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Early Middle English dialects. Extension of English territory

Module 7





1. Historical background of language development in ME

1.1. Scandinavian invasion

1.2. Norman Conquest

1.3. Middle English dialects

1.4. Formation of the English national language

2. Spelling changes in Middle English. Rules of reading

3. Changes in the phonetic system in Middle English

3.1. The word stress

3.2. Vowels in the unstressed position

3.3. Vowels under stress

3.3.1. Qualitative changes

3.3.2. Quantitative changes

3.4. Consonants

4. Conclusions

1. Historical background from the 11th to 15th c.

The end of the Old English period and the beginning of Middle English is marked by two outstanding political events – 1) the Scandinavian invasion and 2) the Norman conquest.

Scandinavian invasion

The Scandinavian invasion was a long process embracing over two centuries. The first inroads of the Scandinavian vikings began at the end of the 8th century. The part of England which suffered more from the invasion was the North-Eastern part of the country. From that part the invaders trying to conquer the whole of the country gradually proceeded to the South-West.

Hostilities ceased for a time and a peace treaty was concluded – the Treaty of Wedmore, in accordance with which the territory of the country was subdivided into two parts: the south-western part remained English under the rule of King Alfred and the north-eastern part was to be Scandinavian. That part was referred to as Danela¥u or Danelaw, i.e. the territory which was under the rule of Scandinavians, or "Danes".

The Scandinavians in England remained very strong through centuries, and at the beginning of the 11th century, namely in the period between 1016 and 1042 the whole of England came under the Scandinavian rule – the conquest was completed and the Danish king was seated on the English throne. Although in 1042 England was back under English power, the English king who came to the throne – Edward the Confessor – was to be the last English king for more than three centuries.

The Scandinavians brought about many changes in different spheres of the English language: word-stock, grammar and phonetics. The influence of Scandinavian dialects was especially felt in the North and East of England, where the invaders used to settle.

There existed no political or social barriers between the English and the Scandinavians, who did not form the ruling class of the society but lived on an equal footing with the English. There were no cultural barriers between the two people, both of the nations being Germanic. The language difference was not so strong as to make their mutual understanding impossible.

In the areas of the heaviest settlement the Scandinavians outnumbered the Anglo-Saxon population, which is attested by geographical names. In Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Northumberland, Cumberland up to 75 per cent of the place-names are Danish or Norwegian. Altogether more than 1,400 English villages and towns bear names of Scandinavian origin (with the element thorp meaning "village", e:g. Woodthorp: Linthorp; toft 'a piece of land', e.g. Brimtoft, Lowestoft and others). Probably, in many districts people became bilingual, with either Old Norse or English prevailing.

Eventually the Scandinavians were absorbed into the local population both ethnically and linguistically.

Due to the contacts and mixture with Old Scandinavian, the Northern dialects (chiefly Northumbrian and East Mercian) had acquired Scandinavian features.

In later ages the Scandinavian element passed into other regions. The incorporation of the Scandinavian element in the London dialect and Standard English was brought about by the changing linguistic situation in England: the mixture of the dialects and the growing linguistic unification. Yet neither in the South nor in Standard English did the Scandinavian element ever assume such proportions as in the North-Eastern ME dialects.

Norman Conquest

The Norman Conquest began in 1066. The Normans were by origin a Scandinavian tribe who two centuries back began their inroads on the Northern part of France and finally occupied the territory on both shores of the Seine. The French King Charles the Simple ceded to the Normans the territory occupied by them, which came to be called Normandy. The Normans adopted the French language and culture, and when they came to Britain they brought with them the French language.

In 1066 King Edward the Confessor died, and the Norman Duke William, profiting by the weakness of King Harold who succeeded King Edward on the English throne, invaded England. He assembled an army, landed in England and in a battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066 managed to defeat Harold and proclaimed himself King of England.

The Norman conquest had far-reaching consequences for the English people and the English language.

One of the most important of these consequences was the introduction of a new nobility. Many of the English higher class had been killed on the field at Hastings. Those who escaped were treated as traitors, and the places of both alike were filled by William’s Norman followers. The new king William confiscated the estates of the Anglo-Saxons nobility and distributed them among the Norman barons. The Norman conquerors continued pouring into England thousands after thousands, years and years after the conquest, and during the reign of King William over 200,000 Frenchmen settled in England and occupied all positions of prominence in the country, be it in court, Parliament, Church or school.

The heritage of the Norman Conquest was manifold. It united England to Western Europe, opening the gates to European culture and institutions, theology, philosophy and science. The Conquest in effect meant a social revolution in England.

The Norman conquerors, though Germanic by origin, were French by their language, habits and customs. For two hundred years after the Norman Conquest French remained the language of ordinary intercourse among the upper classes in England. At first those who spoke French were those of Norman origin, but soon through intermarriage and association with the ruling class numerous people of English extraction must have found it to their advantage to learn the new language, and before long the distinction between those who spoke French and those who spoke English was not racial but largely social. The language of the masses remained English. And for more than two centuries after the conquest the English country was ruled by French-speaking kings and nobility, and the French language was the state language of the country.

During the century and a half following the Norman Conquest French had been not only natural but necessary to the English upper class; however, in the 13th and 14th centuries its maintenance became increasingly artificial.

A feature of some importance in helping English to recover its former prestige is the improvement in the condition of the mass of the people and the rise of a substantial middle class. At the beginning of the 14th century English was once more known by everyone. Since 1362 all law suits should have been carried out in English, thus English was introduced in the courts as it was said that “French was much unknown in the realm”. The end of the 14th century also saw the first English translation of the Bible, and Chaucer was writing his English masterpieces. At the same time English was restored at schools and in writing in 1440.The new merchant class and the spread of lay learning were building a national civilization. Social and economic changes affecting the English-speaking part of the population were taking place, and in the end English won its way back into universal use, and in the 15th century French all but disappeared.

Eventually after a prolonged struggle the English language got ascendance over French and again became the state language of the country. The English language emerged after the struggle, but it came in a different position. Its vocabulary was enriched by a great number of French words and its grammatical structure underwent material changes.

Early Middle English dialects. Extension of English territory

The regional ME dialects had developed from respective OE dialects. The following dialect groups can be distin­guished in Early ME.

The Southern group included the Kentish and the South-Western dialects. Kentish was a direct descendant of the OE dialect known by the same name. The South­-Western group was a continuation of the OE Saxon dialects – not only West Saxon, but also East Saxon. The East Saxon dialect was not prominent in OE but became more important in Early ME, since it made the basis of the dialect of London in the 12th and 13th c.

The group of Midland ("Central") dialects – corresponding to the OE Mercian dialect – is divided into West Midland and East Midland as two main areas.

The Northern dialects had developed from OE Northumbrian. In Early ME the Northern dialects included several provincial dialects, e.g. the Yorkshire and the Lancashire dialects and also what later became known as Scottish.

In Early ME, while the state language and the main language of litera­ture was French, the local dialects were relatively equal. In Late ME, when English had been reestablished as the main language of administra­tion and writing, one of the regional dialects, the London dialect, prevailed over the others.


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