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A brief history of English part three: Middle English


We continue the story of the English language, and we now enter the period known as ‘Middle English’.


The year is 1066. It is the time known as the Norman conquest, that is, when a French-speaking dynasty based in the Normandy region of France invaded England. The result was the country's first king - king of a whole country, not just of various parts: William the first, also known as William the Conqueror. And he spoke French. This meant that Norman French was the 'official' language of England, and various historical accounts see the conquest as having wrecked a relatively sophisticated culture by a rule that was more tyrannical, and the language's existence under serious threat. Those accounts were kept alive for centuries, becoming particularly useful in politics, the hundred years war and even later than that: it is often seen as the source of the rivalries that continue to exist today between the French and the English. 


However, the reality of the conquest was this. There were not that many invaders from France; they were spread out across the country, and the English language continued to be used. Even William supposedly tried to learn English. For 300 years after the conquest French was used by all the Kings of England, and it wasn't until the fifteenth century when Henry IV became the first English king to speak English as his first language.


Although the Norman kings used French for their bureaucracy and in law (and also in the church), some of the written language was in Latin, often used in law before the conquest. Even so, English remained a minority written language until the fourteenth century. 


Of course, a considerable number of French words were included into the English vocabulary. From the Norman conquest we had 'duc' (duke), 'werre' (war), and 'pais' (peace).


In 1204 the influence of French (particularly the variety known as Central French, the language we more closely associate with modern French) grew stronger as the language began to be linked to being in a higher social class, but oddly England itself began to be more independent from the country that gave it French. It is estimated that by this time about 21 per cent of the English vocabulary had come from French in some form, but many of these words came from the church and law. But most words still originated from Germanic Northern Europe - the invaders before the French.


There are some written texts available that show the influences of French, but it is still possible to see the influence of Old English. Indeed, the texts are perhaps even easier to understand than Old English.


There were still many regional differences in English, particularly in spelling. At this time, there was no dictionary or effective guide to inform people how words should be spelt; often they were written as to how they were sounded in the region.


In the second half of the fourteenth century English was becoming more widely used than French. There are many possible reasons for this:


  • As much of the population could not speak French, English became more widely used in law. This became particularly important after the plague known as the Black Death, when a shortage of workers meant that English became very important. 

  • The church was seen as using the money it collected in ways it should not, and the lower classes supported changes. One result was the New Testament translated into English for those people.

  • A lot of texts were now being written in English.

  • England was at war with France for over a century, and use of the French language was being seen as anti patriotic.

  • Although Latin was still important in education, English replaced French as the language of instruction.


English as a language was never really taken seriously before the fourteenth century as it was never a taught language. By contrast, Latin was still the language to be taught: it was very much connected to the church, it was the language of the sciences, the arts and general literature, and therefore the language for educated people. But English was gradually becoming the automatic choice of language, particularly from the king.


As mentioned earlier, there were many different dialects of English around the country. The written form adopted by the crown was known as Chancery English - a form of English of the East Midlands that had moved into London. This particular English is seen by many as the variety that influences Standard English today. At this time there was a move to remove variations in spelling, even though documents passed for copying by scribes were often respelled to fit the dialect for the area.

In 1362 English became the official language of Parliament, with the king and the country's lawmakers speaking the language well enough to use it. It was the following century that, as mentioned, Henry IV was the first native English speaking king.

What is presented here is not necessarily the true story of a language referred to as 'middle English'. There is not a lot of evidence, and many historical accounts are often taken from a perspective that shows negativity towards the French in that period. Often there is evidence that has been chosen to 'fit the facts', leading to ideas that England was a country forming its own identity, the result being a form of Standard English.

In the next section we move into the era of Henry the Eighth, the Renaissance, the sciences, and how Caxton and Doctor Johnson played their parts in shaping the language.

Introduction    Pre-English    Old English    Middle English    Modern English    World English and the Future

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