Middle English Grammar

As stated in class, the change in English language was generally a drop in the inflectional endings.  Endings of the noun and adjective marking distinctions of number and case and often of gender were so altered in pronunciation as to lose their distinctive form and hence their usefulness.  To some extent the same thing is true of the verb.  This leveling of inflectional endings was due partly to phonetic changes, partly to the operation of analogy.

At the same time, the vowels a, o, u, e in inflectional endings were obscured to a sound, the so-called “indeterminate vowel,” which came to be written e (less often i, y, u depending on the place and date).  As a result, a number of originally distinct endings such as a, u, e, an, um were reduced to a uniform –e, and such grammatical distinctions as they formerly expressed were no longer conveyed.  Traces of these changes have been found in Old English manuscripts as early as the tenth century.  By the end of the 12th century they seem to have been generally carried out.

I.  Changes to the Language Outside of French Influence

  1. Parts of Speech
  1. Nouns

Because these two cases of the plural were the most frequently used, the –s came to be thought of as the sign of the plural and was extended to all plural forms.  We get thus an inflection of the noun identical with that which we have today.  Other declensions suffered even more, so that in many words (giefu, sumu, etc) the distinctions of case and even of number were completely obliterated.  In early Middle English only two methods of indicating the plural remained fairly distinctive: the –s or –es from the strong masculine declension and the –en (as in oxen) from the weak.

  1. Adjectives

In the adjective the leveling of forms had even greater consequences.  Partly as a result of the sound-changes already described, partly through the extensive working of analogy, the form of the nominative singular was early extended to all cases of the singular, and that of the nominative plural to all cases of the plural, both in the strong and the weak declensions.  The result was that in the weak declension there was no longer any distinction between the singular  and the plural: both ended in –e (blinda > blinde and blindan > blinde).  This was also true of those adjectives under the strong declension whose singular ended in –e.

  1. The Pronoun

In the pronoun class, we see a rise of the neuter.  Old English had many pronouns, and many of them were lost.  The loss was greatest in the demonstratives.  Of the numerous forms of se, seo, thaet, only the and that surviving through Middle English and continuing use today.  A plural tho (those) survived to Elizabethan times.  All the other forms indicative of different gender, number, and case disappeared in most dialects early in Middle English period.  The same may be said of the demonstrative Pes, Peos, Pis (this).  Everywhere but in the south the neuter form Pis came to be used early in Middle English for all genders and cases of the singular, while the forms of the nominative plural were similarly extended to all cases of the plural, appearing in ME as those and these.  However the forms of the dative and accusative cases were early combined, generally under that of the dative (him, her, [t]hem).  In the neuter the form of the accusative (h)it became the general objective case, partly because it was like the nominative, and partly because the dative him would have been subject to confusion.   The pronoun for “ye two” was also lost by this time.  From the Scandinavian language, we acquired “they, their, and them” which replaced hi (he), here, hem.

