Middle English

Middle English is the name given by historical linguistics to the diverse forms of the English language spoken between the Norman invasion of 1066 and about 1470, when the Chancery Standard, a form of London-based English, began to become widespread, a process aided by the introduction of the printing press into England by William Caxton in the 1470s, and slightly later by Richard Pynson. By this time the Northumbrian dialect (prevalent in Northern England) spoken in southeast Scotland was developing into the Scots language. The language of England as spoken after this time, up to 1650, is known as Early Modern English.

Unlike Old English, which tended largely to adopt Late West Saxon scribal conventions in the immediate pre-Conquest period, Middle English as a written language displays a wide variety of scribal (and presumably dialectal) forms. However, the diversity of forms in written Middle English signifies neither greater variety of spoken forms of English than could be found in pre-Conquest England, nor a faithful representation of contemporary spoken English (though perhaps greater fidelity to this than may be found in Old English texts). Rather, this diversity suggests the gradual end of the role of Wessex as a focal point and trend-setter for scribal activity, and the emergence of more distinct local scribal styles and written dialects, and a general pattern of transition of activity over the centuries that follow, as Northumbria, East Anglia and London emerge successively as major centres of literary production, with their own generic interests.

Literary and linguistic cultures

Middle English was one of the five languages current in England. Though never the language of the Roman Catholic Church, which was always Latin, it lost status as a language of courtly life, literature and documentation, being largely supplanted by Anglo-Norman. It remained, though, the spoken language of the majority, and may be regarded as the only true vernacular language of most English people after about the mid-12th century, with Anglo-Norman becoming, like Latin, a learned tongue of the court. Welsh and Cornish were also used as spoken vernaculars in the west (specifically Cornwall); the celtic Cumbric Language spoken in the northwest had become extinct. English did not cease to be used in the court: it retained a cartulary function (being the language used in royal charters); nor did it disappear as a language of literary production. Even during what has been called the 'lost' period of English literary history, the late 11th to mid-12th century, Old English texts, especially homilies, saints' lives and grammatical texts, continued to be copied, used and adapted by scribes. From the later 12th and 13th century there survive huge amounts of written material of various forms, from lyrics to saints' lives, devotional manuals to histories, encyclopædias to poems of moral (and often immoral) discussion and debate, though much of this material remains unstudied, in part because it evades or defies modern, arguably quite restricted, categorisations of literature. Middle English is more familiar to us as the language of Ricardian Poetry and its followers, the 14th- and 15th-century literature cultures clustered around the West Midlands and around London and East Anglia. This includes the works of William Langland, the Pearl Poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, Lydgate, Gower, Malory, Caxton, and Hoccleve. Perhaps best known, of course, is Chaucer himself in his Canterbury Tales and other shorter poems, where the poet consistently revalues and reinvents older traditions while managing to avoid completely abandoning them.



Syððan wæs geworden þæt he ferde þurh þa ceastre and þæt castel: godes rice prediciende and bodiende. and hi twelfe mid. And sume wif þe wæron gehælede of awyrgdum gastum: and untrumnessum: seo magdalenisce maria ofþære seofan deoflu uteodon: and iohanna chuzan wif herodes gerefan: and susanna and manega oðre þe him of hyra spedum þenedon.

"And it came to pass afterward, that he went throughout every city and village, preaching and showing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him, and certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, and Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance."

—Translation of Luke 8.1–3 from the New Testament

Although it is possible to overestimate the degree of culture shock which the transfer of power in 1066 represented, the removal from the top levels of an English-speaking political and ecclesiastical hierarchy, and their replacement with a Norman-speaking one, both opened the way for the introduction of Norman as a language of polite discourse and literature and fundamentally altered the role of Old English in education and administration. Although Old English was by no means as standardised as modern English, its written forms were less subject to broad dialect variations than post-Conquest English.

Even now, after a thousand years, the Norman influence on the English language is still apparent.

Consider these pairs of Modern English words. The first of each pair is derived from Old English and the second is of Anglo-Norman origin: pig/pork, cow/beef, wood/forest, sheep/mutton, house/mansion, worthy/honourable, bold/courageous.

The role of Anglo-Norman as the language of government and law can be seen by the abundance of Modern English words for the mechanisms of government derived from Anglo-Norman: court, judge, jury, appeal, parliament. Also prevalent are terms relating to the chivalric cultures which arose in the 12th century as a response to the requirements of feudalism and crusading activity. Early on, this vocabulary of refined behaviour begins to work its way into English: the word 'debonaire' appears in the 1137 Peterborough Chronicle, but so too does 'castel', another Norman import that makes its mark on the territory of the English language as much as on the territory of England itself.

This period of trilingual activity developed much of the flexible triplicate synonymy of modern English. For instance, English has three words meaning roughly "of or relating to a king":

  • kingly from Old English,
  • royal from French and
  • regal from Latin.

