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Early Middle English for today

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About englesaxe

its purpose, its origin, and a little about the language it uses

What's this site about? What's the story behind the language of englesaxe? Which dialect is it based on? Which texts? When was Early Middle English spoken? These questions and more, will be answered in the sections that follow.

Aim of englesaxe

The aim of englesaxe is to enable users to read, write and speak Early Middle English.

That's it in a nutshell. englesaxe offers texts from the era, in both their original version and a normalised Early Middle English, a description of the language, a weblog written in Early Middle English, and coming soon - Audrey and the attercop, a serialised story which gradually shifts from Modern English to Early Middle English at a rate of one new word a day.

The term Early Middle English usually indicates the English written and spoken between 1100 and 1300 A.D8. The particular variety used in this site is the East Midland dialect circa 1150 AD, normalised to remove some inconsistencies between the two main source texts. (More on that below). Note that in the sections below, and throughout the site, I generally refer to the language used in englesaxe simply as Early Middle English or eME for short.

Whence comest thou, englesaxe?

What led me to build this site? I can't remember precisely when it began, but for some time I felt a strange yearning to write a weblog in Early Middle English.

No doubt, many people, on hearing that, would react the same way that Bill Murray's character did in Ground Hog Day, when Andy McDowell's character first told him, over dinner, that she'd majored in 19th century French poetry: "You're kidding?! What a waste of time!"

I admit - a weblog in Early Middle English has a certain eccentric ring to it. It seemed odd to me too. But evidently, not odd enough. Although I was able to resist this yearning for many months, it continued to skulk around and nag me, until eventually I succumbed. I would write this weblog1. But the immediate problem was - how? Which Early Middle English was I going to use?

Was there a standard Early Middle English?

In a word - no. English has always had dialects. Early Middle English had five main dialect areas, while Old English had four. But Old English, which came before it, and late Middle English, which followed, had something else besides - a standard, based on a particular dialect. The Old English standard was based on the West Saxon dialect, due in large part to the reign and influence of Alfred the Great, while the late Middle English standard was based on the East Midland dialect championed by the Chancery, the government bureaucracy.

Early Middle English had no such standard2. It lacked a strong institution to rally behind a particular dialect. The fact is - no one in power at that time was using English, at least not officially. Its speakers - the Angelcynn or Engle, had recently been vanquished by the invading armies of William the Conqueror. In 1100, at the beginning of the Middle English period, French was the language of the Norman ruling class, and English was left to fend for itself among the common folk. The old West Saxon standard was soon forgotten.

The differences between the Old English dialects were not great. The distinctive features of any one could be summarised in half a dozen dot-points or less. For example, West Saxon had a diphthong ea before l + consonant, whereas Mercian and Northumbrian had a. Some of these minor differences disappeared in the Early Middle English period, but others continued. And there was a new development: some dialects had already discarded much of the old case system (noun and adjective endings) while others were moving more slowly in that direction.

The upshot is, if I was going to write anything in Early Middle English, I would need to choose a dialect - either South-Western, Kentish, East Midland, West Midland or Northern.

Which dialect is used in englesaxe?

The Early Middle English in this site is the East Midland dialect circa 1150, for which we have two substantial texts - the Peterborough Chronicle, 2nd continuation, 1132-54 (henceforth referred to as PC2), and the Ormulum Homily (Orm), both written in the mid to late 12th century in the East Midlands. There are some differences in spelling and forms between the two texts3, so a degree of normalisation is required. Beyond comparing the two texts, I have also looked at certain 12th and 13th century texts from other dialect areas, for help in resolving these minor differences. For more on the principles involved, see Normalisation. The resulting language would not have looked or sounded out of place in the East Midlands around the year 1150, although it may not have corresponded exactly to any particular town or district.

It's important to understand at this point, that Early Middle English is Old English 50 years on7. The old case system (grammar) may have decayed somewhat. Some diphthongs (sounds) may have been lost. Some literary words may have been forgotten and some new words may have entered, courtesy of the Danes. And the East Midland dialect may have descended from Mercian rather than West Saxon. But it is still the same language.

In fact, those changes began in the spoken language during the Old English period, and many were complete before 1100. There is little difference between the Mercian dialect spoken in the former Danelaw in the late 11th century, and the East Midland dialect of 1150.

It makes sense then to take as the starting point for the Early Middle English used in englesaxe, not the two East Midland texts - PC2 and Orm, but Old English itself. For a start, the OE corpus is so much larger. And the OE resources - primers, textbooks and dictionaries, are readily available. A language based exclusively on PC2 and Orm would be incomplete.

Fortunately, the sound changes between Old English (late West Saxon c 1000) and Early Middle English (East Midland c 1150) are well documented and predictable. They occur in particular contexts with remarkable regularity and can be summarised in a table4. Similarly, the new words and expressions can be listed5, as can the simplifications to OE grammar6. The task of adapting Old English to the sounds, spelling and grammar of East Midlands speech around 1150 AD, is quite straightforward.

