Major Changes in the sound system in Middle English.
Consonantal changes in the system are slight during ME period. Certain voiced consonants became voiceless and other voiceless consonants became voiced; consonants could occasionally also be lost completely. Thus, [w] was lost before a following [o] if it came after another consonant: OE swa > ME so; OE hwa >ME ho (who). In addition, ME lost consonant clusters beginning with [h], so that hring became ring and hrof became rof (>roof). Significantly, both of these consonants were glides, i.e., not obstruents, among which change was limited to the feature of voice.
Consonant Changes from OE to ME.
The following examples represent forms which lost initial h- preceding a resonant (l, n and r):
OE ME Meaning
hlaford [hla:vord] lord [lo:rd] lord
hnappian [hnæpjan] nape [nap ] nap
hnutu [hnutu] nute [nut ] nut
hring [hriη ] ring [rin ] ring
hrof [hro:f] rof [ro:f] roof
These examples show the loss of a final consonant:
drivan [drivan] drive [dri:v ] drive
lihtlic [lixtliç] lightly [lixtli] lightly
anlic [a:nliç] onli [ :nli] only
The cluster [sw] was simplified:
swuster [swustεr] suster [sust r] sister
In some dialects voiceless consonants became voiced:
fæder [fæd r] vader [vad r] father
self [sεlf] zelf [zεlf] self
Vowels in Stressed Syllables
There was also little change in the vowels in stressed or accented syllables. Most of the short vowels, unless lengthened, passed unchanged into ME. But short æ was lowered to [a] and y was unrounded to i (OE cræft > ME craft; brycg > brigge, bridge). The other short vowels a, e, i, o, u remained unchanged, as in OE catte > cat, bedde > bed, scip > ship, folc > folk, full >ful.
Amongst the long vowels, the most important change was the raising and rounding of long a > o: OE ban > NE bon (bone), bat > bot (boat). [y:] was unrounded to [i:]: OE bryd > ME bride, fyr > fir (fire).
Long æ in OE represented two sounds:
Long e (long a in West Germanic) appears as long e in ME, unchanged from OE (except in West Saxon): non-WS ded > ded; slepan > slepen.
In many words æ was a sound resulting from the i-umlaut of a. This was a more open vowel, appearing in ME as e (OE clæne > clene, dælen > delen (deal)).
These sounds were subsequently raised, and are now identical with [i:]: clean, deal, deed, etc.
Other OE vowels preserved their quality in ME: medu > mede (mead); fif > fif (five); bok > bok (book); hus > hus (house).
OE diphthongs were all simplified and all the dipthongs of ME are new formations resulting chiefly from the combination of a simple vowel with the following consonant ([j] or [w]), which vocalized. Though the quality did not change in ME, the quantity of OE vowels underwent considerable change. OE long vowels were shortened late in the OE period or early in ME when followed by a double consonant or by most combinations of consonants (gretter with short e developed as the comparative of OE great (with long e); OE axian with long a became asken with short a in ME. The changes are not noticeable in spelling, but they are very significant, since they determine the development of these vowels in later stages.
Vowels in Unstressed Syllables
The general obscuring of unstressed syllables in ME is a most significant sound change, since it is one of the fundamental causes of the loss of inflection. Before the end of OE, every unstressed [a], [e], [o] and [u] tended to become an
Lengthening and Shortening.
Lengthening occurred before the consonant clusters ld, mb, nd in late Old English: OE [ ild] > ME [ i:ld], child. Lengthening did not occur if a third consonant followed, as in [ ildren], children, with a following liquid.
Lengthening of a, e, and o took place in open syllables of disyllabic words. Open syllables end in a vowel, while closed syllables end in a double consonant (word-medially). In disyllabic words a single consonant between the vowels goes with the second syllable and leaves the first syllable open; two or more consonants make the syllable closed. This is illustrated, for example, in OE [namε] > ME [na:m ], name. Moreover, where in OE the quantity distinction was clearly present, i.e. where there was a length distinction between long and short vowels, in ME this develops into a qualitative distinction: long vowels are more tense and short vowels more lax; there is no significant distinction in actual quantity any more.
Shortening occurred in Early ME in two environments:
before double consonants and consonant clusters, except the clusters above that caused lengthening: OE cepte [ke:ptε] (he kept) > ME cept [kεpt]; and
in the first syllable of a trisyllabic word: OE hæligdæg [hæ:lidæj] (holiday) > ME halidai [halidεi].
The Formation of ME Diphthongs
This phenomenon involves changes in the consonants as well, as the glides [w] and [j] and the voiced velar fricative develop into the second member of the new diphthongs.
