The Story of English


Week 6: Middle English Dialects


Middle English Dialects  CEL: 51-55

The Bible in English -- from Wycliffe, to Tyndale to the ‘Authorized’ version. (SOE: 92-96; CEL 56-59).


Review: have dealt with Middle English vocabulary and examined the ways in which French and Latin loans shaped the lexicon. Chaucer is a major icon of Middle English.

Plan: To examine the language that Chaucer wrote, and how it shifted its character between 1350 and 1476, when Caxton set up his printing press in the city of Westminster.

Focus: dialect differences and change in the sounds of English vowels.


Key things to note and remember:

·       The most prestigious Middle English dialect, and basis of spoken Standard Modern English is traditionally considered to be East Midlands (hint: triangle of London, Oxford, Cambridge). [CEL 50-51]

·       The most important Middle English dialect contrast was the north : south boundary (north--south divide continues today) [CEL 50]

·       Chancery English (variety of written English standardised in spelling, grammar, handwriting by clerks keeping royal records in the administration in city of Westminster, London -- Chancery) was v. important in establishing basis of written standard English, as it was associated with the authority of the court. [CEL 41, 54]

·       Economic climate and trading practices, education both influenced prestige of East & Central Midlands, and London.

·       Influence of Lollards and the Wycliffite bible translations also felt on standard written English (CEL 48, 54)

·       The transition from Middle to early Modern English is marked in the major change in the long vowel system of ME = the Great Vowel Shift.[CEL 55]

·       The advent of Early Modern English: Caxton set up his printing press in Westminster in 1476, his practices influenced by Chancery conventions. [CEL 56-7]


Middle English Dialects: (spoken)

Basis of the ME dialects was essentially the same as the Anglo-Saxon dialect areas:  

But, the new centres of influence in the Middle Ages -- London and the Midlands (as opposed to Winchester) arose as the result of the economic activity of middle-class merchants and traders. This activity led to the growth of towns, and eventually to the dominant position of London. The growth of towns led to the development of town dialects (as opposed to rural ones), including London English. (CEL 50-51).


Note some differences between Middle English dialects (based on variations noted in manuscripts produced in different places). (some details of Middle English dialect differences)  

Which ones win out?

1. verb endings:

·       -ing particle (as in he is hunting): 

·       North: -and(e)  he is huntande

·       E. Midlands: -end(e)  he is huntende

·       W. Midlands: -ind(e)  he is huninde

·       elsewhere: -ing  he is hunting

·       -th ending (3rd sg. pres.) he goeth

·       North, N. Midlands: -s  (he goes)

·       Elsewhere: -(e)th 

·       pres. pl. ending with we, they:

·       North, NE. Midlands:  -es  (they reades)

·       Southern, Kentish, SW Midlands: ­eth

·       elsewhere: -en

2. Other features:

·       pronouns

·       North, W. Midlands: they, their them

·       South: his, here, hem

·       shall/ should

·       Northern, Kentish miss out /h/: sal

·       elsewhere: keep /h/

·       alternation of /o/ /a/

·       North: stane, ham, for, kirk

·       South: stone, home, vor, church (cf. CEL map p. 51)


The emergence of a written standard:

By the 14thc, we have to take account of a new group in society --- a rapidly growing middle class of manufacturers, traders and merchants, who were increasingly urban.  Two important points:

·       this class was based in London and the towns rather than the countryside which was still under feudal rule. London has had a continuous and increasing influence on English in England and beyond. Example of London English is the Petition of the Mercers (1388) :

·       many English merchants had an international outlook. They were beginning to take control of their own international trade, particularly with Bruges (Belgium) and Antwerp (Netherlands). In the first half of the 14thc, they were exporting finished cloth. By the end of the 14thc, the English merchants had set up an organisation to rival the German Hanseatic League, called the Merchant Adventurers. This coordinated their international trading.

Example of internationalism—the granting of privileges to the Hanse of Cologne.


Linguistic consequences of the rise of this group for English literacy:


They generally kept records in Latin. But:

·       from 1380s, the London guilds began to use English;

·       and in 1384 the City of London issued a proclamation that was not only read aloud in English, but was originally composed in English.

·       in 1422 the London brewers decided to conduct their proceedings in English rather than Latin;

·       by the middle of the 15thc, London tradesmen formed a significant literate group apart from churchmen and the nobility.

