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Writings in Middle English
CHANGES IN THE SPELLING SYSTEM
During several centuries after the Norman conquest the business of
writing was in the hands of French scribes. They introduced into English
some peculiarities of French graphic habits. Traces of French traditions
in writing have stayed on in English to the present day.
First of all we must note some changes in the alphabet. Several letters
typical of OE gradually came out of use, and some new ones were
introduced: The alphabet of the 14th century is basically the same that
is in use in our days.
The letter , which was used in OE to denote several distinct consonant
phonemes is gradually replaced by the letters g and y. Thus, OE now
appears as god, and the OE as .
The ligature also comes into disuse in ME. This change accompanies
the phonetic change of short into a , and that of long into e.
The new letters introduced during the ME period are all consonantal. The
letter g (as hinted above) is introduced to denote the sound [ ] as in
god and also, the sound [ ] as in singe
The sound [ ] is also denoted (in words of French origin) by the
letter j, as in joy, judge, June.
The letter v is introduced to denote the consonant [v], which in ME
became a separate phoneme. However, this letter soon came to be treated
as an allograph of the letter 11, which had been in use since the
earliest OE times. The allographs u and v became interchangeable. Thus,
we can find the “following spellings in ME MSS: over, ouer; use, vse;
love, loue, etc.
The letter q, always accompanied by, is introduced to denote either the
consonant [k], as in quay, or the cluster [kw], as in quarter or queen.
In the latter case it replaces OE cw.
The letter z is introduced to denote the consonant [z], which in ME
became a separate phoneme. However, the letter z is not used
systematically, it does appear m such words as zel ‘zeal’, Zephyrus,
‘Zephir’, but the sound [z] is still spelt s in chesen ‘choose’, losen
‘lose’ and in many others.
289. Next we come to changes in spelling habits. In the sphere of vowels
French influence made itself felt in the following points:
1. The sound [u:], which was represented by the letter u in Old
English, came to be spelt ou, the way it was spelt in French. This
French spelling was due to the fact that in Old French the diphthong
[ou] had changed into [u:] but the spelling had remained the same. From
borrowed French words such as trouble, couch, this spelling was
transferred to native English words: hous (OE has); out (OE ut); loud
(OE hind), etc. In final position, and occasionally in medial position
as well, instead of ou the spelling ow was introduced: cow (OE cu);
how(OE hu); down (OE dun), etc.
2. The vowel [u] is often represented by the letter o. In many
modern grammars this o is accompanied by a tack: o. This spelling is
probably partly due to graphic considerations. The letter o denoting [u]
is found mainly in the neighbourhood of such letters as u (v), n, in,
that is, letters consisting of vertical strokes. A long series of
vertical strokes might be confusing: thus, it might be hard to
distinguish between cume, cmue, cimie, etc. Replacing u by o would avoid
Another factor favouring the introduction of the letter o to denote [u]
might be the narrow quality of Anglo-Norman [o], which was close to [u].
Examples: come [‘kuina] (OE cuman), som [sum] (OE sum), sone [‘suna] (OE
sunn), love [‘luva] (OE luju), bigonne [bi’guna] (OE onjunnen — second
participle of the verb ).
3. The vowel [e:] is sometimes denoted by the digraph ie. In Old
French this digraph had originally denoted the diphthong [ie], which in
Anglo-Norman changed into [e] in the 12th century, the spelling
remaining the same.
From French loan words like chief [t e:f], relief [re’le:f] this
spelling penetrated into native English words like field [fe:ld] (OE
feld), thief [0e:f] (OE of), lief [le:f] (OE leof).
4. To denote the vowel [u] in the dialects where it was preserved the
letter u was used, as in fur ‘fire’ (OE fyr).
In the sphere of consonants French spelling also had some influence.
1. The spellings and for the sounds [ ] and [ ] were gradually
superseded by the digraph th: this for OE is, three for OE .
2. For the consonant [v], which had been a mere positional variant of
the [f] phoneme in OE and which in ME became a separate phoneme, the
letter v was introduced. As v was considered to be merely an allograph
of u, both allographs could be used indiscriminately: over, ouer (OE
ofcr), love, lone (OE lufu); in French words: very, avengen.
3. The affricate [ ] was denoted by the digraph ch: from such
French loan words as chair, chambre it penetrated into native English
words: lechen ‘teach’, child, etc. The corresponding voiced
affricate [ ] was spelt in the French way either j, g, or dg: courage,
4. The consonant [ ] was spelt sh and sometimes sch: ship, schip,
5. The consonant [ ] was first spelt , and later gh: li t, light,
nisi, night, ri t, right, brou ts, broughte.
