But most of the changes in a language are changes in the details of how that language operates. Changes in the rules of punctuation, changes in the spelling or the pronunciation or the meaning of a word, and changes in the rules of grammatical concord in relation to a certain word (e.g.

, the data is/are; None of them is/are), changes in the rules regarding double comparatives, double superlatives, etc., are important in their own rights but they are in a sense relatable only to the periphery of a language; they do not change the basic typology of a language. The Middle English period, however, is a period of radical changes; it is a period in which a synthetic language changed into an analytic language. The changes are of such a radical nature that one might argue that like Sanskrit and Hindi, Old English and Modern English should be considered two different languages and not two different phases in the history of the same language.

We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!

order now


In Old English, the plural of certain nouns was formed by adding -as at the end. The word stan (stone) was, for example, the nominative singular and stanas was its plural form. In the case of certain other nouns, the plural was formed by adding -an at the end. The Old English word for hunter, for example, was hunta in the nominative singular and huntan in the plural form.

The -as at the end of words like stanas (stones) gave rise to the Modern English -s and -es for forming plurals (boys and churches, for example). Similarly, the -an at the end of words like huntan (hunters) gave rise to the -en at the end of plural words like children, oxen and brethren. During the first half of the Middle English period, -s and -es were the usual devices for forming plurals in the northern dialects of Old English and -en was extensively used for forming plurals in the southern dialects. So, in the northern dialects there were words like englas (angels) and eyes and in the southern dialects words like englen (angels) and eyen.

By the fifteenth century -s and -es more or less displaced -en all over England and became accepted as the general suffixes for forming plurals in English.

The Possessive Form:

According to the rules of inflection in Old English, certain types of norms had -es at the end in their singular genitive form. The singular genitive form of the word stone, for example, was stanes (of stone). This -es at the end of words of this class was generalized and later became accepted as the common suffix for forming the genitive form of most nouns in English. With the passage of time, this -es at the end of plural nouns was changed into -is and then into the Modern English apostrophe followed by an s.


During the first half of the Middle English period, adjectives had two forms: the unmarked singular form (e.g., fair) and the marked plural form with an e at the end (e.g., faire). Chaucer, for example, uses expressions like: (i) The weder is fair (The weather is fair) (ii) Faire wyves (fair waves) Towards the end of the Middle English period the -e at the end of plural adjectives was lost and adjectives in English became indeclinable. From the point of view of the formation of the comparative and the superlative, adjectives in Middle English were basically of three different types as they are in Modern English: (i) adjectives in the case of which the comparative and the superlative are formed by adding -er and -est, (ii) adjectives in the case of which the comparative and the superlative forms are shown by prefixing more and most to the positive form and (iii) adjectives in the case of which the comparative and the superlative forms are based on different roots than the positive.

What made adjectives in Middle English different from adjectives in Old English is as follows: In Middle English, the comparative and the superlative were generally formed directly from the positive. Late Old English, for example, had gret, gretter and grettest. These forms survived for some time even after the Old English period but Middle English had greter and gretest formed directly from the positive gret. Late Old English had old, elder and eldest. Elder and eldest have survived with a slight change in meaning and are part of the twentieth-century English vocabulary. But Middle English formed its own comparative and superlative forms older and oldest directly from the positive form old. Late Old English had late, latter and last. These forms were used in Middle English as they are used even in present-day English.

Along with these forms, however, Middle English formed its own comparative and superlative forms later and latest directly from late. Besides, Middle English dropped t occurring before st in Old English adjectives. Old English bet(e)st, for example, became best in Middle English and Old English latost became last.


As is evident from the following table, in Old English the use of the definite article was subject to an elaborate paradigm of declension. During the Middle English period, the Old English se, which was used before singular masculine nouns in their nominative forms and, similarly, seo, which was used before singular feminine nouns in their nominative forms were changed into the Modern English the, which could be used before all kinds of nouns.

The word / Qaet/, which was in Old English a neuter form of the definite article, acquired a demonstrative function during the Middle English period. Its use was no longer confined to neuter words; it could now be used before masculine and feminine words as well.


(i) In Old English, ye were the plural of thou and you the plural of thee. But a new distinction appeared during the Middle English period thee and thou were used in the case of (a) children, (b) familiars and (c) persons of an inferior status. Ye and you were words of respect and were used when addressing a superior. (ii) It was during the Middle English period that the Modern English pronoun she came into use for the first time. It is not certain whether it was derived from the Old English feminine pronoun heo or from the Old English seo, the feminine form of the definite article. (iii) In Old English, personal pronouns were inflected for number, gender and case.