  1. The Verb

After the Norman Conquest the loss of native words further depleted the ranks of the strong verbs.  Those that survived were exposed to the influence of the majority, and many have changed over in the course of time to the weak inflection.  In addition to verbs that are not found at all after the Old English period there are about a dozen  more that appear only in Layamon (c. 1200) or in certain twelfth-century texts based directly on the homilies of Aelfric and other Old English works.  In other words, more than a hundred of the Old English strong verbs were lost at the beginning of the Middle English period.  But this was not all.  Some thirty more became obsolete in the course of Middle English, and an equal number, which were still in use in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, finally died out except in the dialects, often after they had passed over to the weak conjugation or had developed weak forms alongside the strong.  Today more than half of the Old English strong verbs have disappeared completely from the standard language.  At a time when English was the language chiefly of the lower classes and largely removed from the restraining influences of education and a literary standard, it was natural that many speakers should apply the pattern of weak verbs to some which were historically strong.  Thus (to advise) and (to injure) had already become weak in Old English, while other verbs show occasional weak forms.  In none of the many verbs which have thus become weak was the change from the strong conjugation a sudden one.  Strong forms continued to be used while the weak ones were growing up, and in many cases they continued to be used long after the weak inflection had become well established.  For example, people used stope beside stepped, rewe beside rowed, clew beside clawed.  In some cases, the strong from remained in the language into modern times.  Climb, which was conjugated as weak verb as early as the 13th century, still has an alternative past tense clomb not only in Chaucer and Spenser but in Dryden, and the strong past tense crope was more common than crept down to Shakespeare’s day.  While the weak forms commonly won out, this was not always the case.  Many strong verbs also had weak forms (blowed for blew, knowed for knew, teared for tore) that did not survive in standard speech, while in other cases both forms have continued in use (cleftclove, crowedcrew, heavedhove, shearedshore, shrivedshrove).  For some reason the past participle of strong verbs seems to have been more tenacious than the past tense.   In a number of verbs weak participles are later in appearing and the strong form often continued in use after the verb had definitely become weak.  In the verb beat the principle beaten has remained the standard form, while in a number of the other verbs the strong participle (cloven, graven, hewn, laden, molten, mown, (mis)shapen, shaven, sodden, swollen) are still used, especially as adjective.  In all periods of the language they have been subjected to various forms of leveling and analogical influence from one class to another.  For example, the verb to slay had in Old English the forms sleanslogslogonslaegen.  These would normally have become slea (pronounced slee) –sloughslain, and the present tense slea actually existed down to the 17th century.  Here’s a little fun: we should actually be saying brack or brake, and the latter is still used in the Bible, but except in biblical language the current form is now broke.

  1. Other Changes to the Language
  1. Loss of Grammatical Gender

Old English never had much gender differences in the first place.  When the inflections of these gender-distinguishing words were reduced to a single ending for the adjective, and the fixed forms of the, this, that, these, and those for the demonstratives, the support for grammatical gender was removed.  The weakening of inflections and the confusion and loss of the old gender proceeded in a remarkably parallel course.  With the disappearance of grammatical gender sex became the only factor in determining the gender of English nouns.

  1. Middle English Syntax

As a result of the leveling of inflections, syntactic and semantic relationships that had been signaled by the endings on words now became ambiguous.  Whereas in Old English the grammatical functions of two conservative noun were clear from their endings in, say, the nominative and dative cases, in ME their functions might be uncertain.  The most direct way to avoid this kind of ambiguity is through limiting the possible patterns of word order.  This process of development and the reality of ME as a separate stage of the language grammatically (as well as phonologically and lexically) can be seen in the patterns of the subject and verb.  In addition to the ME order SV, OE had VS and, in subordinate clauses, S…V (with the finite verb in final position).

  1. French Influence on the Vocabulary


While the loss of inflections and the consequent simplification of English grammar were thus only indirectly due to the use of French in England, French influence is much more direct and observable upon the vocabulary.  Where two languages exist side by side for a long time and the relations between the people speaking them are as intimate as they were in England, a considerable transference of words from one language to the other is inevitable.  Although this influx of French words was brought about by the victory of the Conqueror and by the political and social consequences of that victory, it was neither sudden nor immediately apparent.  Rather it began slowly and continued with varying tempo for a long time.  By removing the authority that a standard variety of English would have, the Norman Conquest made it easier for grammatical changes to go forward unchecked.  Beyond this it is not considered a factor in syntactic changes.

When we study the French words appearing in English before 1250, roughly 900 in number, we find that many of them were such as the lower classes would become familiar with through contact with a French-speaking nobility (baron, noble, dame, servant, messenger, feast, minstrel, juggler, largess).  Others such as story, rime, and lay obviously owed their introduction into English to literary channels.  The largest single group among the words that came in early was associated with the church, where the necessity for the prompt transference of doctrine and belief from the clergy to the people is sufficient to account for the frequent transfer of words.  In the period after 1250 the conditions under which French words had been making their way into English were supplemented by a new and powerful factor: those who had been accustomed to speak French were turning increasingly to the use of English.  In changing from French to English they transferred much of their governmental and administrative vocabulary, their ecclesiastical, legal, and military terms, their familiar words of fashion, food, and social life, the vocabulary of art, learning, and medicine.

