The Rise to Power of Middle English

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The Rise to Power of Middle English


Sayaka Furukawa









SUPERVISOR:  Judy Yoneoka
Kumamoto Gakuen University
Oe 2-5-1 Kumamoto

This thesis consists of approx. 2735 words

Table of Contents
Abstract (概要)

1. Introduction

2. Norman conquest

3. Fusion of English and French

3.1 Vocabulary

3.1.1 French

3.1.2 Latin and Greek

3.1.3 Hybrids

3.1.4 Reduction of an original word 

3.1.5 The time that words were imported

3.2 Grammar

4. The dialect of Middle English

4.1 Chaucer and rise of London English

4.2 William Caxton and the Printing Machine

5. Decline of French

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography
Abstract (概要)

日本はもともと文字を持っていませんでした。しかし、中国との交流の中で漢字が伝わり、日本独自の「ひらがな」「カタカナ」が生まれました。日本語はそのような他国からの影響を受けて、現代の姿に近づいていきました。それと同様に、英語も他国からの影響を受け、現在の英語の姿になったと考えられます。英語の歴史を調べていくと、英語はOld English (450-1100), Middle English (1100-1500), Modern English (1500-1900) の3つの時期に分けることができます。またその中で、英語が一番他国からの影響を受け、今の姿に大きく近づいた時期はMiddle English時代だということがわかり、Middle English興味を持ちました。そこでここでは、どの国から、どのような経緯を経てMiddle Englishが今の英語に近づいたのか述べていこうと思います。

1. Introduction

When we compare Old English with Modern English, Old English itself seems to be a foreign language. However, in about 1300, English approached its present-day form. Middle English changed a lot between 1100 - 1500. The English of this period is called Middle English, and the cause of this change was the Norman Conquest in 1066.   Middle English changed in response to the influence of French and other languages. Why did foreign language import? How did French go into English? This report describes Middle English from such a viewpoint.  

2. Norman Conquest

When Edward, King of Britain in those days, who was a blood relation of the Duke of Normandy, passed away in 1066, his younger brother-in-law Harold came to the throne. On the other hand, Duke William of Normandy in France also aspired to the throne, and these two opposed each other. Duke William of Normandy commanded a large force, and landed in the South of Britain in September, 1066. Harold was beaten by William at the Battle of Hastings in October. Then, William conquered Britain over several years. William was called William the Conqueror because of this.

3. Fusion of English and French

Thus, the Norman people conquered Britain. Moreover, French, which was spoken by the Normans, was used as the official language of Britain. French was spoken in the court and the upper class. However, many British people spoke English. Those who could speak French were said to be cultured. Since marriage of British people and French people increased as time went on, those who spoke both English and French increased. According to Ulm (2004, online) ‘French culture and language were powerful forces during the medieval period and thereafter, and German and Dutch (also Germanic languages, like English) were also Gallicized to a lesser degree. Moreover, the vigorous assimilation by English of French vocabulary derived in part from an early and especially flourishing literary tradition during the Middle Ages,・・・Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that English was profoundly changed by the French influence in a way that Dutch, German, and other European languages were not, and for reasons that stem directly from the central and official presence that French enjoyed in England in the centuries following the Norman Conquest.’ Thus, a fusion of English and French was promoted.

3.1 Vocabulary

3.1.1 French

Huge quantities of French words were absorbed into the English vocabulary, and many Old English words disappeared. The number of words borrowed from the French is about 10,000. Even now, about 75% of this vocabulary is used.

  1. Examples of vocabulary borrowed from French (Inaki et al 2002, p. 41)


country, emperor, government, minister, prince, royal


arrest, blame, court, crime, evidence, judge, prison


faith, mercy, miracle, paradise, religion, saint, service


army, battle, captain, enemy, guard, navy, soldier, spy


bargain, customer, merchant, money, price, purchase


clack, costume, diamond, dress, fashion, jewel, pearl


dinner, fruit, orange, roast, salad, sauce, soup, spice


art, design, music, melody, poet, romance, story


adventure, age, chair, city, conversation, curtain, flower, joy
Especially, the influence of the Normans appeared in words about meals. Although the livestock names ‘ox’, ‘swine’, ‘sheep’, and ‘calf’ in English, the terms ‘beef’, ‘pork’, ‘mutton’, and ‘veal’ were used by French speaking people, when brought out to the table. This is said to be because the livestock bred by the British people were eaten by the Normans who were the rulers.

3.1.2 Latin and Greek

Although there are few compared to those borrowed from French, there are also words borrowed by English from Latin or Greek.

