Reading and understanding the literary work of the Middle English time period is akin to learning and studying an ancient language entirely. The English language itself has taken different mold and shape over the past several hundred years. Words and phrases during the Middle English period have enhanced over time. Words such as durste, clepe, and I wot, translate respectively to dared, call, and I know today. (Murphy page v). Conversely, words ending –en have translated more easily to their modern day equivalents; words such as, bathen, departen, aboven. (Murphy page vi). Why has the language changed so, and why have some words and phrases changed much more so than others? Several changes and events in world and British history have greatly influenced the transformation of the Middle English language of the 15th and 16th centuries, to the Modern variations of the English language today. Events such as The Great Vowel Shift, technology and the Renaissance, and world exploration and colonization have provided major contributions to the language advancements. (EnglishClub, History of English Language). But have the advancements in the English language from the Middle English time period to the Modern English variations of today been an evolution or a revolution. While evolution has played its role, it’s the revolution that has been on since the 11th century, and continues today.
The great works of literary mind Geoffrey Chaucer were written during the Middle English time period. The Middle English language derived from the Normans invasion of Britain in 1066. (University of Texas at Arlington, Middle English History). The Normans brought with them a form of the Old French language, which would serve as the language of the British upper class following the invasion. The language of Britain at the time of the invasion was Old English, which would continue to serve for the lower class. However, by the 14th and 15th centuries, the English language would again become the full language of the region, but it had now inherited many words and phrases from the Old French. Thus the Old English language, combined with words and phrases from the Old French, would form the basis of the Middle English time period. But that time period would continue to see upheaval in the English language as evidenced in language changes in the 16th century with The Great Vowel Shift. (Wikipedia, The Great Vowel Shift). The Great Vowel Shift produced a change in pronunciation with vowels being pronounced shorter and shorter. What brought the sudden dialect change and the Great Vowel Shift? Theory states The Black Death plague caused the migration of many to southeast England, and brought with it accents and dialects which modified the speech and language of the newly inhabitated region. Another attribution the plague has received on its influence on the Great Vowel Shift is it did not discriminate against upper and lower class structure; it reached the upper class society as well as the lower class. With upper class falling victim to the plague as well, it enabled a social transformation with lower levels of society reaching upper ends of society. (EnglishClub, The History of English Language).
The transformation from Middle English to modern English continued through the technological advancements of the 15th and 16th centuries. The invention of the printing press enabled more lower class people to read and write, as books were now more readily available, as well as more affordable. This led to the Renaissance of learning; more and more people were reading and writing. The advancements in the printer also stabilized the English language. The first English dictionary was published in 1604 (EnglishClub, The History of English Language); technological advancements helped accelerate the standardization of the English language. Britain’s growth in world exploration and world colonization stemmed the largest growth of the English language. Britain grew into a world power in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. The British Empire spread the English language across the globe, and brought words and phrases across the world back into the English language. Coupled with world exploration and Britain’s ability to stabilize their language through the means of print, the English language began to move from Middle English to the more modern variations we know today. Of course, there are a few variations of the English language in today’s world including American English.
The advancements of the English language have taken many variations through the centuries. Old English and forms of Middle English are very unfamiliar to today’s world. Translations or interpretations are generally required for the lay person to read works from that time period. In today’s world and today’s English language, we are constantly seeing advancements in our language. Words and phrases considered slang a generation or two ago have become part of the language and culture. In addition, neologisms and newly created phrases and words that may not have been accepted in mainstream yet, but they are a part of our daily language. (Wikipedia, Neologism). Words and phrases such as Google It, Soccer Mom, NASCAR Dad, and blog have become every bit the part of modern English, but have not necessarily become a part of the official English language. And of course, just with the technological advancements of the printing press in the 16th century, the internet is currently playing a huge role in our language churn. Social media has provided all people a worldwide stage to voice their opinions on an array of subjects, and with it the advent of new words, phrases, slang, and neologisms. The revolution of the English language has seen many events in world history help shape into the language it is today. While there is a natural evolution of the language that occurs generation to generation, the events such as The Great Vowel Shift, technology and the Renaissance, and Britain’s successes in world exploration influenced and revolutionized the language in a much more pronounced way in its movement toward modern English. Today’s American English language continues to see natural evolution with dialects from different parts of the country, but technological advancements of today are revolutionizing the language in much more expedient manner than natural evolution; for both American English and British English. The English language revolution has seen its changes over the past several hundred years, and while evolution will continue to influence its development, it’s the revolution that has moved the language to its present state and will continue to shape the language into its next time period.
- EnglishClub. EnglishClub is independent and unaffiliated to any language organization. April 1-5. http://www.englishclub.com/ .History of English Language page. <http://www.englishclub.com/english-language-history.htm>
- Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. April 1-5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page .
Great Vowel Shift page. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Vowel_Shift>
History of the English Language page. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_English_language>
3. Dictionary.com. Part of the IAC Corporation. April 6. http://dictionary.reference.com/ .
4. University of Texas at Arlington. University of Texas at Arlington public website. April 2. http://www.uta.edu/uta/ . Middle English History. <http://www.uta.edu/english/tim/courses/4301w00/mehist.html>
5. Murphy, Michael. “The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. A Reader-Friendly Edition of the General Prologue and Sixteen Tales Put into Modern Spelling.” Brooklyn College. Brooklyn College. April 3. <http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/webcore/murphy/canterbury/1intro.pdf>