  1. Governmental and Administrative Words

We get many of our governmental and administrative words from French.  The words government, govern, administer might appropriately introduce  a list of such words.  It includes fundamental terms such as: crown, state, empire, realm, reign, royal, prerogative, authority, sovereign, majesty, scepter, tyrant, usurp, oppress, court, council, parliament, assembly, statute, treaty, alliance, record, repeal, adjourn, tax, subsidy, revenue, tally, subject, allegiance, rebel, traitor, treason, exile, public, liberty, office, chancellor, treasurer, chamberlain, marshal, governor, councilor, minister, warden, mayor, constable, coroner, and even crier.  Most designations are French: noble, nobility, peer, prince, princess, duke, duchess, count, countess, marquis, baron, squire, page, courtier, retinue, sir, madam, and mistress.  Also manor, bailiff, vassal, homage, peasant, bondman, slave, and servant.

  1. Ecclesiastical Words

In ME times, ecclesiastical preferment opened the way to a career that often led to highest political offices at court.  In monasteries and religious houses French was for a long time the usual language.  That is why we find French words in church speech: religion, theology, sermon, homily, sacrament, baptism, communion, confession, penance, prayer, lesson, passion, clergy, clerk, prelate, cardinal, legate, dean, chaplain, parson, pastor, vicar, sexton, abbess, novice, friar, hermit, crucifix, surplice, censer, incense, lectern, image, creator, savior, trinity, virgin, saint, miracle, mystery, faith, heresy, schism, reverence, devotion, sacrilege, temptation, damnation, penitence, contrition, remission, redemption, salvation, immortality, piety, sanctity, charity, mercy, pity, obedience, virtue, solemn, divine, reverend, devout, preach, pray, chant, repent, confess, adore, sacrifice, convert, anoint, ordain. 

  1. Law

French was the language of the law courts in England that the greater part of the English legal vocabulary comes from the language of the conquerors.  The fact that we speak of justice and equity instead of gerihte, judgment rather than dom (doom), crime in place synn, gylt, undoed shows how completely the English absorbed French.  Even where the Old English word survives it has lost its technical sense.  In the same way we say bar, assize, eyre, plea, suit, plaintiff, defendant, judge, advocate, attorney, bill, petition, complaint, inquest, summons, hue and cry, indictment, jury, juror, panel, felon, evidence, proof, bail, ransom, judgment, verdict, sentence, decree, award, fine, forfeit, punishment, prison, goal, pillory, sue, plead, implead, accuse, indict, arraign, depose, blame, arrest, property, estate, tenement, chattels, bounds, patrimony, heritage, heir, executor, entail, just, innocent, and culpable.

  1. Army and Navy

The large part that war played in English affairs in the Middle Ages, the fact that the control of the army and navy was in the hands of those who spoke French, and the circumstance that much of English number of French military terms.  Nevertheless, we still use medieval French words when we speak of the army and the navy, of peace, enemy, arms, battle, combat, skirmish, siege, defense, ambush, stratagem, retreat, soldier, garrison, guard, spy, and we have kept the names of officers such as captain, lieutenant, sergeant, dart, lance, banner, mail, buckler, archer, chieftain, arm, array, harness, brandish, vanquish, besiege, and defeat.

