Characteristics of the Middle English Language – Read a Short Note

A Short note on Middle English Language and its salient features –

Before we proceed, read another short note on Old English Period

Middle English marks the middle period between Old English and Modern English. There came changes in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. In fact there were French loan words also. The considerable number of old loan words had already entered into the speech of the people.

But it was after the Norman Conquest that Scandinavian loan words happened to be recorded in writing. The inflections were weakening. It is, however, true that process of weakening the inflectional endings was helped and accelerated by the Norman Conquest.

Result of Norman Conquest on English Language of the time –

An important result of this Norman Conquest was the introduction of a large number of French words which are the bulk of English Vocabulary. Another result of the Norman Conquest was that the French scribes were given the task of writing in English.

These scribes didn’t know the traditional spellings. Thus, the phonetic character of English spelling in the Old English was lost. With the weakening of the Old English inflectional endings, the grammar of the Middle English period had become simplified.

Thus in its grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of the words, Middle English was quite different from Old English.

Entry of new words into English Vocab

The Old English vocabulary was almost unmixed while the Middle English vocabulary was heterogeneous. Though the Scandinavian words had entered the spoken language during the late Old English period yet till the Middle English period no literature had been produced.

The French words came into the English vocabulary. They were related to the customs, ideas, art, literature and ways of the life of Normans. These words are poet, prose, poem, art, painting, beauty, image, palace, mansion etc.

Chief of them were related to government, warfare, law and church. Words like chaplain, charity, grace, miracle, army, navy, diplomacy, corps etc were borrowed from French.

There were also words from fashion, hunting, social life etc. In the words of Mario Pei in his book ” The Story of English ” – “As for vocabulary, the Norman Conquest acted like a bomb that smashed a dike and let loose a flood.”

Use of Scandinavian and Latin words –

Besides the large no of French words, a good number of Latin words were also introduced into the English language. These were mostly technical, legal terms. In important feature of the vocabulary of this period was the gradual decay of the words of Native origin which were used till the beginning of Middle English Period.

Some of them were driven out of use by their Scandinavian or French equivalents. The Middle English was heterogeneous because the words from the Scandinavian and Latin came in.

Changes in Middle English –

The Middle English period had witnessed the changes in the language of the period. There was a gradual decay and ultimate loss of the inflectional endings of the Old English. While the Old English had varied endings for the plurals, Middle English reduced them all to s or es.

The only exceptions were the irregular plurals which were few in number as in Modern English. Another significant feature of Middle English vocabulary was that the definite article as well as the adjectives were not declined. By the 14th century all English nouns came to be divided into masculine, feminine and neuter gender.

Removal of ambiguities –

Contact with the French resulted in the introduction of French usages in English. English now borrowed from French the device of forming the comparative and superlative degrees. The pronouns in Old English underwent many changes during the Middle English period. The ambiguities were removed by replacing the native pronouns by Scandinavian ones. These Scandinavian pronouns had become generally accepted by the 14th century.

Reason for the growth of Middle English –

It is known that Chaucer would write like Langland, Gower and Wycliffe in the dialect familiar to him. Moreover, Chaucer and Wycliffe were followed by a school of imitators not only in Britain but also in Scotland.

Caxton’s printing press accelerated the pace of its development. In the Tudor times, the Bible and the Prayer Book written in the dialect of Chaucer and Wycliffe afforded force and momentum to the growth of English.

Conclusion –

It is true that complete uniformity was not yet attained. The process of standardization was not only set afoot by it but also got greatly quickened resulting in a fair standard of uniformity.

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