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Normalising eME word forms - part 3

examples of the levelling of anomalies within eME paradigms, together with notes on the roles of Chaucer and Modern English

The following is based on the principles underlying the normalisation of word forms in the East Midland dialect c 1150. It makes frequent use of the abbreviations, definitions and principles listed there.

In particular, the sections below examine the application of principles 3-5. These deal with grammatical features, and the levelling of anomalies within paradigms inherited from OE. You will also find a discussion of the parts played by Chaucer and Modern English in the normalisation of word forms in the Early Middle English used in this site.

Notes on grammatical features

The story of Middle English (ME) has two main themes - the simplification of the grammar inherited from Old English (OE) and the replacement of OE vocabulary with French and Latin words.

These two developments were not simultaneous. Much of the simplification of OE's grammar had taken place, in the Northumbrian dialect, and in the eastern part of the Mercian dialect area, before the end of the OE era. The influx of French and Latin words came later - a trickle at first before the mid-thirteenth century, and then a flood in the fourteeth and fifteenth centuries.

The grammatical innovations that leap from the pages of PC2 and Orm were mainly in the realm of nouns and demonstratives. Three grammatical genders had become one. Batteries of noun declensions had become one. Ten noun cases had been whittled down to the genitive (possessive) and the plural.

Simplification to the verb system wasn't quite as dramatic, but was extensive none the less. For detail on all these changes and more, see simplification of noun inflexions and simplification of verb paradigms

Extending the pattern

The last of the five basic principles states that "anomalies within a given noun or verb paradigm can be levelled when evidence of levelling exists in that paradigm, or in a similar paradigm, in at least one eME source (PC2, Orm, Lmn, AW, Owl, SO, Ch)."

This principle, which we could call "extending the pattern", is used to decide whether the simplification of a particular noun or verb paradigm is appropriate in eME. To illustrate - OE has several verbs with dual stems, in which the stem of the first person, plural and infinitive differs (albeit slightly) from the stem of the other forms. One example is lecgan, with present singular forms lecge leg`st leg`t` and plural form lecga`t`. In the eME reflexes of such verbs, if any of the eME sources, has a first person singular, plural or infinitive form with a stem which matches the stem of the third person singular, we can apply that simplification across the paradigm for that verb, in eME. That is in fact the case for eME ley`en (or leggen), since Ch has the infinitive leye (as well as leggen). Hence the eME paradigm can be ley`e ley`est ley`et` ley`en. Another example is herien, in which the i extends across the paradigm, so that OE herian inf herode pt sg3 becomes eME herien inf heriede pt sg3. Ch provides the key support for the extension of the i to the preterite and present tense singular, although such forms are found as early as Lmn. See simplification of verb paradigms in eME for more detail and similar examples.

Note that even without that support in Ch, we could have extended the pattern to ley`en from say`en, which is a similar paradigm, and which displays levelling in PC2.

The role of Chaucer and Modern English in normalising eME

The Chaucer Test

All the eME sources listed above are from the 12th or 13th century. Ch alone comes after. He started writing around 1370 - three quarters of a century into the second half of the Middle English period. Why then, consider Ch forms? Because Ch is a crucial staging post in the development of OE to ModE. To many, Chaucer is synonymous with Middle English. His is a substantial body of work (of great literary merit) which gives us invaluable clues about the syntactical, semantic and phonetic development of English in the East Midlands prior to 1400 (and by a slight extrapolation - prior to 1300).

The Chaucer Test is used to decide whether to adopt or reject borderline grammatical features in eME. If traces of an OE grammatical feature are common (even if not predominant) in Ch, then that feature is retained in eME. Here are some examples:

  1. eME retains a distinction between singular and plural in the vowel of the 3rd person preterite forms of 4th and 5th class strong verbs - y`af s vs y`ae_fen pl, because this distinction remains to some extent in Ch - yaf s vs yeve pl; (note however that yaven pl is also found in Ch);
  2. eME lacks a genitive marker with family member nouns - mi_n fader hu_s, t`i_n mo_der brot`, hire suster bo_k etc, because the genitive marker es was often absent in these nouns in Ch;
  3. eME retains a distinction between short and long consonants, because this is reflected in Ch's verse - sone rhymes only with wone, which in OE had a single n, whereas sonne rhymes with yronne bigonne wonne, all of which had nn in OE);
  4. eME has a single prefix corresponding to OE g`e-; Orm has two reflexes of the OE prefix g`e- : y`e- for verbs and i- for adverbs and adjectives. PC2 has only one example of each, and again, they differ: ge- and o- /@`/?, respectively. Given that there was a single prefix in OE, it would seem needlessly complex not to continue that in eME. Two prefixes would also be inconsistent with the majority of eME texts, and Chaucer. The evidence points to a single pronunciation. Thus eME has a single prefix - i, which is found in Orm (and most eME sources).
  5. eME has no stem alternation in nouns; some OE nouns and verbs had a w or h which appeared in certain forms, e.g singular genitive and dative and all plurals, but not in others, e.g the singular nominative. Ch and ModE leave that complexity behind. w or h is either missing in all forms of a particular word, or included in all its forms1. Examples are smeoru smeorwes > smere smeres (smear) and sinu sinwes > sinwe sinwes (sinew). How can you tell if the eME form has a w or not? See the ModE test (below).
  6. grammatical features that persist in certain words up to Chaucer's time, despite being dropped in most words of the same verb or noun class, are retained in those words in eME. Examples are ferien and herien which retain the i of OE class 2 weak verbs, which is dropped elsewhere. Furthermore, that feature is propagated throughout the paradigm in eME, as it is in Chaucer.

the ModE test

This test covers groups of words with a shared characteristic in OE, which evolve inconsistently, so that the sound change in question can't be neatly summarised (in Table X).

