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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The regional M.E. dialects had developed from respective OE dialects. A precise map of all the dialects will probably never be made, for available sources are scare and unreliable: localized and their approximate boundaries have been determined largely by inference; for later ME the difficulty lies in the growing dialect mixture.

With these reservation the following dialect groups can be distinguished in Early M.E.

The Southern group included the Kentish and the South-Western dialects. Kentish was a direct descendant of the O.E. Saxon dialects, - not only West Saxon, but also East Saxon. The East Saxon dialect was not prominent in OE but became more important in Early M.E., since it made the basis of the dialect of London in the 12th and 13th c. Among the dialects of this group the Gloucestes dialect and the London dialect may be mentioned.

The group of Midland (‘Central’) dialect – corresponding to the OE Mercian dialect – is divided into West Midland and East Midland as two main areas, with further subdivisions within: South-East midland and North-East Midland, South-west Midland and North-West Midland. In M.E. the Midland area became more diversified linguistically than the OE Mercian kingdom occupying approximately the same territory: from the Thames in the South to the Welsh-speaking area in the West and up north to the river Humber.

The Northern dialect had developed from OE Northumbrian. In Early M.E. the Northern dialects included several provincial dialects, e.g. the Yorkshire and the Lancashire dialects, and also what later became known as Scottish.

In the course Early M.E. the area if the English language in the British Isles grew. Fallowing the Norman Conquest the former Celtic kingdoms fell under Norman recluse. Wales was subjugated in the late 12th c. the English made their first attempts to conquest Ireland. The invaders settled among the Irish and were soon assimilated, a large proportion of the invaders being Welshmen. Though part of Ireland was ruled from England, the country remained divided and had little contact with England. The English language was used there alongside Celtic languages-Irish and Welsh – and was influenced by Celtic.

The E.M.E. dialectal division was preserved in the succeeding centuries, though even in Late M.E. the linguistic situation changed. In Early M.E. while the state language and the main language of literature was French, the local dialects were relatively equal. In Late M.E., when English had been reestablished as the main language of administration and writing, one of the regional dialects, the London dialect, prevailed over the others.

For a long time after the Norman Conquest there were two written languages in England, both of them foreign: Latin and French. English was held in disdain as a tongue used only by common illiterate people and not fit for writing. In some dialects the gap in the written tradition spanned almost two hundred years.

The earliest samples of Early M.E. prose are the new entries made in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles from the year 1122 to the year 1154, known as the Peterborough Chronicle.

The works in the vernacular, which began to appear towards the end of the 12th c., were mostly of a religions nature. The great mass of these works are homilies, sermons in prose and verse, paraphrases from the Bible, psalms and prayers. The earliest of these religious works, the Poema Morala (‘Moral Ode’) represent the Kentish dialect of the late 12th or the early 13th.

Of particular interest for the history of the language is ‘Ormulum’, a poem composed by the monk Orm in about 1200 in the North-East Midland dialect (Lineolnshire). It consist of unrhymed metrical paraphrases of the Gospels. The text abounds in Scandinavianists and lacs French borrowings. Its most outstanding feature is the spelling system devised by the author. He doubled the consonants after short vowels in closed syllables and used special semicircular marks over short vowels in open syllables. Here are some lines from the poem where the author recommends that these rules should be followed I copying the poem.

Among other works of religious nature we can mention ‘Ancrene Riwle’ (‘The Rule of Anchorites’), a prose treatise in the Northern dialect: ‘Cursor Mundi’, an amplified version of the Gospels, and ‘the Pricke of Conscience’, a translation attributed to Richard Rolle of Hampole.

Alongside these religious works there sprang up a new kind of secular literature inspired by the French romances of chivalry. Romances were long composition in verse or prose, describing the life and adventures of knights. The great majority of romances fell into groups or cycles concerned with a limited number of matters. Those relating to the ‘matter of Britain’ were probably the most popular and original works of English poets, though many of them were paraphrased from French.

One of the earliest poems of this type was ‘Brut’ composed by Layamon in the early 13th c. It is a free rendering of the 12th c., which tells the story of the legendary foundation of Britain by Brutus, the alleged great grandson of Aeneas of Troy; the last third of the poem is devoted to Brut’s most famous descendant, the mythical British King Arthur and his ‘Knights of the Round Table’, Who became the favourite subject of English knightly romances. The poem is written in alliterative verse with a considerable number of rhymes. It is noteworthy that the West Midland dialect of Brut, thought nearly a century and a half after the Norman Conquest, contains very few French words; evidently the West Midlands were as yet little affected by French influence.

Some romances deal with more resemnt events and distinctly English themes: episodes of the Crusades of Scandinavian invasions. ‘Havelock the Dane (East Midland dialect of the later 13th c.) narrates the adventures of a Danish prince who was saved by a fisherman, Grim (the founder of Grimsby). Another poem in the same dialect and century, ‘King Horn’, is more of a love story. Doth poems make use of characters and plots found in French sources but are nevertheless original English productions.

Among the Early M. E. texts in the South-Western dialects we should mention ‘ The London Proclamation’ of the year 1258 and the political poems of the early 14th c. which voiced the complaint of the poor against their oppressors. In the poem ‘Evil Times of Edward2’ the unknown author described the vices of the clergy and the nobility as the causes of the wretched condition of the people. Those were the earliest M.E. texts in the London dialect.

