Historical Background of the Middle English Period

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“Historical Background of the Middle English Period”





  1. The problem of periodization. The role of the Middle English Period in the history of English language.
  2. The influence of the Scandinavian invasions.
  3. The Norman Conquest.
  4. Early Middle English dialects. Neighborhood of three languages in England.
  5. Written records of the M. E. P.
  6. Late M. E. P.
  7. Development of English dialects and the rise of London dialect.

































The historical development of a language is a continuous, uninterrupted process without sudden breaks or rapid transformations. Therefore any periodisation imposed on language history by linguists, with precise dates, might appear artificial. There are some periodizations of the history of English language. The author of the first scientific historical phonetic and grammar of En. Language. H. Sweet suggested the periodization that corresponds to the morphological structure of different centures. He called the Old English Period The period of full endings , the M. E. P. The period of reduced endings , the New En. P. The period of lost endings. But this periodization is not full because it is not quite right to devide the logical features, but phonological or syntactical ones (they were not mentioned in the periodization.) So, thus I consider that any periodization is based on some principles, but cant touch all the sides of the language.

One of the prominent and well-known English scientists Henry Sweet worked out several periodisations of the history of English language. He suggested to single out the period of transition and to subdivide the transitional stage between the Old and the Middle English Periods cover 1100-1200. H. Sweet reckoned 1200 to be the limning of the Middle English based on morphological phenomena the Middle English Period is considered to le the Period of Levelled English.

Another periodization is extralinguistical. Its based on the historical events, which influenced on the English language. I must notice that this one is the most traditional. The commonly accepted traditional periodization divides English language history into three periods: Old English, Middle English and New English with boundaries attached to definite dates and historical effects affecting the language. Old English is connected with the German settle in Britain (5th century) and with the beginning of writing (7th century) and ends with the Norman Conquest (1066). Middle English begins with Norman Conquest end ends on the introduction of printing (1475). The Middle English period itself may be also divided into two smaller ones Early Middle English and Late Middle English.

Early Middle English covers the main events of the 14th century. It is the stage of greatest dialectal divergence caused by the feudal system and by foreign influences-Scandinavian and French. The dialectal division of present-day English owes its origin to this period of history. Great changes of the language took place at all the levels, especially in lexis and grammar.

Later 14th till the end of the 15th century is a time known as Late or Classical Middle English. This period umbras the age of Chaucer, the greatest English medieval writer and forerunner of the English Renaissanu, and is characterized by restoration of English to the position of the state and literary language and by literary flourishing, which has a stabilizing effect on language, so that the rate of linguistic changes was slowed down. At the same time the written forms of the language developed and improved.

The Old English period in the history of the language corresponds to the position of the state and literary language corresponds to the transitional stage from the slave-owning and tribal system to the feudal system in the history of Britain. In the 11th century feudalism was already well established. According to a survey made in the late 11th c. slaves and freemen were declining classes. The majority of the agricultural population (and also of the total population, which amounted to about 2.000.000 people) was bound to their lord and land. Under natural economy, characteristre of feudalism, most of the things needed for the life of the lord and the villain were produced on the estate. Feudal manors were separated from their neighbors by tells, local feuds, and various restrictions concerning settlement, traveling and employment. These historical conditions produced a certain influence on the development of the language.

In Early M.E. the differences between the regional dialects grew. Never in history, before or after, was the historical background more favorable for dialectal differentiation. The main is the dialectal division in England, which survived in later ages with some slight modification of the feudal stage of British history.

In the age poor communication dialect boundaries often coincided with geographical barriers such as rivers, mashes, forests, and mountains, as these barriers would hinder the diffusion of linguistic features.

In addition to economic, geographical and social conditions, dialectal differences in Early M.E. were accentuated by some historical events, namely the Scandinavian invasions and the Norman Conquest.

Though the Scandinavian invasions of England are dated in the Old English period, there effect on the language is particularly apparent in M.E. Eventually the Scandinavians were absorbed into the local population both ethnically and linguistically, because new settlers and the English intermarried and intermixed; they lived close together and didnt differ either in social rank or in the level of culture and customs; they intermingled the more easily as there was no linguistic barrier between them.

The increased regional differences of English in the Scandinavian influence in the areas of the heaviest settlement the Scandinavians outnumbered the Anglo-Saxon population, which is attested by geographical names. In Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Northumberland, Cumberland-up to 75 per cent of the place-names is Danish or Norwegian. Altogether more than 1.400 English villages and towns bear names of Scandinavian origin (with the element “thorp” meaning “village”, e.g. Woodthorp, Linthorp; “toft”, “a piece of land”, e. g. “Brimtoft”, “Lowestoft”). Probably, in many districts people became bilingual, with either Old Norse or English prevailing. Besides due to the contacts and mixture with O Seand, the Northern dialects (chiefly North Umbrian and East Mercian) had acquired lasting and something indelible Scandinavian features. We find a large admixture of Scandinavian words in Early M.E. records coming from the North East whereas contemporary text from other regions are practically devoid of Scandinavian borrowings.

In later ages the Scandinavian element passed into other regions. The incorporation of the Scandinavian element in the London dialect and Standard English was brought about by the changing linguistic situation in England: the mixture if the dialects and the grooving linguistic unification.

Soon after Canutes death (1042) and the collapse of his empire the old Anglo-Saxon line was restored but their reign was short-lived. The new English king, Edward the Confessor (1942-1066), who had been reared in France, brought over many Norman advisors and favorites; he distributed among them English lands and wealth to the considerable resentment of the Anglo-Saxon nobility and church hierarchy. He not only spoke French himself but insisted on it being spoken by the nobles at his court. William, Duke of Normandy, visited his court and it was rumored that Edward appointed him his successor. In many respites Edward paved the for Norman infiltration long before the Norman Conquest. However, the government of the country was still in the hands of Anglo-Saxon feudal lords, headed by the powerful Earl Godwin of Wessex.

In 1066, upon Edwards death, the Elders of England proclaimed Harold Godwin king of the English. As soon as the news reached William of Normandy, he mustered a big army by promise of land and plunder (one third of his soldiers were Normans, other, mercenaries from all over Europe) and, with the support of the Pope, landed in Britain.

In the battle of Hastings, fought in October 1066, Harold was killed and the English were defeated. This date is commonly known as the date of the Norman Conquest, though the military occupation of the country was not completed until a few years later. After the victory of Hastings, William by passed London cutting it off from the North and made the William of London and the bishops at Westminster Abbey crown him king. William his barons laid waster many lands in England, burning down villages and estates. They conducted a relentless campaign of subjugation, devastated and almost depopulated Northumbria and Mercia, which tried to rise against the conquerors. Huge stone Norman castles if earthen forts and wooden stockades, built during the campaign, soon replaced scores. Most of the lands of the Anglo-Saxon lords passed into the hands of the Norman barons, Williams own possession comprising about one third of the country. The Normans occupied all the important ports in the church, in thee government and in the army.