The Phrase. Noun, Adjective and Verb Patterns

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The Phrase. Noun, Adjective and Verb Patterns

The syntactic structure of a language can be described at the level of the phrase and at the level of the sentence. In OE texts we find a variety of word phrases. OE noun patterns, adjective and verb patterns had certain specific features which are important to note in view of their later changes.

A noun pattern consisted of a noun as the head word and pronouns, adjectives, numerals and other nouns as determiners and attributes. Most noun modifiers agreed with the noun in gender, number and case, e.g. on þǽm ōþrum þrīm daзum ‘in those other three days’ – Dat. pl Masc.

An adjective pattern could include adverbs, nouns or pronouns in one of the oblique cases with or without prepositions, and infinitives, e.g. him wæs manna þearf ‘he was in need of man’.

Verb patterns included a great variety of dependant components: nouns and pronouns in oblique cases with or without prepositions, adverbs, infinitives and participles, e.g. brinз þā þīnз ‘bring those things’.

Word order

The order of words in the OE sentence was relatively free. The position of words in the sentence was often determined by logical and stylistic factors rather than by grammatical constraints. Nevertheless the freedom of word order and its seeming independence of grammar should not be overestimated. The order of words could depend on the communicative type of the sentence – question versus statement, on the type of clause, on the presence and place of some secondary parts of the sentence. A peculiar type of word order is found in many subordinate and in some coordinate clauses: the clause begins with the subject following the connective, and ends with the predicate or its finite part, all the secondary parts being enclosed between them. It also should be noted that objects were often placed before the predicate or between two parts of the predicate.

Those were the main tendencies in OE word order.


The Middle English period (1150-1500)
was marked by significant changes in the English language. Because of the Norman Conquest and the circumstances afterward and the way that the language began changing during the Old English period, Middle English had changes in its grammar and its vocabulary. As a result, the changes in grammar changed the English language from a “highly inflected language to an extremely analytic one, and those in vocabulary, “involved the loss of a large part of the Old English word-stock and the addition of thousands of words from French and Latin,” state Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable in their text, A History of the English Language.

1066-1075 William crushes uprisings of Anglo-Saxon earls and peasants with a brutal hand; in Mercia and Northumberland, uses (literal) scorched earth policy, decimating population and laying waste the countryside. Anglo-Saxon earls and freemen deprived of property; many enslaved. William distributes property and titles to Normans (and some English) who supported him. Many of the English hereditary titles of nobility date from this period.

English becomes the language of the lower classes (peasants and slaves). Norman French becomes the language of the court and propertied classes. The legal system is redrawn along Norman lines and conducted in French. Churches, monasteries gradually filled with French-speaking functionaries, who use French for record-keeping. After a while, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is no longer kept up. Authors write literature in French, not English. For all practical purposes English is no longer a written language.

Bilingualism gradually becomes more common, especially among those who deal with both upper and lower classes. Growth of London as a commercial center draws many from the countryside who can fill this socially intermediate role.

1204 The English kings lose the duchy of Normandy to French kings. England is now the only home of the Norman English.

1205 First book in English appears since the conquest.

1258 First royal proclamation issued in English since the conquest.

ca. 1300 Increasing feeling on the part of even noblemen that they are English, not French. Nobility begin to educate their children in English. French is taught to children as a foreign language rather than used as a medium of instruction.

1337 Start of the Hundred Years' War between England and France.

1362English becomes official language of the law courts. More and more authors are writing in English.

ca. 1380 Chaucer writes the Canterbury tales in Middle English. the language shows French influence in thousands of French borrowings. The London dialect, for the first time, begins to be recognized as the "Standard", or variety of English taken as the norm, for all England. Other dialects are relegated to a less prestigious position, even those that earlier served as standards (e.g. the Wessex dialect of southwest England).

1474 William Caxton brings a printing press to England from Germany. Publishes the first printed book in England. Beginning of the long process of standardization of spelling.


Vikings from modern-day Norway and Denmark began to conduct raids on parts of Britain from the late 8th century onwards. In 865, however, a major invasion was launched by what the Anglo-Saxons called the Great Heathen Army, which eventually brought large parts of northern and eastern England (the Danelaw) under Scandinavian control. Most of these areas were retaken by the English under Edward the Elder in the early 10th century, although York and Northumbria were not permanently regained until the death ofEric Bloodaxe in 954. Scandinavian raids resumed in the late 10th century during the reign of Æthelred the Unready, and Sweyn Forkbeard eventually succeeded in briefly being declared king of England in 1013, followed by the longer reign of his son Cnut from 1016 to 1035, and Cnut's sons Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut until 1042.

