A Survey of Developments during the Middle English Period

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This is the seventh part of Guruji’s summary of F.T. Wood’s book on the English Language.

  1. The Nature and Origin of Language
  2. The Indo-European Family
  3. The Germanic Sub-group
  4. Grimm’s Law
  5. Verner’s Law
  6. The Great Vowel Shift
  7. A Survey of Developments during the Middle English Period
  8. The Evolution of Standard English
  9. Change in Meaning
  10. Growth of Vocabulary

A Survey of Developments during the Middle English Period

It was during the Middle English period that grammatical gender was lost, in large part because of the reduction of final unstressed vowels, which began long before 1100.  The same change was responsible for the falling together of Old English ‘-es’ as ‘-as’ and has thus given us an identical genitive singular and plural form – the latter being an extension of the older nominative – accusative plural form of the most prominent Old English declaration.

Other sound changes, such as the rounding of O.E. ã, the smoothing of the O.E. diphthongs (for instance O.E. ‘dëop’, deep / M.E. ‘deep’; ‘geaf’, gave / ‘yaf’, ‘eorde’, earth / ‘erthe’) and the simplification of certain consonant sequences (hl, hn, hr) were also some of  the important developments.

With regard to the various dialects of Middle English, it should be pointed out that the boundaries of the Old English dialectical regions shifted somewhat; nevertheless, the O.E. Northumbrian maybe considered as corresponding somewhat roughly to Middle English East and West Midland; O.E. West Saxon to Middle Southern; and O.E. Kentish to the identically named Middle English dialect.  The East Midland area included London, which with the Norman conquest supplanted Winchester in the old Kingdom of Wessex as the seat of King and Court.  Modern Standard English is thus, largely for historical reasons, derived from that of the newer capital of London and the area in which it was situated.  The form of English that has descended from the West Saxon speech of Alfred’s kingdom – and of most O.E. literature that we know anything about – is not now spoken by educated people who stem from the area which comprised that kingdom.

The linguistic influence of the Normal conquest was mostly a matter of our adopting words having to do with a new governmental administration – words like ‘government’ and ‘administer’ themselves the latter refashioned from old French ‘aminister’, the ‘d’ being supplied by Latin ‘ad.  Other examples are ‘parliament’ (with a fancy spelling of old French ‘parlement’ = ‘speaking’), ‘army’, ‘navy’, ‘realm’, ‘royal’, ‘authority’ and most titles of nobility (but not ‘earl’, ‘lord’ and ‘lady’).  A different, but probably no less elegant, social life is reflected in words for articles of dress, precious stones, meals and the like.

The period between 1250 and 1400 was the great period of the French adoptions in English.  Practically all of the words adopted during this century and a half have been thoroughly naturalized.  We never, for instance, think of ‘charge’, ‘change’, ‘chief’ and ‘marriage’ as anything other than English words, though all have been taken from Old French and retain the O.F. pronunciations of the sounds spelt ‘ch’ and ‘ge’ in contrast to the comparatively recent loans ‘chef’ (a doublet of ‘chief’), ‘garrage’ and ‘barrage’.  ‘Marriage’ like Anglo-Norman ‘carriage’ has acquired English stress, unlike the more recent disyllabic loans.

Many of the French loans merely replaced English words that would have done just as well.  ‘Despair’ is no better than ‘warhope’, ‘army’ no better than ‘ferd’ or ‘dright’, ‘uncle’ no better than ‘eam’.  The English words cited are, however, lost to us and never will be missed.  On the other side of the Ledger, it might be argued that we are probably better off for having both French ‘ocean’ and English ‘sea’, French ‘crime’ and English ‘sin’ and ‘guilt’ and scores of other such synonyms and near-synonyms.

There were other borrowings in the Middle English period that had nothing to do with the Norman conquest.  Hundreds of Latin words entered the language, most of them of a learned nature, like ‘index’, ‘library’, ‘medicine’ and ‘orbit’.

Among a number of Dutch words borrowed before 1500 are ‘booze’, ‘kit’, ‘pickle’ and ‘spool’.  The American origin attributed to the first of these belongs to folklore;  it cropped up again in 1967, at the time of the Johnson Kosygin “summit conference’ in Glassboro, New Jersey, whose previous claim to fame, according to a United Press dispatch of June 23, “was a pioneer glass industry which inadvertently introduced the word ‘booze’ into the American language” by producing bottle shaped like William Henry Harrison’s log cabin birthplace that were filled with liquor, by “E.C. Booz Company of Philadelphia”.  Thee bottles “became known as ‘booze bottles’ and booze crept into the language as a synonym for liquor” (Chicago Tribune, June 24th, 1967, Sec1, p.2).  One can view ‘the original booz bottle, manufactured by E.C. Booz in 1854 (14 years after the Log cabin campaign of Harrison) in Barton Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown, Kentucky, according to Newsweek of October 11, 1965 (p.100).  According to yet another, and earlier, linguistic commentator, the distiller’s name was not E.C. Booz, but E.G. Booz, and he bottled his whiskey not in bottles shaped like log cabins, but in glass replicas of his own distillery in Philadelphia.  Thus is linguistic non-history made.  The word first occurs in English around 1300 and was later used as either verb or noun by Spenser in his Farie Queen I, iv, 22, Thomas Nash, Sir John Harrington, Robert Herrick, and a good many others who ante-date Mr.E.C. Booz or Mr.E.G. Booz of Philadelphia.  The account in the OED is fully documented.

The fairly numerous Arabic words having to do mainly with Science or Commerce (cipher, cotton, almanac and alkali, for example) came into English not directly, but by way of French or Latin.  The last two of those cited with the Arabic definite article ‘al’, which is also the final syllable of the Latin – appearing ‘admiral’ with an inserted ‘d’ because of confusion with Latin admirabilis ‘admirable’ with which Arabic amir ‘commander’, ‘prince’ has nothing to do.