Middle English lexis


One distinguishing characteristic of ‘Middle English’: loanwords


          -French (and Latin)


Borrowing (from McMahon)

-motivated by projected gain

          -linguistic: do we need this word?

                   -continental borrowings from Latin: basic commodities

-early OE borrowings from Latin: new concepts of Christianity

          -social: do the speakers of its language have prestige?

-loans tend to go from the language with more prestige to the language with less prestige

-and in fields where the more prestigious speakers wield more influence

-native words in the same semantic field often

          -narrow in meaning

          -occupy a lower register


-requires ‘bilingualism’

          -but it can be of various kinds and competencies

-McMahon 204: ‘requires only very restricted bilingualism: for instance, Spanish borrowed the Wolof word banana along with the object, and we need only imagine a puzzled Spanish speaker pointing to the object in question with an enquiring look, and receiving the one-word answer banana from a co-operative Wolof speaker’

-you can also have contact with another language through writing rather than speech


Scandinavian loanwords chronologically first


-in spoken Mercian in the Danelaw

-but appear mostly in ME

          -low literacy rate

          -it was WS that got written/preserved


Scandinavian borrowings reflect

-close contact between the groups

-close relationship of OE and ON to each other


-some military, administrative loans (it was the Dane-law, after all)

          -husband, our form of the word law

-but also quite ordinary sorts of words

          -hybrid place names:

-Grimston: ON name Grimr OE word tūn ‘settlement’

-EDD (English dialect dictionary): many /sk/ words are Scandinavian, and some pertain to farming!

-common verbs and nouns: want, take, kill – but also skirt,  egg

          -body parts: leg, skin

-some doublets: cognates that end up in one language

                             -skirt and shirt

                             -notice the semantic differentiation

-grammar words

          -third person plural pronouns (they, their, them replace híe, hiera, hem)

          -prepositions: und, til -> until


-may have influenced the rise of ‘verb + particle’ compounds like give up

          -OE did have verb + particle combinations, e.g. waex up ‘grow up’


-when these particles lost their etymological meanings

-e.g. when you give up a castle or the town of Winchester, you can’t raise it!

                    -and when they become purely completive

                             -OE had used prefixes to signal this

                             -e.g. ageafon ‘gave up’

Give up

-first found in a continuation of the ASC now known as the ‘Peterborough Chronicle’, kept up in English in the Danelaw until 1154

          -“uuolde iiuen heom up Wincestre”

-editor of the PC argues that give up comes from ON: lots of exx like brenna, gefa upp in ‘classical ON of the Saga age’ (though it’s more difficult to establish whether there were any in earlier dialects that would have influenced English)

-or did it start semantically with verbs of surrendering

-may have developed from the spatial sense when you kneel in front of your conqueror and give your weapons up to him

-then got grammaticalized to other categories

          -now, corresponding to the OE prefix, PDE has a few options

                   -OE forbrecan: break up or (French) destroy

                   -OE forbaernan: burn up or consume

                   -OE forswelgan: gobble up, or devour




There had been some loanwords before 1066, recorded in the PC (Peterborough Chronicle, a post-OE MS of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle): castle, tower, proud (modern spellings)


Early ME loanwords in the PC reflect social and military subjugation by French aristocrats, and are typical of other early borrowings in other texts (nb these spellings aren’t reliable)

-religion: abbot

-military: castle, tower, war

-administrative: prisun, tenserie ‘protection money’, tresor ‘treasury’, canceler ‘chancelor’


The usual story is that the earliest borrowings were from Norman French

-where Norman French differed from other French dialects, you can spot these loans


Old French /w/

-retained in Norman: war, warden, reward, wile

-in French, /w/ -> /gw/ -> /g/: guardian, regard, guile


Latin /k/

-remained in Norman: cattle, catch, trickery

-in Central French, palatalized to /č/: chattel, chase, treachery

          -occasionally a register difference (AN lower status):

*high trickery


Some other differences (from the Oxford companion to the English language)

-Norman /š/ in words like nourish vs French /s/ in nurse  

-Norman convey and regal vs convoy and royal


But the situation was more complicated

-it wasn’t just Normans who came over with William

-Normans and Anglo-Normans read MSS in Central French

-so, you get both <c> and <ch> spellings in the early period (C11th-13th)