Source New OE ME Meaning
A+ w au clawu [klawu] clawe [klau ] claw
A+ au gnagan [gna: an] gnawe [gnau ] gnaw
+ j εi dæg [dæj] dai [dεi] day
+ j εi weg [wεj] wei [wεi] way
+ w εu neawe [nε:w ] newe [neu ] new
i: + w iu stiweard [sti:wæ rd] steward [stiuard] steward
: + w ou growan [gro:wan] growen [grou n] grow
+ ou boga [b a] bowe [bou ] bow
a: + ou agan [a: an] owen [ou n] owe
Ofr i OFr joie ME joie joy
The noun. In ME the noun’s inflectional endings were seriously disturbed. For example, in the London English of Chaucer the forms stan, stanes, stane, stan in the singular and stanas, stana, stanum, stanas in the plural were reduced to three: stan, stanes and stane. In the West Midlands and in the North the process had gone even further by the mid-fourteenth century. From the strict regularities of the alliterative meter we know that the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight had only two forms in the strong masculine declension, stan and stanes, the dative no longer being productive. In both the East and the west Midlands, feminine nouns that ended in a consonant in OE acquired an analogical –e in all cases in the singular except the possessive: for example, synn ‘sin’ became synne. The only distinctive termination was the –s of the possessive singular and of the nominative and accusative plural. Because these two cases of the plural were those most frequently used, the –s came to be thought of as the sign of the plural and was extended to all plural forms. We get thus an inflection of the noun identical with that which we have today. Other declensions suffered even more, so that in many words (giefu, sunu, etc.) the distinctions of case and even of number were completely obliterated.
In early ME only two methods of indicating the plural remained fairly distinctive: the –s or –es from the strong declension and the –en (as in oxen) from the weak. And for a time, at least in southern England, it would have been difficult to predict that the –s would become the almost universal sign of the plural that it has become. Until the thirteenth century the –en plural enjoyed great favour in the south, being often added to nouns which had not belonged to the weak declension in OE. But in the rest of England the –s plural spread rapidly. By 1200 –s was the standard plural ending in the north and north Midland areas; other forms were exceptional. Fifty years later it had conquered the rest of the Midlands, and in the course of the fourteenth century it had definitely been accepted all over England as the normal sign of the plural in English nouns.
The OE category of Gender disappeared together with other distinctive features of the noun declensions. In the 11th and 12th c. The gender of nouns was deprived of its main formal support – the weakened and levelled endings of adjectives and adjective pronouns ceased to indicate gender. Semantically gender was associated with differentiation of sex and therefore the formal grouping into genders was smoothly and naturally superseded by a semantic division into inanimate and animate nouns, with a further subdivision of the latter into males and females.
The Adjective. In the adjective the levelling of forms had even greater consequences. Partly as a result of the sound changes, partly through the extensive working of analogy, the form of the nominative singular was early extended to all cases of the singular, and that of the nominative plural to all cases of the plural, both in the strong and the weak declensions. The result was that in the weak declension there was no longer any distinction between the singular and the plural: both ended in –e (blinda > blinde and blindan > blinde). This was also true of those adjectives under the strong declension whose singular ended in –e. By about 1250 the strong declension had distinctive forms for the singular and plural only in certain monosyllabic adjectives which ended in a consonant in OE (sing. Glad, plur. glade). Under the circumstances the only ending which remained to the adjective was often without distinctive grammatical meaning and its use was not governed by any strong sense of adjectival inflection.
The degree of comparison is the only set of forms which the adjective has preserved through all historical periods. In OE the forms of the comparative and the superlative degree, like all the grammatical forms, were synthetic: they were built by adding the suffixes –ra and –est|-ost, to the form of the positive degree. Sometimes affixation was accompanied by an interchange of the root-vowel; a few adjectives had suppletive forms.
In ME the degrees of comparison could be built in the same way, only the suffixes had been weakened to –er, -est and the interchange of the root-vowel was less common than before. Since more adjectives with the sound alternation had parallel forms without it, the forms with an interchange soon fell into disuse. Cf. – ME long, lenger, lengest and long, longer, longest (the latter set replaced the former). The most important innovation in the adjective system in the ME period was the growth of analytical forms of the degrees of comparison.
The new system of comparisons emerged in ME, but the ground for it had already been prepared by the use of the OE adverbs ma, bet, betst, swi or – ‘more’, ‘better’, ‘to a greater degree’ with adjectives and participles. It is noteworthy that in ME, when the phrases with ME more and most became more and more common, they were used with all kinds of adjective, regardless of the number of syllables and were even preferred with mono- and disyllabic words.
