What is Middle English?

It’s hard to find a concise yet definitive account of “Middle English” online. The Wikipedia entry has glaring gaps, omitting sections such as the Great Vowel Shift and not illustrating what the “thorn” is. This post will help you get a better grasp of your Chaucer through your Malory (whom I’ll be studying shortly), and hopefully you’ll think this stuff is as awesome as I think it is. If you’re taking a British Literature course or are studying The Canterbury Tales or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I highly suggest you keep reading.

What is Middle English?

Middle English is not Old English (which is English used up to approximately the 1100s). Middle English is not Shakespeare (which is termed Early Modern English). Middle English is, well, somewhere in the middle. It spans from the 1100s to about 1500. Prominent Middle English writers were Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales), Margery Kempe (The Book of Margery Kempe), Sir Thomas Malory (Le Morte Darthur), and John Lydgate (various texts). Anonymous writings include Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Everyman.

What are some characteristics of Middle English?

Middle English neither looks like nor sounds like our Modern English. There are far less consistencies in the language than you would find today. Don’t forget–there was no “spell check” in the 1100s and education was limited almost entirely to Catholic clergymen. Don’t be surprised to see something spelled one way in one text and a different way in another. For example, the word “have” could be spelled as “have” or “haue.”

Another thing to look out for is archaic letters from Old English such as the “yogh” and the “thorn.” The yogh looks like this: ?  Awesome right? It kind of looks like a three (3), but is slightly different. The yogh can make a “gh,” “g,” or “y” sound. For example, when using a “y,” ? was typically used between vowels or at the beginning of a word. A couple of examples are “e?e” (eye) and “?et” (yet).

The other prominent letter is the thorn, þ, which was most commonly used as a “th” sound. For example, “þe” would be “the” and “þis” would be “this.” However, as time progressed, these archaic letters were used less and became uncommonly used in the 14th-15th centuries.

The Great Vowel Shift

I love how awesome this title sounds. Not just any vowel shift, but The GREAT Vowel Shift. Nice. Anyway, The Great Vowel Shift was a gradual occurrence from approximately 1450-1750. The exact cause of this shift is unknown (possibly from the emigration away from the Black Death). However, the shift does explain a lot of inconsistencies in Modern English as certain vowel combinations and certain words were never altered while others were. For example, the “ea” combination is probably one of the most inconsistent. You have unchanged words such as  “break” with a “ay” sound. Others were shortened, such as “dead,” which has a “eh” sound. Finally, some “ea” words did change such as “beak” which has an “ee” sound. Gosh, English is confusing!

I’m not going to go into major details of this vowel shift. This post is meant to be a concise form of what Middle English is, so let’s move on.

The History of Middle English

Since we’ve discussed various aspects of Middle English, let’s take a brief overview of the history of Middle English. This will start a bit with Old English and will be a very brief time line. Bear in mind that I only added things I think may be pertinent to the change or history of English. Britain has a much greater history than these few dates!

  • 55-409: Britain is ruled by the Roman Empire. Britons adapt the Roman lettering system instead of a runic alphabet.
  • 410: As the Roman Empire crumbles, Emperor Honorius leaves Britain to take care of itself.
  • 452: King Vortigern marries the Saxon, Rowenna. Britain experiences increasing Saxon settlement among its lands. Inevitably, Saxon dialects influence English.
  • 597: St. Augustine goes to Britain to “convert” the Saxons. Roman Christianity is introduced to Britain and with it, its educational traditions. Many writers of this period were Catholic clergymen and wrote in the traditional Catholic Latin.
  • 1066: Norman Invasion led by William the Conqueror. This removed the ruling class and replaced it with a French aristocracy (and language).
    • At this point we’re looking at Middle English. Before the invasion is Old English. Because of the constant warring over Britain, English has a myriad of roots: Basic Old English, German (Saxon), Latin, and French. This is why we have not only several words but several word forms. For example, “king” Old English, whereas “royal” and “regal” are based off of French and Latin.
  • 1200s-1300s: English was the language of the majority and slowly became more popular. More literary works were written in English.
  • 1430s: Chancery Standard formed, which was English used for official and governmental purposes. This helped push for a standardization of English. The Great Vowel shift begins shortly after this.
  • 1476: William Caxton establishes a printing press in Westminster.
  • 1484: Caxton publishes Le Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Malory in a standardized English form.
  • 1486: Beginning of Tudor period with the reign of Henry VIII. Britain, though in civil turmoil to some extent, is largely stable from outside forces, allowing a period of acceptance and growth of English.
  • 1540s: Bibles are printed in English and the written word is available to more people. Early Modern English is underway.

Wow, Final Thoughts

This was an extremely difficult post! A lot of things have influenced English as we know it today and the time of Middle English is one of the most complicated periods to study. Britain was being invaded this way and that by several different groups, which is evident by the discrepancies we see in English today. There is a reason why so many of these rules seem hypocritical or difficult. These rules come from different languages and merged and melded together into some form of English. I hope you learned something from this and good luck!

Posted in Academic Advice.