In the later period, AN (Anglo-Norman) stopped being a vernacular

-Central French became more statusful, cultivated as a language of culture

          -borrowings continued into fields of religion, arts


Nevertheless, written AN used extensively in administrative life in medieval England

-so borrowings can be of various kinds

                   -not just from oral contact with literary immigranst

                   -but from written contact with AN (William Rothwell)

                             -words arrival and departure appear in late ME

                                      -but are from C14th AN writing tradition

-not found in Norman or French (he claims)


Have to think about the kinds of contact situations that underlie borrowing

-stereotypical spoken ones: because the English would have laboured on Anglo-Norman estates (some of these are from Geoffrey Hughes)

-old word for autumn was harvest: survived to denote the labour done, but autumn is from French

-e.g. English word grass has survived, but it’s cultivated in a French lawn or garden

-native words for livestock survived, but when they’re served up as dinner, the words are French

-e.g. English calf, French veal

-e.g. English deer, French venison

-e.g. English pig, French pork

          -though the head of the household was a steward (sty-ward)

                   -so: raw material English, cultivated product French?


But there was also contact with French through writing

-and the people who wrote AN documents weren’t necessarily native speakers of AN (or competent writers of it)

-often a lot of language mixing

          -within a ‘AN’ or ‘Latin’ document, lots of English words

-mixed language a register in itself (business, record-keeping)

          -work of Laura Wright


Sometimes (esp once borrowings started to be through writing) it’s hard to tell whether a loanword is from French or from Latin

-e.g. nation

-e.g. discipline: a. F. discipliner or med. L. disciplinare?

-e.g. special: ad. from OF especial or from Lat specialis?


But often French had changed from Latin, so the French forms are very different from their Latin ancestors

-e.g. classical Latin had word-initial /h/, but this had been lost in pronunciation from the late classical period onwards

          -therefore Central French also generally /h/ less

-but Med Latin usually kept the <h> spelling, and French also could

-a lot of inconsistency in ME: French loanwords sometimes come in first without the <h> (oral?), then with it (educated/written): e.g. ost(e) 3-, host(e) 4-


-e.g. you can also see other contrasts between French and Latin

          -frail from fragile

          -conceit from concept

          -feat from fact

                   -sometimes the Latin gets borrowed later: doublets

          -aventure, dette, doute, parfait

                   -sometimes the word got respelled etymologically

                             -when is this reborrowing rather than respelling?


Sometimes the loanwords taken in without much change: adoption (OED a.)

          -host, nation


Sometimes more change: adaptation (OED ad.)

          -e.g. squire ad. from OF esquier (clipping, aphesis)


-e.g. the sound (but not the form) of the word gentle (think about Fr. gentil)

                   -word-initial stress

                   -vowel not as nasal as it could be

                             -cf. doublets genteel, jaunty

-but you’d need to do some research on the history of French: can you be sure that the vowel hadn’t been different in earlier French?


-atypical example: word cerise ‘cherry’ interpreted as a plural form (shows that –s was the productive plural!)

-the /s/ in the stem was inferred (wrongly) to be an affix, and removed

                   -new singular ‘back-formed’

          -nb happened with native words too: pease -> pea

-back formation: process of making a new word from an existing word, where the existing word is mistakenly assumed to be a derivative of the new word. Usually this involves removing what looks like an affix from the remaining word


When we borrow words, we also borrow other things (McMahon)


Spelling conventions


-using <c> to represent /s/ before a front vowel in words like city, cellar




-French loanwords like venison and veal bring word-initial /v/ into English and are one factor in /v/ becoming phonemic


-on a lower level, ON had /g/ near front vowels (cf. OE /j/): we now say give and get




-once enough loanwords come in with the same affix, it can become transparent

          -edible, visible; agreeable, profitable, reasonable

          -accomplishment, commencement


-then it might become productive and combine with other bases (usually Romance ones)

-banishment, excitement


-but a good sign of integration is whether it can combine with native bases

          -betterment, merriment, wonderment

          -readable, eatable, believable, speakable, knowable

                    -took a long time