Middle English Syntax and
Middle English Syntax: Within
• Adjectives usually before nouns
an erþely servaunt
an earthly servant
• occasionally after the noun in poetry
shoures soote
showers sweet
Syntax in Phrases (cont’d)
• With more than one adjective, sometimes one
before the noun, the rest after it
a gode wyt and a retentyff
a good wit and a retentive
• in possessive, no apostrophe
oþer mens prosperite
• the ‘s sometimes became -is
go to þe raven is neste
go to the raven’s nest
• ME: first occurrence of of for possessive
aftyr þe lawes of our londe
according to the laws of our land
ME Possessive Phrases
• possessive + noun + noun modifiers
the Dukes place of Lancastre
the Duke of Lancaster’s place
• double possessive (both of and possessive
pronoun) came in with ME
the capteyn…toke awey .j. obligacion of myn
the captain…took away one obligation of mine
Adverbial Modifiers
• Adverbs & adverb phrases came before the words
they modified more often than in MnE
ye shul first in alle youre werkes
you must first in all your works
mekely biseken to the heighe God
meekly beseech to the high God
• the negative ne always came before the main verb,
and often contracted with it
I nolde fange a ferthynge for seynt Thomas shryne
I would not take a farthing for St. Thomas’ shrine
• as in OE, double negatives very common
He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde / In all his lyf unto
no maner wight (Chaucer)
Preposition Phrases
• Prepositions still occasionally followed their
he seyde him to
• in relative clauses, prepositions usually came at or
near the end of the phrase
the place that I of speke
the place that I of speak
preciouse stanes þat he myght by a kingdom with
precious stones that he might buy a kingdom with
Verb Phrases
• Perfect tense (have + past participle) developed in
þou hauest don oure kunne wo
You have done our family woe
• Progressive tense (be + pres. participle) also
developed (sometimes with in or on)
For now is gode Gawayn goande ryʒt here
For now is good Gawain going right here
I am yn beldynge of a pore hous
I am (in) building of a poor house
Verb Phrases (cont’d)
• ME saw the beginning of shall and will to mark the
future tense
Quan al mankinde…Sal ben fro dede to live broʒt
When all mankind…shall be from dead to living brought
and swiche wolle have the kyngdom of helle
and such will have the kingdom of hell
• note that shall still had a degree of obligation (“must”),
and will of volition (“want to”)
Auxiliary Verbs
• Developed in ME, began to replace subjunctive
þat y mowe riche be
that I may rich be
• but the subjunctive is still more common in ME
than MnE:
how lawful so it were
however lawful it might be
why nere I deed!
why am I not dead!
The ‘do’ explosion
Substitute for a previous verb
camels may forbere drynk and so may not the hors do
camels can forgo drink and thus can not the horse do
As a causative (like make or have)
al hys halles I wol do peynte with pure gold
all his halls I will have painted with pure gold
Next to a main verb (emphatic? Not really)
unto the mayde that hir doth serve
to the maid that her does serve
Negative and interrogative clauses began in ME, still not
as common as simple verb
my maister dyd not graunt it
Fader, why do ye wepe?
Syntax Within Clauses
• Trend toward modern word order
• SVO still the most common
• SOV occasionally found
þat ðu þis weork naht ne forlate
that you this work not (not) neglect
• VSO regular for questions and commands
Gaf ye the chyld any thyng?
Gave you the child any thing?
Bryng ye the hors
Bring you the horse
Syntax Within Clauses (cont’d)
• OSV used to emphasize the object
This bok I haue mad and wretyn
The book I have made and written
• OVS was still common for the same thing
Clothis have they none
Clothes have they none
Syntax Within Sentences
• Coordinated (“and/so”) more than subordinated (“when/while”):
“run-on” sentences
Than sir Launcelot had a condicion that he used of custom to
clatir in his slepe and to speke oftyn of hyls lady, quene
gwenyver. So sir Launcelot had awayked as long as hit had
pleased hym, and so by course of kynde he slepte and dame
Elayne bothe. And in his slepe he talked and claterde as a jay
of the love that bene betwyxte quene Gwenyver and hym, and
so as he talked so lowde the quene harde hym thereas she lay
in her chambir. And whan she harde hym so clattir she was
wrothe oute of mesure, and for anger and payne wist not what
to do, and than she cowghed so lowde that sir Launcelot
awaked. (Malory, Morte d’Arthur)
used of custom was accustomed to
clatir chatter
kynde nature
wist knew
Middle English Vocabulary
• Beginning of huge English vocabulary,
susceptibility to borrowing
• Layering of vocabulary: colloquial/formal,
everyday/technical, general/specialized English became more cosmopolitan
• Loss of inflectional system made it easier to
borrow (no worries about gender,
declension); cf. Russian, Japanese
• Also, English has many phonemes - not
hard to say foreign words
Scandinavian Influence
• Scandinavian/Norse
• Some borrowed in OE, written in ME (North & East Midlands), then
