Medieval Studies Middle English Language
Thomas Cable
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 December 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0071


The English language between c. 1100 and c. 1500 is known as Middle English, one of the three main stages recognized by historians of the language. In the usual classification, Middle English is preceded by Old English from its origins in the 5th century CE (although the earliest extant texts date from the 7th century) and followed by Modern English, a highly variable stage chronologically and geographically, comprising the past five centuries. These divisions and dates are more or less arbitrary, and each period contains within it subperiods, which must also be understood as convenient approximations. Middle English is characterized by a simplification of the inflectional system of Old English, already in progress before the Norman Conquest; by a profound change in the long vowels at the end of the period, especially during the 15th century; and by an expansion of the lexicon from French sources.

General Overviews

For placing Middle English in its cultural setting and in the broader context of the developments that follow, histories of the language are useful. Baugh and Cable 2002 is one of the many standard texts available. Lerer 2007 aims to help the reader connect the seemingly inexorable forces of linguistic history with personal experience. Smith 2005 is a clear, straightforward introduction to stages and changes up to the end of the 17th century. Szarmach, et al. 1998 and Momma and Matto 2008 take up specific topics in various degrees of detail, and the long essays in Hogg 1992–2001 provide more expertise than is possible in any single-author work.

  • Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.

    In all editions since the first by Baugh in 1935, the three chapters on Middle English cover both grammatical paradigms and “external” history.

  • Hogg, Richard M., ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language. 6 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992–2001.

    See Volume 2, 1066–1476, published in 1992, edited by Norman Blake. Monograph-length, authoritative essays on the major topics by Roger Lass, James Milroy, Olga Fischer, David Burnley, and Norman Blake, with extensive bibliographies on current issues.

  • Lerer, Seth. Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

    Written in a genial style, chapters 3 through 8 introduce the major events and linguistic features from late Old English to late Middle English.

  • Momma, Haruko, and Michael Matto, eds. A Companion to the History of the English Language. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444302851

    Although the format is not strictly chronological, at least ten of the fifty-nine essays deal with topics in Middle English.

  • Smith, Jeremy J. Essentials of Early English: An Introduction to Old, Middle, and Early Modern English. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 2005.

    A succinct overview of Middle English in chapter 4 and a dozen illustrative texts, no less useful for being mainly well-known literary works.

  • Szarmach, Paul E., M. Teresa Tavormina, and Joel T. Rosenthal, eds. Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1998.

    See, for example, “Chaucer,” “History of the Language,” “Literary Influences,” “Norman Conquest,” and “Piers Plowman.”

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