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PART II (Middle English). The Norman conquest: The Normans were from Scandinavia (‘North men’) but rapidly adopted French civilization and the French language. Æþelred the Unready, when driven into exile by the Danes, took refuge in Normandy (1002).

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(Middle English)

The Norman conquest:
  • The Normans were from Scandinavia (‘North men’) but rapidly adopted French civilization and the French language.
  • Æþelred the Unready, when driven into exile by the Danes, took refuge in Normandy (1002).
  • His son Edward the Confessor was raised in France and when he returned to England he brought a number of Normans with him.
  • The English elected Harold (the earl of the West Saxon earldom) as king but William, duke of Normandy, challenged the election.
  • 1066: the battle of Hastings (,

The English nobility and clergy was replaced with Normans
  • demise of non-localised written standard vernacular
  • The use of French vs. English was not based on ethnicity but on class:
  • The continued use of French (for almost two centuries) is mainly due to the close connection between England and France, see Figures 5.1 and 5.2 in the Companion.
  • The attitude of the king and the upper classes towards English was one of indifference.
  • A substantial body of French literature was written in England! (e.g. Wace’s Roman de Brut, a legendary history of Britain written in the reign of Henry II (1154-1189))
  • But the fusion of Normans and English was rapid.

(1) When and how did the upper class learn English?

(2) How far down in the social scale was a knowledge of French at all general?

“a knowledge of English was not uncommon at the end of the 12th c. among those who habitually spoke French; [...] among churchmen and men of education it was even to be expected; and [...] among those [such as stewards, bailiffs and knights] whose activities brought them into contact with both the upper and lower classes the ability to speak both languages was quite general.” (B&C: 123)
  • knights, inhabitants of towns (esp. trading centres) and people living near London, stewards, bailiffs and some free tenants
Was ME a creole?

“The English-speaking majority among the population of some ninety percent did not unlearn their English after the advent of French, nor did they intentionally modify its structures on the French pattern–as Renaissance writers modelled their language on Latin. Influence of French on inflections and, by and large, on syntactical sturctures cannot be proved, but appears unlikely from what we know about bilingualism in Middle English times.” (Görlach 1986)

The Reestablishment of English (1200-1500):
  • The loss of Normandy (1204)
  • The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453)
  • The Black Death (1349) and the increasing importance of towns
The loss of Normandy (1204)  many nobles are forced to choose between their lands in England and those in France.
  • After 1250 the nobility of England was English.
  • But during the reign of Henry III (1216-1272), as a result of his French connections, three ‘inundations’ of foreigners poured into England (from Poitou, Provence, and Poitou again). This may have delayed the spread of use of English by the upper classes.
  • The barons and the middle class, led by Simon de Montfort, react against the foreign influx (Provisions of Oxford (1258), the Barons’ War (1258-1265)).
  • By Edward I’s (1272-1307) time, England became conscious of its unity.
Latin and French as the languages of administration and culture (French was an object of cultivation at most European courts).
  • An exception are the two proclamations issued on October 18 and October 20, 1258 by Henry III. They are both in French and English.
  • They are the only official documents issued in English between William’s 1067 writ affirming the validity of laws dating to the reign of Edward the Confessor and the proclamations from the early 15th c.
In the 13th c., the knowledge of French as a vernacular declines; see

the bills presented to the justices in eyre at the close of the 13th c.

and Walter of Bibbesworth’s treatise (c. 1250) (

  • In the latter part of the 13th c. English was widely known among all classes of people. At the beginning of the 14th c. English was once more known by everybody:

Riʒt is,þat Inglische Inglische vnderstond,

Þat was born in Inglond;

Freynsche vse þis gentilman,

Ac euerich Inglische can.

Mani noble ich haue yseiʒe

Þat no Freynsche couþe seye.

(Arthur and Merlin, c. 1325)

  • In the 14th c. English is making inroads into the church, the universities and the schools (see John Trevisa’s translation (1385-1387) of Ranulph Hidgen’s Polycronicon, c. 1327).
Alonside the loss of Normandy, another crucial event was the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453): French was the language of the enemy.
  • Improving condition of the labouring classes and the middle class (the craftsmen and the merchant class in towns):

one reason was to the Black Death (1349-50), which resulted in a shortage of labour (see also the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt).


The Opening of Parliament in English (although statues were enrolled in French, which had supplanted Latin around 1300, until the 15th c.). English also appears at this time in the acts of towns and guilds (which had been in French alongside Latin).