As far as number was concerned, each of the personal pronouns had one form for the singular, another form for the dual and a third form for the plural. The dual form of personal pronouns disappeared during the Middle English period. The process of discarding these forms of pronouns had started during the Late Old English period. During the Middle English period the dual forms of pronouns were completely abandoned. (iv) In Old English, min was the genitive form of the first person singular pronoun and din was the genitive form of the second person singular pronoun. In Middle English, mi and di were used if the following word began with a consonant and min and din were used if the following word began with a vowel.


In Middle English, “natural gender” asserted itself more and more and by the second half of the Middle English period grammatical gender was more or less completely replaced by natural gender. The Old English word for the sun, for example, was a feminine noun and so a feminine pronoun had to be used for it but the Old English word for the moon was a masculine word and so a masculine pronoun had to be used for the moon.

Similarly, the Old English forms of girl and wife were nouns belonging to the neuter gender and so neuter pronouns had to be used for a girl or for a wife. This cumbersome system of grammatical gender was increasingly simplified and then almost abandoned during the Middle English period. In a dormant form grammatical gender can still be noticed in the possible use of the pronoun it for both a cow and a bull and the possible use of she for a ship, for example. But it is because of the radical simplification of rules during the Middle English period that grammatical gender is no longer a cumbersome part of modern English usage.


From the point of view of their in flexional potential, verbs in Middle English can be studied in relation to three persons, two numbers (singular and plural but no dual) and two tense forms (the present and the past). It distinguishes three moods, the indicative, the subjunctive and the imperative. Verbs in Middle English had no passive form. The passive form of verbs emerged during the Modern English period.

Shall and Will:

In Old English, ic wille meant “I wish to” and “ic sceal” meant “I am obliged to”. In Modern English usage, shall and will have so many shades of meaning, a reference to the future time being one of them. This meaning of shall and will (i.

e., a reference to the future time) became established during the Middle English period.

Strong and Weak Verbs:

In the history of the world there has nearly always been a rivalry, a struggle for survival, between the rich and the poor, between the strong and the weak, between the powerful and the downtrodden and in this struggle for existence the strong have always had an edge over the weak. In the history of the English language also, there has always been, metaphorically speaking, a struggle for survival between the “strong” and the “weak” verbs and, though it may sound paradoxical, in this struggle the verbs which had to bow out of their existence most often were the “strong” verbs and not the “weak” verbs. Weak verbs are those which are amenable to a regular formation of the past tense and the past participle by the addition of -d or -ed. Because of the regularity of their pattern they are also known as “regular” verbs. Those verbs which do not conform to this pattern for the formation of the past or the past participle forms have always been labelled as strong or irregular verbs. It would be wrong to assume that these strong and irregular verbs were not subject to any regular patterns for the formation of the past or the past participle forms.

As Wright and Wright (1979:177-92) have pointed out, the strong verbs during the Middle English period were of seven different types and there was a great deal of regularity and predictability in the manner in which these strong verbs patterned for the formation of the past and the past participle forms. They were, however, not as regular as the weak verbs. Because of their irregularity, they turned out to be an encumbrance and the result was that their ranks were badly depleted. Nearly one-third of the strong verbs in existence at that time fell out of use. The following statement by Baugh and Cable (1978:162-63) is worth quoting in this connection: Nearly a third of the strong verbs in Old English seem to have died out early in the Middle English period.

In any case about ninety of them have left no traces in written records after 1150. But this was not all. The loss has continued in subsequent periods. Some thirty more became obsolete in the course of Middle English. This is, however, only part of the story.

The other part of the story is that many of the strong verbs which survived in this struggle for existence changed from strong verbs to weak verbs. Ache, for example, was originally a strong verb, with oke as its past tense form. Similarly, climb, creep, shave and yield were originally strong verbs with clomb, crop, shove and yold respectively as their past tense forms. But during the Middle English period these verbs developed weak forms also. For some time both the conjugations, the weak and the strong, were in use, but afterwards the strong forms fell out of use and the weak forms of these verbs were accepted as the standard forms. As Strang (1970:276) has rightly observed, “Weak verbs became so far the norm that they attracted more and more old strong verbs into their mode of conjugation”.

During the Middle English period, this preference for weak verbs manifested itself in a really big way and if the standardizing influence of the printing press had not operated as a prohibitive influence it is likely that by the end of the sixteenth century all the strong verbs in English would have either died or got converted into weak verbs. To complete the story of this struggle for survival between weak and strong verbs during the Middle English period, the following points need to be highlighted. (i) Although the general tendency was to replace strong verbs by weak verbs, just the opposite happened in the case of about 15 verbs. For some time, verbs like blow, know and tear were used both as strong verbs and as weak verbs. But in due course only the strong form survived. (ii) During the process of the change of strong into weak verbs, the past participle form of weak verbs turned out to be more resistant to change than the past tense form of these verbs. Some of these past participle forms, molten and shaven, for example, are used only adjectivally but the important thing to be noticed is that these participial reminiscences of the early past of these verbs have tenaciously continued to exist. They seem to whisper into our ears that these verbs are converts; they changed their class for the sake of their survival.


