Indo-European > Germanic > West Germanic > Middle English

For many philologists, ‘Middle English’ is little more than a convenient term for the collection of English dialects as they stood in the later middle ages, prior to standardization. Most agree that this period falls between the years 1100-1450. (Burrow/Turville-Petre: p3)

Old English was already evolving by the time of the Norman invasion, but from 1066 onwards the language of the governing classes was not English but French. Scribes and poets wrote predominantly in French and Latin, while the native English tongue, unfettered by a literary standard, was transformed by the influx of continental vocabulary. French loans were largely, but not exclusively, concerned with military, ecclesiastical, and judicial vocabulary. The basis of the grammar, however, remained solidly Germanic.

Due to the often striking differences between conventions of orthography, grammar and lexicon, the later medieval period has often been called a ‘dialect age’. Texts which date to the same period, such as Layamon’s Brut and The Owl and The Nightingale (shown below) are testament to this variance.

Perhaps the most well-known of Middle English authors to modern readers was Geoffrey Chaucer. His best known work was The Canterbury Tales, written towards the end of the fourteenth century. As an example of how people from different backgrounds and regions came together to share their stories and language, it is almost a metaphor for how the language itself was beginning to come together at the end of the later medieval era.

examples of middle english

Hail seo þu, Arður, aðelest kinge.
Ich æm þin a3e mon; moni lond Ich habbe þurhgan.
Ich con of treowrekes wunder feole craftes.
From 'Brut', by Layamon, lines 11425-11429, c.1200, poss. Worcestershire. (‘Good health to you, Arthur, most noble king, I am your own man; I have travelled through many lands. I know many marvellous skills of carpentry.’)

Ich was in one sumere dale,
In one suþe di3ele hale,
Iherde ich holde grete tale
An hule and one ni3tingale.
From 'The Owl and the Nightingale', lines 1-4, c.1200, SE England.

Quen þe maire with his meynye þat merveille aspied,
By assent of þe sextene þe sayntuaré þai kepten,
Bede unlouke þe lidde and lay hit byside;
Þai wold loke on þat lome quat lengyd withinne.
From 'St Erkenwald', lines 65-68, c.1390s, Cheshire.

A Knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.
From ‘The Canterbury Tales (The General Prologue)’ by Geoffrey Chaucer, lines 43-46 (Riverside Chaucer edition), c.1390s, London.

a short middle english bibliography
  • J.A.Burrow & Thorlac Turville-Petre, A Book of Middle English, 2nd ed. (Blackwell, Oxford: 1996)
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Benson (Oxford: 1987)
  • David Matthews, The Invention of Middle English (Pennsylvania: 2000)
  • Simon Horobin & Jeremy Smith, An Introduction to Middle English (Edinburgh: 2002)
  • Dennis Freeborn, From Old English to Standard English, 2nd ed (Macmillan, London: 1998)

middle english links


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