Later Middle English

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Early Middle English, as we've seen, is a simplified Old English, with its inflectional system greatly reduced but its vocabulary still almost entirely Anglo-Saxon (with significant Norse borrowings in Northern dialects).

Later Middle English shows heavy French borrowing and continued reduction of the inflectional system. It is in many respects "modern" except for two key factors: 1) it was probably pronounced quite a bit differently from modern English; and 2) it had no central standard. Instead there are several different literary standards in Middle English (as there were in Old English) and no sense till very late in the period that any one of those literary standards was a "dialect" in opposition to a national "standard." Late in the Middle English period, with the introduction of printing into England in 1470 and following, and the adoption by the printing industry (centered in London) of many features of "Chancery English" as standard in its orthography and usage, we have the first inklings of modern Standard English.

Modern Standard English is ultimately strongly influenced by the dialect spoken in London and the surrounding counties in the years 1350-1450. This was only one of several competing literary standards in its own day. It is the language of Geoffrey Chaucer, but Chaucer had no sense that he was writing the "true" or "pure" English of his time--he recognized (in fact he pretty much had to) that there were other English standards in other parts of the country, standards that produced literary works like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Piers Plowman. In retrospect, we come to see Chaucer as the great model for "standard" Middle English because his dialect was the one chosen as the standard in the century after his death.

We've looked a little at some Middle English dialects, and it's now time to talk in some detail about Chaucer's English--which, with some variation, is the language of other Southern Middle English writers like John Gower, John Lydgate, and Thomas Malory. Until the 1300s, the language of the English court and bureaucracy centered on London had been French, with Latin reserved for some special civil and ecclesiastical purposes. In a few decades that all changed, with French mostly disappearing from the privileged uses where it had flourished since the Norman conquest. John H. Fisher's essays in The Emergence of Standard English (Kentucky 1996) are some of the best sources of information on this process, but I will try to sum them up here as concisely as I can within our course's limitations.

The first time that contemporary records admit that Parliament was conducted in English, for example, is 1362 (Fisher 45). Before that, records of Parliamentary addresses and debates were recorded in French or in Latin--though it's likely that a lot of this business was carried on in English and translated into French or Latin purely "for the record." The Parliament of 1362 passed a law requiring courts to conduct proceedings in English; though that law was ignored by common-law courts until the 1700s (!?), the court of Chancery--which was in a very broad sense the "federal"--that is, Royal and Parliamentary--bureaucracy of its time--conducted its business in English from the mid-1300s.

Fisher notes that the crucial years of transition were 1420-1460, however. Before that time, legal documents in England are still predominantly in French and Latin; during that time, there is an entire shift to English. The Royal council and the subsidiary courts that processed petitions to Parliament began to conduct their business in English, and this "Chancery English" became the standard written form of a national government that began to address all of its subjects in Chancery English as a standard form instead of in standardized French and Latin. Fisher also notes that the Kings of England, especially starting with Henry V (who reigned 1413-1422) had a great impact on national language policy--for one thing, because starting with Henry they began to speak and write in English instead of French.

The native language of the King and court in the years 1350-1450 was largely still French, however. So unlike the early years of Middle English, where the French influence was limited to very few concepts and words, the English spoken by this newly Anglicized Norman court of the times of Chaucer, Henry V and others was a heavily Gallicized English. We get the texture of our modern English vocabulary from this time--a vocabulary that depends largely on the interplay of good old-fashioned Saxon words with a great store of Romance words alongside for sophisticated concepts. Or you might say--since 1350 or so English speakers have always played a blunt Germanic inheritance off against a "refined" Romance way of speaking. The two different sources of vocabulary in English have these connotations for most speakers and writers to this day, giving English a peculiar internal tension.

Let's consider one example: the prologue to Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale from the Canterbury Tales.