Main Difference – Old vs Middle English
The English language can be divided into three basic periods called Old English, Middle English, and Modern English. Old English is the Anglo-Saxon language used from 400s to about 1100; Middle English was used from the 1100s to about 1400s, and Modern English is the language used from 1400 onwards. Although Middle English developed out of Old English, there were drastic differences between the two in terms of grammar, pronunciation, and orthography. The main difference between Old English and Middle English can be described as the simplification of grammar; in Middle English, many grammatical cases of Old English saw a reduction and inflections in Old English were simplified.
This article explores,
1. What is Old English?
– Origins, Features, Characteristics
2. What is the Middle English?
– Origins, Features, Characteristics
3. What is the difference between Old and Middle English?
What is Old English
Old English is the earliest historical form of the English language, which was spoken in England and some parts of Scotland during the early Middle Ages. It was brought to England by the Anglo-Saxon settlers during the 5th century. It was used in Britain from 400s through the 1100s.
Old English has four main dialectal forms: Northumbrian, Kentish, Mercian, and West Saxon. Its closest relatives are Old Saxon and Old Frisian. The grammar of Old English is somewhat similar to modern German. The word order is much freer, but nouns, pronouns, adjectives and verbs have many inflectional forms and endings. Like any other old language, it is very different from its modern version; therefore, speakers of Modern English find it very difficult to understand it without study. Old English vocabulary mostly contained Germanic words; most of these words do not exist in the Modern English vocabulary as these words were later replaced by Latin and French words. Words with Latin origins such as cleric, abbot, nun, hymn, temple, silk, purple, beet, lentil, pear, radish, doe, oyster, cannon, ark, alter, and alms entered into the English vocabulary during the later Old English period.
The earliest Old English inscriptions used a runic system, but this was replaced by a version of the Latin alphabet from about the 9th century. The earliest written work in Old English dates back to the 7th century.
What is Middle English
Middle English refers to a collection of the varieties of English that replaced Old English after the Norman quest (1066). Middle English developed out of late Old English, but there are drastic changes in grammar, pronunciation, and spelling between these two versions. Many Old English grammatical features were simplified; for examples, noun, verb, and adjective inflections were simplified in Modern English so as the reduction of many grammatical cases. The dative and instrumental cases of Old English were replaced by with prepositional constructions in Early Middle English.
Everyday vocabulary mostly remained Germanic, but areas such as law, politics, religion and arts saw an adoption of Norman French vocabulary. Although the writing customs varied widely during this period, a standard based on the London dialect became established aided by the invention of the printing press. This standard is the foundation of Modern English spelling. Therefore, Modern English speakers can understand Middle English better than Old English. Wycliffe and Geoffrey Chaucer are notable writers who wrote in Middle English.
Difference Between Old and Middle English
Old English is the earliest historical form of the English language.
Middle English developed out of Old English after the Norman Conquest in 1066.
Old English was used from 400s to 1100s.
Middle English was used from the 1100s to 1400s.
Old English did not have a fixed word order.
Middle English began to have a fixed word order.
Grammar – Inflections
Old English nouns, pronouns, adjectives and verbs have many inflectional forms and endings.
Middle English simplified many inflectional forms of nouns, adjectives and verbs.
Grammar – Case
Old English had dative and instrumental cases.
Middle English moved to prepositional constructions.
Relation to Modern English
Old English is very different from Modern English. A modern English speaker cannot understand it without study.
Middle English is somewhat similar to Modern English than Old English.
Old English vocabulary was influenced by Latin and Germanic languages.
Middle English everyday vocabulary mostly remained Germanic, but specific fields such as law and religion were influenced by Old French.
Old English inscriptions originally used a runic system, but this was replaced by a version of the Latin alphabet in the later part.
Middle English developed a standard towards the end of the period, with the invention of the printing press.
“Chaucer-canterbury tales-miller” By Unknown – Special Collections Dept., Glasgow University Library (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia
“Beowulf.first page” By Originally uploaded to English Wikipedia by Jwrosenzweig.(Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia