Studies in Middle English

Words, Forms, Senses and Texts

by Michael Bilynsky (Volume editor)
©2014 Edited Collection 367 Pages


This collection of papers is published within a series of post-conference volumes to reflect the state-of-the-art in the field of linguistic and literary research into Middle English. The contributions embrace a variety of research topics and approaches, with a more particular interest in the broad area of sense-form relationships and text studies of the period which rely on the traditional as well as the rapidly expanding searchable resources. They concern language, literature and manuscripts studies over a wide choice of disciplines and put a notable emphasis on up-to-date tools and methodologies to provide far-fetched searches of corpora and dictionaries that allow for a new quality of token verification and theoretical generalizations.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Titel
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Some neglected aspects of Middle English lexical borrowing from (Anglo-)French
  • Twin-formulae and more in late Middle English: The Historye of the Patriarks, Caxton’s Ovid, Pecock’s Donet
  • Waiting for the Barbarians. Conceptualizing fear in medieval Saracen romances
  • On nominative resumptive pronouns in Old and Middle English
  • ‘Tasting the smell’ or ‘smelling the taste’? The linguistic synaesthesia within the Middle English semantic fields of SMELL and TASTE
  • The preoccupation with the abuse of truth in Richard the Redeless and Thomas Usk’s Testament of Love
  • A sociolinguistic analysis of zero that-clauses in late Middle English
  • The preposition yeond in Layamon ’s Brut
  • Þatt heffness yate uss openn be or ... oppnedd be: How adjectival can a Middle English participle be?
  • Finding pragmatic common ground between Chaucer’s Dreamer and Eagle in The House of Fame
  • Textual characteristics of the Poema Morale, M version
  • On verb-based adverbial connectives in Middle English: Borrowing and grammaticalization
  • Scribal spelling of Northern ta as to, and some implications
  • All roads lead to purpose: The rise and fall of to the end that and to the effect that in English
  • The constructionalization of ago in Middle English
  • Token frequency, lexico-semantic association, and the adoption of the plural marker -(e)n(e) by Middle English feminine r-stem nouns
  • Why has an article system emerged?: The shift from parataxis to hierarchy
  • Semantic shifts in Middle English borrowings from (Old) French: The semantic field of ‘travelling’
  • Metaphors, metonymies and their coreferentiality in the conceptualization of love and heart in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
  • Insertion and loss of the voiceless dental plosive [t] in Middle English
  • The mapping of rhetorical strategies related to persuasion in Middle English religious prose
  • Index
  • Series Index

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The present volume contains post-conference articles on diverse issues in Middle English studies; they are revised and extended versions of part of the papers delivered at the Seventh International Conference on Middle English hosted by the Department of English Philology at Ivan Franko National University in Lviv on 3-5 August 2011. The conference included three keynote lectures and over forty speakers from the United Kingdom, Austria, Canada, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the USA and Ukraine.

As in all previous ICOME conferences, the contributions embraced a variety of research topics and approaches, with a more particular interest in the broad area of sense – form relationships and text studies of the period which rely on the traditional as well as the rapidly expanding searchable resourses, and took into account the chronology of relevant works of other scholars, including the most recent publications.

The keynote speeches, corresponding to the first three articles in the volume, were concerned, respectively, with the epistemology and heuristics of the newly discovered possibilities for re-examining foreign lexical influences on Middle and later English, the structural and meaningful aspects of the most meticulous documentation along with the revision of the functioning of Middle English synonymous twin-formulae, and tenets of the imagination concerning fear in medieval and later English literature.

The literature, text and manuscript section of the volume focuses on the reconstruction of the pragmatics of Dreamer and Eagle in The House of Fame, the metaphorical/metonymous coreferentiality of love and heart in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the abuse of truth in two medieval English texts, and the rhetorical strategies related to persuasion in religious discourse as well as scribal spelling variance of to/a in Northern and Midlands texts and memory editing of one of the versions of Poema Morale.

