The history of the English language – Middle English morphology

Welcome back to HEL!
(History of the English Language –
and no, it is not intentionally close to H-E-double-hockey-sticks)

Last week, we did Old English morphology and, boy, that was a complex system! By comparison, Middle English morphology is easy.

The trickier (and perhaps more important) question might be:
why is it so easy?

First things first.

By the time we reach Middle English, we see a significant simplification of the complex Old English system.

While Old English had four distinct noun-endings for different cases (the nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative), Middle English had only two such patterns:

 Old English: SingularOld English: PluralMiddle English: SingularMiddle English: Plural
Nominativeenġelenglasengelengles
Accusative
Genitiveenglesenglaengleengle(n)/englem
Dativeengleenglumenglesengle

The distinctive dative case – ending in -um – was lost during the early Middle English period. The genitive, however, survived, though only the strong ‘s ending was in use (and, like most things Middle English, variously spelt).

The strong (e)s plural form of Old English survived even into Present-Day English, and even the weak form -en is still found in a few words (like children, oxen, brethren).

How about verbs?

Well, again, like most things Middle English, it is really hard to say anything that covers everything. You see, because there was no written standard, Middle English had so much variation that a word might be spelt differently even within one text, written by one author. It’d be like I suddenly started spelling the word “though” as þhou, or why not thawe or thaue. And then went back to though all of a sudden. You see the problem?

With that said, as a general rule, the first person singular of verbs tends to end in –e (ich here “I hear”), the second person in -(e)st (þou spekest “you speak”), and the third person in –or –eth (he comeþ/cometh) or –es (as today).

Again, general rules tend not to work well for Middle English and you should really not consider this a “rule” as such.

It’s more of a… guideline.

Alright, so, these changes may seem like pretty small changes, but it had a pretty massive effect on the language.

The simplification of morphology affected phonology, which affected orthography, which affected grammar, and round and round the wheel goes.

It’s kind of like the butterfly effect.

But why did it happen?

Well, we don’t really know. Perhaps a phonological weakening, causing the distinct forms of Old English to become less distinct, eventually causing a collapse of the system when people could no longer distinguish the forms? (I personally believe this theory)

Or, perhaps, the intense contact with Old Norse and/or Anglo-Norman led to Middle English becoming a creole? (We discuss that in more detail here)

What do you think?

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References

I have double-checked some things in this post to make sure that I remember correctly. This is primarily done using this page to check some morphological patterning as well as getting some examples from Wikipedia.

Additionally, although I haven’t used it for this particular post, I highly recommend An Introduction to Middle English (2002) by Simon Horobin and Jeremy Smith and An Introduction to Middle English (2012) by R.D. Fulk (both of which grace my bookshelf) for those who wish to get a brief, but well-written, introduction to the Middle English language.

Enjoy!

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