Middle English


Middle English

Middle English Phonology




vowels in Middle English were, overall, similar to those of Old English, except for the loss of OE y and æ so that y was unrounded to i and æ raised toward [] or lowered toward [a].

addition of new phonemic sound (mid central vowel), represented in linguistics by the symbol called schwa:
, the schwa sound occurs in unstressed syllables and its appearance is related to the ultimate loss of most inflections

Some examples:

day [dai]

cause [kaus]

soule [su l]

tirannye [tirani]

hous [hus]

fruit [fruit]

loss of unstressed vowels: unstressed final -e was gradually dropped, though it was probably often pronounced; -e of inflectional endings also being lost, even when followed by consonant (as in -es, eth, ed) (e.g. breathe/breathed), exceptions: wishes, judges, wanted, raided; loss of -e in adverbs made them identical to adjective, hence ambiguity of plain adverbs e.g. hard, fast; final -e in French loanwords not lost because of French final stress, hence cité > "city," pureté > "purity"

French loanwords added new diphthongs, e.g. OF point, noyse > ME point, noise

vowel length:

Middle English Prosody

stress on root syllables, less stress on subsequent syllables

loss of endings led to reduction in number of unstressed syllables, increased use of unstressed particles such as definite and indefinite articles, prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns, analytic possessive (of), marked infinitive (to), compound verb phrases

OE trochaic rhythm shift to ME iambic rhythm (unstressed syllables followed by stressed ones) (caused by increase in use of unstressed particles and by French loan words accented at the end of the word)

Middle English Graphics & Writing

Not much English writing during 1100-1200 period; influence of French scribes; new spelling conventions.

26 letters, ash (æ) and eth (ð) dropped, thorn (þ) and yogh () retained; French loans "j" and "v" treated as allographs of "i" and "u"; "v" reserved for initial position; interchangeable "y" and "i"

yogh: -- a Middle English character derived from the Old English character for "g"; it had various pronounciations, 3elden (yelden, "yield"), cni3t (cniht, "knight", þur3, (thurgh, "through"), brid3e ("bridge"), day3 ("days")

"q" and "z" more widely used under French influence, "qu" for /kw/ OE cwic, cwen > ME quicke, quene

confusion of y and þ, hence the erroneous, pseudo-medieval English expression "ye olde coffee shoppe"

tendency for use of digraph "th" instead of thorn (þ)

o for u (come, love, son, won, tongue, some), a way to avoid confusion caused by use of minims (vertical strokes)

c for s, influence of French loans like cellar, place affected spelling of native words like lice, mice

k before i/e, n (OE cene, cyssan, cneow > keen, kiss, knee), cf. cat, cool, cut, clean

increased use of digraphs: th for thorn/eth sounds, ou/ow for long u (hour, round); doubling of vowels to indicate length (beet, boot); sh for palatal fricative [] (OE scamu > shame); ch for palatal affricate [] (OE ceap, cinn> ME cheap, chin); dg for palatal affricate [] (OE bricg > ME bridge) (but j in initial position according to French convention, ME just); gh for velar fricative [h] (OE þoht, riht> ME thought, right; wh for hw (voiceless aspirated bilabial fricative), OE hwæt, hwil, > ME what, while; gu for g, in French loans, guard, guile, guide, OE gylt > guilt

punctuation: question mark; hyphen for word division at end of line; paragraph markers

handwriting: Insular hand replaced by Carolingian minuscule in cursive and gothic style


Middle English Morphology


-es for genitive singular and all plurals

noun class distinctions disappeared, generalized to the strong masculine declension of OE

weak declension endings (-n) survived into early ME then merged with strong declension (some survivals: children, brethren, oxen); some ME words had plurals with -n: eyen, earen, shoen, handen

some unmarked plurals: some OE strong neuter nouns had no ending in the nominative and accusative plural, continued in ME (year, thing, winter, word); unmarked plurals for animal names (derived from OE unmarked neuter plurals, e.g. deer); measure words without -s in the plural (mile, pound, fathom, pair, score), derived perhaps from s-less plurals of year and winter


greatest inflectional losses; totally uninflected by end of ME period; loss of case, gender, and number distinctions

distinction strong/weak lost; causes in loss of unstressed endings, rising use of definite and indefinite articles

comparative OE -ra > ME -re, then -er (by metathesis), superlative OE -ost, -est > ME -est; beginnings of periphrastic comparison (French influence): swetter/more swete, more swetter, moste clennest; more and moste as intensifiers


Personal Pronouns

preservation of gender, number, case, and person categories; merger of dative and accusative into single object case; dual number disappeared; gender became biological instead of grammatical

use of 2nd person plural (ye) to address one person as polite form (French influence), eventual loss of singular forms in 18th c.

First-person singualr: ich/I; loss of unstressed ch led to first person singular form I (pronounced as the 'i' in "kid"); me object case; min(e) and mi before word beginning with vowel and consonant respectively

First person plural: we; us object case; ure/our possessive forms; emergence of absolute pronominal forms (ours, cf. hers, yours, theirs)

Second person singular: þu, thou

Second person plural: OE ge > ye; OE eow> ME you , OE eower > your

Third person singular: he, him, his; 3rd person sing., feminine, heo/sche, hire, [] appeared first in North and East Midlands, allowed distinction from masculine forms; 3rd person sing. neuter hit/it

Third person plural, he, hem, here; then borrowing of pronouns from Old Norse (nom. þeir, dat. þeim, gen. þeira> they, them, their) to prevent confusion with other forms, especially in the singular and feminine


