History of Old English and Middle English

Grace Chalhoub, Staff Writer

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Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon) was the language of the Anglo-Saxon settlers in England from the late 400s to early 1100s. The term “Anglo-Saxon” refers to two of the Germanic peoples, the Angles and the Saxons, that attempted to invade the British Isles, inhabited by Celts, during the era of Roman rule in Britain (43–450 AD) but failed to gain any ground against the powerful Roman army. However, during the early 5th century, the Romans departed from Britain, enabling the Anglo-Saxons to invade and found settlements in southern and eastern Britain, or present-day England. Anglo-Saxon influence increased from the late 400s, as they continued to mix with or wipe out Celts (due to lack of written records, the fate of the British Celts is still disputed). 

The Anglo-Saxon language was primarily Old Germanic in composition, including vocabulary and grammar, and emerged into three dialects: West Saxon, Anglian and Kentish. In many ways, Anglo-Saxon is to modern English what Latin is to Romance languages: a basis for some of our vocabulary and grammar today. However, it would undergo many changes within the next centuries, even facing extinction, due to repeated invasions, before eventually resurging and appearing in its modern form .  

During the 600s, as a result of the Anglo-Saxon conversion to Christianity, Old English became increasingly influenced by Latin, adapting the Latin alphabet and Latin-based vocabulary. The Viking invasions, which plagued England (particularly East Anglia) from 793 through 1066,  resulted in significant Old Norse influence on the language, including lended words and grammatical structures. 

In 1066, Norman king William the Conqueror rapidly invaded and conquered the Anglo-Saxons. Seizing Anglo-Saxon property and distributing it to Norman nobility, William the Conqueror ensured that Normans secured aristocratic and upper-class status. The Norman victors spoke a dialect of French called Anglo-Norman, a language with significant Germanic influence, and Anglo-Norman became the language of politics and the upper classes, effectively limiting Anglo-Saxon to the lower classes. 

However, the two languages did not remain completely estranged from the other. The Normans contributed around 10,000 words to English (a quarter of which have fallen out of modern use).  From roughly 1100 to 1150, Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman melded to create Middle English. Many Anglo-Saxon words fell out of use following the Old English period, but due to the rate of replacement with French, Latin and Old Norse words, Middle English doubled in vocabulary. 

The era of Norman Britain came to an end in 1154, but it was not until the succession of Henry IV in 1399 that English returned as the primary language of the monarchy.

From its beginning, Middle English was an almost entirely spoken language (written compositions were almost always in Latin) with many different dialects and no regulation; however, due to its status as the primary political and commercial sector, the East Midlands and London dialect became increasingly standard. During this time, some of the most complex features of the language disappeared, including gendered nouns, difficult inflections and word endings, and increasingly gaining affixes and an emphasis on word order. 

Due to increased English-French tensions, climaxing during the Hundred Years’ War, French continued to lose favor and English gained ground. In 1362, English became the official language of English politics and the court. During the 1380s, Chaucer produced his influential “Canterbury Tales,” and John Wycliffe published his translation of the Bible, both in the London dialectal vernacular, featuring words with a French and Latin basis in English print for the first time. 

From the late 14th century to mid-16th century, Middle English transitioned into Modern English, changing gradually in pronunciation and vocabulary, helped along by the invention of the printing press and increased standardization of English.