The majority of words in Middle English were words inherited from Old English. These Old English words were mostly Anglo-Saxon words but they also included Scandinavian words introduced in English by the invaders known as Vikings. These Scandinavian words were basically of the same Germanic family as the Anglo-Saxon words used by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes and so they only strengthened the basic Germanic orientation of the Old English vocabulary.

Some Latin words did manage to find their way into Old English through the Roman priests in England but in spite of these Latin words about Christianity the vocabulary continued to be not only predominantly but almost entirely Germanic. During the Middle English period there was a huge influx of words from the Italic family and that changed the basic Germanic orientation of the vocabulary of English.

Words Borrowed from French:

Whenever history unfolds itself in such a way that two language communities have to remain in close contact with each other for centuries, one of the inevitable results of their continued contact is the linguistic phenomenon known as the “borrowing” of words. Though the borrowing in such situations is seldom one-sided, the general trend is for the more privileged of the two communities to lend words and the less privileged of the two to enrich its vocabulary by assimilating words borrowed from the contact language. This sociolinguistic trend has manifested itself all over the globe at different stages of history and it manifested itself in a very big way during the Middle English period. Jespersen (1972:84) has pointed out that as the French rulers during the Middle English period were “the rich, the powerful and the refined classes”, it was a fashionable thing for the English in every respect to imitate the French and to use French words. What Jespersen says is certainly true to a very large extent but it needs to be mentioned, nevertheless, that for the English people during that period using French words was not a matter of mere fashion; it was for them a social and economic compulsion. French during the Middle English period was a language of opportunities, the language of official communication and the language of social distinction.

Using French words was for them, therefore, a sociolinguistic and at the same time a psycholinguistic compulsion imposed by their circumstances. With these observations at the back of our mind we can now study French borrowings in English during the Middle English period in some detail. Words borrowed from French during this period were relatable to (i) warfare, (ii) administrative affairs, (iii) law, (iv) Christianity, (v) science and medicine, (vi) architecture, (vii) art, literature and grammar, (viii) items of food and culinary processes involved in preparing fashionable meals, (ix) dress, jewellery and precious stones, and (x) miscellaneous things of everyday use. Examples of these ten types of words will be discussed in the following paragraphs.

Words concerning Warfare:

During the Middle English period a large number of words referring to warfare found their way into English.

These words included nouns like army, arms, ambush, battle, defence, enemy, garrison, guard, navy, peace, soldier, spy. They included words referring to people occupying different posts in the army, i.e.

, nouns like archer, chieftain, captain, lieutenant, and sergeant and also words referring to weapons, i.e., nouns like buckler, dart and lance. Verbs regarding warfare included words like arm, array, besiege, defend, retreat and vanquish.

Words concerning Administration:

Words borrowed in the sphere of administrative affairs included (a) nouns referring to various different aspects of the king’s network of administration, i.e.

, words like assembly, parliament, council, court, crown, empire, office, revenue, statute, subsidy, tax; (b) nouns referring to various posts in the government, e.g., captain, chancellor, chieftain, constable, governor, mayor, marshal, minister, treasurer and warden ; (c) nouns referring to various ranks of people in society, e.g.

, baron, duke, duchess, earl, lady, lord, noble, page, peer, prince, princess, squire, bondman, peasant, servant and slave; (d) nouns referring to titles of respect, e.g., madam, mistress and sir; and (e) nouns referring to the kind of people the king had to punish and the concepts relatable to such people, e.g., rebel, traitor, treason, tyrant, exile, liberty.

French words borrowed in the field of administration also included verbs like administer, govern, oppress, record, reign and usurp.

Words concerning Law:

Words borrowed in the sphere of law included nouns like advocate, defendant, plaintiff, plea, suit, adultery, arson, assault, fraud, libel, perjury, estate, heir and property; adjectives like culpable, innocent and just; and verbs like accuse, acquit, blame, banish, condemn, convict, depose, judge and pardon.

