Middle English Grammar


The Middle English period shows extensive changes in


-- pronunciation: especially reduction and loss of unstressed inflectional endings

-- vocabulary: infusion of French, loss of native Old English words

-- syntax: loss of many grammatical distinctions


These changes are often interrelated. Loss of an unstressed ending syllable that carries information about grammatical gender, case, or number means that information either has to appear elsewhere in an utterance or it gets lost altogether.


Since ME is a transitional period, we expect to find, and we do find, evidence to show extreme variation in the “rules” of the language. Sometimes final -e is pronounced in a word, sometimes not.  Sometimes the 3rd person plural pronoun begins with h-, as it did in OE, sometimes with th-, as it does in MnE.


Sometimes French influence drives out a native word, sometimes the native word shifts meaning and survives, sometimes both borrowed and native word continue more or less as synonyms. 


Consider the case of the food vocabulary (beef/cow; veal/calf; mutton/sheep; venison/deer)


What are some of the spelling changes from OE to ME? 


many French spelling conventions were borrowed (as a result, ME looks more like Modern English)—


1.        th replaces thorn and eth  (∂)

2.        uu (w) replaces wynn

3.        OE yogh, 3, is used for a variety of things in ME:g, 3, w, gh: goos, 3elden (or yelden), drawen, cni3t or knight, ∂ur3 or thurgh

4.        initial v from French (in OE, f/v were not distinctive: fox, vixen) v now used for medial voiced f: drifan > driven

5.        ch for palatalized c: cild > child

6.        sk > sh sceal > shall; shirt > shirt (the MnE word skirt is a re-borrowing from Scandinavian)

7.        hw > wh  hwaet > what, hwi > why, hwan > when

8.        In OE, c stood for /k/ or /ch/; in ME c used for /s/: citee, grace

9.        cw > qu cwen > queen, cwic > quick; in the North and Scotland, qu- often appears for wh-, quhat for what, etc.

10.    OE cg > gg  ecg > egge > edge




1.        length indicated by doubling of letters, esp. ee and oo

2.        final unstressed vowels fell together as e

3.        doubled consonants began to indicate preceeding short vowel

4.        in North, i used to indicate long vowel: rad > raid, red > Reid (as in the name), all mean ‘red’;  gud, in Scots, guid, = ‘good’

5.        OE short u > ME o : hunig > honey  tunge > tonge wondor > wonder  munuc > monk  lufu > love

6.        OE long u > ME ou  hus > house

7.        ME y used for semivowel /y/ and for i to distinguish minims and in final position hungrig > hungry, min > myn

8.        relaxed orthography in ME: words are spelled many different ways even in the same text.


Middle English shows the rise of the London standard: during much of the period, writers wrote in their local dialect; toward the end, more began adopting the London dialect as the standard.  This may have happened because of increasing influence of central government, extension of the reach of the civil service into the provinces, and literary prestige accruing to London authors.  The rise of standards is complex, involving economics, politics, social class, education, literary influence, and external forces (the French influence was stronger in London than in the North, for example), not to mention nationalism, isolationism, disease, and the rise of TV(which happened much later).


Pronunciation changes:


1.        OE initial hl-, hn-, hr- become in ME l, n, r:  hleapan, leap;  hnutu, nut;  hrador, rather

2.        OE g > ME w  after l or r: halgian > hallow; morgen > morrow

3.        OE w is lost between a Consonant (esp. s or t) and a back Vowel:  swa > so, twa > to ‘two’; sometimes the w is retained in the spelling: two, answer (OE andswarian), sword;  and in contractions: ne + wille > nille (willy nilly), ne + wiste > niste ‘did not know’; nis ‘isn’t’

4.        ch is lost in unstressed sylls in Late ME: OE -lic > -ly

5.        v lost before Consonant, with syncope of unstressed vowel: OE heafod > ME heved > ME, MnE head

6.        OE prefix ge- > i-  gewiss > iwis, ‘certainly,’ gelimpan > ilimpen ‘happen’

7.        final inflectional -n lost gradually  min > my (except before initial vowels: my father, mine eye);  an ewt > a newt, an ekename > a nickname an nadder > an adder, an napron > an apron   an noumpere > an umpire

