Historical Background of the Middle English Period


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Essay на тему Historical Background of the Middle English Period

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Author: Павел Воля
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“Historical Background of the Middle English Period”


  1. The problem of periodization. The role of the Middle English Period in the history of English language.

  2. The influence of the Scandinavian invasions.

  3. The Norman Conquest.

  4. Early Middle English dialects. Neighborhood of three languages in England.

  5. Written records of the M. E. P.

  6. Late M. E. P.

  7. Development of English dialects and the rise of London dialect.

The historical development of a language is a continuous, uninterrupted process without sudden breaks or rapid transformations. Therefore any periodisation imposed on language history by linguists, with precise dates, might appear artificial. There are some periodizations of the history of English language. The author of the first scientific historical phonetic and grammar of En. Language. H. Sweet suggested the periodization that corresponds to the morphological structure of different centures. He called the Old English Period – ‘The period of full endings ‘, the M. E. P. – ‘The period of reduced endings’ , the New En. P. – ‘The period of lost endings.’ But this periodization is not full because it is not quite right to devide the logical features, but phonological or syntactical ones (they were not mentioned in the periodization.) So, thus I consider that any periodization is based on some principles, but can’t touch all the sides of the language.

One of the prominent and well-known English scientists Henry Sweet worked out several periodisations of the history of English language. He suggested to single out the period of transition and to subdivide the transitional stage between the Old and the Middle English Periods cover 1100-1200. H. Sweet reckoned 1200 to be the limning of the Middle English based on morphological phenomena the Middle English Period is considered to le the Period of Levelled English.

Another periodization is extralinguistical. It’s based on the historical events, which influenced on the English language. I must notice that this one is the most traditional. The commonly accepted traditional periodization divides English language history into three periods: Old English, Middle English and New English with boundaries attached to definite dates and historical effects affecting the language. Old English is connected with the German settle in Britain (5th century) and with the beginning of writing (7th century) and ends with the Norman Conquest (1066). Middle English begins with Norman Conquest end ends on the introduction of printing (1475). The Middle English period itself may be also divided into two smaller ones – Early Middle English and Late Middle English.

Early Middle English covers the main events of the 14th century. It is the stage of greatest dialectal divergence caused by the feudal system and by foreign influences-Scandinavian and French. The dialectal division of present-day English owes its origin to this period of history. Great changes of the language took place at all the levels, especially in lexis and grammar.

Later 14th till the end of the 15th century is a time known as Late or Classical Middle English. This period umbra’s the age of Chaucer, the greatest English medieval writer and forerunner of the English Renaissanu, and is characterized by restoration of English to the position of the state and literary language and by literary flourishing, which has a stabilizing effect on language, so that the rate of linguistic changes was slowed down. At the same time the written forms of the language developed and improved.

The Old English period in the history of the language corresponds to the position of the state and literary language corresponds to the transitional stage from the slave-owning and tribal system to the feudal system in the history of Britain. In the 11th century feudalism was already well established. According to a survey made in the late 11th c. slaves and freemen were declining classes. The majority of the agricultural population (and also of the total population, which amounted to about 2.000.000 people) was bound to their lord and land. Under natural economy, characteristre of feudalism, most of the things needed for the life of the lord and the villain were produced on the estate. Feudal manors were separated from their neighbors by tells, local feuds, and various restrictions concerning settlement, traveling and employment. These historical conditions produced a certain influence on the development of the language.

In Early M.E. the differences between the regional dialects grew. Never in history, before or after, was the historical background more favorable for dialectal differentiation. The main is the dialectal division in England, which survived in later ages with some slight modification of the feudal stage of British history.

In the age poor communication dialect boundaries often coincided with geographical barriers such as rivers, mashes, forests, and mountains, as these barriers would hinder the diffusion of linguistic features.

In addition to economic, geographical and social conditions, dialectal differences in Early M.E. were accentuated by some historical events, namely the Scandinavian invasions and the Norman Conquest.

Though the Scandinavian invasions of England are dated in the Old English period, there effect on the language is particularly apparent in M.E. Eventually the Scandinavians were absorbed into the local population both ethnically and linguistically, because new settlers and the English intermarried and intermixed; they lived close together and didn’t differ either in social rank or in the level of culture and customs; they intermingled the more easily as there was no linguistic barrier between them.

The increased regional differences of English in the Scandinavian influence in the areas of the heaviest settlement the Scandinavians outnumbered the Anglo-Saxon population, which is attested by geographical names. In Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Northumberland, Cumberland-up to 75 per cent of the place-names is Danish or Norwegian. Altogether more than 1.400 English villages and towns bear names of Scandinavian origin (with the element thorpmeaning village, e.g. Woodthorp, Linthorp; toft, a piece of land, e. g. Brimtoft, Lowestoft). Probably, in many districts people became bilingual, with either Old Norse or English prevailing. Besides due to the contacts and mixture with O Seand, the Northern dialects (chiefly North Umbrian and East Mercian) had acquired lasting and something indelible Scandinavian features. We find a large admixture of Scandinavian words in Early M.E. records coming from the North East whereas contemporary text from other regions are practically devoid of Scandinavian borrowings.

In later ages the Scandinavian element passed into other regions. The incorporation of the Scandinavian element in the London dialect and Standard English was brought about by the changing linguistic situation in England: the mixture if the dialects and the grooving linguistic unification.