The Statue of Pleading (all lawsuits to be conducted in English, although enrolled in Latin)

French goes out of use in the 15th c. It remains as a language of culture and fashion.
  • Although English was reestablished in the 14th c., it is only in the 15th c. that English displaced both Latin and French as a written language for official purposes (e.g. wills, records of towns and guilds, branches of the central government).
  • The turning point seems to have been the reign of Henry V (1413-1422).
... our mother-tongue, to wit the English tongue, hath in modern days begun to be honourably enlarged and adorned, for that our most excellent lord, King HenryV, hath in his letters missive and divers affairs touching his own person, more willingly chosen to declare the secrets of his will, and for the better understanding of his people, hath with a diligent mind procured the common idiom (setting aside others) to be commended by the exercise of writing.

((modernised) translation of a Latin memorandum recording the Brewers’ Guild of London’s 1422 decision to use English as the language of their accounts and proceedings)

  • Henry V’s decision is to be linked to his view of French as the language of England’s enemy: English becomes a ‘national’ language
Strang (1970): ME is “par excellence, the dialectal phase of English”.
  • The literature written in ME reflects the changing fortunes of English:

1150-1250  the Period of Religious Record:

The Ancrene Riwle, The Ormulum (but also Layamon’s Brut, The Owl and the Nightingale)

1250-1350  Period of Religious and Secular Literature (numerous romances)

1350-1400  Period of Great Individual Writers: Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400), John Gower, William Langland, John Wycliffe (d. 1384), the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

15th c.  the Imitative/Transition Period: John Lydgate, Thomas Hoccleve, John Skelton, Stephen Hawes; Thomas Malory, William Caxton; the Scottish Chaucerians (Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, Gawin Douglas, David Lindsay)

Perception of different varieties (but not clear if it is just a literary topos):

William of Malmesbury, De Gestis Pontificum Anglorum (‘About the acts of the bishops of the English’; c. 1125): harshness of the Yorkshire dialect, incomprehensible to Southerners.

Giraldus Cambrensis, Description of Wales (12th c.), Bk. I, ch. 6: the language of Devonshire perceived as more archaic and less agreeable.

The author of the Cursor Mundi (‘The Runner of the World’, i.e. the text ‘runs over’ the history of the word; c. 1300) ‘translates’ a story from southern English into northern English.

Trevisa’stranslation of Higden’s Polychronicon (c. 1385):

for men of þe est wiþ men of þe west, as it were vnder þe same partie of heuene, acordeþ more in sownynge of speche þan men of þe norþ wiþ men of þe souþ; þerfore it is þat Mercii, þat beeþ men of myddel Engelond, as it were parteners of þe endes, vnderstondeþ bettre þe side langages, Norþerne and Souþerne, þan Norþerne and Souþerne vnderstondeþ eiþer oþer.

Al þe longage of þe Norþumbres, and specialliche at ʒork, is so scharp, slitting [=harsh], and frotynge [=grating] and vnschape [=formless], þat we souþerne men may þat longage vnneþe vnderstonde.

Chaucer (in Troilus and Criseyde):

And for ther is so gret diversite

In Englissh, and in writyng of oure tonge,

So prey I god that non myswrite the,

Ne the mys-metre for defaute of tonge.

The first dialect story (see Crystal 2004): Northern features in the speech of students Aleyn and John in The Reeve’s Tale, e.g.:

Oure maunciple, I hope he wil be deed.

Northern: hope = think

Southern: hope = hope

What are, if any, the attempts at standarization in the ME period?
  • Ormulum (late 12th c., northern Linconshire, East Midlands dialect):

... loke wel þatt he an boc staff wríte twiʒʒess,

... look well that he a letter write twice

Eʒʒwhær þær itt upp o þiss boc is wrǐtten o þatt wise.

everywhere there it up on this book is written on that way

see also PDE: written vs. write


Orm doubles the consonant after a vowel (or uses  over the vowel) to mark it short.

He doesn’t double the consonant (or uses  over the vowel) to mark it as long.

