Middle English language : main features

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      Technically, old English period may be assumed to have come to an end with the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 A. D. But the conquest itself did not bring about the changes in the language. From the character and quantity of written records that have come down to us, the year 1200 is generally regarded as marking the dividing line between old English and middle English.

Technically, old English period may be assumed to have come to an end with the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 A. D. But the conquest itself did not bring about the changes in the language. From the character and quantity of written records that have come down to us, the year 1200 is generally regarded as marking the dividing line between old English and middle English.
Middle English Alphabets

      The most important influence on English language during the middle English period is that of Norman French. The Norman Conquest of England (at the battle of Hastings) by William, the Duke of Normandy brought England under the Normans. The Normans were not really alien to the Anglo-Saxons, for both were the races of the Pagan Danes having strange affinities. It was when these Danes became masters of the French province called Normandy and Saxons became definitely settled in the island that the break between the two races became complete. The Normans were quickly Frenchified in their character and outlook and had forgotten their Paganism together with the country of their origin and also its language and tradition. This was not the case of the Anglo-Saxons who were still Pagans, retaining their traditions of the continental home. At the time of the Conquest the Normans were real Frenchmen in language and civilisation. The Normans brought to England new literary ideals, laws and administration. Latin was the language of official documents. The polite societies wrote in Latin and spoke in French. Educated readers did not read English; they read Latin and French. The aristocrats were all Normans. As a result, the native language receded to the background, was completely despised. After the Battle of Maldon, English poetry produced practically nothing for a century. Court literature produced in England was in Norman French.

      There is, however, no reason to believe that any attempt was ever made to destroy the English language. What happened was that English became the language of an enslaved nation, totally neglected by the King and the nobility. The Normans knew that they were culturally and socially superior to the English and did not mix with the English intimately as the Scandinavians had done earlier.

      Things, however, changed when Normandy was lost to England in 1204/5 A.D. The King of France confiscated the lands "of all those Knights who had their abode in England" The English King's retaliatory measure, a few years later confiscating lands in England belonging to noblemen residing in Normandy only completed the measure. Thus cut off from the source of the living language and surrounded by people speaking an alien tongue, the Normans began to be less careful about their French and learn English. It is interesting to note that literary works in English began to appear about this time. Works like Brut, Ormulum, and Ancrene Riwle - all date from the early thirteenth century. The number of French words in these books is very low (Brut has 150 French words; Ormulum about 20 and Ancrene Riwle, nearly 500). But it shows that the process of borrowing French words had already begun. The process was accelerated very soon. A sample survey shows that nearly 43 percent of the total number of words borrowed from French by the English was borrowed between 1251 and 1400 A.D.

      But the learning of French language continued. French was taught to children by wealthy parents in order to fit them up for a decent life. But a change in the attitude of the people towards French has to be noted. It was no longer the French of Normandy that they were interested but the central or Parisian French. Paris was at that time the centre of cultural and intellectual excellence. The desire of the Norman-French English nobles to have their children taught French (Parisian and not Norman French) was only a reflection of the cultural aspiration. The final victory of English was achieved in the second half of the fourteenth century. In 1356 A.D. the proceedings of the Sheriff's court of London and Middlesex were ordered to be recorded in English and in 1362 A.D. Parliament provided in the statute of pleading "that all pleas which shall be pleaded in his (i.e. the King's) courts shall be pleaded, showed, defended, answered, debated and judged in the English language" Handlyong Syrnne (C.1305) and Cursor Mundi (C 1320) were both written in English. Chaucer wrote al his poems between 1366 and 1400 A.D.

      However, there were dialects in middle English. In the fourteenth century, almost each sheri of England had its own dialect. There were four principal dialects in middle English Northern, East Midland, West Midland and Southern. These dialects differed in vocabulary, inflections and pronunciation. However, towards the end of the fourteenth century Standard English was evolved.

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