6. The letter c when denoting the consonant [k] was replaced by the
letter k before e, i, and also before n: drinken (OE drincan), king (OE
cyninj), knowen (OE cndwan). This was due to the fact that the letter c
before e or i would suggest the pronunciation [s]. It should be noted
that the letter was widely used in Old French, for example in the
pronoun ki ‘who’ (Modern French spelling qui).
7. The cluster [kw] was spelt qu instead of Old English cw, as in
quellen ‘kill’ (OE cwellan), quethen ‘say’ (OE cwepan).
8. The consonant [j], which in Old English was spelt , now came to
be spelt y: yer ‘year’ (OE ear), yet (OE iet), ye ‘you’ (OE e).
Besides these features, due to French influence, ME spelling has some
more peculiarities, which have partly been preserved down to the present
It became a habit in ME to replace final -i by -y. The motive was purely
graphic, y being more ornamental than i, and eventually this became one
of the most characteristic features of English spelling. In MnE there
are only a few words ending in -i: rabbi, taxi, and a few plural forms
of Latin words, such as bacilli and genii. The letter y was also often
used instead of i in medium position: ryden (OE ridan), wryten (OE
writan). This habit did not survive.
Similarly, the letter u when final was replaced by w, which was more
ornamental. Again, words ending in -u in MnE are very few: you, thou,
The use of ou and ow to denote long [u:] resulted in ambiguity, which is
still felt in English spelling. The digraph ow could also denote the
diphthong [ou]. When it came to be used for [u:], the result was two
series of words: one with [ou]: slow, snow, crow, low, the other with
[u:]: cow, now, down.
On the whole ME spelling is far frorn uniform. Purely phonetic spellings
mix with French spelling habits and also with traditions inherited from
OE. Besides, there are differences between dialects in this respect,
In the period following the Norman conquest the same dialects continue
to develop which existed in OE. But according to a tradition now
firmly established, they are given new names. The Northumbrian
dialect is now called Northern, Mercian is called Midland, and West
Saxon and Kentish are united under the name of Southern. The boundary
between Northern and Midland runs along the Humber, that between Midland
and Southern is close to the Thames.
The Midland dialect is subdivided into West Midland and East Midland.
The dialect of London combines East Midland and Southern features.
We shall first give a short list of the main ME documents classified
according to dialects, and then we shall give a brief characteristic of
The main ME documents belong to the following dialects.
Kent. The chief document is Dan Michel, Ayenbite of Inwit (“Remorse of
Conscience”), a religious treaty, translated from the French (1340).
William of Shoreham, Poems (early 14th century). Poenui Morale
(anonymous, early 13th century).
South-West. Layamon, Brut (a verse history of Britain, imitated from an
Anglo-Norman poem by Wace, early 13th century. Southern dialect with
Midland admixtures), Ancren Riwle (“Statute for Nuns”), early 13th
century, probably adaptation of a Midland original. Robert of
Gloucester, Rhymed Chronicle (ab. 1300). John Trevisa, translation of
the monk Ranulphus Higden’s Latin Polychro-nicon (1387),
West Midland. Legends of Catherine, Margaret, and Juliana (13th
century). William of Palerne (romance, early 13th century). Sir Gawayne
and the Green Knight and other poems by the same (anonymous) author
(latter half of the 14th century).
East Midland. King Horn (romance, 13th century). Ilavelok the Dane (13th
century), Orm, Ormuluin (religious poem, early 13th century). Robert
Mannyng of Brunne, Handlyng Synne (“Manual of Sins”, verse translation
from the French, ab. 1300). Genesis and Exodus (13th century). Debate of
Body and Soul (13th century). Peterborough Chronicle (sequel to the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the years 1132—1154).
London. Proclamation by Henry III (1258), the earliest official document
in English since the conquest. Adam Davy, Poems (early 14th century).
Works by Chaucer and Gower.
Richard Rolle de Hampole, The Prick of Conscience (religious poem,
former half of 14th century). Towneley Plays (14th century), York Plays
(former half of 15th century).
Barbour, Bruce (poem about Bruce’s struggle for the freedom of Scotland,
ab. 1375, James I, The Kingis Quhair
(“The King’s Book”), collection of poems, early 15th century.
Types of ME Literary Documents
ME literature is extremely rich and varied. We find here the most
different kinds and genres represented, both in verse and in prose.
In verse, there is, in the 13th century, the religious poem Ormulum,
named after its author the monk Orm, who at great length retells in a
popular style events of Bible and Gospel history, addressing his
narration to his brother, also a monk.