• 1150-1250: anger, bag, band, bloom, both, bound (going to), bull, cake,
call, carp (complain), cast, clip (cut), club, die, egg, fellow, flit, gad
gape, gear, get hit, husband, ill, kid, kindle, loan, loft, loose, low, meek,
muck, raise, ransack, rid, root, rotten, sale, same scab, scale, scare,
scathe, score (20), seat, seem skill, skin, sky sly, snare, swain, take,
thrall, thrive, thrust, thwart, trust, ugly, wand, want wassail, window,
• 1250-1350: awe, bait, ball, bark (of tree), bat (the animal), birth, blend,
bole, bracken, brad, brunt, crawl, dirt, dregs, droop, flat, flaw, geld, gift,
girth, glitter, leg, lift, likely, midden, mire, mistake, odd, race, rag, rive,
rugged, skate (the fish), slaughter, sleight, slight, snub, stack, stagger,
stem, teem, weak, whirl
• 1350-1500: awkward, bask, bawl, bulk, down (feathers), eddy, firth,
flag, freckle, froth, gap, gasp, keel, keg, leak, link, raft, reef (sail),
reindeer, scant, scrap, steak, tatter, tether, tyke
Scandinavian (cont’d)
• Why borrow both, call, take? (common words)
• Norse loans replaced English words
hātan > call
bā > both
niman/fōn > take
• partial replacement
hēofon > sky
Norse crawl, English creep
• cognate doublets:
Norse raise, skin, skirt
English rear, shin, shirt
• -son in personal names (Nelson, Anderson) - extended to
English names (Edwardson, Edmundson) and French
names (Jackson, Richardson)
French Influence
By far the most important
Slow until 1200 - why?
several bilingual generations to get
comfortable with French words
Very few English texts before 1200
French loans in all fields
cf. Italian (music, architecture, painting, not
much else)
cuisine: bake, sauté, serve, plate, casserole,
fork, stir, mince, roast, fry (lasagne, spaghetti,
pizza, pesto)
French loans (sample of 1000 words)
<1050 2
French Loans by Semantic Field
Relationships and Ranks
Parentage, ancestor, aunt, uncle, cousin, gentle(man), noble, peer,
peasant, servant, villein, page, courtier, squire, madam, sir, princess,
duke, count, marquis, baron
The House And Its Furnishings
Porch, cellar, pantry, closet, parlor, chimney, arch, (window)pane,
wardrobe, chair, table, lamp, couch, cushion, mirror, curtain, quilt,
counterpane, towel, blanket
Food and Eating
Dinner, supper, taste, broil, fry, plate, goblet, serve, beverage, sauce,
salad, gravy, fruit, grape, beef, pork, mutton, salmon, sugar, onion,
cloves, mustard
Fashion, dress, garment, coat, cloak, pantaloons, bonnet, boots, serge,
cotton, satin, fur, button, ribbon, baste, embroider, pleat, gusset,
jewel, pearl, bracelet
French Loans by Semantic Field (cont’d)
Sports and Entertainment
Joust, tournament, kennel, scent, terrier, falcon, stallion, park, dance,
chess, checkers, minstrel, fool, prize, tennis, racket, disport,
audience, entertain, amusement, recreation
Arts, Music, Literature
Art, painting, sculpture, portrait, color, music, melody, lute, tabor,
hautboy, carol, poet, story, rime, chapter, title, romance, lay, tragedy,
rondel, ballad
Study, science, reason, university, college, dean, form, train, grammar,
noun, subject, test, indite, pupil, copy, pen, pencil, paper, page,
chapter, tome, lectern, dais
Medicine, surgeon, pain, disease, remedy, cure, contagious, plague,
humor, pulses, fracture, ague, gout, distemper, drug, balm, herb,
powder, sulfur, bandage, ointment, poison
French Loans by Semantic Field (cont’d)
Government, state, country, city, village, office, rule, reign, public, crown,
court, police, tyranny, subsidy, tax, counselor, treasurer, exchequer,
register, mayor, citizen
Judge, jury, appeal, evidence, inquest, accuse, proof, convict, pardon,
attorney, heir, state, broker, fine, punish, prison, crime, felony, arson,
innocent, just
The Church
Chapel, choir, cloister, crucifix, religion, clergy, chaplain, parson,
sermon, matins, confession, penance, pray, anoint, absolve, trinity,
faith, miracle, temptation, heresy, divine, salvation
The Military
Enemy, battle, defense, peace, force, advance, capture, siege, attack,
retreat, army, navy, soldier, guard, sergeant, captain, spy, moat,
order, march, trophy
French Loans: “Little” Words
• Seem native
• Age, blame, catch, chance, change, close,
cry, dally, enter, face, fail, fine, flower, fresh,
grease, grouch, hello, hurt, join, kerchief,
large, letter, line, mischief, move, offer, part,
pay, people, piece, place, please, poor, pure,
rock, roll, save, search, sign, square, stuff,
strange, sure, touch, try, turn, use
Areas less affected by French
• Shipping and seafaring (German/Dutch)
• Farming, agriculture (farm Fr., agriculture
Lat.), but:
• Acre, loam, field, hedge, furrow, sow, till,
reap, harvest, plough, sickle, scythe, shovel,
spade, rake, seed, what, barley, corn, beans,
oats, grass, hay, fodder, ox, horse, cow,
swine, sheep, hen, goose, duck, sty, pen,
barn, fold (all English)
• No place-name elements (no all-French
Parts of Speech
• Almost all nouns, verbs, adjectives
• No change to grammar (cf. they etc. < ON)
• Prepositions/conjunctions:
in spite of, because, during, regarding, in case
• borrowed as nouns/verbs, then made into
function words when naturalized:
cause (early 13th c.)
