The Development of Middle English   Leave a comment


Above: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Peterborough) for 1137, written c. 1154.

The Transition from Old English to Middle English:

Before the first printing press was set up by William Caxton in 1476, many copies of books were lost. The more popular books, re-written many times, like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, have survived, although Chaucer’s original manuscripts have been lost. Other works are known through a single surviving copy.

The writings of most early modern authors, from Shakespeare onwards, were prepared for printing in modern editions by editors who almost always converted the original spelling and punctuation into modern standard forms. For example, an early edition of Henry IV Part I printed in 1598 contains the following words spoken by Falstaff:

If I be not ashamed of my soldiours, I am a souct gurnet, I have misused the kinges presse damnablie. No eye hath scene such skarcrowes. Ile not march through Coventry with them, that’s flat.

It contains several unfamiliar features of spelling and punctuation, some of which, like souct gurnet, obscure meaning for the modern reader. It probably means ‘soused’ which has two meanings in modern English, both ‘soaked’ and ‘preserved’ in salted water or ‘pickled’ in vinegar, as in ‘soused herrings’. When we work out that gurnet may mean ‘gherkin’, we begin to make some sense of the phrase. The policy of modernising the spelling and punctuation of old texts which began with the eighteenth century dictionaries has obscured the regional spellings which still existed from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century and the gradual development of a recognisably standard form of spelling in English. Shakespeare, for example, was from Stratford, literally at the crossroads of these dialects, which also explains, in part, his lexical variety. However, few of his plays were printed and published during his lifetime, since they were first written to be performed rather than read. So while the original spellings of Chaucer’s ME manuscripts of 1390s survive into printed text, those of Shakespeare’s manuscripts in the Early Modern English of the 1590s do not. All printed versions of old texts compromise in reproducing the originals, but original handwritten scripts and facsimiles are often difficult to decipher.

The most important change in manuscripts from OE to ME, for example in The Peterborough Chronicle, is found in the absence of many of the inflections of OE, mainly by their reduction in sound. This led to a greater reliance on word order and the more frequent use of prepositions to show the meanings that might formerly have been conveyed by suffixes. The word-for-word translation of the entry for 1137, written in 1154, reveals this transitional phase:

I ne can ne I ne can tell all the

horrors ne all the pains that they caused wretched-men in this land… that lasted the nineteen winters while Stephen was king… ever it were worse and worse…

…then was the corn dear… flesh and cheese and butter… for none ne was in the land…

Wretched-men died of hunger…

…where so one tilled… the earth ne born no corn… for the land was all ruined… with such deeds… they said openly that christ slept and his saints…

Such and more than we can say… we suffered nineteen winters for our sins.

Another noticeable change was the inclusion of a small number of words, significant in their frequency, which were adopted from ‘Anglo-Norman’, the form of Old Northern French spoken by the Normans in England. Most typical are words like castel and prison, but other words which seem to have been adopted into English by the late twelfth century include:

Abbat, capelain, cancelere, cardinal, clerc, cuntesse, curt, duc, iustice, legat, market, prior, rent, serfise, tresor.

(abbot, chaplain, chancellor,… clerk, countess, court, duke, justice, legate,… service, treasure.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of these words were either part of the lexis of administration and law, conducted mainly in Norman French, or that of the Church, conducted in a mixture of Latin and French. Another important source for the shift in the language after 1150 is the book called Ormulum, written by an Anglo-Danish monk named Orm. At the beginning of his book, he explains why he wrote it:

This book is called Ormulum… Because Orm it wrought… (= made)

I have turned into English… (The) gospel’s holy lore… After that little wit that me… My Lord has lent…

(Word-for-word translation)

Orm goes on to tell future readers, and to warn future scribes, that he had attempted to write correctly every letter and word in English. Not surprisingly therefore, his spelling is consistent and represents a conscious attempt to reform the system of recording sounds, relating each sound to a symbol. For example, he introduced three symbols for ‘g’ to differentiate the three sounds that it had come to represent, and substitutes ‘wh’ for ‘hw’ in OE, providing forerunners of ‘who’, ‘whose’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘why’ and ‘when’ in Modern English, and ‘sh’ for ‘sc’ in OE, providing ‘shall’ for ‘sceal’ and ‘Englissh’ for ‘Englisc’. In word-for-word translation, here is an extract from Orm’s rendering of Luke’s nativity verses concerning the appearance of the angel to the shepherds:

An angel came from heaven’s land… in a man’s form…

To shepherds there where they that night… watched their folds.

The angel came and stood them by… with heaven’s light and brightness…

And immediately as they saw him… they became very afraid.