AB language (found in the Corpus Christi manuscript containing Ancrene Wisse ‘Guide for Anchoresses’ and MS Bodley 34), south-west Midland area, 13th c.
  • Two of the hands in the Auchinleck [ˌɔː.kɪnˈlek, -xɪnˈ-, ˈ---] manuscript of romances (produced in London around 1340) share a number of features. (
  • Similarities are also found in the Chaucerian manuscripts.
‘Central Midlands Standard’ (14th c.), used in (Wycliffite) religious writings but also medical treaties and other secular works.
  • In the 15th c. (1417) the Signet Office started producing the personal correspondence of the king in English (rather than French). These documents were copied in the Chancery (the office of the chancellor), where other administrative documents sent from all over the country were also enrolled.  ‘Chancery Standard’
The notion of ‘Chancery Standard’ has been (in part) disputed (see Benskin 1992, 2004).
  • For example, the spread of Chancery usages depended on the type of writing. Writers and copysts of verse tended to imitate the language of Chaucer and John Gower rather than the language of administrative documents.
Although 15th c. poets initiated a tradition of regarding Chaucer as the father of the English language, some scholars claim that it was probably to Henry V that the development of English (i.e. the functional spread of English) was to be attributed.
  • More generally, the emergence of the East Midlands dialect of London as the new standard was due to London being the political and commercial centre of England.
Before Henry V there are only two administrative documents (also issued in French) in English, namely Henry III’s October 1258 letters (see Machan 2003).
  • Remember that a standard language (in the modern sense) became established only about 200 years later, in the 18th c. ( concern with ‘correctness’).
  • Two forces which contributed to standarisation (from the 16th c.) were also printing (introduced into England by William Caxton in 1476) and religious writings (The Bible, cf. the King James Bible, and The Book of Common Prayer).
The elaboration of English (Caxton’s Eneydos,1490):

And for as moche as this present booke is not for a rude vplondyssh man to laboure therin ne rede it but onely for a clerke & a noble gentylman that feleth and vnderstondeth in faytes of armes in loue, & in noble chyualrye Therfor in a meane moderate and readable terms bytwene bothe, I haue reduced & translated this sayd booke in to our englysshe, not ouer rude ne curyous, but in suche termes as shall be vnderstanden, by goddys grace, accordynge to my copye.

And certaynly our langage now vsed varyeth ferre from that whiche was vsed and spoken whan I was borne For we englysshe men ben borne vnder the domynacyon of the mone, whiche is neuer stedfaste but euer wauerynge wexynge one season and waneth & dyscreaseth another season And that comyn englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a nother. In so moche that in my dayes happened that certayn marchauntes were in a shippe in tamyse, for to haue sayled ouer the see into zelande and for lacke of wynde, thei taryed atte forlond, and wente to lande for to refreshe them; And one of theym named sheffelde, a mercer, cam in-to an hows and axed for mete. and specyally he axyd after eggys And the goode wyf answerde, that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaiuzt was angry, for he also coude speke no frenshe, but wolde haue hadde egges and she but couldn't get vnderstode hym not And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstod hym wel Loo, what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, egges or eyren certaynly it is harde to playse euery man by cause ofdyuersite & chaungeof langage. For in these dayes euery man that is in ony reputacyon in his countre, wyll vtter his commynycacyon and maters in suche maners & termes that fewe men shall vnderstonde theym And som honest and grete clerkes haue ben wyth me, and desired me to wryte the moste curyous termes that I coude fynde And thus bytwene playn rude & curyous, I stande abasshed.
Records of everyday English in the 15th: private letters, e.g.
    • the Paston family (from Norfolk)
    • the Stonor family (from Oxfordshire)
    • the Cely family (from London)
    • John Shillingford (Mayor of Exeter 1447-50)
The elaboration of English is related to the evolution of standardized spelling.
  • This means that by the 16th c. the spelling no longer contained much phonological information.
  • The elaboration of English is also related to the emergence of prestigious forms of pronunciation (see Puttenham’s quote below).
  • It is possible that accents had social implications by the late 15th c.
George Puttenham (c.1520-90), The Arte of English Poesie (1589), ‘Of Language’:

This part in our maker or Poet must be heedyly looked vnto, that it be naturall, pure, and the most vsuall of all his countrey: and for the same purpose ratherthat which is spoken in the kings Court, or in the good townes and Cities within the land, then in the marches and frontiers, or in port townes, where straungers haunt for traffike sake, or yet in Vniuersities where Scholers vse much peeuish affectation of words out of the primatiue languages, or finally, in any vplandish village or corner of a Realme, where is no resort but of poore rusticall or vnciuill people: neither shall he follow the speach of a craftes man or carter, or other of the inferiour sort, though he be inhabitant or bred in the best town and Citie in this Realme, for such persons do abuse good speaches by strange accents or illshapen soundes, and false ortographie. But he shall follow generally the better brought vp sort, such as the Greekes call [charientes] men ciuill and graciously behauoured and bred.