Soon after Canute’s death (1042) and the collapse of his empire the old Anglo-Saxon line was restored but their reign was short-lived. The new English king, Edward the Confessor (1942-1066), who had been reared in France, brought over many Norman advisors and favorites; he distributed among them English lands and wealth to the considerable resentment of the Anglo-Saxon nobility and church hierarchy. He not only spoke French himself but insisted on it being spoken by the nobles at his court. William, Duke of Normandy, visited his court and it was rumored that Edward appointed him his successor. In many respites Edward paved the for Norman infiltration long before the Norman Conquest. However, the government of the country was still in the hands of Anglo-Saxon feudal lords, headed by the powerful Earl Godwin of Wessex.

In 1066, upon Edward’s death, the Elders of England proclaimed Harold Godwin king of the English. As soon as the news reached William of Normandy, he mustered a big army by promise of land and plunder (one third of his soldiers were Normans, other, mercenaries from all over Europe) and, with the support of the Pope, landed in Britain.

In the battle of Hastings, fought in October 1066, Harold was killed and the English were defeated. This date is commonly known as the date of the Norman Conquest, though the military occupation of the country was not completed until a few years later. After the victory of Hastings, William by passed London cutting it off from the North and made the William of London and the bishops at Westminster Abbey crown him king. William his barons laid waster many lands in England, burning down villages and estates. They conducted a relentless campaign of subjugation, devastated and almost depopulated Northumbria and Mercia, which tried to rise against the conquerors. Huge stone Norman castles if earthen forts and wooden stockades, built during the campaign, soon replaced scores. Most of the lands of the Anglo-Saxon lords passed into the hands of the Norman barons, William’s own possession comprising about one third of the country. The Normans occupied all the important ports in the church, in thee government and in the army.

Following the conquest hundreds of people from France crossed the Channel to make their home in Britain were also dukes of Normandy and, about a hundred years later, took possession of the whole western half of France, thus bringing England into still closer contact with the continent. French monks, tradesmen and craftsmen flooded the southwestern towns, so that not only the higher nobility but also much of the middle class was French.

The Norman Conquest was not only a great event in British political history but also the greatest single event in the history of the English language. Its earliest effect was a drastre change in the linguistic situation.

The Norman Conquerors of England had originally come from Scandinavia. About one hundred and fifty years before they scized the valley of the Scine and settled in what was henceworth known as Normandy. They were swiftly assimilated by the French and in the 11th century came to Britain as French speakers and bearers of French culture. They spoke the Northern dialect if French, which differed in some points from Central, Parisian French. Their tongue in Britain is often reffered to as ‘Anglo-French’ or ‘Anglo-Norman’, but may just as well be called French, since we are less concerned here with the distinction of French dialects than with the continuous French influence upon English, both in the Norman period of history and a long while after the Anglo-Norman language had ceased to exist.

In the early 13th c., as a result of lengthy and inefficient wars with France John Lackland lost the French provinces, including the dukedom of Normandy. Among other consequences the loss of the lands in France cut off the Normans in Britain from France, which speeded up the Anglo-France, which speeded up the decline of the Anglo-French language.

The most immediate consequence of the Norman domination in Britain is to be seen in the wide use of the French language in many spheres of life. For almost free hundred years French was the official language of administration: it was the language of the king’s court, the law courts, the church, the army and the castle. It was also every day language of many nobles, of the higher clergy and of many townspeople in the South. The intellectual life, literature and education were in the hands of French-speaking people; French, alongside Latin, was the language of writing. Teaching was largely conducted in French and boys at school were taught to translate their Latin into French instead of English.

For all that, England never stopped being an English-speaking country. The bulk of the population held fast to their own tongue: the lower classes in the towns, and especially in the country-side, those who lived in the Midlands and up north, continued to speak English and looked upon French as foreign and hostile. Since most of the people were illiterate, the English language was almost exclusively used for spoken communication.

At first the two languages existed side by side without mingling. Then, slowly and quickly, they began to permeate each other. The Norman barons and the French town-dwellers had to pick up English words to make themselves understood while the English began to use French words in current speech. A good knowledge of French would mark a person of higher standing giving him a certain social prestige probably many people become bilingual and had a fair command of both languages.

These peculiar linguistic conditions could not remain static. The struggle between French and English was bound to end ion the complete victory of English, for English was the living language of the entire people, while French was restricted to certain social spheres and to writing. Yet the final victory as still a long way off. In the 13th c. only a few steps were made in that direction. The earliest sign of the official recognition of English by the Norman hinges was the famous Proclamation issued by Henry 3 in 1258 to the councilors in Parliament. It was written in three languages: French, Latin and English.

The three hundreds years of the domination of French affected English more than any other foreign influence before or after. The early French borrowings reflect accurately the spheres of Norman influence upon English life; later borrowings can by attributed to the continued cultural, economic and political contacts between the countries. The French influence added new features to the regional and social differentiation of the language. New words, coming from French, could not be adopted simultaneously by all the speakers if English; they were first used in some varieties of the language, namely in the regional dialects of Southern England and in the speech if the upper classes, but were unknown in the other varieties of the language.

The use of a foreign tongue as the state language, the diversity of the dialects and the decline of the written form of English created a situation extremely favorable for increased variation and for more intensive linguistic change.
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Historical Background of the Middle English Period

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