The ModE test is only invoked in three groups of words. The reflexes of the affected words in ME and ModE can show either of two possible forms. The question is - which form do we prefer in eME? How do we choose? In short, ModE indicates the preferred form for each word in question, provided that the sound change in question has begun to show at all within the group in the Early Middle English period.

This test is important because it means that we don't have to sift through the attested forms for each member of the group. We can apply a single test to all members of the group. And that test is a simple question - what form does ModE have?

For those familiar with OE, who prefer to use forms based on standard OE, these cases don't present a problem. But for those without that knowledge, seeking an appropriate (additional) eME form can be somewhat difficult at times, without the ModE test.

Imagine for example a ModE speaker who is looking for the eME word for flour. She has an OE dictionary (the CASD) in which she finds melu n, melwes gs. The word has two different stems. She knows from the Chaucer test (see above) that there won't be stem alternation in the eME form. There will be a single stem for singular, plural and possessive. But will it have w or not? The appropriate forms are listed in Table X, but she is off-line temporarily (perhaps on a train) and doesn't have access to it. Not does she have access to the MED, and wouldn't have time to analyse the results, even if she did. If she bases the form on the OE nominative, it is mele. If she bases it on the OE genitive form, that's melwe. Which one is preferred?

This is where the ModE test comes in. There is no w in the ModE form - meal. So, instantly she knows that the preferred eME form is mele.

The ModE test applies in three contexts only:

  1. OE ae_ > eME ae_ or e_?

    Most instances of OE ae_ become ae_ in eME and ea in ModE. But a small number become e_ and ee respectively. How do we tell? Which is the preferred form in eME for OE strae_t, for example.

    If we look at the eME source texts, we see that Orm has straete dat without any counter example in PC2. In the absence of the ModE test, the exclusive eME form would be strae_t. However, OE WS strae_t is one of a group of words in which the ancestral vowel was WGmc or Lat a_ which became ae_ in OE WS, but generally e_ in the Anglian dialects, and finally ee in ModE (e.g. street). If we apply the ModE test then, we get an additional eME form - stre_t. Similarly, OE WS dae_d, slae_pan, grae_dig`, nae_dl > de_d, sle_pen, gre_diy`, ne_del, on the basis of ModE deed, sleep, greedy, needle. See Normalisation Issues for more detail.

  2. with or without w/h?

    The ModE reflexes of OE wa- and wo-stems sometimes have final w, and sometimes not: e.g. melu melwes > meal meal's (flour) but mae_d mae_dwe > meadow meadow's. Similarly, the ModE reflexes of OE a-stems sometimes have final gh (or w), and sometimes not: e.g. sco_h - sco_s > shoe shoes but slo_h - slo_s > slough sloughs (quagmire).

    So how does a a ModE speaker know whether to include or exclude the w or h in an eME form? The answer is quite simply - look to ModE. If there is a ModE reflex without w or gh2, then leave out w or h in the eME form. Otherwise, include it. Hence - mele meles, mae_dwe mae_dwes, sco_ sco_s, slo_h slo_ges.

    Note that where ModE has no reflex of an OE word, the eME form is based on the gen sg OE form (the form with the fickle w or h).

    For more detail, see the simplification of verb paradigms and the simplification of noun inflexions.

  3. vowel lengthening before consonant clusters ld, nd, ng, mb, rd

    The vowel was short in OE but has since lengthened. Examples are: OE c`ild, hund, strang, climban > child, hound, strong, climb.

    This development was inconsistent however. In many cases the vowel either remained short or reverted. Examples of short vowels before nd are ModE land, hand. On the other hand, both Orm and PH3 appear to have a long vowel in land and loand respectively. See eME normalisation issues for further examples.

    ModE is the guide. Since the language of departure is Modern English, and one of the aims of englesaxe is to provide a pathway to Old English, temporary sound changes in the Middle English period, have been ignored. In other words, if a vowel is short in an OE word, is indicated as long in Orm or Ch, but is short in the modern continuations of that word, it is short in eME.

    If a vowel is short in an OE word which has not survived to ModE, for example - swindan, the corresponding vowel is short in eME. This is the case even when similar words - bi_nden fi_nden wi_nden, have a long vowel in ModE.

More on normalisation

Looking for more background on the normalisation of the East Midland dialect c 1150, in englesaxe? For an outline of the basic principles applied to the normalisation of word forms, together with an introduction and a list of the abbreviations and definitions used, see eME normalisation of forms I. For a discussion of some of the finer points, see eME normalisation issues.

There is a separate set of principles governing the eME spelling scheme used in englesaxe. For a full outline, see eME normalisation of spelling.


  1. in one exceptional case, Ch and ModE aren't in accord: Ch has both stree and straw sg and stres pl while ModE has only forms with w - straw sg and straws pl; I've listed strawe as the preferred form in eME
  2. h never survives to ModE in the reflexes of words with stem alternation in OE


  1. Clark Hall J.R., A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 1960