Our maker therfore at these dayes shall not follow Piers plowman nor Gower nor Lydgate nor yet Chaucer, for their language is now out of vse with vs: neither shall he take the termes of Northern-men, such as they vse in dayly talke, whether they be noble men or gentlemen, or of their best clarkes all is a matter: nor in effect any speach vsed beyond the riuer of Trent, though no man can deny but that theirs is the purer English Saxon at this day, yet it is not so Courtly nor so currant as our Southerne English is, no more is the far Westerne mans speach: ye shall therfore take the vsuall speach of the Court, and that of London and the shires lying about London within lx. myles, and not much aboue. I say not this but that in euery shyre of England there be gentlemen and others that speake but specially write as good Southerne as we of Middlesex or Surrey do, but not the common people of euery shire, to whom the gentlemen, and also their learned clarkes do for the most part condescend, but herein we are already ruled by th'English Dictionaries and other bookes written by learned men, and therefore it needeth none other direction in that behalfe.
From OE to ME:

Changes in morphology and syntax, see also Companion 7.4, 7.6-7.10.

These changes were not ‘caused’ by the Norman Conquest. Rather, the Norman Conquest accelerated already existing changes, which could now go forward unchecked (see B&C: 167).

Decay of inflectional endings (which was more rapid in the north):

-m > -n > ø

-a, -u, -e, -an, -um > -e []

  • From to a synthetic to an analytic language

-e extended by analogy to the Nom. Sing. e.g. OE stān > ME stone

-(e)s taken to be a marker of plurality alongside –en, the latter being initially favoured in the south


all distinctions are lost (the Nom. form is used) except with short monosyllables ending in a consonant


sē, sēo, þæt  tho (until Elizabethan times), the, that

þēs, þēos, þis  this, these, those


- the dative replaces the accusative


- reduction in the number of strong verbs. One third died out early in the ME period. More than half have now disappeared from the standard language (and even those which have survived have undergone changes). This has been due e.g. to the analogical extensions of weak forms.

E.g. bow, brew, burn, climb, flee, flow, help, mourn, row, step, walk, weep

Remember that both weak and strong forms often coexisted (e.g. stope and stepped).

Some strong participles have remained in use after the verbs became weak, e.g. beaten, cloven, graven, hewn, laden, molten, mown, (mis)shapen, shaven, sodden, swollen.
Replacement of grammatical gender (which apparently proceeded in parallel with the weakening of inflections) with natural gender. There are some interesting examples even in OE:

Etað þisne hlāf, hit is mīn līchama (Ælfric)

Eat this bread it is my body


(The influence of French is direct here.)

Adoption of about 10,000 words (75% still currently in use) from French
  • Two stages: before 1250 and after 1250
  • Before 1250:

1) less numerous (~ 900; the largest group associated with the church)

2) more likely to show the influence of Anglo-Norman phonology

3) different conditions from the following period, when people accustomed to use French turned to English ( a very large number of common French words between 1250 and 1400; but in the 15th c. most words came from literary rather than colloquial channels.)

Governmental and administrative words
  • Ecclestiastical words
  • Law
  • Army and navy
  • Fashion, meals and social life
  • Art, learning and medicine
Originally OE words and French words often compete and specialise:

ox vs. beef

sheep vs. mutton

swine vs. pork

calf vs. veal

Sometimes the competition is between English (popular), French (literary), Latin (learned):

time – age – epoch

rise – mount – ascent

Why are ModE words sometimes different from their ModF cognates?

1) phonetic changes in French

2) borrowing from AN rather than Central French

  • Phonetic changes in French:

OF feste > ME feste > ModE feast

OF feste > ModF fête

OF juge [dZ], chant [tS] > ModE judge [dZ], chant [tS]

OF juge [dZ], chant [tS] > ModF juge [Z], chant [S]

vs. ModE chaperone [S], rouge [Z]

Anglo-Norman/French vs. Central French

caitiff [k] < AN caitif [k] vs. CF chaitif [tS]

ModE carry [k] vs. ModF charrier [S]

AN cachier [k] > ModE catch

CF chacier [tS] > ModE chase (vs. ModF chasser)

ModE warrant (from AN [w-]) vs. ModF garantir

ModE quit (from AN [kw-]) vs. ModF quitter [k-]

OF fruit (stress on u)

> AN frut [y] > ME fruit [(I)U]

> CF fruít (stress on i)

AN reial > ModE real

CF royal > ModE royal

AN –arie > ModE –ary (salary)

CF –aire (cf. ModF salaire)

Curtailment of OE processes of derivation:

- the use of prefixes declines (exceptions: over-, under-)

- the decline of suffixes is, however, less marked

- self-explaining compounds were also weakened

Another source of borrowing was Latin, e.g. through the Wycliffe translation of the Bible (end of the 14th c.).
  • The introduction of unusual words from Latin is especially manifest in the literature of the 15th c., especially in the productions of the Scottish Chaucerians, e.g. Dunbar ( aureate terms).
  • The languages of the Low Countries (Flemish, Dutch, Low German) also had an impact on the vocabulary ( trade).