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Middle English Language

By Author: Communiqua
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Middle English Language

In the period from the 8th to the 12th century, Old English gradually transformed through language contact into Middle English. Middle English is often arbitrarily defined as beginning with the conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066, but it developed further in the period from 1200–1450.

First, the waves of Norse colonisation of northern parts of the British Isles in the 8th and 9th centuries put Old English into intense contact with Old Norse, a North Germanic language. Norse influence was strongest in the Northeastern varieties of Old English spoken in the Danelaw area around York, which was the centre of Norse colonisation; today these features are still particularly present in Scots and Northern English. However the centre of norsified English seems to have been in the Midlands around Lindsey, and after 920 CE when Lindsey was reincorporated into the Anglo-Saxon polity, Norse features spread from there into English varieties that had not been in intense contact with Norse speakers. Some elements of Norse influence that persist in all English varieties today are the pronouns beginning with th- (they, them, their) which replaced the Anglo-Saxon pronouns with h- (hie, him, hera).


With the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the now norsified Old English language was subject to contact with the Old Norman language, a Romance language closely related to Modern French. The Norman language in England eventually developed into Anglo-Norman. Because Norman was spoken primarily by the elites and nobles, while the lower classes continued speaking Anglo-Saxon, the influence of Norman consisted of introducing a wide range of loanwords related to politics, legislation and prestigious social domains. Middle English also greatly simplified the inflectional system, probably in order to reconcile Old Norse and Old English, which were inflectionally different but morphologically similar. The distinction between nominative and accusative case was lost except in personal pronouns, the instrumental case was dropped, and the use of the genitive case was limited to describing possession. The inflectional system regularised many irregular inflectional forms, and gradually simplified the system of agreement, making word order less flexible. By the Wycliffe Bible of the 1380s, the passage Matthew 8:20 was written.

Foxis han dennes, and briddis of heuene han nestis
Here the plural suffix -n on the verb have is still retained, but none of the case endings on the nouns are present.

By the 12th century Middle English was fully developed, integrating both Norse and Norman features; it continued to be spoken until the transition to early Modern English around 1500. Middle English literature includes Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. In the Middle English period the use of regional dialects in writing proliferated, and dialect traits were even used for effect by authors such as Chaucer.

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