by cause of (mid-14th c.)
because (late 14th c.)
Norman vs. Parisian French
• earlier loans from Norman French, by 14th c. from
Parisian French
• Sometimes hard to tell which, but:
• Germanic loans into French: /gw/ became /w/ in
Norman, /g/ in Parisian
• Wile/guile, warranty/guarantee, war/garrison,
• In Norman, /k/ before /a/ remained, in Parisian changed
to /č/
• Canal/channel, cattle/chattels, catch/chase, car/chariot
• Quite a few French loans were originally Germanic
loans into French - more doublets:
• Equip/ship, soup/sop, grape/grapple (OF grape = hook)
Latin influence
• Tended to be learned
Apocalypse, dirge, limbo, purgatory, remit
Testament, confederate
Admit, divide, comprehend, lunatic, lapidary,
• real flood in Early Modern period
Celtic Influence
• Not many
Bard, clan, crag, glen, loch
• maybe:
Bald, bray, bug, gull, hog, loop
• through French:
Car, change, garter, mutton, socket,
Dutch & Low German Influence
• Later ME, lots of trade (wool)
• Several dozen loans
Halibut, pump, shore, skipper, whiting
Bundle, bung, cork, dowel, firkin, tub
Trade: trade, huckster
Wool Trade: nap, selvage
Clock, damp, grime, luck, offal, scour, speckle,
splinter, tallow, wriggle
Other Languages
Greek through French: squirrel, diaper, cinnamon
Greek through Latin: philosophy, paradigm,
phlegm, synod, physic
Arabic (all through French or Latin)
Azimuth, ream, saffron, cipher, alkali
Persian (through other languages)
Borax, mummy, musk, spinach, taffeta, lemon
Hebrew (French/Latin): jubilee, leviathan, cider
Slavic sable, Hungarian coach (French)
Bicker, big, boy, clasp, junk, kidney, las, noose,
puzzle, roam, slender, throb, wallet
Formation of New Words: Compounding
• Mostly nouns and adjectives
Noun + noun cheesecake, toadstool, bagpipe, nightmare
Adjective + noun sweetheart, wildfire, quicksand
Adverb + noun insight, afternoon, upland
Noun + verb (new to ME) sunshine, nosebleed
Verb + noun (also new) hangman, pastime, whirlwind
Verb + adverb (new) runabout, lean-to
Adverb + verb (new) outcome, outcast, upset
French and Latin compounds (noun + adj) knight-errant,
heir-apparent, sum total
Compounds (cont’d)
Noun + adjective threadbare, bloodred, headstrong
Adjective + noun (rare) everyday
Adverb + verb outline, uphold, overturn, underwrite
Noun + verb (new) manhandle
‘Invisible’ Compounds
Cockney (cock + egg), gossamer (goose + summer)
Compounds treated as single words
Dismal (Lat. Dies mali ‘evil days’)
Porcupine (Fr. Porc espin ‘spiny pig’)
Lost OE affixes
Ed- (again) replaced by reWith- (against) replaced by counterEl- (foreign), ymb- (around), to- (motion
toward), -end (agent nouns)
• survival in preexisting words: withstand,
forsake, motherhood
New Affixes From French
Counter-, de-, in- (‘not’), inter-, mal-, reSuffixes
-able, -age, -al, -ery, -ess, -ify, -ist, -ity,
-ment still used, but not likely for native
roots (discernment, containment, but
not understandment, knowment)
Minor Sources of New Words
Clipping (removing syllables)
Fray/affray, squire/esquire, stress/distress,
peal/appeal, mend/amend
Back Formation (coining a word by
mistakenly assuming that an existing word
is derived from it)
Latin aspis (sing.) > asp
ON foggy >fog
OE dawning > dawn
Minor Sources (cont’d)
Blends (Portmanteau Words)
• deliberate in MnE (smog)
• unconscious in ME:
Scroll (escrow + roll)
Scrawl (sprout + crawl)
Quaver (quake + waver)
From Names
Jay (Lat. Gaius)
Jacket (Fr. Jacques)
Magnet (Magnesia)
Scallion (Ascalo)
Damson (Damascus)

Middle English Syntax and Vocabulary