Middle English Dialects
The Formation of the National Language. Middle English is the stage in the history of the English language. The reasons of shortage of the written standard. Grouping of local dialects. The most important event in the changing linguistic situation.
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Ministry of Education from Republic of Moldova
Cahul State University “Bogdan Petriceicu Hasdeu”
Faculty of Philology and History
English Philology Department
Middle English Dialects
Written by: Balan Alina, FEF-0901
Scientific adviser: Lisitsa Inna
Middle English is the stage in the history of the English language during the High and Late Middle Ages, or roughly during the four centuries between the late 11th and the late 15th century.
Middle English developed out of Late Old English in Norman England (1066-1154). The Middle English period ended at about 1470, when the Chancery Standard, a form of London-based English, began to become widespread, a process aided by the introduction of the printing press to England by William Caxton in the late 1470s. By that time the variant of the Northumbrian dialect (prevalent in Northern England) spoken in southeast Scotland was developing into the Scots language. The language of England as used after 1470 and up to 1650 is known as Early Modern English.
Unlike Old English, which tended largely to adopt Late West Saxon scribal conventions in the period immediately before the Norman conquest of England, written Middle English displays a wide variety of scribal (and presumably dialectal) forms. This diversity suggests the gradual end of the role of Wessex as a focal point and trend-setter for writers and scribes, the emergence of more distinct local scribal styles and written dialects, and a general pattern of transition of activity over the centuries that followed, as Northumbria, East Anglia, and London successively emerged as major centres of literature, each with their own particular interests.
Middle English literature of the 12th and 13th century is comparatively rare, as written communication was usually in Anglo-Norman or in Middle Latin. Middle English became much more important as a literary language during the 14th century, with poets such as Chaucer and Langland.
During the Middle English period (roughly 1100-1500) the English language is characterized by a complete lack of a standard variety. By contrast, during much of the Old English period, the West Saxon dialect had enjoyed a position as a written standard, and the transition to Early Modern English is marked by the emergence of the middle class dialect of London as the new standard variety of the language.
The lack of a written standard in Middle English is a natural consequence of the low status of English during this period. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the ruling classes spoke (Norman) French, while English lived on as the spoken language of the lower classes. In the absence of a high-prestige variety of English which might serve as a target for writers of English, each writer simply used his own variety of the language.
Speaking essentially about Middle English dialects, this division which evolved in Early ME was on the whole preserved in later periods. In the 14th and 15th c. we find the same grouping of local dialects:
1) the Southern group (including Kentish and the South-Western dialects; the South-Western group was a continuation of the OE Saxon dialects);
2) the Midland or Central (corresponding to the OE Mercian dialect - is divided into West Midland and East Midland as two main areas);
3) the Northern group (had developed from OE Northumbrian).
The Southern Dialect. It includes Kentish and South-Western / OE Saxon dialect.
Kentish was originally spoken over the whole southeastern part of England, including London and Essex, but during the Middle English period its area was steadily diminished by the encroachment of the East Midland dialect, especially after London became an East Midland-speaking city (see below); in late Middle English the Kentish dialect was confined to Kent and Sussex. In the Early Modern period, after the London dialect had begun to replace the dialects of neighboring areas, Kentish died out, leaving no descendants. Kentish is interesting to linguists because on the one hand its sound system shows distinctive innovations (already in the Old English period), but on the other its syntax and verb inflection are extremely conservative; as late as 1340, Kentish syntax is still virtually identical with Old English syntax.
The South-Western dialect of Middle English was spoken in the area west of Sussex and south and southwest of the Thames. It was the direct descendant of the West Saxon dialect of Old English, which was the colloquial basis for the Anglo-Saxon court dialect of Old English. Southern Middle English is a conservative dialect (though not as conservative as Kentish), which shows little influence from other languages -- most importantly, no Scandinavian influence (see below). Descendants of Southern Middle English still survive in the working-class country dialects of the extreme southwest of England.
The Midland / Central Dialect. It refers to the OE Mercian dialect, which is devided into West Midland and East Midland.
The East-Midland and West-Midland dialects of Middle English are intermediate between the Northern and Southern/Kentish extremes. In the West Midlands there is a gradation of dialect peculiarities from Northern to Southern as one moves from Lancashire to Cheshire and then down the Severn valley. This dialect has left modern descendants in the working- class country dialects of the area. The East-Midland dialect is much more interesting. The northern parts of its dialect area were also an area of heavy Scandinavian settlement, so that northern East-Midland Middle English shows the same kinds of rapid development as its Northern neighbor. But the subdialect boundaries within East-Midland were far from static: the more northerly variety spread steadily southward, extending the influence of Scandinavianized English long after the Scandinavian population had been totally assimilated. In the 13th century this part of England, especially Norfolk and Suffolk, began to outstrip the rest of the country in prosperity and population because of the excellence of its agriculture, and -- crucially -- increasing numbers of well-to-do speakers of East-Midland began to move to London, bringing their dialect with them. By the second half of the 14th century the dialect of London and the area immediately to the northeast, which had once been Kentish, was thoroughly East-Midland, and a rather Scandinavianized East Midland at that. Since the London dialect steadily gained in prestige from that time on and began to develop into a literary standard, the northern, Scandinavianized variety of East-Midland became the basis of standard Modern English. For that reason, East-Midland is by far the most important dialect of Middle English for the subsequent development of the language.
The Northern Dialect. It developed from the OE Northumbrian dialect.
By contrast with southernmost dialects, Northern Middle English evolved rapidly: the inflectional systems of its nouns and verbs were already sharply reduced by 1300, and its syntax is also innovative (and thus more like that of Modern English). These developments were probably the result of Scandinavian influence. In the aftermath of the great Scandinavian invasions of the 860's and 870's, large numbers of Scandinavian families settled in northern and northeastern England. When the descendants of King Alfred the Great of Wessex reconquered those areas (in the first half of the 10th century), the Scandinavian settlers, who spoke Old Norse, were obliged to learn Old English. But in some areas their settlements had so completely displaced the preexisting English settlements that they cannot have had sufficient contact with native speakers of Old English to learn the language well. They learned it badly, carrying over into their English various features of Norse (such as the pronoun they and the noun law ), and also producing a simplified syntax that was neither good English nor good Norse. Those developments can be clearly seen in a few late Old English documents from the region, such as the glosses on the Lindisfarne Gospels (ca. 950) and the Aldbrough sundial (late 11th century). None of this would have mattered for the development of English as a whole if the speakers of this "Norsified English" had been powerless peasants; but they were not. Most were freeholding farmers, and in many northern districts they constituted the local power structure. Thus their bad English became the local prestige norm, survived, and eventually began to spread (much later -- see below).
In general, southern Middle English dialects tend to be more conservative (i.e. preserve more of the phonological and morphological features of Old English) and northern dialects more progressive. The same difference can be discerned between the southern and northern parts of the East and West Midland dialect areas. This is particularly noticeable in the case of the West Midland dialect, which is primarily preserved in two major text groups. One of these is early (c. 1220) and from the southern part of the West Midland area (represented here by Ancrene Riwle); the other one is later (c. 1375) and from the northern part of the West Midland area (represented here by Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). The language variants of the two text groups differ in many respects, the early group having much in common with the South-Western dialect, the later group having more in common with the Northern dialect.
The Formation of the National Language
The Norman Conquest of 1066 brought in Norman French and eventually placed the four Old English dialects on an even footing. The center of culture gradually shifted to London, and usages there slowly came to dominate. Latin persisted for centuries as the language of the church and of learning. Note that the Normans were Vikings who had settled in northern France, and perhaps become assimilated into a Francophone culture.
Middle English lasted from about 1100 to 1450 and was less highly inflected than Old English. During this period the Statute of Pleadings (1362) made English instead of French the official language of Parliament and the courts.
After the dawn of the 16th century the movement toward the development of Modern English prose was swift. It was aided by the printing of certain literary works that helped standardize the language. In 1525 William Tyndale published his translation of the New Testament. The next 90 years were the golden age of English literature, culminating in the plays of Shakespeare (1564-1616) and in the publication of the King James Version of the Bible in 1611.
The most important event in the changing linguistic situation was the rise of the London dialect as the prevalent written form of language. The history of the London dialect reveals the sources of the literary language in Late ME and also the main source and basis of the Literary Standard, both in its written and spoken forms. The Early ME written records made in London - beginning with the PROCLAMATION of 1258 - show that the dialect of London was fundamentally East Saxon. Later records indicate that the speech of London was becoming more fixed, with East Midland features gradually prevailing over the Southern features.
Chancery Standard was largely based on the London and East Midland dialects, for those areas were the political and demographic centres of gravity. However, it used other dialect forms where they made meanings clearer; for example, the northern "they", "their" and "them" (derived from Scandinavian forms) were used rather than the London "hi/they", "hir" and "hem." This was perhaps because the London forms could be confused with words such as he, her, and him. (However, the colloquial form written as "'em", as in "up and at 'em", may well represent a spoken survival of "hem" rather than a shortening of the Norse-derived "them".) language english dialect
In its early stages of development, the clerks who used Chancery Standard would have been familiar with French and Latin. The strict grammars of those languages influenced the construction of the standard. It was not the only influence on later forms of English -- its level of influence is disputed and a variety of spoken dialects continued to exist -- but it provided a core around which Early Modern English could crystallise.
By the mid-15th century, Chancery Standard was used for most official purposes except by the Church (which used Latin) and for some legal purposes (for which Law French and some Latin were used). It was disseminated around England by bureaucrats on official business, and slowly gained prestige.
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