Early M.E. written records represent different local dialects, which were relatively equal as forms of the written language, beneath the twofold oppression of Anglo-Norman and Latin writing. They retained a certain literary authority until it was overshadowed in the 14th c. by the prestige of the London written language.

The domination of the French language in England came to an end in the source of the 14th c. The victory of English was predetermined and prepared for by previous events and historical conditions. Little by little the Normans and English drew together and intermingled. In the 14th c. Anglo-Norman was a dead language; it appeared as corrupt French to those who had access to the French of Paris through books, education or direct contacts. The number of people who Knew French had fallen; Anglo-Norman and French literary compositions had lost their audience and had to be translated into English.

Towards the end of the 14th c. the English language had taken the place of French as the language of literature and administration. English was once more the dominant speech of all social classes in all regions. It had ousted French since it had always remained the mother tongue and the only spoken language of the bulk of the population.

It may be interesting to mention some facts showing how the transition came about. In 1362 Edward 3 gave his consent to an act of Parliament ordaining that English be used in the law courts, sine ‘French has become much unknown in the realm’. This reform, however, was not carried out for years to come: French, as well as Latin, continued to be used by lawyers alongside English until the 16th c. Yet many legal documents which have survived from the late 14th and 15th c. are written in English: wills, municipal acts, petitions. In 1363, for the first tome in history, Parliament was opened by the King’s chancellor with an address in English. In 1399 King Henry 4 used English in his official speech when accepting the throne. In 1404 English diplomats refused to conduct negotiations with France in French, claiming that the language was unknown to them. All these events testify to the recognition of English as the state language.

Howly and inevitably English regained supremey in the field of education. As early as 1349 it was ruled that English should be used at school in teaching Latin, but it was not until 1385 that the practice became general, and even the universities began to conduct their curricula in English. By the 15th c. the ability to speak French had come to be regarded as a special accomplishment, and French like Latin, was learnt as a foreign language. At the end of the 15th c. William Caxton, the first English printer, observed: ‘the most quantity of the people understand not Latin nor French here in this noble realm of England’.

One might have expected that the triumph of English would lead to weakening of the French influence upon English. In reality, however, the impact of French became more apparent. As seen from the surviving written texts, French loan-words multiplied at the very time when English became a medium of general communication. The large-scale influx of French loads can be attributed to several causes. It is probably that many French words had been in current use for quite a long time before they were first recorded. As it was aforementioned records in Early M.E. were scare and came mostly from the Northern and Western regions, which were least affected by French influence. Later M.N. texts were produced in London and in the neighboring areas, with a mixed and largely bilingual population. In numerous translation from French – which became necessary when the French language was going out of use-many loan-words were employed for the sake of greater precision, for want of a suitable native equivalent or due to the translator’s inefficiency. It is also important that in the course of the 14th c. the local dialects were brought into closer contact; they intermixed and influenced one another: therefore the infiltration of French borrowings into all the local and social varieties of English progressed more rapidly.

As with other foreign influences, the impact of French is to be found, first and foremost, in the vocabulary. The layers and the semantic spheres of the French borrowings reflect the relations between the Norman rulers and the English population, the dominance of the French language in literature and the contacts with French culture. The prevalence of French as the language of writing led to numerous changes in English spelling.

The dialect division which evolved in Early M.E. was on the whole preserved in later periods. In the 14th and 15th c. the same grouping of dialects was present: the Southern group. Including Kentish and the South-Western dialects, the Midland group with its minute subdivision and the Northern group. And yet the relations among them were changing. The extension of trade beyond the conjines of local boundaries, the growth of towns with a mixed population favored the intermixture and amalgamation of the regional dialects. More intensive inter-influence of the dialects, among other facts is attested by the penetration of Scandinavian loan-words into the West-Midland and Southern dialects from the North and by the spread of French borrowings in the reverse direction. The most important went in changing linguistic situation was the rise of the London dialect as the prevalent written form of language.

The history of the London dialect reveals the sources of the literary language in Late M.E. and also the main source and basis of the Literary Standard, both in its written and spoken forms.

The Early M.E. records made in London-beginning with the Proclamation of 1258 – show that the dialect of London was fundamentally East Saxon; in terms of the M.E. division, it belonged to the South-Western dialect group. Later records indicate that the speech of London was becoming more mixed, with East Midland features gradually prevailing over the Southern features. The most likely explanation for the change if the dialect type and for the mixed character of London English lies in the history of the London population.

In the 12th and 13th c. the inhabitants of London came from the south-western district. In the middle of the 14th c. London was practically depopulated during the ‘Black Death’ (1348) and later outbreaks of bubonic plague. It has bun estimated that about one third of the population of Britain died in the epidemies, the highest proportion of deaths occurring in London. The depopulation was speedily made good and in 1377 London had over 35.000 inhabitants.

Most of the new arrivals came from the East Midlands: Norfolk, Suffolk, and other populous and wealthy counties of Malieval England, although not bordering immediately on the capital. As a result the speech of Londoners was brought much closer to the East Midland dialect. The official and literary papers produced in London in the late 14th c. display obvious East Midland in features. The London dialect became more Anglian than Saxon in character.

This mixed dialect of London, which had extended to the two universities (in Oxford and Cambridge) ousted French from official spheres and from the sphere of writing.

The flourishing of literature, which marks the seconds half of the 14    продолжение
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