What are the characteristics of Middle English language?What were the changes occurred? how?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

If Middle English is what is employed in the text of the St. James edition of the Bible, there were still conjugated endings on the verbs. It was not until the advent of Modern English that conjugated endings were dropped for the most part and helping verbs added in verb usage.  (He/she says still has a conjugated ending of -s)

Nouns, however, were no longer declined; that is, the endings of the nouns did not indicate their case/function in a sentence as they did in Old English which imitates Latin in this respect.  These case endings were lost because of the stress shift in Middle English.  The cases were as follows:

  • nominative   - indicating the subject of a sentence
  • accusative    - indicating the direct object of a sentence
  • genitive       - indicating possession
  • dative          - indicating the indirect object
  • instrumental - indicating an instrument used to achieve something  (e.g. lifede sweordre, meaning lived by the sword.  Since sword is the instrument it is the instrumental form of sweord)

Along with losing conjugated endings, Middle English also dropped the Latin demand for gender agreement.  Other interesting differences are in spelling:

  • c before i or e became chi
  • cw became qu
  • sc became sh
  • new symbols v and u were added\
  • k was used more (cyning became king)
  • a historical h was added to words such as honor, heir, herb, habit
  • the infinitive verb ending was dropped and "to" was placed before a verb to make an infinitive.
  • adjectives lost agreement with nouns in gender and number
  • loss of the final -n in possessive pronouns (e.g. min faeder to mi faeder) and the addition of an -n in words beginning with a vowel a napron, a nuncle which became an apron, an uncle)
  • /z/ phoneme was borrowed from French as the voiced counterpart for /s/   e.g. these

Although the popularity of French was decreasing after King John lost Normandy to the French in 1250 and after Chaucer's Canterbury Tales was published as Middle English emerged, nearly 10,000 words were incorporated into the English language.

droark | Student

The change from Old English into Middle English was characterized by many changes.

Some examples are:
1) The loss of inflections
2) An increased importance in word order to convey meaning
3) A more mixed vocabulary.

The loss of inflection means that words were no longer conjugated (using affixes) to denote tense, gender and case. Yes, we today still have different forms of verbs to show tense or ad an -s (or -es) to the end of nouns to show plurality but these examples are few compared to the extensive set of inflections that existed in Old English.

Because of this lost of inflection, word order became much more important in conveying meaning. The use of phrasing and grouping words to show relationships was slowly taking the place of the fading inflections.

Finally, the amount of words available to English speakers grew rapidly. This was caused by the increased movement of people from region to region. Groups of language speakers were much smaller than today and as the kingdoms moved and fought and traded they borrowed each others words and created new words.