The Pronoun. The decay of inflections is obvious in the system of pronominal inflections, where the simplification of forms was due in only a slight measure to the weakening of final syllables that played so large a part in the reduction of endings in the noun and the adjective. The loss was greatest in the demonstratives. Of the numerous forms of se, seo, t we have only the and that surviving through ME and continuing in use today. A plural tho (those) survived to Elizabethan times. All the other forms indicative of different gender, number, and case dissapeared in most dialects early in the ME period. The same may be said of the demonstrative es, eos, is (this). Everywhere but in the south the neuter form is came to be used early in ME for all genders and cases of the singular, while the forms of the nominative plural were similarly extended to all cases of the plural, appearing in Modern English as those and these.
In the personal pronoun the losses were not so great. Here there was greater need for separate forms for the different genders and cases, and accordingly most of the distinctions that existed in OE were retained. However the forms of the dative and accusative cases were early combined, generally under that of the dative (him, her, (t)hem). In the neuter the form of the accusative (h)it became the general objective case, partly because it was like the nominative, and partly because the dative him would have been subject to confusion with the corresponding case of the masculine. One other general simplification is to be noted: the loss of the dual number. A language can get along without a distinction in pronouns for two persons and more than two; the forms wit, it, and their oblique cases did not survive beyond the thirteenth century, and English lost the dual number.
The pronoun she had the form heo in OE. The modern form could have developed from the OE heo, but it is believed by some that it is due in part at least to the influence of the demonstrative seo. A similar reinforcing influence of the demonstrative is perhaps to be seen in the forms of the third person plural, they, their, them, but here the source of the modern developments was undoubtedly Scandinavian. The normal development of the OE pronouns would have been hi (he), here, hem, and these are very common. In the districts, however, where Scandinavian influence was strong, the nominative hi began early to be replaced by the Scandinavian form ei (ON eir), and somewhat later a similar replacement occurred in the other cases, their and them. The new forms were adopted more slowly farther south, and the usual inflection in Chaucer is thei, here, hem. But by the end of the ME period the forms they, their, them may be regarded as the normal English plurals.
Development of Articles. In the course of ME there arose an important formal difference between the demonstrative pronoun and the definite article: as a demonstrative pronoun that preserved number distinctions whereas as a definite article – usually in the weakened form the [ ] – it was uninflected.
The meaning and functions of the definite article became more specific when it came to be opposed to the indefinite article, which had developed from the OE numeral and indefinite pronoun an.
In OE there existed two words, an, a numeral, and sum, an indefinite pronoun, which were often used in functions approaching those of the modern indefinite article.
An seems to have been a more colloquial word, while sum tended to assume a literary character, particularly towards the end of the period, and soon fell into disuse in this function. In early ME the indefinite pronoun an which had a five-case declension in OE lost its inflection. In the 12th c. The inflectional forms of an reveal a state of confusion; in the 13th c. The uninflected oon|one and their reduced forms an|a are firmly established in all regions.
The Verb. Apart from some levelling of inflections and the weakening of endings in accordance with the general tendency, the principal changes in the verb during the ME period were the serious losses suffered by the strong conjugation. This conjugation, although including some of the most important verbs in the language, was relatively small as compared with the large and steadily growing body of weak verbs. While an occasional verb developed a strong past tense or past participle by analogy with similar strong verbs, new verbs formed from nouns and adjectivesor borrowed from other languages were regularly conjugated as weak. Thus the minority position of the strong conjugation was becoming constantly more appreciable. After the Norman Conquest the loss of native words further depleted the ranks of the strong verbs. Those that survived were exposed to the influence of the majority, and many have changed over in the course of time to the weak inflection.
Losses among the Strong Verbs. Nearly a third of the strong verbs in OE seem to have died out early in the ME period. More than a hundred of the OE strong verbs were lost at the beginning of the ME period. But this was not all. The loss has continued in subsequent periods. Some thirty more became obsolete in the course of ME, and an equal number, which were still in use in the 16th and 17th centuries, finally died out except in the dialects, often after they had passed over to the weak conjugation or had developed weak forms alongside the strong. Today more than half of the OE strong verbs have disappeared completely from the standard language.
Strong Verbs That Became Strong. The principal of analogy – the tendency of language to follow certain patterns and adapt a less common form to a more familiar one – is well exemplified in the further history of the strong verbs. The weak conjugation offered a fairly consistent pattern for the past tense and the past participle, whereas there was much variety in the different classes of the strong verb. We say sing – sang – sung, but drive – drove – driven, fall - fell – fallen, etc. At a time when English was the language chiefly of the lower classes and largely removed from the restraining influences of education and a literary standard, it was natural that many speakers should apply the pattern of weak verbs to some which were historically strong. The tendency was not unknown even in OE. Thus r dan (to advise) and sce an (to injure) had already become weak in OE, while other verbs show occasional weak forms. In the 13th century the trend becomes clear in the written literature. Such verbs as bow, brew, burn, climb, flee, flow, help, mourn, row, step, walk, weep were then undergoing change. by the fourteenth century the movement was at its height. No less than thirty-two verbs in addition to those already mentioned now show weak forms. After this there are fewer changes. The impulse seems to have been checked, possibly by the steady rise of English in the social scale and later by the stabilizing effect of printing. At all events the fifteenth century shows only about a dozen new weak formations and in the whole modern period there are only about as many more.
