an old form of English that was used between about AD 1150 and AD 1500 compare Old English CultureMiddle EnglishFrom the 12th century Middle English replaced Norman French as the most widely spoken language in England but, until the 14th century, French and Latin were used in government and law, and by writers of literature. Middle English developed from Old English, the language used in England before the Norman Conquest and spoken by the common people throughout the Norman period.By the time English reappeared as a literary language it had gone through various changes. The grammar was simpler, with fewer inflections (= changes of word form), and the vocabulary had gained many French and Latin words. Some Old English words had disappeared, while others remained beside those of French or Latin origin, e.g. freedom and liberty. Compared with Old English, many more words of Middle English can be understood by speakers of modern English. However, the range of styles and spellings in surviving literature suggest that there was no single way of writing Middle English. The ancient letters, called runes, found in Old English soon ceased to be used, with only the thorn (þ) surviving into the 15th century. There were also changes to pronunciation, especially the pronunciation of vowels. Long, stressed vowels were formerly pronounced similarly to those in other European languages, for example the ‘i’ in fine was originally pronounced
BrE ; NAmEbut in late Middle English it became
BrE ; NAmE. This change came to be known as the great vowel shift and was a significant feature in the development of modern English.The most important author who wrote in Middle English was Geoffrey Chaucer. His most famous work, partly in verse and partly in prose, is The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387) in which he introduces a varied group of people on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The following passage introduces the Miller:
“The Miller was a stout carl, for the nones,Ful big he was of braun, and eek of bones;That proved wel, for over-al ther he cam,At wrastling he wolde have alwey the ram.He was short-sholdred, brood, a thikke knarre,Ther nas no dore that he nolde heve of harre,Or breke it, at a renning, with his heed.(The Miller was a stout ruffian, believe me, very muscular and big-boned. That was well-tested because he towered over all present and in wrestling he would always win the ram. He was a short-necked, broad, thickset fellow and there was no door he couldn't take off its hinge or break with his head at a run.)”Other famous Middle English works include William Langland's Piers Plowman, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a poem by an unknown author about the adventures of one of King Arthur's knights.The first English printing press was set up in London by William Caxton in 1476. One of the earliest books he printed was The Canterbury Tales. Caxton printed over 100 books, many of them by English authors, and so helped spread the literature of the period among a greater number of people.