·       In business texts of the 15thc,  English often rubbed shoulders with French and Latin. E.g. 13 les bordes voc shelfes quatuor les pryntyng presses ‘13 boards called shelves, 4 printing presses’

Latin words were abbreviated and special characters were used in a written language with no obvious spoken counterpart. E.g. a symbol like & is a stylized version of Latin et but it can just as easily be read as and. voc doesn’t need to be expanded into its full Latin form, and can be read out directly as called. In business texts of this type, it’s not clear when English ends and Latin & French begin.


Economic activity organized on a national scale spread London English features to English to the whole of England, via an economic infrastructure that tied remote areas to London. (Look at communications map -- CEL 54). E.g.

·       The wool trade established links between London and East Anglia, the Yorkshire dales, Cumbria, the Cotswolds and the South Downs (i.e. the areas where sheep were raised). E.g. trade and economy in Great Yarmouth:

·       The meat trade’s influence extended into Wales and Galloway.


So London English provided an early commercial standard, which could conveniently be spread along existing lines of communication. This language would be the obvious one to use when English began to be used for official purposes from the 1360s.


If the economic climate and trading practices influenced what was happening with English, then so too did politics and government and church (bible) movements (see CEL 54-55).


Chancery and the Signet Office:


For prestige, national coverage and sheer volume, nothing could compare with the royal bureaucracy, which was using English routinely by the 1420s. This business was centred in Chancery, which till the end of the 15thc, comprised ‘virtually all of the national bureaucracy of England except for the  for the closely allied Exchequer’. It followed the king around, but under the reign of Edward III, was settled at Westminster. It was a self-perpetuating bureaucracy of about 120 clerks. Clerks were men of the church, professional scribes who were not allowed to marry, and often moonlighted as scribes for people outside the bureaucracy. They were literate in English and in French and Latin too.


The use of the signet as an authority for royal acts is at least as early as the reign of Edward III. In the fifteenth century the clerks of the signet formed a distinct office under the king's principal secretary, in whom the custody of the signet was vested.

From as early as 1444 the use of the signet at an early stage on the passage of grants under the great seal was regulated by the Privy Council and also involved the Privy Seal Office. However, this system of a chain of official responsibility in the making of royal grants was not established by Parliament until the Clerks of the Signet and Privy Seal Act of 1535 laid down that all grants by the King (or in his name) should be brought to the Secretary or one of the clerks of the signet and that a warrant from a Clerk of the Signet to the Keeper of the Privy Seal, to be followed by one from a Clerk of the Privy Seal to the Keeper of the Great Seal, should be the authority in ordinary cases for affixing the great seal to a grant. A scale of fees for the clerks of the Signet and Privy Seal Offices was fixed by the act and provision was made for the payment of these fees in cases where the grant was passed by immediate warrant and did not go through the two offices.

The business of the Signet Office was performed by four clerks acting in person or by deputy. Their primary duty, upon receipt of a warrant under the royal sign manual countersigned by a Secretary of State (or the Treasury commissioners), was to draw out on parchment the king's bill which was sent to the Secretary of State for the royal sign manual. At some period it became necessary for the Attorney General or Solicitor General to prepare the bills in certain cases, such as creations of nobility, charters, commissions and patents for invention. When a king's bill was returned to the Signet Office duly signed, a transcript was made of it. The signet was affixed to this transcript, which was then sent to the Privy Seal Office and was known as the signet bill, being the authority for the writ of privy seal to the Lord Chancellor.

The Signet Office was abolished by the Great Seal Act of 1851 which substituted simpler forms for the passing of grants under the great seal for those previously in use. Such duties of the office as survived were henceforward performed by the Home Office. One such duty was that of entering all letters dispatched under the royal sign manual from the government to the Lord Lieutenant and other authorities in Ireland. (Source: Signet Office Administration)


Became important in the reign of Henry V, whose signet office (office in which all the king’s correspondence was handled). Initially, Henry used English as propaganda weapon in the war vs. France, and began to use English in his correspondence four days after landing in France (August 1417). The variety of written English established in his reign was continued after his death in 1422. (NB. London brewers adopted English then, noting that ‘the English tongue hath in modern days begun to be honourably enlarged and adorned’.