Examples of vocabulary borrowed from Latin and Greek (Serizawa 1978, p. 107)

From Latin

accept, allegory, complete, consider, decide, declare, equator, gesture, history, infancy, inferior, intellect, minor, picture, quiet, summary

From Greek

agony, alphabet, artery, basis, centre, chaos, character, climate, demon, echo, fancy, hero, horizon, magic, magnet, mystery, tragedy

Latin was borrowed as a language of learning. Therefore, since it entered through books, it was a formal literary language. Greek entered through Latin before be Norman Conquest. After be Norman Conquest, it entered through Latin and French. So the language which entered from Latin or Greek included much vocabulary related to education and art. Much of French of coutse was based on Latin as well. Because of this, English now is similar to other Romance language from the influence of French. According to Ulm (2004, online) ‘One of the …side effects of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 was that it would help to make the predominant language of the early 21st-century US (English) uncannily similar to the fastest-growing language in the same country (Spanish). …this effect ensues from the common linguistic roots of the Romance languages: All emerged from Vulgar Latin, the spoken idiom used by soldiers, settlers, and street vendors of the Roman Empire.’

3.1.3 Hybrids

Hybrids of French words and originally English words arose as the lease from French increased. There are compounds and derivatives in the hybrids.

French + The suffix of an original English word

Dukedom, falsedom, closeness, gentleness, easiness, faithful, powerful, faithless, commonly, gently

French + The prefix of an original word

Uneasy, misjudge

Compound word

Gentleman, gentlewoman

Original word + The suffix of an French

Leakage, steerage, furtherance, hindrance, goddess, murderess, husbandry, outlawry, yeomanry

The capability of English to build hybrids is higher than that of other languages. It is a feature of English that there are many hybrids.

3.1.4 Reduction of original words
Some original words were decreased by the importation of the French of words with the same meaning. Two words of the same meaning are not used as they are, either one disappears or a difference of nuance arises between the two words.
(1) The word which disappeared by French importation (Outei 1966, p.131)

adl-disease, ieldu-age, lof-praise, lyft-air, hold-graciouse, slipe-cruel, ġecyned-natural, wuldor-glory, wuldring-glorious, wlite-beautiful, eam-uncle, anda-envy, ӕpele-noble, æpeling-nobleman, frēa-prince, lēod-people, firen-crime, scyldiġ-guilty, here-army, cempa-warrior, andettan-confess, beorgan-preserve, etc.

(Former is the original word , Latter was imported from French)

These original words were decreased by the importation of French of words with the same meaning.

(2) Two words of the same meaning (Outei 1966, p.128)



Darling-favorite, doom-judgment, folk-people, friendship-amity, happiness-felicity, help-aid, house-mansion, hut-cottage, love-charity, etc.


Deep-profound, hearty (welcome)-cordial (reception), lonely-solitary, inner-interior, outer-exterior, etc.


Ask-demand, begin-commence, clothe-dress, feed-nourish, give-present, help-aid, hide-conceal, hinder-prevent, seethe-boil, shun-avoid, wish-desire, etc.

(Former is the original word , Latter was imported from French)

Two words of the same meaning were increased by the importation of French. But these same meaning word have the difference in nuance. I think that original words are easy, but the importations of French of words are formal and stiff.

3.1.5 The time that words were imported

French importation was required for British people, since it corresponds to new politics, economy, and a social system. And British people had to use French importation words for contact in new culture. There are some questions. How many words in English? When were French words imported to English? Next table is Otto Jesperser’s research about 1000 words imported to French.
Before 1050…… 2 1451-1500……76

1051-1100……2 1501-1550……84

1101-1150……1 1551-1600……91

1151-1200……15 1601-1650……69

1201-1250……64 1651-1700…….34

1251-1300……127 1701-1750…….24

1301-1350……120 1751-1800……16

1351-1400……180 1801-1850……23

1401-1450……70 1851-1900……25
The upper table should show French importation increased after 1250. French words weren’t imported to English immediately after the Norman Conquest, and the 13th to 14th century was the greatest time.

3.3 Grammar changes in Middle English

The complicated inflection of Old English was simplified in the Middle English. Therefore, this time is called the "Period of leveled inflection." (Serizawa 1978, p .87) Especially, these processes can be seen:

  1. Disappearance of distinction of the sex of a noun.  

  2. Simplification of the plural form of a noun. There became only two forms: -es and -en, in early stages of the time of Middle English. - es became the national standard plural form around the 14th century.

  3. Leveling of the ending of an adjective (-e). Consequently, a strict SVO word order was born by this change of inflection. Moreover, the usage of prepositions such as by, with, and from progressed.

This simplification of inflection was caused by several factors:

  1. Contact with Northern Europe languages or French. When communicating using a different language, complicated grammar like inflected language suffixes were disregarded and simplified.

  2. The English accent. English put the accent on the first part of the word. The accented vowel was pronounced strongly, and the unaccented vowel was pronounced weakly. This tendency progressed and it is thought that the unaccented final vowels disappeared. For example

Old English

Middle English

Modern English

Nama [náma]

Name [ná;mə]

Name [neim]

Stanas [stá;nas]

Stoones [stɔ;nəs]

Stones [stəunz]

(Serizawa 1978, p 87)

In Middle English, both the e of ‘name’ and the e of ‘stoones’ came to be pronounced with an ambiguous vowel [ə].

