ТОП 10:

Middle English Period in the History of the English Language

Historical Background

1042-1066 – King Edward the Confessor:

· brought up in France;

· had lots of Norman advisors and favourites;

· spoke French and wanted his court to speak it;

· rumour had it that he appointed William, Duke of Normandy, his successor.


However, after the death of Edward in 1066 the government of the country was in the hands of the Anglo-Saxon feudal lords and they proposed their own king – Earl Harold Godwinson of Wessex.

1066 – Harold Godwinson became king of England. William was not satisfied with this fact. He gathered a big army, there happened the Battle of Hastings, William won it, became king and was called since then William the Conqueror.


After the Norman Conquest of the British Isles the Normans occupied important positions in church, government and army. William strengthened feudal system and royal power (vassals were not allowed to have big armies so they could not oppose the king; with the Oath of Salisbury each vassal promised direct loyalty to king and military help in return for land; Domesday Book provided William with information about all people and lands he possessed, he proclaimed himself the owner of all the lands in the country). This led to the centralizationof the country:

· Wales – was the first to join England in the 13th – 16th c.;

· Scotland – remained independent until Queen Elizabeth the 1st of England died and as far as she was childless the throne passed to James the 4th of Scotland who became James the 1st of England and unified Scotland and England. Finally, in 1707 Great Britain appeared as a country consisting of England, Wales and Scotland;

· Ireland – the attempts to conquer Ireland were made in the 12th c. but they did not prove to be successful. In 1921, after a long fight, the UK managed to keep only a small part of Ireland – Northern Ireland.


Linguistic Situation

After the Norman Conquest:

· Frenchbecame the official language of administration (it was used in the king’s court, in the law courts, in the church (as well as Latin), in the army, by the nobles in the south of England). It was also used as a language of writing and teaching as well as Latin.

· Englishwas the language of common people in the Midlands and in the north of England. It still remained the language of the majority who were the representatives of the lower classes of society and never learned French, so the Norman barons had to learn English to be able to communicate with locals.

· Celtic Dialects were still used by the Celtic population in the remote areas of the country.


Actually, during the presence of the Normans the country experienced the period of bilingualism (French and English were both used in the country and started to intermix, i.e. a lot of the French words crept into the Middle English Dialects and it came to resemble present-day English a lot).


The Norman and the English drew together in the course of time and intermixed. French lost its popularity due to the fact that it was not the language of the majority and could not be used to communicate with local people. English regained its leading position with time and became accepted as the official language. The proofs are:

· The Parliamentary Proclamation of 1258 – Henry the 3rd addressed the councilors in Parliament in French, Latin and English.

· In the 14th – 15th c. legal documents (wills, municipal acts, petitions, etc.) started to be issued in English.

· 1364 – Parliament was opened with an address in English.

· 1399 – Henry the 4th accepted the throne and made a speech in English.

· Translations of the documents written in French into English.


Thus in the 14th c. English becomes the language of literature and administration.

Middle English Dialects

OE Dialects Kentish West Saxon Mercian Northumbrian
  ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯
ME Dialects Kentish Dialect South-Western Dialects Midland Dialects Northern Dialects
Examples - East Saxon Dialect London Dialect Gloucester Dialect West Midland Dialect East Midland Dialect Yorkshire Dialect Lancashire Dialect

The most important dialect in the Middle English period was the LONDON DIALECT.


London Dialect

In the 12th -13th c.the London Dialect became the literary language and the standard,both in written and spoken form. The reasons why this happened:

· The capital of the country was transferred from Winchester, Wesses, to London a few years before the Norman Conquests.

· The East Saxon Dialect, that was the basis of the London Dialect got, became the most prominent in the Middle English period.

· Most writers and authors of the Middle English period used the London Dialect in their works.


Features of the London Dialect:

· The basis of the London Dialect was the East Saxon Dialect

· The East Saxon Dialect mixed with the East Midland Dialect and formed the London Dialect.

· Thus the London Dialect became more Anglican than Saxon in character à The London Dialect is an Anglican dialect.



1. § 349-354, p. 181-183 in “История английского языка” by Т.А. Расторгуева (expansion of English overseas) (copioes).

