twelfth and the first half of the fifteenth century – the time when Britain was under the Norman rule. The French kings who ruled England at that time spoke no, or very little English and only some of them, as for example Henry II understood it, but did not speak it. As the French introduced their laws the predominant external influence on the Middle English was French. Moreover, many bishops, craftsmen and merchants arrived to Britain which increased the influence of the French language.
There were many intermarriages between people arriving to Britain and natives and in the 12 th century English was used by the upper class of the society. At the end of that century children of the nobility spoke English as their mother tongue and learned French at schools. Although there are not many documents produced in the 12 th century stating the role of the English language it is known that French was the language of law, administration, literature and government, while Latin was used in education, worship and administration.
There are numerous differences between the Old English and Middle English and the most visible ones are in grammar. The Old English was inflectional so there were many word endings for nouns, adjectives and verbs, while in the Middle English the inflection vanishes and word order starts playing a major role. Thus, the firm subject-verb-object order started to be used and the importance of prepositions increased. Among other changes there was a more frequent use of post modifying genitive in Middle English than in Old English, still the change was not sudden, but gradual and taking almost a century. Also the ‘double’ or ‘multiple’ negative present in Old English was less frequently used in Middle English and in the end vanished altogether. In the inflectional Old English the infinitive was marked by the ending of a verb, but as the inflection vanished in Middle English the infinitive started to be expressed by ‘to’, yet in many cases so called split infinitive, in which a word could be placed between ‘to’ and the verb, was used. In addition to that, ‘do’ started to be used in questions and negations and modal verbs took the meanings and functions they have nowadays.
At the beginning of the period there were many discrepancies in spelling and some words could be written in as many as a dozen of forms, all of which were equally important. However, certain changes in writing were constant enough to become generally accepted and at the end of the Middle English period writing system was more unified. A major role in unifying the English spelling was played by the Norman scribes who hearing the English speech applied French rules of spelling when writing the speech it down.
Also the sounds of language changed, although it is difficult to describe them with certainty as there were differences in dialects and because of lack of sufficient record made at that time. Some of the vowels and diphthongs disappeared, others changed in quality and a few totally new sounds emerged. New consonants also appeared and now there was distinction between s and z, and the /v/ sound became more important and distinguishable from /f/.
Vocabulary of Middle English was influenced by many tongues, but the most significant source at that time was French. It is assumed that about 10,000 words with French origin were borrowed, along with some affixes. About three-fourths of those words are still in use today, such as: baron, coroner, court, sir in administration, ambush, battle, combat in military, and many more in different spheres of life. Apart from that, words were also borrowed from Latin, especially words relating to science: scribe, index, essence, discuss, religion: requiem, rosary, memento, but also general words: picture, reject, substitute. Other languages also contributed to the Middle English lexis, but to a lesser extent, such as Persian words connected with chess: chess, rook, check.