4. The dialect of Middle English

The differences in local language came out by the increase in population, and residents' diffusion in the English of Britain. The dialect classification of Old English and Middle English is as follows:

Old English

Middle English

Northumbrian dialect

Northern dialect

Mercian dialect

East Midland dialect

West Midland dialect

West-Saxon dialect

Southern dialect

Kentish dialect

Kentish dialect

Although Old English had the superior West Saxon dialect, in the Middle English time, the East Midland dialect became superior gradually and gained the status of the standard language.

The London dialect became superior as a written language in the 14th century, and it was accepted as Standard English in the 15th century. The following can be cited as the reasons for this:

    1. London was the center of politics and economy as a capital.

    2. It was located at the center in Britain, its area was larger than other dialect areas, and there was also a lot of population.

    3. Typical writers, such as Chaucer and Wyclif, used this dialect.

    4. There are Oxford University and Cambridge University and it had become the center of culture.

    5. William Caxton published many books in 1476 using the printing machine for the first time in London.

Especially, Chaucer had a great influence on making London English standard. In addition, the role of William Caxton and the printing machine made it easy for London English to spread to other areas. In the following, these two reasons will be discussed in detail.

4.1. Chaucer and the rise of London English

Geoffrey Chaucer is a poet representing English literature. He is called ‘The father of English poetry’. He born and grow up in London. He service in the France style court at 17 years-old. During he learned Latin, and a lot of books writing French and Latin. His Lyricism poetry was composed using London English at his young time. That time, he composed and told the audience of a court his poetry. So, his poetry is said that it was made to hear, and he often uses Rhyme. his poetry ‘The Canterbury Tales’(mainly 1387-1388) was hit also to people. Moreover His poetry was made into the model of Spenser’s, Shakespeare’s and Milton’s poetry. So, his London English spread to British people.
4.2 William Caxton and the Printing Machine

William Caxton had the big contribution on the farther spread of London English. He build printing office in Westminster at 1467, and publish famous books in English on EdwardⅣof protection. He wrote a famous episode in his Preface of ‘Æneid (L Publius Vergilius Maro, 70-19 B.C.). According to ‘The English Language (Isibasi, 1958, p. 38-39)’”Caxton apologizes for his own dialect sins, explaining that he was born in the Weald of Kent, ‘where I doubt not is spoken as broad and rude English as in place in England’. He also relates an amusing anecdote of a Yorkshire man, who, landing in Kent and asking for ‘eggs’ at a farmhouse, was told by the housewife that she did not understand French. Egg is a northern word which has now, however, driven out the Kentish farmwife’s ey.” This example shows that English was unstable. To make a lot of printed books in London English of his time spread London English, and unified English. Spelling various, which existed in large numbers till then, were also fixed. London English quickly replaced other dialects as a written word. The status of Standard English was quickly established towards the 15th century.

5. The Decline of Influence of French

The use of French in Britain decreased after the 13th century. There were the following causes for it.

  1. Failure of King John's politics 

King John of England lost to France in 1204, and it lost the territory in Normandy. From this time, aristocrats also began to speak English. Moreover, nationalism increased and the anti-French consciousness increased. 

  1. The 100-Years’ war

The 100-Years’ war (1337-1453) was a fight which occurred because of a throne succession problem of France between Britain and France. Thereby, French antipathy over grew severe.

  1. Black Death

About 1/3 of Britain died of the plague (Black Death) which continued from 1348 to 1350. The labor force become insufficient and the importance of the language (English) spoken by laborers increased. The teachers and scholars who spoke French were also killed by the Black Death. Therefore English came to be used in many schools.

English was already used in Parliament in 1362. The court also stopped using French and came to use English. Thus, French declined and English was revitalized.

6. Conclusions

This report has described how Middle English has changed based on a historical background. Change of the environment and French brought about by The Norman Conquest affected Middle English most and even today, much of English vocabulary is from French.

In addition, it changed also with exchange with other foreign countries (Latin, Greece). Thus, English has changed, being influenced by various languages. So, it could be said that to be a flexible language. English is still continuing to change. From now on, it will be influenced by various languages and will change even more.

7. Bibliography

Inaki Syouko, Horita Tomoko & Okita Tomoko, (2002)English English English Study, Tokyo: shohakusha publishing.

Orihata, Kaoru (1981) A History of English for Beginners, Tokyo: sougennsha publishing.

Outei. Itirou (1966) A short history of English, Tokyo: sinozakishorin publishing.

Sase, Junno (1962) A History of English Literature, Tokyo: eihousha publishing.

Serizawa, Sakai (1978) An outline of the English language, Tokyo: kaitakusha publishing.

Syourou. Yu (1986) Eigoshi (History of English, in Japanese), Tokyo: taishukanshoten publishing.

Sandved. Arthur O (1994) Introduction to Chaucerian English, shoha publishing.
English history (eigo no rekishi, in Japanese) Global heart corporation Available at,

English history on English Zakkaya Available at,

Eigononakano gairaigo in Japanese Available at,

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