8.        in South, initial f,s,th were voiced: fox/vixen fat/vat

9.        Old French borrowings with initial v: veal, virtue, visit

10.    OF initial z- zeal, zodiac

11.    initial th in unstressed words > +voice  (the, that, this)

12.    with loss of final -e, th, v, and z came to occur word finally as well: give, lose, bathe — thus the voiced fricatives gained phonemic status (bath vs. bathe)


ME Vowels


1.        OE long vowels remain unchanged in pronunciation (though spelling reflected length)      

2.        most short vowels stayed same as well

3.        OE /y/ unrounded to /i/

4.        long a remained in North, became [  ] elsewhere: ham > home, stan > stone

5.        OE long æ > ME long / e /

6.        OE short æ > ME a  glaed, glad




·          OE diphthongs disappeared, new ME ones arise: ea, eo smooth to monophthongs in late OE leaf > leef, seon > see  heorta > herte

·          offglides /ai/ and /ei/ develop < OE as g>i after front vowels: saegde > seyede, weg > way

·          off-glides au, ou, eu, iu: aht > ought

·          oi  < French  joie, cloister

·          ui  < French  boilen, poison, joinen  (bile, pizen, jine)

·          short vowels lengthen before mb, nd, ld, rd, rth: climben ‘climb’  comb  bindan > binden, bounden milde > milde, yelden ‘to pay’  ald > old ; reshortening occurs in wind, held, send, friend (compare with vb. wind, field, fiend, where lengthening survives

·          short a,e,o lengthened in open sylls: nama > name, wudu > wode

·          shortening before CC: hydde > hidde ‘hid’  cepte > kepte  five/fifty wise/wisdom shortening in unstressed sylls: wisdom > wisdom (dom > dom)

·          levelling of unstressed vowels

·          a, o, u, e fall together as schwa in unstressed syllables.  This is the most significant vowel change for syntax

·          final schwa gradually lost in North in 13c, a bit later elsewhere;  sometimes the variation continued for a while, so the final e is often preserved in spelling (bridde, bride)

·          in some cases, too, -e was added to fill out short lines by scribes.

·          schwa lost in -es except after sibilants: bud/buds bus/busses

·          schwa lost in -eth for 3 pers sg indicative: sayeth > saith, beareth > berth cometh > comth

·          schwa retained in final -ed until 15c: blessed, aged, learned contrast with blest, agd, learnt


Grammar changes:


·           reduction of inflections a major effect on syntax

·           all adj. inflections fall together as -e; loss of strong/weak, loss of gender, loss of # (for adjs)

·           all infinitives fall together as -en, which then gets lost in MnE

·           -es of plural > s

·           noun inflections: gen sg. and nom plural fell together as -es, -s

·           OE -s-less plurals continue: deer, fish, feet, oxen

·           -n plurals > -s plurals: eyen > eyes foon > foes

·           schoon > shoes

·           loss of case > fixed Subject Verb Object, or SVO word order




·           these retain some of their OE complexity

·           subj/obj/possessive case forms

·           sg/pl i/we, thou/ye, he/they

·           Northern forms: ic, they, contrast with Southern i, he

·           dative him took over acc. hine

·           fem gen. her took over acc. hi

·           OE demonstratives reduce to ME the, that, tho (plu)

·           tho > those

·           the becomes definite article

·           hwa > who




·           strong and weak distinctions continue, but new verbs tend to be placed in weak pattern (dental), with past tense and past participle ending in -ed

·           many strong verbs > weak in ME:

o         glide  glod/glided

o         crepen crep/crept

o         helpen holp/helped


some variation continues in MnE


                  hang   hung/hanged

                  weave  wove/weaved


personal endings:




1 pers sg               finde        plu finde(n)(s)

2 pers sg               findest

3 per sg                 findeth (findes)


preterite sg.                            plu


1/3 fond, thankede              founde(n), thanked(e) (thanken)

2. founde, thankedest



to be: am,art/beest, is/beeth; bee(n), beeth, sinden, aren

                  1/3 was

                  2 wast,were          plu: were(n)


will: 1/3 wil(le), wol(le)

                  2 wilt/wolt               plu: wilen, wol (n)

1.3 wolde

2 woldest                                 plu: wolde(n)


pres part: -ende, -ande, -inge

past part : =/- y-, i-