Moving Toward Middle English

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New Old English

There's quite a bit of writing going on in Old English, strange as that may seem. As a sort of accompaniment to courses on the language, and then as a hobby in itself, Anglo-Saxonists have composed a great deal of "New Old English"--largely an Internet phenomenon. So, you can read the Gettysburg Address and you can join an Old English listserv, the ENGLISC list. You can even, wouldn't you know it, read about Monica Lewinsky in Old English, as you can in every other world language :-)


The Nice Norse

The most significant long-term impact on English during the Old English period was made by the invasions of Norsemen, starting in the 800s (see map by Matthew White). These Norsemen, variously also called Danes or Vikings, established long-lasting kingdoms in the northeast of England. The population in the northeast continued to speak English, but it was an English heavily inflected by Norse vocabulary and pronunciation. Words in Modern English that come from Old Norse include window and they, them, their and also forms like egg (ey), kirk (church), dike (ditch), skirt (shirt), sister (OE sweostor, ME suster) and the words leg, neck (this explains some of the variance English shows against German Hals and Bein), take (nim), sky (welkin), skin (hide), anger (wrath), die (as verb; the OE is steorfan, starve), ill (sick), ugly (foul), law, loose, low, odd, wrong, dirt, and husband (man). Why these words entered standard English is anybody's guess. Unlike later imports from French (see below), they are very common words. Many of them have doublets in Middle or Modern English (or both) that are also common: the common Old English words for some of these same ideas are given above in bold after the Norse words.

Most of the Norse component of the Modern English vocabulary comes with the adoption, sooner or later, into southern and western dialects of the northeastern dialect forms. A few of the words above, like kirk, have remained Northern (specifically Scots) forms, but most were adopted by various routes into Southern, and therefore Standard, English. More Norse words survive today in local speech in Scotland, Northumberland, and Yorkshire than have made it into standard English.


The Normans Conquer


In 1066, a dynastic quarrel over the throne of England ended in victory for William, Duke of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings. William became King William I of England and his Norman companions (Normans were originally Norsemen who had conquered Northern France, as their cousins had conquered parts of England) became the feudal overlords of the Anglo-Saxon population. There was never a great amount of Norman immigration into England. Instead there was a grafting of a great superstructure of economic, political, religious and military power onto a population that remained largely English in composition. (For that matter, the population of England is largely descended from Stone Age people who lived there thousands of years ago, though naturally with immigrant mixtures from all over the planet. But we should not conceive of any of these great conquests, even the Saxon conquest, as wiping out a whole population.)

The Normans were tremendous builders of castles and cathedrals (another cathedral view) and built much of what we now see as the surviving medieval look of England. Yet they essentially built these colossal symbols of their military and religious institutions on top of, or alongside, the dominant patterns of village and agricultural settlement that had been imposed on the island by the Saxons.

England in the late 1000s, the 1100s, and 1200s became a bilingual country. Norman French was the prestige language, English the language of everyday folk. Few Normans learned English in this early Middle English period. French was the language of court, of law, of the literature of the period (though remember that Latin was a significant literary and religious language well into the period of Modern English). Since few Anglo-Normans learned English, initially, there was little borrowing of French words into English in the period 1066-1300. The changes in English during this period were nevertheless quite substantial.

Early Middle English (1100-1300) has a largely Anglo-Saxon vocabulary (in the North, with many Norse borrowings). But it has a greatly simplified inflectional system. The complicated grammatical relations that were expressed in Old English by means of the dative and accusative cases, and by the many forms of verbs are replaced in Middle English, gradually, with constructions that involve prepositions, pronouns, and modal verbs. This replacement is incomplete. We still today have the Old English genitive in many words (we now call it the "possessive": the form dog's for "of the dog"; but the apostrophe here doesn't mean that anything has been "left out," as it does in contractions like doesn't). But most of the other case endings disappear in the early ME period, including, you'll be happy to learn, most of the dozens of forms of the word the. Grammatical genders also disappear from English during the Early ME period, further simplifying matters.

The tense system of the verb actually expands, though, in early ME. Old English has two verb tenses, past and present, and to a great extent, if you think about it, Modern English operates with just past and present tenses. You say "I went to the mall" if you did it yesterday, and "I'm going to the mall" if you're on your way there in your car right now; but if you're going to the mall tomorrow, you say, well, "I'm going to the mall tomorrow." We express present and future tense for the most part with the same words, modified by a time adverb that places the action with relation to the present moment. That's largely because Old English bequeathed us no future tense.

But in Middle English we begin to see the use of modal verbs to express forms of verb action, including the present tense--and so, the use of shall and will to form what we now learn as the English "future tense." (American speakers have virtually lost shall altogether except in literary or traditional contexts, and I have the sense that we use will as it was used in OE, to express determination or intention rather than verb tense; but Middle English and some other Modern dialects preserve the use of these modals to indicate the future.)

Let's look at some comparative versions of the 23rd Psalm in different stages and dialects of Middle English to get some idea of the dynamics I've presented here. I stress dialects because there is no single "Middle English" any more than there is a single or standard Old English; there are, instead, Kentish, London, Midlands, Southwestern, East Anglian and Northern varieties of Middle English, each with its peculiarities.