The language spoken by the Anglo-Saxon people of England in the late first millennium changed over the following seven hundred years into a form bearing only minute hallmarks to its forebear. With the Norman conquest of 1066, the language was thrown into a storm of differing influences. Where before there were only the Scandinavian tongues making footholds in their speech, now the ruling class spoke an entirely different language and one would have to adapt to survive.
The earliest work in Middle English (ME) is The Peterborough Chronicle (1137), and as such shows the first and most powerful influences on the previous English. One of the most obvious changes was the language’s shift to being an analytic language (one in which syntax mattered instead of inflection). It is well evidenced at even a casual glance, “Ða ðe suikes undergæton that he milde man was, and softe and god, and no iustice ne dide, ða diden hi alle wunder” . One notices easily that there are no longer the large compound words of Old English (OE), and that the sentences are laid out deliberately. Another issue of note with this piece is that the older, archaic letters of OE (Ð, æ, ð) are often still in use, along with a good number of diphthong vowels, which are almost universally segregated from ME, save for those in this piece.
Over one hundred years later, one encounters a version of an ancient Roman tale clad in the clothes of England’s culture. Sir Orfeo shows a much different form of the language, one that has had another century to settle from the turbulence of the previous piece’s time, and also shows a different form of writing, this time a narrative verse instead of a chronicler’s prose. In general, the largest change from the last piece is the cementing of ME’s role as an analytic language. In this piece the word order has been clearly and definitively laid out, with none of the rogue compounds of The Peterborough Chronicle and OE works. The new, “ironed-out” type the language can be seen in the lay:
The king hadde a quen of priis
That was y-cleped Dame Heurodis,
The fairest levedi, for the nones,
That might gon on bodi and bones,
Ful of love and godenisse -
Ac no man may telle hir fairnise.
Indeed, barring the older versions of the words that now make a home in Modern English, it is nearly identical to the language of the twentieth century. Again, a note toward the characters of the time (and region): at this point the ash (æ) was out of use, but the thorn (þ) survived, and another character, the yogh (3), had entered into the language as a sort of blend between the sounds of the letters ‘g’ and ‘y’. The final change noticed in this work is that during this period all of the OE verb suffixes had been permanently expunged from the language.
Another one hundred years later one encounters the language at work in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Written after he had finished The Canterbury Tales, this piece is concerned with a romance of a Trojan prince and his love which Chaucer based on an earlier Italian poem and would later find itself rewritten by Shakespeare. At this point (ca. 1390), the ME Chaucer uses is so far along as to be on the cusp of Modern English. The language has utterly allied itself to the new syntax and commits none of the slips of adjective-noun relationship placement as one could see in Sir Orfeo. Though using some sentence structure rarely seen in modern writing, these same structures can be found in Shakespeare’s works and are barely a hurdle for the modern reader. What the modern reader would get hung up on is the spelling, which would not undergo any type of standardization for a few hundred more years (Indeed, Chaucer himself uses different spellings for the same words in the same piece; such is the lax attitude toward the practice at the time). One can see these traits in the following:
O lady myn, that called art Cleo,
Thou be my speed fro this forth, and my muse,
To ryme wel this book, til I have do;
Me nedeth here noon other art to use.
Again, a note on the characters of the period. By this point in the late 14th century, all archaic characters had fallen away except for that late addition to the alphabet, the yogh.
Finally, all of these above shifts can easily be seen in the translations of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy by Richard Green. In his work, Green translates the same sixth century passage, originally written in Latin, into OE of Alfred’s kind, ME of Chaucer’s kind, Elizabethan English and Modern English. In his translations of OE and ME all of the above observations are immediately apparent, from the shift to becoming analytic to the loss of all archaic characters and from losing inflectionary suffixes to the cementing of the new standard sentence structure.