Likewise, Norman, and later French, influence led to some interesting word pairs in English, such as the following, which both mean "someone who defends":

  • Warden from Norman, and
  • Guardian from French (itself of Germanic origin).

Deeper changes occurred in the grammar. Bit by bit, as we have seen, the wealthy and the government anglicised again, though Norman, and then French, remained the dominant language of literature and law for several centuries, even after the loss of the majority of the continental possessions of the English monarchy. The new English did not look the same as the old: as well as undergoing changes in vocabulary, the complex system of inflectional endings which Old English had was gradually lost and simplified in the dialects of spoken English. Gradually the change spread to be reflected in its increasingly diverse written forms. This loss of case-endings was part of a general trend from inflectional to fixed-order words which occurred in other Germanic languages, and cannot be attributed simply to the influence of French-speaking layers of the population. English remained, after all, the language of the majority. It certainly was a literary language in England, alongside Anglo-Norman and Latin from the 12th to the 14th centuries. In the later 14th century, Chancery Standard (or London English)—itself a phenomenon produced by the increase of bureaucracy in London, and a concomitant increase in London literary production—introduced a greater deal of conformity in English spelling. While the fame of Middle English literary productions tends to begin in the later fourteenth century, with the works of Chaucer and Gower, an immense corpus of literature survives from throughout the Middle English period.

c. 1400

The Establishment began to use English increasingly around this time. The Parliament of England used English increasingly from around the 1360s, and the king's court used mainly English from the time of King Henry V (acceded 1413). The oldest surviving correspondence in English, by Sir John Hawkwood, dates from the 1390s. With some standardization of the language, English begins to exhibit the more recognisable forms of grammar and syntax that will form the basis of future standard dialects:

And it is don, aftirward Jesus made iourne bi cites & castelis prechende & euangelisende þe rewme of god, & twelue wiþ hym & summe wymmen þat weren helid of wicke spiritis & sicnesses, marie þat is clepid maudeleyn, of whom seuene deuelis wenten out & Jone þe wif off chusi procuratour of eroude, & susanne & manye oþere þat mynystreden to hym of her facultes

—Luke 8.1–3

"And it came to pass afterward, that he went throughout every city and village, preaching and showing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him, and certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, and Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance."

—Translation of Luke 8.1–3 from the New Testament

A text from 1391: Geoffrey Chaucer's Treatise on the Astrolabe

However, this was a time of upheaval in England. Five kings were deposed between 1399 and 1500, and one of them was deposed twice. New men came into positions of power, some of them from other parts of the country or lower levels in society. Stability only came gradually after 1485 with the Tudor dynasty. The language changed too—there was much change during the 15th century. But towards the end of that century, a more modern English was starting to emerge. Printing started in England in the 1470s. With a standardised, printed, English Bible and Prayer Book being read to church congregations from the 1540s, a wider public became familiar with a standard language, and the era of Modern English was underway.


With its simplified case-ending system, Middle English is much closer to modern English than its pre-Conquest equivalent.


Despite losing the slightly more complex system of inflectional endings, Middle English retains two separate noun-ending patterns from Old English. Compare, for example, the early Modern English words engel (angel) and nome (name):
singular plural
nom/acc engel nome engles nomen
gen engles* nome engle(ne)** nomen
dat engle nome engle(s) nomen

The strong -s plural form has survived into Modern English, while the weak -n form is rare (oxen, children, brethren and in some dialects eyen (instead of eyes) shoon (instead of shoes) and kine (instead of cows)).


As a general rule (and all these rules are general), the first person singular of present tense verbs ends in -e (ich here - "I hear"), the second person in -(e)st (þou spekest - "thou speakest"), and the third person in -eþ (he comeþ - "he cometh/he comes"). (þ is pronounced like the unvoiced th in "think"). In the past tense, weak verbs are formed by an -ed(e), -d(e) or -t(e) ending. These, without their personal endings, also form past participles, together with past-participle prefixes derived from the old English ge-: i-, y- and sometimes bi-. Strong verbs form their past tense by changing their stem vowel (e.g., binden -> bound), as in Modern English.


Post-Conquest English inherits its pronouns from Old English:

And here are the Old English pronouns. Middle English pronouns derived from these.

First and Second Person
First Person Second Person
singular plural singular plural
nom. ic, ih þū
acc. mec, mē ūsic, ūs þec, þē ēowic, ēow
gen. min ūser, ūre þin ēower
dat. me us þe eow

Third Person
masc. fem. neut. pl.
nom. hēo hit hīe
acc. hine hīe hit hīe
gen. his, sīn hiere his, sīn heora
dat. him hiere him heom

First and second pronouns survive largely unchanged, with only minor spelling variations. In the third person, the masculine accusative singular became 'him'. The feminine form was replaced by a form of the demonstrative that developed into 'she', but unsteadily—'ho' remains in some areas for a long time. The lack of a strong standard written form between the eleventh and the fifteenth century makes these changes hard to map.


