In 1066 the Normans invaded and French became the language of the governing classes although English was still spoken by the majority of the population. However, after the loss of Normandy by King John in 1204 and the hundred years war, ties were lost with France and many ‘Normans’ began to think of themselves as English. At the beginning of the ME period there were many different dialects and each author wrote in their own dialect. Therefore there is some variation in the writing of this time. During the course of the period however, the speech of the London region gradually emerged as the standard form used for writing and eventually developed into Standard Modern English.
The word stock
The Norman conquest had a huge influence on the word stock of the language. Many English words were replaced by French words which are still present in the language today.
* Some French spelling conventions were borrowed. For example <th> was gradually introduced to replace thorn and eth * <v>was used to represent either /v/ word initially or /u/ elsewhere * <ch> was introduced to represent // where OE had simply used <c> * Middle English scribes introduced <wh> instead of <hw> for the sound at the start of ‘what’ * <qu> replaced <cw> under influence from Latin * Double vowel letters were introduced to represent long vowels
In general many inflections were lost in Middle English. This is due partly to phonetic changes and partly to analogy. The first change to happen was that inflectional –m became –n, for example in the dative plurals of some nouns. This meant that a distinction was lost from other cases and eventually the –n was lost altogether. At around the same time, distinct vowels (-a, -u, -e) all merged to schwa which was written as <e>. Therefore the distinctions that these vowels and nasals had signalled could no longer be made. This effectively eliminated grammatical gender, which had already begun to breakdown in OE.
In OE gender had been distinguishable in most nouns. In ME most plurals and genitives came to be –es (pronounced ). So just like in Mdn English most nouns had only two forms having lost distinctions of case (except the genitive) and gender. Towards the beginning of this period –en was still being used to signal plurality, especially in the south but by the 14th century the –s ending had spread to the vast majority of words across the country.
Of course in Mn English these pronouns still retain distinctive gender (in the third person) and case forms (genitive, subject, object). The dual number was lost during the ME period but the remaining forms were quite varied in different dialects.
The Definite article
The Old English forms were eventually reduced to ‘the’ ‘that’ and ‘tho’ (later those). So again distinctions of case and gender are lost.
The distinction between weak and strong verbs was maintained but many originally strong verbs became weak. Some verbs could form the preterit and past participle by either a vowel change or the addition of –ed (like hung and hanged today), although most eventually could only use the weak form.
Because so many inflections were lost relations between words could potentially be unclear. Therefore the word order became more fixed. At this stage then the language has changed form a highly synthetic one in OE to a much more analytic one where the relationship between words is signalled by word order rather than inflection
Prologue from Confessio Amantis.
Original in Middle English:Of hem that writen ous toforeThe bokes duelle, and we therforeBen tawht of that was write tho:Forthi good is that we alsoIn oure tyme among ous hiereDo wryte of newe som matiere,Essampled...