And God’s angel them began… to comfort and to encourage…

And said to them thus on God’s behalf… with very mild speech…

Ne be ye not afraid of me… but be ye very blithe …

For to-you is born now today… saviour of our sins…

A child that is Jesus Christ… that know ye for truth …

Ye shall find a child… in swaddling-clothes wound…

And it is in a crib laid… and there ye it may find.


And soon at once they went forth… to Bethlehem’s city…

And found Saint Mary there… and Joseph her husband…

And also they found there the child… where it was laid in crib …

And soon at once they made-known forth… among Jewish nation…

All that they had heard of Christ… and saw well with eyes.


And our lady Mary took… all that she saw and heard …

And laid it all together always… in very thoughtful heart…

All that she saw and heard of Christ… whose mother she was become.


Above:  The original text of  The Shepherds at the Manger, Ormulum, late twelfth century

Orm’s twenty thousand or so lines of verse are important evidence for some of the changes in the language that had taken effect by the end of the twelfth century in his part of the country. He lived in northern Lincolnshire, now South Humberside, so he wrote in the East Mercian dialect, like the authors of the Peterborough Chronicle continuations. His main objective was to teach the Christian faith in English, and the verses were to be read aloud. His system of spelling was therefore designed to help the reader to pronounce the texts properly. What is especially noticeable is the number of letters he wrote as double consonants. His lines, however, are not great literature, since according to his purpose, they are absolutely regular in metre and therefore monotonous. He is therefore often overlooked even in the limited canon of ME literature, though his writing is very valuable to students of the language.

All present-day dialects of English, including the regional accents in which Standard English may be spoken, can be traced back to the dialects of the ME period (c. 1150-1450) in their pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. There was no standard form of the language then, and the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation varied from one part of the country to another, even within distances of twenty miles. Differences in spelling, punctuation, vocabulary and grammar in manuscripts are first-hand evidence of varied usages and forms of pronunciation, and of the changes which took effect over the period. When this evidence is examined systematically, knowledge of the probable dialectal region in which a text was written can be deduced.


Geoffrey Chaucer, writing in the 1390s in the southern Mercian, or London dialect, used the new form of subject pronoun, which by his time had been ‘borrowed’ by the Northern dialect of ME from ON and had spread southwards, but did not become completely assimilated into the Southern dialect until the beginning of the fifteenth century:

And thus they being accorded and ysworn

However, he used the older forms for the object and possessive, as in:

And many a lovely look on hem he caste

Men sholde wedden after hir estaat

The vocabulary of the northern text, Cursor Mundi contains a number of words derived from OE. It was written in the North of England in the last quarter of the thirteenth century. It consists of thirty thousand lines of verse, retelling Christian legends and Bible stories. The following couplet is one indicator of its Northern origins. In the ME original, wrong (in the southern Mercian dialect used later by Chaucer), is ‘wrang’, loth is ‘lath’ and ‘angry’ is ‘wrath’, all three retaining the long /a:/ vowel:

Wrong-doing is loth to hear of justice

And pride is angry with humility

An example of the East Midlands dialect in ME from the thirteenth century worth examining is the only surviving manuscript of the medieval Bestiary, which was based on the belief the animal and plant world was symbolic of religious truths – the creatures of this sensible world signify the invisible things of God. Later scientific knowledge revealed that some of these things were not true of the real animals described, while other animals, like the unicorn, phoenix and basilisk are purely imaginary, the stuff of myths, legends and Harry Potter books! Here is the description of the eagle’s flight in modern word-for-word translation:

Show I wish the eagle’s nature…

How he renews his youth

How he comes out of old age

When his limbs are weak

When his beak is completely twisted

When his flight is all weak

And his eyes dim…


A spring he seeks that flows always

Both by night and by day

Thereover he flies and up he goes

Till that he the heaven sees

Through clouds six and seven

Till he comes to heaven.

As directly as he can

He hovers in the sun.


The sun scorches all his wings

And also it makes his eyes bright.

His feathers fall because of the heat

And he down then to the water …

Falls in the well bottom

Where he becomes hale and sound

And comes out all new …

The variety of ME can be seen in that there were many possible spellings for the same word, according to the period and the dialectal area in which a particular manuscript was copied. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary has the following twenty-seven spellings for ‘shield’ from Old English to Modern English:

scild, scyld, sceld, seld, sseld, sheld, cheld, scheld, sceild, scheeld, cheeld, schuld, scelde, schulde, schylde, shilde, schelde, sheeld, schield, childe, scheild, shild, shylde, sheelde, schielde, sheild, shield.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: