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The Middle English Noun.

Middle English as a Period of Great Change.

The Middle English Morphology

Lecture 7

The Middle English period was marked by momentous changes in the English language, changes more extensive and fundamental than those that have taken place at any time before or since. Some of them were the result of the Norman Conquest and the conditions which followed in the wake of that event. Others were a continuation of tendencies that had begun to manifest themselves in Old English. These would have gone on even without the Conquest, but they took place more rapidly because the Norman invasion removed from English those conservative influences that are always felt when a language is extensively used in books and is spoken by an influential educated class. The changes of this period affected English in both its grammar and its vocabulary. They were so extensive in each department that it is difficult to say which group is more significant. Those in the grammar reduced English from a highly inflected language to an extremely analytic one. Those in the vocabulary involved the loss of a large part of the Old English word-stock and the addition of thousands of words from French and Latin. At the beginning of the period, English is a language that must be learned like a foreign tongue; at the end it is Modern English.


The distinctive endings -a, -u, -e, -an, -um, etc. of Old English were reduced to <e>/[ə] by the end of the twelfth century. In the noun there is one inflectional relic left in the singular, the genitive -es, while one form serves for all in the plural:

Sing. Plur. Sing. Plur.

N stan stan-as ston ston-es

A stan stan-as ston ston-es

G stan-es stan-a ston-es ston-es

D stan-e stan-um ston ston-es

But it should be mentioned that in early Middle English only two methods of indicating the plural remained fairly distinctive: the -s or -es from the strong masculine declension and the -en (as in oxen) from the weak. And for a time, at least in southern England, it would have been difficult to predict that the –s would become the almost universal sign of the plural that it has become. Until the thirteenth century the -en plural enjoyed great favor in the south, being often added to nouns which had not belonged to the weak declension in Old English. But in the rest of England the -s plural (and genitive singular) of the old first declension (masculine) was apparently felt to be so distinctive that it spread rapidly. Its extension took place most quickly in the north.


Although the articles are closely connected with nouns, they are separate words with particular lexical meanings and grammatical properties.

It was during the Middle English period that the articles were isolated from other classes of words and became a class of words by themselves.

The definite article is an outgrowth of the OE demonstrative pronoun . The suppletivity observed in Old English was lost. The sound [s] of the OE nominative case, singular, masculine () and feminine (sēo) was replaced by the sound [θ] on the analogy of the oblique cases (þæs, þæm, þone, etc.). With the development of ēo > ē, the forms þē and þēo fell together as þē, later spelt the.

The neuter form þæt, ME that, retained its full demonstrative force, while the was weakened both in meaning and form. Gradually they became two different words.

The lost all gender, case and number distinctions, and became entirely uninflected.

The indefinite article has developed from the OE numeral ān (‘one’), whose meaning sometimes weakened to “one of many”, “some” even in OE. The weakening of the meaning was accompanied by the weakening of the stress. The long [ā] was shortened in the unstressed ān, so that ān > an. Later the unstressed [a] was reduced in pronunciation to [ə]. The consonant [n] was usually lost before consonants but retained before vowels.


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