The linguistic papers embrace research conducted on the interplay of historical sociolinguistic factors in the syntax of fifteenth century personal correspondence, a multi-layer syntactic account of the rise of the deictic function words (articles) in Middle English as well as inquiries into anaphorical pronominalization in the evolution of sentence structure through Middle English, verb-based adverbial connectives in the contexts of borrowing and grammaticalization, the stages of grammaticalization in the rise of syntactic bond instruments to express the sentential meaning of purpose, the constructionalization of phrases containing ago in Middle English as well as the semantics and combinability of the preposition yeond in Layamon’s Brut. Issues related to the lexical semantics of Middle English are exemplified by research into the intricacies of synaesthetic smell/taste onomasiology and the borrowing-induced shifts of meaning within the semantic field of travelling. Three more papers provide insightful examples of penetration into morphological ← 7 | 8 → and phonological concerns focusing on the conducive occurrence and solidarity factors of innovations in Middle English substantive morphology, the categorial syncretism of shared-root adjectives and past participles, and the intriguing dwindling of the dental voiceless plosive [t] in Middle English vocabulary.

We do hope that this volume epitomizes a most outstanding feature of present-day diachronic linguistic and literary research which consists in a careful search for documented evidence and sophisticated, or even subtle, both large-scale and minute queries into the subject matter of analysis that, where possible, narrow the span between historical and contemporary scholarly issues.

It is also expected that specialists in many a sub-field of Middle English studies will find the volume interesting and inspiring for their further work.

The editors are very grateful to Professor Herbert Schendl who read the manuscript and kindly made numerous valuable comments.

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Some neglected aspects of Middle English lexical
borrowing from (Anglo-)French

Philip Durkin, Oxford English Dictionary

This paper looks at lexical borrowing from French and from Latin in the Middle English period. It examines how the spread of English into a wider range of written and spoken uses in a broad range of professional and technical contexts, at the expense of both Anglo-French and Latin, led to some characteristic patterns of lexical borrowing, especially during the key period of decline of Anglo-French in such use in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In particular, this period is characterized by the borrowing into English of semantically complex items which may show direct borrowing from either Anglo-French or Latin and which probably show direct input from both languages. Many of these words are of great importance in the lexical history of English, and have come to play a key role in the high-frequency vocabulary of contemporary English1.

1. Historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts

Historians and linguists have in recent years built up a rich picture of the trilingual culture of late medieval England, focusing in particular on the use of both Latin and French in a variety of technical and professional contexts until the end of the fourteenth century and beyond. Important studies and collections include (from historians) Clanchy (1993), Ormrod (2003), Prestwich (2005), Harriss (2005), (from linguists) Trotter ed. (2000), Machan (2003), Lusignan (2004), Wogan-Browne, et al. eds. (2009), Butterfield (2010), Ingham ed. (2010), Schendl and Wright eds. (2011), and many others.

The overall picture is beautifully summarized by William Rothwell in his introduction to the second edition of the Anglo-Norman Dictionary (Rothwell 2005):

“Anglo-Latin gradually lost ground to Anglo-French in its role as the official language of record at both national and local level, whilst Middle English emerged over time from being a predominantly spoken language to take over from the two others in the fifteenth century as the acknowledged national language, both spoken and written.”

Rothwell immediately follows up this summary statement with some important qualification:

“This simple summary statement, however, hides a complex linguistic interplay brought about by the continuously evolving social situation in Britain and on the continent for many decades after the Conquest.” ← 9 | 10 →

It will be noted that Rothwell refers here to Anglo-French (although the dictionary to which this is the preface retains its traditional title of the Anglo-Norman Dictionary), and I will also use the term Anglo-French throughout this paper to refer to French as used in medieval England. Use of this term as opposed to Anglo-Norman is intended to reflect the variety of inputs to French as used in England (compare section 4); it also makes it possible to use the useful formula (Anglo-)French to refer to instances where English may show input from either Anglo-French or Continental French or both.

Clanchy (1993) identifies some of the key transformations in the use of written language in England in the period after the Norman Conquest (Clanchy 1993: 27):

“Latin made quick progress because it was the written language with which William’s clerks (in both the ecclesiastical and modern sense), from Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury downwards, were most familiar. In the eyes of contemporaries on the European continent Latin was the only language of record; a person unfamiliar with it was illiterate…In increasing the use of Latin writing, the Norman Conquest brought England into the mainstream of medieval literate communication. At the same time, in the short term, the Conquest may have caused a reduction in literacy (in the modern sense of being able to read and write the language one speaks), because it divorced writing further from everyday speech.”

