Language focus | 17.07.2009

History of English Part Three: Middle English

We have seen how English began with the arrival of the Germanic tribes and how it was subsequently altered by the language of the Vikings. The next major influence came from the Normans and after the Norman Conquest in 1066, the language spoken in England is considered to be Middle English.

Norman became the language of government and law and English obtained many of its words relating to these spheres during this period, including ‘parliament’, ‘court’ and ‘governor’. Norman was considered a prestige language at this time and many formal words in Modern English reflect this. An interesting feature of English also derives from this period, the words for meat products are distinct from the animals from which they come. ‘Beef’ comes from ‘boeuf’ and ‘pork’ from ‘porc’ – both of which are Norman.

Norman also affected spelling. Whereas previously there had been different letters for the voiced and voiceless versions of the ‘th’ sound, it was now represented by ‘th’ whichever sound it related to.

Remarkably, it is thought that within 50 years of their arrival, Normans were only learning Norman as a second language and following this decline, English literature reappeared around 1200AD. In 1362, Edward III addressed Parliament in English, highlighting an acceptance of the language in even the most formal situations.

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