Middle English Overview

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In relation to the Conquest, Burnley (2000) suggests that innovations linked to the birth of Middle English were only broadly related to the arrival of the Norman French. He claims that, in many instances, dialect manuscripts of the period merely reveal that diversity and change was already occurring in Old English, a result of the substantial linguistic influence of the Scandinavian invaders in the 9th and 10th centuries.

Furthermore, Baugh and Cable (1993) observe that these changes were not only phonological but also grammatical and lexical. However, such changes did not all occur all at the same time but materialized over hundreds of years and at disparate rates in the different Middle English dialects (see below).

Features of Middle English

Burrows and Turville-Petre (1992) highlight three features which specifically distinguish Middle English from Old English:

·The inflectional system was much simpler (see Loss of Inflections), particularly with regard to adjectives and nouns.

·Relationships between words in a sentence relied more and more on prepositions and word order.

·English vocabulary was progressively more heterogeneous. That is to say, whilst Old English was predominantly Germanic, Middle English was a linguistic mixture of Scandinavian, Latin and French.

Middle English Dialects

The accepted dialect divisions of this new form of English (see map) equate approximately with those of Old English. However, Northumbrian is now designated "Northern" whilst Mercian is described in terms of either the "East Midlands" or "West Midlands" dialect. The suggestion is that the majority of the inhabitants of Yorkshire would have spoken the Northern form but that West Riding speech would have belonged to the West Midlands group. Barber (1993) adds that Northumbrian, due in part to political division, separated into northern English and the English of the Scots.

In relation to these dialects Baugh and Cable (1993) observe that...