Words about Christianity:

As most of the monks and many of the bishops in England during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were Frenchmen who spoke only French, it was only natural that a large number of French words about Christianity should find their way into Middle English during this period. A large number of these French words were nouns which can be listed under the following headings: (a) Nouns referring to some of the fundamental concepts of Christianity, e.

g., nouns like baptism, charity, communion, confession, creator, damnation, devotion, faith, heresy, immortality, miracle, mystery, penance, penitence, prayer, religion, reverence, saint, salvation, saviour, sermon, temptation, trinity, virgin and virtue (b) Nouns referring to various ranks in the hierarchy of the church, i.e., nouns like abbess, chaplain, cardinal, clergy, clerk, dean, friar, hermit, legate, novice and vicar (c) Nouns referring to places of residence connected with the church, e.g.

, abbey, convent, cloister, hermitage, priory and sanctuary, and nouns like censer, crucifix, image, incence, lectern, and surplice that referred to things used or found inside the church. Ecclesiastical words borrowed from French during this period also included adjectives like devout, divine, reverend and solemn and verbs like adore, anoint, chant, confess, convert, ordain, pray, preach and repent.

Words about Science and Medicine:

The word medicine itself was borrowed from French. Other words borrowed in the field of medicine included nouns like alkali, alum, anatomy, arsenic, balm, contagion, gout, jaundice, leper, ointment, pain, paralysis, pestilence, physician, plague, pleurisy, pulse, remedy, stomach, sulphur and surgeon.

Words of Architecture:

Words borrowed in the field of architecture included nouns like base, ceiling, cellar, chamber, chimney, column, joist, latch, lintel, mansion, palace, pillar, porch, tower and wicket.

Words of Art, Literature and Grammar:

Words borrowed in these fields included chapter, chronicle, clause, gender, grammar, paper, pen, poet, preface, prologue, prose, romance, story, title, tragedy, and volume.

Words regarding Food:

Words borrowed in this sphere of life included words like biscuit, cream, salad, sugar and toast; names of fruits like almonds, cherry, date, fig, fruit, grape, lemon, orange, peach, pomegranate, resin-, names of different varieties of meat like bacon, beef, mutton, pork, sausage, veal, and venison; names of different types of fish like bream, mackerel, oyster, perch, salmon, sardine, sole; names of different substances for seasoning food like cinnamon, clove, herb, mustard, spice, thyme, vinegar; and names for different types of meals like collation, dinner, feast, repast and supper.

These words included words for different types of luxurious items on the dining table, e.g., cruet, goblet, plate, platter and saucer. These words also included verbs referring to culinary processes involved in preparing different types of sophisticated items of food, i.

e., verbs like blanch, boil, broach, fry, grate, mince, parboil, roast and stew.

Words regarding Dress, Jewellery and Precious Stones:

These included words like apparel, attire, boots, buckle, button, chemise, cloak, coat, collar, fashion, frock, dress, fur, garment, gown, kerchief, lace, luxury, petticoat, pleat, and robe, satin, taffeta and veil.

Words for jewels included brooch, enamel, ivory, jewel, ornament and words for precious stones included amethyst, beryl, coral, diamond, emerald, pearl, ruby, sapphire and turquoise. The words borrowed for colours included blue, brown, saffron, scarlet, vermilion and tawny.

Miscellaneous Words:

A very large number of words that Middle English borrowed from French are words which cannot be listed under any one of the nine categories mentioned above. They are miscellaneous words of day-to-day use and are so large in number and have such a high frequency of use that no account of the words borrowed during the Middle English period will ever be complete unless we take these miscellaneous words into account. These words include nouns like city, country, courage, coward, debt, grief, gum, hour, joy, leopard, marriage, mason, mischief, mountain, number, opinion, people, person, poverty, powder, season, sign, sound and waste. French adjectives of day-to-day use borrowed during this period include able, active, actual, barren, brief, certain, chief, clear, common, coy, curious, final, firm, frank, nice, perfect, plain, scarce, sudden, sure and usual. Miscellaneous French verbs borrowed during this period include words like advise, aim, allow, apply, arrange, arrive, carry, count, cover, delay, desire, destroy, form, inform, inquire, marry, pass, pay, please, prefer, refuse, remember, reply, satisfy, save, succeed, wait and waive.

Norman French and Central French:

During the middle Ages the four different dialects of French spoken in France were Central French, Burgundian, Picard and Norman.

Central French was spoken in and around Paris, Burgundian was spoken in the eastern part of the country, Picard was spoken in the north-eastern part and Norman was spoken in Normandy, the north-western part of France. William, who conquered England and became the king of that country in 1066, was the Duke of Normandy and the dialect he spoke was the Norman dialect of French. It has already been mentioned earlier that after his coronation, William offered all important posts in his government to his supporters from Normandy. Like King William himself, these people from Normandy spoke the Norman dialect. Words borrowed from French until about the end of the thirteenth century were naturally words mostly from the Norman dialect. After England lost Normandy in its battle with France, the influx of words from the Norman dialect more or less stopped. However, the influx of words from central French started in a big way after the influx of words from the Norman dialect had stopped. The two important reasons for this were the following.

