XIX. CHANGES IN THE LANGUAGE TO THE DAYS OF CHAUCER
The three Germanic peoples—the Jutes from Jutland, the Angles from Schleswig and the Saxons from Holstein—who in the fifth and sixth centuries made themselves masters of southern Britain, spoke dialects so nearly allied that the y could have had little difficulty in understanding each other. There was no name for their common race and common language. The Britons called all the invaders Saxons; St Gregory had to call them Angles for the sake of his famous pun; but an emperor called the Anglian king of Northumbria rex Saxonum. Though Bede sometimes speaks of Angli sive Saxones, his name for the language is sermo anglicus. Alfred, a West Saxon, calls his language Englisc. Actually the Anglian name was appropriate, for the history of southern English is largely concerned with the spread of Anglian forms. When Camden used lingua Anglosaxonica for pre-Conquest English, he meant not a blend of Anglian and Saxon, but simply "English Saxon" as distinguished from "German Saxon". The term, tough misunderstood, tended to survive. The German philologist Jakob Grimm introduced the practice of dividing a language into its Old, Middle and Modern periods, and so the term Old English came into use. There is, of course, no precise point at which people ceased to speak "Old English" and began to speak "Middle English". The terms are merely philological conveniences. However, we may regard the form of language we call Middle English as having emerged about 1150, and as having ceased about 1500, when the printing press conquered the scriptorium.
Old English retained its inflectional system; but in course of time the inflections tended to be assimilated. Thus in the declension of Gothic guma, a man, there are seven distinctive forms in the eight cases of singular and plural; in the declension of Old English guma there are only three. The almost universal substitution of -es for the many Old English endings of the genitive singular and nominative and accusative plural began before the Norman Conquest; and in the fourteenth century the Engglish of educated Londoners had lost most of its Southern characteristics and had become a Midland dialect. Chaucer's plurals and genitives end in -es, the number of exceptions being hardly greater than in modern English. The dative disappeared from Midland English in the twelfth century. Southern English (Kentish and West Saxon) was much more conservative. The forms of the Old English pronouns of the third person in all dialects were very similar in pronunciation—the pairs him and heom, hire and heora, being easily sounded alike. The ambiguity was got rid of by a process very rare in the history of languages, the adoption of foreign forms. It is from the language of the invading Danes that we get such forms as they, their, them. But the older forms persisted. Chaucer used her for their and he always has hem for them. The Old English inflections of adjectives and article, and with them the grammatical genders of nouns, disappeared early in Middle English. IN these respects Orm and Chaucer are almost alike. All these changes were once generally believed to have been brought about by the Norman Conquest; but the spoken language had travelled far towards the Middle English stage before 1066. Of course the Norman occupation had influence: the new political unity and development of intercommunication tended to diffuse grammatical simplifications; but if we except such effects as the use of of instead of a genitive inflection, and the polite substitution of plural for singular in the second person, hardly any specific influence of French upon English grammar can be traced.
As we have said in an earlier page, the runic alphabet of the heathen English was superseded, under Christian influence, by the Latin alphabet of twenty-two letters, to which were added the runic letters ᚹ(called wynn); ᚦ (called thorn) and 𐑔 (called eth). The last two were used indifferently and did not represent voiced and unvoiced th. The vowels were sounded nearly as in modern Italian, except that y was like French u and æ like a in pat. The consonants had much the same sound as in modern English. The greatest change in the written language came after the conquest, and was chiefly a matter of spelling. Children had ceased to read and write English, and were taught to read and write French. When, later, a new generation tried to write English, the spelt in French fashion. The changes in pronunciation are too intrincate for summary. How different was the course of development in different parts of the country can be seen in the fact that the English pronunciation home and stone, and the Scottish hame an stane both derive from the Old English long a as in father. The "Zummerzet" pronunciation of initial f and s as v and z was common all over the south and is exactly recorded in the Kentish Ayenbite of Inwit (1340).
The Norman Conquest had a profound influence on vocabulary. A few French words came in before the Conquest; after that event the number steadily increased. Chaucer is quite wrongly accused of having "corrupted" English by introducing French words. It cannot be proved that he made use of any foreign word that had not already gained a place in the English vocabulary. Very sad is the total loss of many Old English words. In the first thirty lines of Aelfric's homily on St. Gregory, there are twenty-two words which had disappeared by the middle of the thirteenth century. The fourteenth century alliterative poets revived some of the ancient epic synonymous for "man" or "warrior" —bern, renk, wye, freke; but they didn not last.
Only a few peculiarities of dialect can be mentioned here. The use of a dialect, of course, did not indicate an inferior education. Writers emploted for literary purposes the language they actually spoke. Chaucer would not have found it easy to read the Kentish Ayenbite of Inwit and the North-western Sir Gawayne would have puzzled him. The diversity of the written language in the different parts of the country during the fourteenth century may be indicated briefly thus: they say = Kentish hy ziggeth, East Midland they seyn, West Midland hy (or thai) sayn, Northern thai sai; their names (in the same distribution) = hare nomen, hure nomen, hir names, hur namus, thair names. The ultimate triumph of the East Midland dialect was largely due to the fact that it was midland, i.e. midway beween hy ziggeth, and thai sai. The fact that Oxford and Cambridge were linguistically in this area had an influence. The London English of Chaucer and the not dissimilar Oxford English of Wyclif became, in fact, the literary language of England.