Middle English and Modern English


Phase 4. The Norman Conquest (1066 onwards)

Map for Phase 4Meanwhile, there were also Scandinavians who settled in northern France, and they came to an agreement with the king of France. They acknowledged the French king, but they had a duke from among their people in this region, called Normandy. They would, from then on, be known as Normans. (The adjective is Norman, as in ‘Norman army’.) Like the Scandinavians in Britain, the Normans were also highly adaptable, and very quickly adopted French culture and civilisation, and, it would appear, willingly gave up their native language and spoke French as their mother tongue, although their dialect, Norman French, was distinct from Parisian (Central) French.


William the ConquerorThere was already a certain amount of contact between the Normans and the English at the turn of the millennium. It was through the contact between the English king Edward that the duke of Normandy, William, believed that he was to succeed the English throne. When Edward died, an English earl, Harold, was elected king instead. Furious as this decision, William sailed across to an unprepared English army. After Harold was killed in battle, the English army became disorganised and soon retreated. On Christmas day in 1066, William (‘the Conqueror’) was crowned king.


(There are lots of websites on 1066; just do a quick web search. Try this one if you’ve got a broadband connection because there are lots of images: http://battle1066.com/.)


William brought along with him his followers, and key positions in the government and in the church were taken over by Normans. The original English lords had either been killed in battle or been executed as traitors. The Normans continued to speak French in England, and therefore, almost overnight, English was relegated to the status of a ‘peasant language’. For several generations after the conquest, all the important positions were taken by Normans, or foreign men. As they had continued contact with France, the nobility continued to speak French, and did not bother to learn English. The languages spoken in Britain at this point were: (Norman) French (by the Normans), Latin (by the educated, and used for record-keeping purposes), English (by the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians – who appear to have given up their own cognate language Norse) and of course the Celtic languages of Cornish (in Cornwall), Welsh (in Wales) and Scots Gaelic (in Scotland, particularly in the north). We can summarise the situation thus:



Had prestige?



Written or spoken?



Used by whom?





















Mainly written



Mainly educated Normans












English- & Norsemen
















Clearly, this situation was a potentially unstable one. The Normans would always be outnumbered by the English speakers.


The position of the English and the Scandinavians as conquered people helped the process of fusion between them, described above, so that the English language continued to change under these circumstances. Doubtless, some English speakers learnt French (the centripetal force) to gain the advantages from aristocracy; and some Normans – perhaps officials sent to far outposts – learnt English through their contact with local communities (accommodation perhaps?) Later on, after some 150 years, the enmity and distinction between the English and the Normans became less pronounced, and intermarriages became common.


From the 13th century, there was a change in the political climate. King John of England fell out with King Philip of France. Philip demanded that John should appear in Paris to answer some charges against him. John replied that as king of England, he was not subject to the jurisdiction of the French court. Philip, however, replied that as duke of Normandy, he was. John therefore demanded safe conduct to Paris, but Philip gave out terms that he could not accept. The result was that John did not appear on the day of the trial. Philip promptly invaded Normandy and in 1204, Rouen surrendered, and the English lost Normandy. Subsequently, any Norman lords in England had their lands in France confiscated by the French king. The Normans now had to choose between their French estates and their English estates. Those who remained in Britain, therefore, began to lose their continental connexions and began to identify themselves with England. As a result of this, the use of English began to spread, even among the upper classes.


Compare the following accounts of children learning languages in Medieval Britain. This was how the relationship between English and French was expressed by Robert of Gloucester (in his Chronicle, written about 1300 – the translation is on the right, but you should be able to make out quite a bit of his English already).


țus com lo engelond. in to normandies hond.

& țe normans ne couțe speke țo. bote hor owe speche.

& speke french as hii dude at om. & hor children dude also teche.

so țat heiemen of țis lond. țat of hor blod come.

holdeț alle țulk speche. țat hii of hom nome.

vor bote a man conne frenss. me telț of him lute.

ac lowe men holdeț to engliss.  & to hor owe speche ute.

ich wene țer ne beț in al țe world. contreyes none.

țat ne holdeț to hor owe speche. bote engelond one.

ac wel me wot uor to conne. boțe wel it is.

vor țe more țat a mon can. țe more wurțe he is.

Thus came – lo! – England into Norman’s hands,

And the Normans could not speak anything except their own speech,

And spoke French as they did at home, and their children did also teach,

So that high men of this land that of their blood come

Hold to all that speech that they took of them;

For unless a man knows French, men think little of him.

But low men hold to English and to their own speech yet.

I suppose there be none in all the countries of the world

That do not hold to their own speech, save for England alone,

But yet it is well for a man to know both,

For the more a man knows the more he is worth.