The Early Middle English used in englesaxe then, is Old English, transformed by the regular patterns of change observed in PC2 and Orm.

Why the year 1150? Why East Midland?

The year 1150 marks a very interesting point in the development of English. It comes before the large-scale influx of French vocabulary in the 13th and 14th centuries. With the exception of several Norse borrowings, the word stock of late 12th century and early 13th century English is still very close to that of the 10th and 11th century West Saxon studied in most Old English courses.

The big difference between the English of the East Midlands in the mid-12th century and the English of Aelfric at the beginning of the 11th, is grammar. That wasn't the case for the Southern and West Midland dialects, but north of the Humber and in the East Midlands, Early Middle English grammar was very much simpler, with most of the old inflections of nouns and adjectives - lost or levelled. Here, even as early as 1154, the grammar differed little from that of Canterbury Tales, which Chaucer wrote in the late 14th century - some two hundred years later. It is a grammar which is easily accessible to speakers of Modern English. The year 1150 is also late enough to see the entrenchment of a couple of crucial simplifications to the sound system in the East Midlands, changes which were evident in both PC2 and Orm.

All of this makes the East Midland dialect c. 1150, a unique stage and variety of English. It is almost wholly Germanic in vocabulary, somewhat simpler than OE in its sound system, and very lean in its grammar. In a nutshell, the East Midland dialect c. 1150 is Old English vocabulary with a Middle English grammar. For the above reasons, and also because it was the East Midland dialect which became the basis of standard Modern English, I have chosen this particular variety for englesaxe.

What about Old English?

Perhaps you're wondering :"Yes, but why Early Middle English, rather than Old English? Beowulf, the Seafarer, The Battle of Maldon, the Dream of the Rood, the works of Aelfric and Wulfstan and Alfred's translations of Bede - weren't these all written in OE?" Well - yes, they were. "Was there anything in Early Middle English period to rival these or the later Middle English works of Chaucer?" Perhaps not. But Early Middle English texts have their own merits. And from a linguistic point of view, they're a revelation. More importantly, eME need not be seen as the end of the line. Think of it rather as a station en route between Modern and Old English. In fact that has been one of the drivers behind the establishment of this site - that eME could provide a gentle introduction, a soft landing for those who don't wish to leap straight into the rigours of 10th century West Saxon. Early Middle English offers a pathway to OE and its rich literature, by acting as an initial stage in which the focus can rest almost entirely on the vocabulary, much of which has been lost to Modern English. The more complex grammar of Old English can then be broached in a later stage.

And therein lies the answer to the question posed above: I chose eME rather than OE for my weblog1, because eME is a much easier medium in which to write.

Why the name englesaxe?

Well... it appealed to me. And it seemed to capture the essence of the site rather concisely. englesaxe is two words side by side - Engle and Saxe, meaning 'Angle' and 'Saxon' respectively (or the plural therof). The Angles and Saxons were the two largest of the Germanic tribes which invaded and settled Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. They brought to Britain their closely related dialects which would evolve somewhat and within a few hundred years, become known as English. See the page on Angles and Saxons for more background.

Is Early Middle English useful?

If you've read this far, I doubt you're asking that question. But while we're on the subject, here are some uses you could put Early Middle English to:

Beyond that - social media, blogs and journals, video calls and group chat. These are just a few of the potential applications for the language.

Should I explore this site further?

I think we both know the answer to that. If you're at all interested in earlier varieties of English, or the origins of Modern English words, but aren't quite ready to grapple with the grammar of 10th century West Saxon, englesaxe should indeed tickle your fancy. Why not start with At`elwine's diary. It offers a gentle introduction to Early Middle English..

If you'd lke to know more about the principles underlying the normalisation of Early Middle English in englesaxe, see Normalisation »

  1. eventually that weblog developed a more ambitious offshoot - Audrey and the attercop;
  2. there was a standard of sorts for the West Midland dialect which was used by the scribes of the Katherine Group of texts and Ancrene Wisse, but not for our target dialect - East Midland;
  3. in PC2, the spelling of certain sounds, e.g. /j/ wavered between two conventions, one Old English - <g>, and the other Old French - <i>;
  4. in englesaxe: Table X - sound & spelling changes OE > eME;
  5. in englesaxe: Additional eME forms;
  6. in englesaxe: Old English to Early Middle English at a glance;
  7. that may vary, depending on which point you start from; the end of the Old English period is generally given as 1100 AD, though sometimes that is stretched to 1150 AD; PC2 was written around 1154 AD (the year of the last entry); on the other hand, Aelfric - a leading author in the late West Saxon dialect, put quill to parchment around 1000 AD, roughly 150 years before the nominal date for this site's eME, which is 1150 AD; but if we can say that OE was still being written and spoken in 1100 AD, then eME is only 50 years removed from that;
  8. Middle English is usually divided into two periods - 'early' from 1100 to 1300 and 'late' from 1300 to 1500; a rival partitioning has 'early' from 1100 to 1250, 'central' from 1250 to 1400 and 'late' from 1400 to 1500; see the Britannica entry on Middle English;