Middle English

In 1066 AD when William of Normandy invaded the land of the Anglo Saxons, the transition from Old English to Middle English began. The Battle of Hastings is the most significant event that led to the phasing out of the Old English language and the introduction of Old Norse.

Changes that occurred when Old English developed into Middle English were:

  • Loss of the Inflection System
    • Due to the mixture of cultures that occurred when the Normans invaded England, languages blended as well
    • As a result of this blend, doubt and confusion arose surrounding the suffixes of words, with bilingual people struggling the most
    • There was a growth in other grammatical devices used to identify the meaning and case/tense/etc. of a word, which led to the decay of the inflection system, and eventually it was done away with completely
    • Example:
      • -a, -u, -e  =  -e
      • -as, -es  =  -es
      • -aþ, -eþ  =  -eþ
      • Eventually, all of these suffixes became  “-e”


  • Spelling/Pronunciation Changes
    • With the introduction of the new languages came different spelling and pronunciation changes, such as:
      • Handwriting and spelling changed because of the new pronunciation of words (influenced by accent, language, and prior spellings)
      • the Old English “æ” (or “ash”) and “þ”/”ð” (“thorn” and “edth”) completely disappeared from the language, and were replaced by “th” and “a” or “e”


Listen here to get a glimpse of the spoken language of Middle English as you read the text of the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.