Later, Ranulph Higden expressed similar views (he wrote in Polychronicon in Latin, and this is John Trevisa’s translation in the 1380s – the modern version is on the right):


This apeyring of țe burț tonge ys bycause of twey ținges – on ys for chyldern in scole aimage004enes țe vsage and manere of al oțer nacions buț compelled for to leue here oune longage and for to construe here lessons and here ținges a frenynsch, and habbeț suțthe țe normans come furst into engelond.

            Also gentil men children buț ytauimage004t for to speke freynsch fram tyme țat a buț yrokked in here cradel and conneț speke and playe wiț a child hys brouch. And oplondysch men wol lykne hamsylf to gentil men and fondeț wiț gret bysynes for to sepke freynsch for to be more ytold of .

The impairing of the native tongue is because of two things – one is that children in school, against the usage and custom of other nations, are compelled to drop their own language and to construe their lessons and their tasks in French, and have done so since the Normans first came to England.

            Also, gentlemen’s children are taught to speak French from the time that they are rocked in their cradles and can talk and play with a child’s brooch; and country men want to liken themselves to gentlemen, and try with great effort to speak French, so as to be more thought of.


However, Trevisa, now referring to the 1380s appends the following comment:


            țys manere was moche y-used tofore țe furste moreyn and ys sethe somdel y-chaunged … now, țe image004er of oure Lord a țousond țre hondred foure score and fyve, in al the gramerscoles of Engelond childern leueț Frensch, and construeț and lurneț an Englysch …

            Also gentil men habbeț now moche yleft for to teche here childern frensch. Hyt semeț a gret wondur houimage004 englysch, țat ys țe burț-tonge of englyschmen and here oune longage and tonge ys so dyvers of soun in țis ylond, and țe longage of normandy ys comlyng of anoțer lond and haț a maner soun among al men țat spekeț hyt aryimage004t in engleond.

            This fashion was much followed before the first plague [1348] and is since somewhat changed … Now, the year of our Lord one thousand, three hundred, four score and five, in all the grammar schools of England, children leave French, and construe and learn in English.

            Also gentlemen have now to a great extent stopped teaching their children French. It seems a great wonder how English, that is the native tongue of Englishmen and their own language and tongue, is so diverse in pronunciation in this island, and the language of Normandy is a newcomer from another land and has one pronunciation among all men that speak it correctly in England.

Chart: French words into EnglishThe antagonism between the English and the French grew, leading to the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453). National feeling was against the French and things associated with the French – including the French language (the centrifugal force?). In 1362, English was used for the first time at the opening of Parliament. Literary expression also began to made in English, and not only in Latin and French – led by Chaucer (c. 1343–1400). By about 1425, English was widely used in England, in writing as well as in speech.


The Norman period brought about new spelling conventions (scip became ship; boc became booc), but most importantly, some 10,000 French words came to be borrowed. Notice that the peak of the borrowing came at around 1375, when French was on its way out.


            The Norman Conquest plays a crucial role in the tradition OE-ME-MnE distinction, where ME is the period when the French influence was the greatest. Others, however, emphasise the morphological basis of the OE-ME-MnE distinction, as in:


The traditional basis of the divisions between ‘Old’ and ‘Middle’ English and between ‘Middle’ and ‘Modern’ English has been morphological: as Sweet put it in the 1870s, ‘Old English is the period of full inflexions (nama, giefan, caru), Middle English is the period of levelled inflexions (naame, given, caare) and Modern English of lost inflexions (naam, giv, caar).’   (Bourcier 1981: 122)


We have elsewhere discussed the evolution of English from being a synthetic language to a more analytic language. What then are the reasons for this?


(a) Bourcier’s quotation suggests that this might be phonological in nature. The English language has a very strong tendency to emphasise the distinction between stressed and unstressed syllables, resulting in unstressed syllables having their vowel sound reduced to a ‘neutral’ schwa /@/ or to /I/. Inflexions are generally not stressed, and given that English almost ceased to be written altogether in the early ME period, English had become only a spoken language. The different inflexions could not be heard anymore through the generalised use of the neutral vowel (‘levelled inflexions’ – meaning that all case inflexions began to sound more or less alike). This resulted in the inflexions being unable to make the traditional OE case distinctions, so that these distinctions had to be made by other means – the use of prepositions and the reliance of word order.


(b) The other reason given is the language-contact situation between English and Norse speakers. They lived side by side and intermarried and forgot their enmity when they were subjugated by the Normans. That their languages were cognate meant that the stems of lexical items (ie the lexical items without inflexions) were often very similar, but the inflexions for English and Norse were different, so that it would be easier to forget inflexions altogether when they communicated.