Strong forms continued to be used while the weak ones were growing up, and in many cases they continued in use long after the weak inflection had become well established. Thus oke as the past tense of ache was still written throughout the 15th century although the weak form ached had been current for a hundred years. In the same way we find stope beside stepped, rewe beside rowed, clew beside clawed. In a good many cases the strong forms remained in the language well into modern times. Many strong verbs also had weak forms (blowed for blew, knowed for knew, teared for tore) that did not survive in the standard speech, while in other cases both forms have continued in use (cleft – clove, crowed – crew, heaved – hove, sheared – shore, shrived – shrove).
Survival of Strong Participles. For some reason the past participle of strong verbs seems to have been more tenacious than the past tense. In a number of verbs weak participles are later in appearing and the strong form often continued in use after the verb had definitely become weak. In the verb beat the principal beaten has remained the standard form, while in a number of other verbs the strong participle (cloven, graven, hewn, laden, molten, mown, (mis)shapen, shaven, sodden, swollen) are still used, especially as adjectives.
Middle English Syntax.
The adjective was still placed before the noun with single adjectives: an er ely servant; a gentyl and noble esquyer. However, some adjectives followed nouns, especially if translated from French or Latin. When nouns had multiple single-word modifiers one sometimes preceded the noun and the rest followed:
a gode wyt and a retentyff
meny cites and touns, faire, noble and ryche
bosomy bowes grene
Phrasal modifiers typically followed the words they modified:
e zennes et come of glutounye and of lecherie
the sins that come from gluttony and from lechery
The of-possessive was an innovation of ME. It was supported (if not originally triggered) by the French possessive with de:
aftyr e lawes of oure londe - according to the laws of our land
depness of sunne – deepness of sin
Group possessives are just appearing in ME and they are typically made up of possessive + noun + noun modifier:
the Dukes place of Lancastre
Criste, e keyng sonn of heven
Christ, the king’s son of heaven
Prepositions occasionally follow objects, especially if the object is a pronoun:
He seyd him to – he said to him
Prepositions follow an object when the object is a relative pronoun or a verb is passive:
the place that of speak
preciouse stanes at he myght by a kingdom with
es o ir wordis of is biscop ou te to be taken hede
There are not as many compound verbs as in present-day English, but they do start appearing in ME. The perfect tense became common in ME with be and have as auxiliaries, though be became less used for the perfect the more it became identified with the passive:
ou havest don our kunne wo - you have done our family woe
I am com to myne ende – I have come to my end
The progressive developed in OE, though it was fairly rare, and usually found in translations from Latin. In the course of ME it begins to develop, though its exact source is not certain. It may directly result from an –ande construction, or it may result from a fusion of the verb and the present participle as adjective, and the verb + on + the gerund. The present participle and gerund both ended in –ing, which meant that confusion was possible.
participle: for now is gode Gawayne goande ry t here
gerund: I am yn belding of a pore house
perfect progressive: We han ben waitynge al this fourtenyght
The verb to be develops as a passive auxiliary; by develops as the agent marker:
(men) that wol nat be governed by hir wyves
By ME the modals shall and will are associated with the future, as well as the quasi-modals be going to, be about to.
Do began ‘explosive’ growth, and its use varied dialectally and over time. It had 4 major functions:
as a pro-verb (as in OE); that is, one that substitutes for a verb in a sentence such as: He likes apples and I do, too.
as a causative in some dialects (e.g ME make or have)
periphrastically as an alternative to simple tenses in late ME: And in the nyght next after folwynge he did carye grete quantitee of armur to the Guyldehalle
in negatives and interrogatives, though this was just beginning:
Fader, why do ye wepe? – Father, why do you weep?
Word Order. Early ME had similar sorts of variation in word order to those of OE. As the grammatical endings are lost in ME word order patterns become more fixed, and by the end of the period, with the few minor exceptions, word order within clauses was not remarkably different from that of Modern English. There is one major exception, however, which is that pronominal objects often preceded the verb, producing the SOV order that was fairly common in OE, but is rarely, if ever, encountered in Modern English. SOV order was also found in dependent clauses and clauses with more than one verbal element:
I wol yow al the shap devyse| Of house and site
If a man will e harme
who haue e in e putte ibroute?
who has you in the well put?
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