About the same time another monk, Layamon, composed a long poem, Drat,
on the early history of Britain. This was partly a translation, or
paraphrase, of Wace’s Anglo-Norman poem Brut and Layamon also used
some other sources. The origins of the Britons are traced back to Troy
and the flight of some Trojans after its fall.
The anonymous poems of King Horn and Havelok tell the stories of young
Scandinavian princes, who are deprived of their rights by their enemies
but eventually regain their throne and reign happily.
Then we must mention a series of moralistic poems, such as Handlyng
Synne (Manual of Sins), by Robert Mannyng of Brunne, a paraphrase of a
French original; Ayenbyt of Inwyt (“Remorse of Conscience”) by Dan
Michel, also adaptation of a French original; The Prick of Conscience by
Richard Rolle de Hainpole, and others.
Next comes a scries of “romances”, that is, stories about knights and
their heroic deeds. These are very numerous, all of them anonymous, and
some of first-class artistic value, notably the famous story of Sir
Gawayne and the Green Knight; also Sir Fyrumbras, The Destruction of
There are several historical chronicles, such as Robert of Gloucester’s
Rhymed Chronicle, Barbour’s Bruce, etc.
Invaluable documents of the spoken language of the time are the various
collections of Miracle Plays, such as the Towneley Plays, (lie York
Plays, and Ihe Chester Plays.
And of course we must mention the famous Vision Concerning Piers the
Plowman by William Langland (or Langley) century picture of the social
conditions in the country, invaluable also as a historical document.
And we close this enumeration by the two great names of John Gower,
author of the long poem Confessio Amantis (besides Latin and French
works), and the greatest of all, Geoffrey Chaucer, author of Troilus and
Criseyde, The Canterbury Tales, and a number of other poems.
As far as prose goes, there is perhaps less variety, and no prose
fiction in the true sense of the word. The two prose pieces of The
Canterbury Tales are not really stories but rather religious or
As an important prose document we must note Ranulphus Higden’s
Polychronicon, translated by John Trevisa with added passages from other
sources. This is a history book containing much useful information about
the England of his time, with a most valuable passage on the dialects of
the 14th century.
In the 15th century, towards the end of the ME period, we come across
the first prose fiction in English. Here we have Sir Thomas Malory’s
Morte d’Arthur, a long prose work summing up a number of legends about
king Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and at about the same
lime prose translations made by William Caxton, the first English
printer, from the French.
Owing to this great variety, we are able to obtain a much more complete
idea of various speech styles of the ME period than we could of OE. In
particular, both Chaucer’s and Gower’s works and the Miracle Plays
contain much colloquial language, which seems to reproduce with great
exactness the actual colloquial-speech of the lime. However, much of the
material presented by these texts has not been properly made use of.
Much remains to be done in this field to obtain a more complete picture
of both the written and the colloquial language of those centuries.
Change of Dialect
As a result of the Norman conquest and the transfer of the capital from
Winchester to London, the dialect base of the rising national language
was shifted, roughly speaking, to the north-east: instead of the West
Saxon, that is the South-Western dialect of ME; the base is now East
This change-over from one dialect to another in “midstream” causes some
difficulty in building up the history of the language. Forms that
occupied first place in OE, as they were dominating in the Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle and in king Alfred’s works, etc., become irrelevant, or take a
back seat since the 12th century, while forms little known in OE
(Mercian) now become of paramount importance, serving as
foundation for the national language of the MnE period. Let us
illustrate this by a few examples.
The substantive meaning ‘street’, borrowed from Latin (via) strata
str t (with long open ) in West Saxon, while in all other OE djalects
the se was narrowed to e (long close e). The OC West Saxon se yielded ME
lond operi e, which came to be spelt ea in MnE, while the e of all other
dialects was preserved as e in ME and got the spelling ee, which is
still preserved in MnE street.
Another example is the verb meaning ‘hear’. From a reconstructed
*hearian (cf. Gothic, hausjan) the West Saxon dialect of OE developed
literati, hyran, while all other dialects, including Mercian, had heran.
Now it is from Mercian heran that the, ME London variant heren and the
MnE hear havl developed. Thus, if we start from the modern form and if
we trace it back to OE, we arrive at a Mercian variant, which in many
cases differs from the West Saxon variant which we have been accustomed
to find in OE West Saxon texts.
This is a difficulty which every student of
2However, since the 12th century the centre remains steadily in London,
and the only change to occur after that time is a gradual strengthening
of East Midland dialect elements at the expense of South-Eastern
(Kentish) ones within the London dialect itself.
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