(i) As Central French was the dialect spoken in the capital and in areas adjacent to the capital, it had a prestige which the Norman dialect or any other dialect of French did not have. Learning Central French was, therefore, considered to be a matter of great prestige, whereas the Norman dialect was considered to be a substandard variety of French. This is evident from the following lines from the Canterbury Tales in which Chaucer makes fun of the prioress for her ignorance of the prestigious variety of French spoken in Paris. And Frensh she spak ful faire and fetisly, After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe, For Frensh of Paris was to hir unknowe. (ii) The fourteenth century was for England a time of great literary achievements. It was during this century that Langland (13307-1400?) wrote his Piers Plowman and it was during this century that Chaucer (13407-1400) wrote his books rated as some of the greatest books in the English language.

It was during this century again that some unknown poet(s) wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which has been praised as “the jewel of medieval romance”, as “one of the most singular works of the fourteenth century” and as a poem of “extraordinary strength and power”. Like Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, this book is based on Arthurian legends which, though basically not French in origin, acquired imaginative connotations of romance and adventure mostly in the writings of French authors. During the first phase of his literary career, Chaucer himself was heavily under the influence of French literature. Langland’s Piers Plowman starts with a vision and this technique of starting a poem with a dream or a vision was the result of the influence of French literature. During this period of creative upsurge, the literary talent in England was more in tune with the literary writings and the literary traditions of France than it was ever before. Because of this rapport and because of this meeting of the literary minds in the two countries, a large number of French words of the literary genre found their way into English. The influx of French words during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was the influx of words primarily from the Norman dialect. This influx was very strong and like a powerful tide it inundated the English language for a little more than two centuries.

This tide became very weak, though it did not completely stop, during the fourteenth century when the influx of literary words started. These literary words were primarily from Central French, the variety of French patronized by literary authors in France. If we take into account the influx of words from both these dialects, we can say that never in its history did the English language borrow words from French as extensively as it did during the Middle English period. French borrowings during this period have been, therefore, a source of great interest among research scholars and a substantial amount of research has been done on this topic but as Jespersen (1972:78) has rightly pointed out, “yet there is still much work for future investigators to do”.

Words Borrowed from Latin:

Being a direct descendent of Latin, French had inherited a large number of Latin words. As Latin during the middle Ages was the language of scholarship all over Europe, French, like most other European languages, borrowed a large number of words from Latin during this period. When borrowing words from French, Middle English borrowed a large number of these Latin words in use in French at that time. In the case of many Latin words it is, therefore, difficult to say whether they were borrowed directly from Latin or through French. It has, however, been more or less established on the basis of philological research that certain words in Middle English were borrowed directly from Latin. Many of these Latin words were of a general nature, words like adjacent, contempt, include, interrupt, lucrative, necessary, picture, popular, private, and quiet. Most of these, however, were learned words used in law, medicine, science and theology.

Words borrowed in the field of law included words like conspiracy, custody, homicide, legal, minor, notary, prevent, prosecute, suppress, testify and testimony. Words borrowed in science and medicine included words like immune, infancy, infinite, innate, intellect, lunatic, mechanical, magnify, project, rational, solar, substitute, tincture, ulcer and zenith. Words borrowed in the field of art and literature included words like allegory, genius, gesture, ornate, picture, and prosody, script, solitary, summary and temporal.

Latin words borrowed in the field of theology included words like incarnate, pulpit, rosary, scripture and secular. Wycliffe and his associates translated the Bible in the light of their philosophy of religious reforms and in their translation they used more than a thousand words of Latin which had perhaps not been used in English before.

Latin Suffixes:

Along with the types of words mentioned above, Middle English borrowed from Latin certain word-elements with the help of which a very large number of words were formed in English later. Such word-elements included derivational suffixes like -able, -ible, -al, -ent, -ic, -ive and -ous. New words in English were formed by adding these word-elements not only to Latin roots but also to roots of Anglo-Saxon and other origins.

It may be pointed out here that the last two hundred years of the Middle English period were the years during which the process of borrowing words from Latin into English was at its greatest height. As will be pointed out later, the process of borrowing from French was at its height during the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries but it was at low ebb during the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries. This means that although words were borrowed simultaneously from both French and Latin throughout the Middle English period, borrowings from Latin became prolific only after Middle English had started some kind of resistance to the influx of words from French.