The Scandinavians, or Norsemen, spoke dialects of a North Germanic language known as Old Norse. The Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians thus spoke related languages from different branches (West and North) of the Germanic family; many of their lexical roots were the same or similar, although their grammatical systems were more divergent. Probably significant numbers of Norse speakers settled in the Danelaw during the period of Scandinavian control. Many place-names in those areas are of Scandinavian provenance (those ending in -by, for example); it is believed that the settlers often established new communities in places that had not previously been developed by the Anglo-Saxons. The extensive contact between Old English and Old Norse speakers, including the possibility of intermarriage that resulted from the acceptance of Christianity by the Danes in 878, undoubtedly had an influence on the varieties of those languages spoken in the areas of contact. Some scholars even believe that Old English and Old Norse underwent a kind of fusion, and that the resulting English language might be described as a mixed language or creole. During the rule of Cnut and other Danish kings in the first half of the 11th century a kind of diglossia may have come about, with the West Saxon literary language existing alongside the Norse-influenced Midland dialect of English, which could have served as a koiné or spoken lingua franca. When Danish rule ended, and particularly after the Norman Conquest, the status of the minority Norse language presumably declined relative to that of English, and its remaining speakers assimilated to English in a process involving language shiftand language death. The widespread bilingualism that must have existed during this process possibly contributed to the rate of borrowings from Norse into English.

Only about 100 or 150 Norse words, mainly connected with government and administration, are found in Old English writing. The borrowing of words of this type was stimulated by Scandinavian rule in the Danelaw and during the later Cnut era. However, most surviving Old English texts are based on the West Saxon standard that developed outside the Danelaw; it is not clear to what extent Norse influenced the forms of the language spoken in eastern and northern England at this time. Later texts from the Middle English era, now based on an eastern Midland rather than a Wessex standard, reflect the significant impact that Norse had on the language. In all, English borrowed about two thousand words from Old Norse, of which several hundred survive in Modern English.

Norse borrowings include many very common words, such as anger, bag, both, hit, law, leg, same, skill, sky, take, window, etc., and even the pronoun they. Norse influence is also believed to have reinforced the adoption of the plural copular verb form are rather than alternative Old English forms like sind. It is also considered to have stimulated and accelerated the morphological simplification found in Middle English, such as the loss of grammatical gender and explicitly marked case (except on pronouns). This is possibly confirmed by observations that simplification of the case endings occurred earliest in the north and latest in the south-west, the area farthest away from Viking influence. The spread of phrasal verbs in English is another grammatical development to which Norse may have contributed (although here a possible Celtic influence is also noted).


The English language we now know would not have been the same if it was not for the events that happened in 1066. In 1066, the Duke of Normandy, William sailed across the British Channel. He challenged King Harold of England in the struggle for the English throne. After winning the battle of Hastings William was crowned king of England and the Norman Kingdom was established. Norman-French became the language of the English court. At the beginning French was spoken only by the Normans but soon through intermarriage, English men learnt French. Some 10,000 French words were taken into English language during the Middle English period and about 75% of them are still in use.

One of the most obvious changes that occurred after the Norman conquest was that of the language: the Anglo-Norman. When William the Conqueror was crowned as king of England, Anglo-Norman became the language of the court, the administration, and culture. English was demoted to more common and unprestigious usages. Anglo Norman was instated as the language of the ruling classes, and it would be so until about three centuries later. But not only the upper classes used French, merchants who travelled to and from the channel, and those who wanted to belong to these groups, or have a relationship with them, had to learn the language.

These events marked the beginning of Middle English, and had an incredible effect in the way English is spoken nowadays. Before the Norman conquest, Latin had been a minor influence on English, but at this stage, some 30000 words entered the English language, that is, about one third of the total vocabulary. But vocabulary was not the only thing that changed in the English language. While Old English had been an extremely inflected language, it now had lost most of its inflections.