Lecture 8

Middle English Written Records

Main Written Records of the Middle English Period

See § 292-295, p. 156-157; § 302-308, p. 160-163 in “История английского языка” by Т.А. Расторгуева (copies).


Geoffrey Chaucer and His Contribution

Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the most prominent authors of the Middle English Period and he set up a language pattern to be followed. He is considered to be the founder of the literary language of that period. Most authors of the Middle English Period tried to fallow this standard.

Features of the Chaucer’s Language:

· Chaucer’s Language was the basis for the national literary language (15th – 16th c.).

· New spelling rules (digraphs) and new rules of reading (1 letter = several sounds) appeared as compared to the Old English.

· New grammatical forms appeared (Perfect forms, Passive forms, “to” Infinitive constructions, etc.).

· Chaucer tried to minimize the number of the French loans in the English Language.

· Chaucer introduced rhyme to the poetry.


Middle English Alphabet

The Middle English Alphabet resembled the Old English Alphabet but some changes were introduced:

· th replaced ð/þ/Đ/đ;

· w replaced ?;

· æ, œ disappeared;

· digraphs(2 letters = one sound) appeared (came from French):

o th for [q] and [ð];

o tch/chfor [t∫];

o sch/ssh/shfor [∫];

o dgfor [dζ];

o whreplace hw but was pronounced still as [hw]!;

o ghfor [h];

o qufor [kw];

o ow/oufor [u:] and [ou];

o iefor [e:].

Rules of Reading:

They resemble the modern rules, with several exceptions though:

1.Double vowels stood for long sounds, e.g. oo = [o:]; ee = [e:].

2.g = [dζ]

c = [s] before front vowels ( [i, e] ).


g = [g]

c = [k] before back vowels ( [a, o, u] ).

3.y = [j] – at the beginning of the word;

=[i] – in the cases when i stood close together with r, n, m and could be confused with one of these letters or could be lost among them, it was replaced with y, sometimes also for decorative purpose.(e.g. nyne [‘ni:nə], very [‘veri]).

4.th = [ð]

s = [z] between vowels.

5.o = [o] – in most cases;

=[u] – in the words that have [Λ] sound in Modern English (e.g. some, love)

6.j = [dζ]



1. § 292-295, p. 156-157; § 302-308, p. 160-163 in “История английского языка” by Т.А. Расторгуева (copies).

2. Using your knowledge of the Middle English spelling and the rules of reading (Lecture 8) read an abstract from the “Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer (lines 1-14) on p. 33-34 in “A Reader in the History of English” by Е.К. Щука and try to identify the peculiarities of the Middle English spelling and rules of reading.

Lecture 9

New English Period in the History of the English Language

In the 15th – 16th c. the feudal system started to decay and bourgeois relationships and capitalism started to develop. England became a centralised state.

Introduction of Printing

The first printer of English books was William Caxton (1422-1491). He was born in Kent. In 1441 he moved to Flanders (a region in Belgium) and later, in 1473, he opened up his own printing press in Bruges.

1475– the first English book was printed in Bruges by William Caxton. It was a translation of the story of Troy.

A few years later William Caxton brought his printing press to England and set it up in Winchester. Here he published the work of the famous authors of that time – Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, John Lydgate – and translated books from French.

Contribution of Printing:

· The works of the authors of that time were edited and brought into conformity with the London Dialect and as far as all the book were written in this dialect, it spread quickly and became the true standard of the English language;

· As far as printing allowed to multiply books in great number, they were sold and thus the literacy of the population grew;

· Before the introduction of printing different scribes could spell the same words differently; with the introduction of printing the spelling became fixed and it hasn’t changed since that time though the pronunciation has changed greatly (this fact explains the difficulties of the English spelling).


Age of Shakespeare

See lectures in the English Literature on Shakespeare and his works.

The sources of information about the language:

· private letters (as far as books became available, more people became literate and started to write letters, wills, diaries, etc.);

· books for pupils and didactic works (e.g. “An Orthographie” by John Hart; “Grammatica Lingæ Anglicanæ” by John Wallis, etc.);

· lists of difficult words and dictionaries (e.g. “English-English Dictionary” (dialectal words explained with the help of the bookish English) by Henry Cockeram, etc.).

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