  1. Fashion, Meals, and Social Life

For some reason, French is associated with culture and civilization.  It is no surprise that fashion and dress are themselves French.  Other words  include apparel, habit, gown, robe, garment, attire, cape, cloak, coat, frock, collar, veil, train, chemise, petticoat, lace, embroidery, pleat, buckle, button, tassel, plume, kerchief, mitten, garter, galoshes, and boots.  Verbs like embellish, adorn.  The colors blue, brown, vermillion, scarlet, saffron, russet, and tawny are also French.  Other words include jewel, ornament, brooch, chaplet, ivory, enamel, turquoise, amethyst, topaz, garnet, ruby, emerald, sapphire, pearl, diamond, crystal, coral , and beryl.  English even borrowed words  for food: dinner, supper, feast, repast, collation, mess, appetite, taste, victuals, viand and sustenance.  Servants also had to learn French terms for cooking.  Audiences are often surprised at the number of French words we get for food: mackerel, sole, perch, salmon, sardine, oyster, venison, beef, veal, mutton, pork, sausage, bacon, tripe, loin, gravy, poultry, pigeon, toast, biscuit, cream, sugar, olives, salad, lettuce, endive, almonds, raisin, fig, date, grape, orange, lemon, pomegranate, cherry, peach, confection, pastry, tarte, jelly, spice, clove, thyme, herb, mustard, vinegar, cinnamon, nutmeg, roast, boil, parboil, stew, fry, grate, mince, platter, saucer, goblet, and brawn.

In the social life, we also have words that are reflective of the activities of the nobility class as well: curtain, couch, chair, cushion, screen, lamp, lantern, sconce, chandelier, blanket, quilt, coverlet, towel, basin, wardrobe, closet, pantry, recreation, leisure, dance, revel, minstrel, juggler, fool, ribald, lute, melody, music, chess, checkers, dalliance, conversation, hackney, stallion, curb, stable, harness, mastiff, terrier, leash, kennel, scent, retrieve, falcon, merlin, mallard, pheasant, quail, heron, squirrel, forest, park, covert, joust, tournament, and pavilion. 


  1. Art, Learning, Medicine



The cultural and intellectual interests of the ruling class are reflected in words pertaining to the arts, architecture, literature, learning, and science, especially medicine.  Such words as art, painting, sculpture, music, beauty, color, figure, image, tone, cathedral, palace, mansion, chamber, ceiling, joust, cellar, garret, chimney, lintel, latch, lattice, wicket, tower, pinnacle, turret, porch, bay, choir, cloister, baptistery, column, pillar, base, poet, rime, chapter, quire, parchment, vellum, paper, pen, treatise, compilation, study, logic, geometry, grammar, noun, clause, gender, copy, expound, compile, medicine, physician, surgeon, apothecary, malady, debility, distemper, pain, palsy, gout, jaundice, leper, paralytic, plague, pestilence, contagion, anatomy, stomach, pulse, remedy, ointment, balm, alum, arsenic, sulphur, alkali, and poison.

  1. Breadth of the French Influence


One has only to glance at a list of miscellaneous words –nouns, adjectives, and verbs – to realize how universal French contribution has been to the  English language.  Look at some of these words: action, adventure, age, bucket, calendar, carpenter, cheer, coast, comfort, cost, coward, damage, debt, dozen, easy, envy, error, face, faggot, fame, fault, flower, grain, gum, harlot, hour, joy, marriage, mountain, noise, number, ocean, odor, opinion, pair, person, piece, poverty, powder, quality, rage, reason, river, scandal, season, sign, sound, sphere, squirt, square, stubble, sum, task, tavern, unity, use, vision, waste.  Even during Chaucer’s time, the list of French word list was quite extensive: able, active, barren, blank, brief, calm, certain, chaste, clear, common, courageous, courteous, cruel, double, eager, easy, gracious, hardy, honest, horrible, innocent, and jolly.  Verbs include: advise, aim, apply, approach, arrange, arrive, cover, cry, deceive, declare, defeat, grant, increase, flatter, flourish, remember, prove, please, practice, rinse, rob, satisfy, scold, waste, trip, tremble, waive, wince, travel, strangle, stun, succeed.

  1. Other Influences on the English Vocabulary

As you can see, the list of words from French is exceedingly long!  It has only been since recent times that linguists are able to fully identify just how many French words were borrowed by the English.  Calculations show that the total number of words adopted during the ME period was a little over 10,000.  Of these, about 75% are still in use.