The influence of the Normans can be illustrated by looking at two words, beef and cow. Beef, commonly eaten by the aristocracy, derives from the Anglo-Norman, while the Anglo-Saxon commoners, who tended the cattle, retained the Germanic cow. Many legal terms, such as indict, jury, and verdict have Anglo-Norman roots because the Normans ran the courts. This split, where words commonly used by the aristocracy have Romantic roots and words frequently used by the Anglo-Saxon commoners have Germanic roots, can be seen in many instances.

In vocabulary, about 10000 words entered the English language at this stage, and more than a third of today’s PdE (Present-day English) words are related to those Anglo-Norman ME (Middle English) words.

English pronunciation also changed. The fricative sounds [f], [s], [Ɵ] (as in thin), and [ʃ] (shin), French influence helped to distinguish their voiced counterparts [v], [z], [] (the), and [ƺ] (mirage), and also contributed the diphthong [oi] (boy).

Grammar was also influenced by this phenomenon especially in the word order. While Old English (and PdE in most of the occasions) had an Adj + N order, some expressions like secretary general, changed into the French word order, that is, N + Adj.

English has also added some words and idioms that are purely French, and that are used nowadays.

Since French-speaking Normans took control over the church and the court of London. A largest number of words borrowed by the government, spiritual and ecclesiastical (religious) services. As example – state, royal (roial), exile (exil), rebel, noble, peer, prince, princess, justice, army (armee), navy (navie), enemy (enemi), battle, soldier, spy (verb), combat (verb) and more. French words also borrowed in English art, culture, and fashion as music, poet (poete), prose, romance, pen, paper, grammar, noun, gender, pain, blue, diamond, dance (verb), melody, image, beauty, remedy, poison, joy, poor, nice, etc. Many of the above words are different from modern French in use or pronunciation or spelling.

Thus, the linguistic situation in Britain after the Conquest was complex. French was the native language of a minority of a few thousand speakers, but a minority with influence out of all proportion to their numbers because they controlled the political, ecclesiastical, economic, and cultural life of the nation.



Kentish was originally spoken over the whole southeastern part of England, including London and Essex, but during the Middle English period its area was steadily diminished by the encroachment of the East Midland dialect, especially after London became an East Midland-speaking city (see below); in late Middle English the Kentish dialect was confined to Kent and Sussex. In the Early Modern period, after the London dialect had begun to replace the dialects of neighboring areas, Kentish died out, leaving no descendants. Kentish is interesting to linguists because on the one hand its sound system shows distinctive innovations (already in the Old English period), but on the other its syntax and verb inflection are extremely conservative; as late as 1340, Kentish syntax is still virtually identical with Old English syntax.


The Southern dialect of Middle English was spoken in the area west of Sussex and south and southwest of the Thames. It was the direct descendant of the West Saxon dialect of Old English, which was the colloquial basis for the Anglo-Saxon court dialect of Old English. Southern Middle English is a conservative dialect (though not as conservative as Kentish), which shows little influence from other languages — most importantly, no Scandinavian influence (see below). Descendants of Southern Middle English still survive in the working-class country dialects of the extreme southwest of England.


By contrast with these southernmost dialects, Northern Middle English evolved rapidly: the inflectional systems of its nouns and verbs were already sharply reduced by 1300, and its syntax is also innovative (and thus more like that of Modern English). These developments were probably the result of Scandinavian influence. In the aftermath of the great Scandinavian invasions of the 860's and 870's, large numbers of Scandinavian families settled in northern and northeastern England. When the descendants of King Alfred the Great of Wessex reconquered those areas (in the first half of the 10th century), the Scandinavian settlers, who spoke Old Norse, were obliged to learn Old English. But in some areas their settlements had so completely displaced the preexisting English settlements that they cannot have had sufficient contact with native speakers of Old English to learn the language well. They learned it badly, carrying over into their English various features of Norse (such as the pronoun they and the noun law ), and also producing a simplified syntax that was neither good English nor good Norse. Those developments can be clearly seen in a few late Old English documents from the region, such as the glosses on the Lindisfarne Gospels (ca. 950) and the Aldbrough sundial (late 11th century). None of this would have mattered for the development of English as a whole if the speakers of this "Norsified English" had been powerless peasants; but they were not. Most were freeholding farmers, and in many northern districts they constituted the local power structure. Thus their bad English became the local prestige norm, survived, and eventually began to spread (much later — see below).

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