(c) The fact the English in the period was only a spoken language, with no written standard to provide a centripetal force, meant that there would be less opposition to change; there was hardly anything to hold back innovation. The fact that English was a low-prestige language at this time also meant that there was hardly any concern about ‘correctness’.


Phase 5. The Reformation, the Renaissance, the rise of science, and the establishment of colonies (1500 onwards)


This period saw the beginning of a new way of doing things and a break from the feudalistic, Medieval past.


The English Reformation has to do with Henry VIII’s breaking away from the (Roman) Catholic church. The Medieval world view saw the European nations as being part of Christendom under the authority of the Pope, with Latin as a unifying language. This was to change. This saw the rise of the notion of nationhood and nationalism  - and therefore of national languages. Some saw the development of an English language capable to cope with all kinds of situations as being necessary for nationhood. The English language therefore took over Latin as the language of learning. The notion of a standard language also began to gain importance. (The notion of a standard language will be discussed a couple of weeks from now.)


The Renaissance has to do with a renewed interest in the Classics (essentially Latin and Greek Classics). Many thought that in order for the English language to be capable of dealing with the new way of doing things in science, English had to borrow from Latin – both the lexis as well as the structure (hypotaxis). This is linked to the notion of standardisation mentioned above, in that one way of achieving a language that is capable of coping with the new circumstances is to adapt it towards other languages (in this case, Latin), that has served as standard languages.


We can re-use the table to summarise the language situation in the early MnE period.



Had prestige?



Written or spoken?



Used by whom and when?








Very few; occasionally





Mainly written



Highly educated men (not women); learned texts, in university




The general populace, high and low – with much variation; for almost every occasion












We will also explore one interesting aspect of English use during this period: the use of thou and you (click for link).


The new spirit of enquiry that gave rise to science and the notion of empiricism is probably also related to the spirit of exploration. The British also began to establish colonies abroad, and by so doing, took the English language out of the continent of Europe. This is related to the new strategy of mercantilism (the theory that a nation’s interests are served of overseas trade and restriction of imports), as opposed to the more subsistent economy in the past – to fuel this, raw materials from elsewhere were required. The result is that there are speakers of English in every continent today. In 1600, around the time of Shakespeare, there were about 6 million speakers of English. Today, it is used by at least 750 million people, if not more. If you look at the time chart, you will notice that the events to do with the history of English take place not only in Europe, but in other parts of the world. It is not possible to do justice to a description of all places where English is spoken, so this module has chosen to focus on some of the developments in North America and in South-east Asia, particularly Singapore.


The transportation of English to new areas led to new kinds of language contact. In America, the contact was often with the languages of the other European immigrants rather than with the native American Indians. In other places, the contact was with the existing languages.


We can make a distinction between immigration (settlement) and (exploitation) colonisation, because in the case of immigration (North America, Australia, New Zealand, etc.), the Anglo-Saxon culture of the original speakers have also been brought over. In the case of colonisation (Jamaica, Nigeria, Zambia, India, Malaysia, etc.), English is transported to a new socio-cultural situation.

The English-speaking World

The external history of the language adds a further dimension to our consideration of English, and throws up certain patterns of change in the language.

  • The history of a language has to do with  language shift: people choosing to use this language over another language (English over a Celtic language, English over Latin, English over Norse, English over French, English over Malayalam). It is ultimately people who decide what language to use and how to use it. Language does not have a life of its own, although we might sometimes talk as if it did.
  •  It has also got to do with language change: people willing to adapt, consciously or unconsciously, the language that they use to suit their own purposes (have the inflexions become redundant? have they got enough words to express their Christian faith, their interest in the arts, their interest in learning, their encounter with unfamiliar flora and fauna?) Discussions about the right or the correct language are not very meaningful out of the context of people needing to accomplish things through language.
  • We notice the themes of language contact (OE and ON, English and French, English and Malay/Hokkien); of prestige languages/dialects (English or Celtic? English or Norse? English or French? English or Latin?). More than any other language, English is a result of language contact. Some might less flatteringly refer to the English language as a creole or a bastard language. Indeed, some claim that it is the adaptable and welcoming nature of the English language towards other languages that it comes into contact with that makes it eminently suited for its role as a world language.
  • A lot of people are worried about the notion of change in language. If we use English as our example, change in language is almost inevitable if it is to remain dynamic and relevant to the speakers of the language. Quite often, there are internal checks and balances to ensure change will be at a manageable rate.


Note: if you are fascinated by British history, you can explore this site for British schools and school teachers: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/index.htm


When you’re ready to take the quiz based on this topic, go to the IVLE page and click on ‘Assessment’ on the left, and then on ‘Middle and Early Modern English period’.


© P. Tan 2018

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