With so much emphasis on the French borrowing, it can be easy to forget that the language here was still a Germanic based language.  The language had undergone a rapid change, but the grammar itself was still English.  No matter what class of people in Britain, they still ate, drank, and slept.  They worked, played, spoke, and sang, walked, ran, rode, leaped, and swam in the same language. The house they lived in, with its hall, bower, rooms, windows, doors, floor, steps, gate, etc. was also English/Germanic.  Some food names remained Germanic: meat, drink butter, fish, milk, cheese, salt, pepper, wine, ale, and beer were all words from the pre-Conquest days.  Body parts: arms, legs, feet, hands, eyes, ears, head, nose, and mouth were also Germanic.  Also, please do not forget the language that the Normans and their successors finally adopted was English, and although it was an English changed from that of King Alfred, its predominant features were those inherited from the Germanic tribes that settled in England in the 5th century.

Also, there was still borrowing from Latin in ME.  These differed from French borrowing in that the words were slower to be accepted and mainly entered through the written language.  Wycliffe, the Bible translator, is accredited with more than a 1000 Latin words not previously found in English.  The additions from Latin to the English vocabulary is much larger than most of us realize.  Take a look at this list in order to fully appreciate the words we get from Latin: abject, allegory, conspiracy, contempt, custody, distract, intellect, incredible, lunatic, magnify, mechanical, nervous, ornate, picture, polite, popular, pulpit, prevent, private, subordinate, subscribe, substitute, summary, supplicate, temperate, temporal, testify, testimony, tincture, ulcer, and zenith.  In many cases Latin words were being borrowed by French at the same time, and the adoption of a word in English may often have been due to the impact of both languages.

Latin was utilized by English writers for more than ecclesiastical purposes.  Writers, especially the poets of the 15th century, used peculiar Latin words in order to lend their writing some style.  Poets used words such as abusion, dispone, diurne, equipollent, palestral, and tenebrous.  This type of flowery, dramatic, Latinized language is known as aureate diction.  It occurs with moderation in Chaucer, but for those who were heavily influenced by Chaucer, it occurs more frequently. Those poets would include Lydgate, James I, Henryson, Dunbar, and what are known as “Scottish Chaucerians.”

Still another source of words were from Flemish people of the low country.  This intercourse extends from the days of William the Conqueror, whose wife was Flemish, down to the 18th century.  All through the Middle Ages, Flemings came to England in considerable numbers.  Some of them were mercenaries with the English military.  Others took part in the number 1 trade in England: wool and wool working.  At the end of the ME ages we get words like nap (of cloth), deck, bowsprit, lighter, dock, freight, rover, mart, groat, and guilder.  Later borrowings include cambric, duck (cloth), boom (of a boat), beleaguer, furlough, commodore, gin, and dollar.  Some of the words come from art: easel, etching, and landscape.  The latest estimate of words contributed to English from Dutch is about 2500 words.

  • The Rise of Standard English

Out of this variety of local dialects there emerged toward the end of the 14th century a written language that in the course of the 15th won general recognition and has since become the recognized standard in both speech and writing.  The part of England that contributed most of the formation of this standard was the East Midland district, and it was the East Midland type of English that became its basis, particularly the dialect of the metropolis, London.  Several causes contributed to the attainment of this result.

In the first place, as a Midland dialect the English of this region occupied a middle position between the extreme divergences of the north and south.  It was less conservative than the Southern dialect, less radical than the Northern.  In its sounds and inflections it represents a kind of compromise, sharing some of the characteristics of both its neighbors.  In the second place, the East Midland district was the largest and most populous of the major dialect areas.  The land was more valuable than the hilly country to the north and west, and in an agricultural age this advantage was reflected in both the number and the prosperity of the inhabitants.  A third factor, more difficult to evaluate, was the presence of the universities, Oxford and Cambridge, in this region.  In the 14th century the monasteries were playing less important role in the dissemination of learning than they had once played, while the two universities  had developed into important intellectual centers.  So far as Cambridge is concerned any influence that it had would be exerted in support of the East Midland dialect. That of Oxford is less certain because Oxfordshire is on the border between Midland and Southern and its dialect shows certain characteristic Southern features.