ME retained categories of tense, mood, number, person, strong, weak and other verbs

added new type of verb, two-part or separable verbal expression, use of adverbial particles instead of prefixes used in Old-English (e.g. put in, blow out, pick up, take over)

increased use of weak verbs

beon/wesan collapsed into one form, wesan forms (am, art, is) prevailed in singular present indicative, in plural new form are(n) arose (parallel to Old Norse plural forms (erum erup, eru)

to go (eode, eodon) became mixed with past forms of wendan, hence 'went' which replaced 'eode'


Interjections: a, surprise; ho, triumph; ha-ha, laughter; fie, disgust; hay, excitement; lo, now, what: attention getters; alas, wo, wei-la-wei, grief; hail, welcome, salutations; others: good morrow, good night, farewell, gramercy (FR grant merci), thank you, benedicite, goddamn, bigot (by God)


Middle English Syntax

verb phrases: origin of compound verb phrases; perfect tense became common, use of auxiliaries (be & have); progressive tense came into being; passive constructions (with 'be' as auxiliary); future tense (with shall and will auxiliaries); modal auxiliaries instead of subjunctive (may, might, be going to, be about to); do in periphrastic constructions indicating tense (doth serve); impersonal verbs and dummy subjects (me thristed, hit me likede)

clauses: trend toward modern word order, SVO in affirmative independent clauses; VSO in questions and imperatives


Middle English Lexicon

large lexicon; assimilation of loanwords; variety of vocabulary levels; cosmopolitan language


word formation: compounding and affixing; compound nouns (gentleman, cheesecake, nightmare) (noun +verb as ME innovation, e.g. sunshine, manhandle); compound adjectives (threadbare, bloodred, everyday); compound verbs (outline, uphold); clipping (distress > stress, amend > mend); back formation (Scandinavian foggy > fog; Latin aspis > asp, English dawning > dawn); blends or portmanteau words (escrow + roll > scroll, sprout + crawl > scrawl); common nouns from proper nouns (Jacques > jacket); onomatopoetic (echoic) words (tehee)

vocabulary losses: much of OE vocabulary lost during ME period (e.g. OE earm replaced by French poor); cultural and technological change; obsolescence


Middle English Semantics

Semantic change

narrowing (OE goma ('jaw') > ME gum)

generalization (OE bridd ('young bird') > ME bird)

pejoration (OE ceorl ('peasant') > ME cherl, "churl")

amelioration: dizzy (meant 'foolish' in OE), French borrowing nice ('foolish', 'stupid') acquired new meanings (flamboyant, rare, modest, elegant) in 15th century

weakening (OE ege (terror) > ME awe ('reverence' 'respect')

shift in stylistic level: OE smierwan ('anoint') > ME smear

shift in denotation: OE cniht ('boy')> ME knight ('young gentleman soldier')


Middle English Dialects

dialects: Northern, East Midlands, West Midlands, Southern, Kentish

Middle English Literature

mostly religious and didactic works; oral presentation; more verse than prose; Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse gave way to syllable-counting, rhymed verse (but alliterative verse came back with Alliterative Revival movement in the second half of the 14th century); new genres: romance, lyric

secular prose: Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur

religious prose: monastic treatises, saints' lives, sermons and homilies, mystical writings (Julian of Norwich's Showings or Revelations of Divine Love, Margery Kempe's authobiography)

religious and didactic verse: William Langland, Piers Plowman

secular verse romances; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

fabliau (bawdy tale, e.g. Chaucer's "Miller's Tale")

drama: mystery plays (dramatized biblical stories), The Second Shepherds' Play; morality plays (featuring allegorical or personified vices and virtues), Everyman


Middle English Samples:

From the General Prologue of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c. 1400) (East Midlands, London dialect):

1: Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
2: The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
3: And bathed every veyne in swich licour
4: Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
5: Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
6: Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
7: Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
8: Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
9: And smale foweles maken melodye,
10: That slepen al the nyght with open ye
11: (so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
12: Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
13: And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
14: To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
15: And specially from every shires ende
16: Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
17: The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
18: That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

First stanza of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1400) (Northwest Midlands dialect):

1 siþen þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at troye
2 þe bor3 brittened and brent to brondez and askez
3 þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wro3t
4 watz tried for his tricherie þe trewest on erþe
5 hit watz ennias þe athel and his highe kynde
6 þat siþen depreced prouinces and patrounes bicome
7 welne3e of al þe wele in þe west iles
8 fro riche romulus to rome ricchis hym swyþe
9 with gret bobbaunce þat bur3e he biges vpon fyrst
10 and neuenes hit his aune nome as hit now hat
11 ticius to tuskan and teldes bigynnes
12 langaberde in lumbardie lyftes vp homes
13 and fer ouer þe french flod felix brutus
14 on mony bonkkes ful brode bretayn he settez
15 wyth wynne
16 where werre and wrake and wonder
17 bi syþez hatz wont þerinne
18 and oft boþe blysse and blunder
19 ful skete hatz skyfted synne

Translation: After the siege and the assault of Troy, when the city was burned to ashes, the knight who therein wrought treason was tried for his treachery and was found to be the truest on earth. Aeneas the noble it was, and his high kindred, who vanquished great nations and became the rulers of wellnigh all the western world. Noble Romulus went to Rome with great show of strength, and built that city at the first, and gave it his own name, as it is called to this day. Ticius went into Tuscany and began to set up habitations, and Langobard made his home in Lombardy; whilst Brutus, far over the French sea by many a full broad hill-side, the fair land of Britain [bob] did win, [wheel] Where war and wrack and wonder/Often were seen therein,/And oft both bliss and blunder/Have come about through sin.