Middle English: Definition & Literature

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  • 0:01 Middle English Period
  • 0:45 Development
  • 1:55 Early Literature
  • 2:18 Literary Characteristics
  • 2:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
The Middle English period was a time rich in literature and the arts, and it ranged from approximately 1100-1500 A.D. In this lesson, we'll look at some of the key characteristics and literary accomplishments of this era.

Middle English Period

Although scholars differ as to exactly when the Old English period ended and the Middle English period began, it most likely started around 1100 when the English language began to take on an identity of its own. With both Germanic and Viking influences, the English language was first known as 'Englisc.'

After the Normans invaded in 1066, they brought French linguistic influences to England. This language was called 'Norman French.' Oddly enough, the average person spoke Old English, while the upper classes spoke Norman French. The two languages blended together to form 'Middle English,' an 'in between' language that bridged the development of our language from Old English to 'early modern English.'

Development

This blend of Norman French and Old English brought distinct changes to the language that we now refer to as Middle English. For one thing, thousands of French words permanently became a part of the English language, such as the word 'mansion,' for example.

But it was the smaller changes that made this new language more distinct. For instance, the letter 'c' was now used before 'e' instead of the letter 's.' Also, phonemes such as 'qu,' ch' and 'gh' were introduced. It is interesting to note that nearly every letter in Middle English words was 'pronounced.' The use of inflections became less complicated. In addition, the English began to borrow words from other languages. However, some words that were used in Middle English are definitely archaic today.

Other changes from Old English to Middle English included more uniform word orders (such as a subject, followed by a verb). They also included an increase in words that were spelled phonetically, the development of regional dialects, and the establishment of London as the 'standard' for Middle English. All in all, the grammar of Middle English was much more closely aligned with the grammar of modern English than that of Old English.

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