Much the same uncertainty attaches to the influence of Chaucer.  It was once thought that Chaucer’s importance was paramount among the influences bringing about the adoption of a written standard.  And, indeed, it is  unbelievable that the language of the greatest English poet before Shakespeare was not spread by the popularity of his works and, through the use of that language, by subsequent poets who looked upon him as their master and model.  But it is nevertheless unlikely that the English used in official records and in letters and papers by men of affairs was greatly influenced by the language of his poetry.  Yet it is the language found in such documents rather than the language of Chaucer that is at the basis of Standard English.

London was, and still is, the political and commercial center of England; therefore, it is important to the language.  The London dialect became the most prestigious.  Its prestige may possibly be reflected  in the fact that Mak the sheep-stealer in the Townley Plays attempts to impose upon the Yorkshire shepherds by masquerading as a person of some importance and affects a “Southern tooth.”   From the beginning London has been the center of book publishing in England.  Caxton, the first English printer, used the current speech of London in his numerous translations, and the books that issued from his press and from the presses of his successors gave a currency to London English had become a matter of precept as well as practice.

  1. Popular and Literary Borrowings

So much of Middle English literature was based directly on French originals that it would have been rather exceptional if English writers had consistently resisted the temptation to carry French words over into their adaptations.  Laymon resisted, but most others did not, and when in the 13th and 14th centuries French words were being taken by the hundreds into the popular speech, the way was made easier for the entrance of literary words as well.

  1. Assimilation and French Doublets

For those French words which were borrowed early, they became base derivatives. What that means is, English people simply made compounds of the French words very easily.  A good example of this is the word “gentle.”  From “gentle,” the English made “gentlewoman,” “gentleman,” “gentleness,” and “gently.”  Another example is “faith.”  The English made “faithless,” “faithful,” “faithfully,” “faithfulness,” and “faithly.”  This process of using the base and making compounds is called assimilation.  In some instances, the French word was borrowed and reborrowed, and even existed/exist alongside the English word.  In words originally borrowed from Germanic, Germanic /gw/ became /w/ in Norman and /g/ in Central French.  Thus, beside Norman wile, warrant, war, and wage, English also has the Central French forms guile, guaranty, garrison, and gauge.  In Norman French, Latin /k/ before /a/ remained, while in Central French it became /ch/.  Hence we have such doublets in English as Norman canal, cattle, catch, and car versus Central French channel, chattels, chase, and chariot.   Look at these words.  They seem almost the same, but they are not quite.  It depends on how we use them.  These pairings are called “French doublets.”  While we see them in everyday speech, they are most often used in legalese (law language).  Where both the English and the French words survived they were generally differentiated in meaning.  In most of these cases where duplication occurred, the French word, when it came into English, was a close synonym of the corresponding English word.  The discrimination between them has been a matter of gradual growth, but it justifies the retention of both words in the language.

  1. Loss of Native Words

And yet it has been said that there are no exact synonyms in English.  There are usually certain peculiarities of meaning or use that distinguish a word from others with which it has much in common.  In such cases one of two things happened: of the two words one was eventually lost, or where both survived and were differentiated in meaning as in the French doublet.  In some cases the French word disappeared, but in a great many cases it was the Old English word that died out. The substitution was not always immediate; often both words continued in use for a longer or shorter time, and the English word occasionally survives in the dialects today.  Thus the OE eam, which has been replaced in the standard speech by the French word uncle.  However, eme is still in use in Scotland.  In some cases, the native word was either strengthened or weakened.  For instance, the common OE word for smell was stench.  During the ME period, this was supplemented by the word smell (of unknown origin) and the French words aroma, odor, and scent.  To these we have since added stink (from the verb) and perfume and fragrance, from French.  Most of these have special connotations and smell has become the general word.  Stench now always means an unpleasant smell.


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