Generally, all letters in Middle English words were pronounced. (Silent letters in Modern English come from pronunciation shifts but continued spelling conventions.) Therefore 'knight' was (with a pronounced K and a 'gh' as the 'ch' in German 'Knecht'), not /ˈnaɪt/ as in Modern English.

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from euery shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury þey wende,
(Chaucer, Canterbury Tales)

In earlier Middle English, all written vowels were pronounced. By Chaucer's time, however, final -e had become silent in normal speech, but could be optionally pronounced in verse as the meter requires (but normally silent when the next word begins in a vowel). Chaucer follows these conventions: -e is silent in 'kowthe' and 'Thanne', but pronounced in 'straunge', 'ferne', 'ende', etc. (Presumably, final -y is partly or completely dropped in 'Caunterbury', to make the meter flow.)

An additional rule in speech, and often in poetry as well, was that a non-final unstressed 'e' was dropped when adjacent to only a single consonant on either side and there is another short 'e' in an adjoining syllable. Thus, 'every' sounds like "evry" and 'palmeres' like "palmers".

Archaic characters

The following characters which may be unfamiliar to modern readers are found in Middle English texts.

letter name pronunciation
Æ æ Ash [æ]
Ð ð Eth [ð]
Ȝ ȝ Yogh [g], [ɣ], [j] or [dʒ]
Þ þ Thorn [θ]
Ƿ ƿ Wynn [w]

These were direct hold-overs from the Old English alphabet (a Roman alphabet variant, which drew some additional letters from Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) Runes).

Chancery Standard

Chancery Standard was a written form of English used by government bureaucracy and for other official purposes from the late 14th century. It is believed to have contributed in a significant way to the development of the English language as spoken and written today. Because of the differing dialects of English spoken and written across the country at the time, the government required a clear and unambiguous form for use in its official documents. Chancery Standard was developed to meet this need.

History of the Chancery Standard

The Chancery Standard (CS) was developed during the reign of King Henry V (1413 to 1422) in response to his order for his chancery (government officials) to use, like himself, English rather than Anglo-Norman or Latin. It had become broadly standardized by about the 1430s.

It was largely based on the London and East Midland dialects, for those areas were the political and demographic centres of gravity. However, it used other dialectical forms where they made meanings more clear; for example, the northern "they", "their" and "them" (derived from Scandinavian forms) were used rather than the London "hi/they", "hir" and "hem." This was perhaps because the London forms could be confused with words such as he, her, him. (However, the colloquial form written as "'em", as in "up and at 'em", may well represent a spoken survival of "hem" rather than a shortening of the Norse-derived "them".)

In its early stages of development, the clerks that used CS would have been familiar with French and Latin. The strict grammars of those languages influenced the construction of the standard. It was not the only influence on later forms of English—its level of influence is disputed and a variety of spoken dialects continued to exist—but it provided a core around which Early Modern English could crystallise.

By the mid-15th century, CS was used for most official purposes except the Church (which used Latin) and some legal matters (which used French and some Latin). It was disseminated around England by bureaucrats on official business, and slowly gained prestige.

CS provided a widely-intelligible form of English for the first English printers, from the 1470s onwards.

Sample text

The following is from the first sentence of the Prologue from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Whan þat Aprill with his shoures sote
Þe droghte of Marche haþ perced to the rote,
And baðed euery veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is þe flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeþ
Inspired haþ in euery holt and heeþ
Þe tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Haþ in the Ram his halfe course yronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the niȝt with open ye—
So prikeþ hem Nature in hir corages—
Þan longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from euery shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury þey wende,
The holy blissful martir for to seke,
Þat hem haþ holpen, whan þat þey were seke.
When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liqueur of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower,
When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath
Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun
His half course in the sign of the Ram has run
And the small fowl are making melody
That sleep away the night with open eye,
(So nature pricks them and their heart engages)
Then folk long to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers long to seek the stranger strands
Of far off saints, hallowed in sundry lands,
And specially from every shires’ end
Of England, down to Canterbury they wend
The holy blissful martyr,* quick
To give his help to them when they were sick.


In modern prose:

When April with its sweet showers has pierced the drought of March to the root, bathing every vein in such liquid by which virtue the flower is engendered, and when Zephyrus (Greek god of the west wind) with his sweet breath has also inspired the tender plants in every wood and field, and the young sun is halfway through Aries (first sign of the zodiac), and small birds that sleep all night with an open eye make melodies, their hearts pricked by nature, then people long to go on pilgrimages, and pilgrims seek foreign shores and distant shrines known in sundry lands, and especially they wend their way to Canterbury from every shire of England to seek the holy blessed martyr who has helped them when they were sick.

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