Clanchy illustrates some of the complexity of literacy in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century England in an examination of the books (in French and Latin) owned by two individuals of differing social status in the early fourteenth century (Clanchy 1993: 81-82):

“An educated Englishman in the thirteenth century would have become familiar with a variety of writings over his lifetime – charters to safeguard his landed property, royal writs for litigation, homilies for devotion, romances for entertainment, and so on. Among the forty or so volumes which Guy de Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, gave by charter to Bordesley Abbey in 1306 are books of the Bible, meditations and saints’ lives, romances and histories, a book of physic and one of surgery, a child’s primer, an encyclopaedia, and ‘a little red book in which are contained many diverse things’. All the books are described as ‘romances’, meaning that they are in French and not Latin. A step down the social scale, the Northamptonshire gentleman, Henry de Bray of Harlestone, copied out with his own hand in Latin at the age of fifty-two (in 1322) a compilation for the instruction of his heirs containing a general description of the world, a more detailed description of England (its counties, bishoprics, kings and Cinque Ports), extracts from the Domesday Book and other royal records, information about Northamptonshire feudal and local government, a list of own tenants, the dimensions of Harlestone common field and the village, a table of measures, records of his expenses, and numerous copies of documents concerning his property.”

As touched upon in the beginning of this passage from Clanchy, written documents had an important role in daily business, and typically they were not written in English. Competence in writing Latin and French were necessary for anyone engaged in record keeping or in transacting formal business, and spoken competence in French was also required in some areas, such as pleading in the law courts or conducting ← 10 | 11 → parliamentary business. Prestwich summarizes the situation in the early fourteenth century thus (Prestwich 2005: 56):

“The main language of government was Latin…Most charters and writs were in Latin; this was also the language of accountancy, not just in the rolls produced by the exchequer, but also in the myriad of manorial accounts kept by landlords, great and small. French was also used. Much of the more private royal correspondence was in French, and by the early fourteenth century this was the language used for the accounts of the royal chamber. In the royal law courts the records were kept in Latin, while pleading took place in French. It was only among the lower levels of the hierarchy of the courts that English may have been employed.”

Much recent work has indicated the vitality of Anglo-French as a distinct variety of French until late in the fourteenth century: most notably Ingham’s work on the grammar of Anglo-French, complementing more traditional work on lexis2. In this period, English was clearly the L1 of all but foreigners, but Anglo-French was acquired as an L2 in early childhood to a near-native proficiency, and, until the late fourteenth century, Anglo-French rather than English was the medium for elementary Latin instruction in the schools.

The late fourteenth and (especially) the early fifteenth centuries saw important changes in written use, with English becoming the default choice as language of writing in various official functions3. The second half of the fourteenth century also saw significant landmarks in the history of the official use of spoken English, such as the Statute of Pleading of 1362 specifying (albeit with little impact) that pleading in the law courts should be in English rather than French, or the opening of parliament in English for the first time in the same year4. It is also only from the later fourteenth century onwards that we come once more to have a continuous, confident tradition of literary composition in English. If we look at the other side of the coin, substantial literary works in Anglo-French are found down to the late fourteenth century (for instance John Gower’s Mirroir de l’Omme), and record-keeping in Anglo-French extends well into the fifteenth century5. However, it is only in the special case of the language of the law that writing in French for practical purposes survived beyond 1500 in Britain6. ← 11 | 12 →

Recent research in linguistics has drawn attention to the importance of multilingual documents in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, including for instance personal letters in which code-switches between French and English are found (see especially Schendl (2002; 2013), and the very widespread genre of record-keeping texts in which the matrix language is Latin with embedded ‘vernacular’ items). The identity of this ‘vernacular’, Anglo-French or Middle English, seems to have been blurred for those generating records of this type. Compare Trotter (2010), Wright (2010), Schendl and Wright (2011).

This paper will look at a particular type of loanword that is found at its greatest frequency in this crucial transitional period, and which, I will argue, is characteristic of the spread of English to a wider range of spoken and, especially, written functions in professional life among the literate classes in late medieval England.

2. Quantifying lexical history

The lexical data considered in this paper is drawn from the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED3) that is currently in progress and in course of publication as part of OED Online (www.oed.com). To date approximately 33% of the new edition of the dictionary has been published. As part of this revision, all documentation has been reconsidered and reviewed, and all etymologies recast. The etymologies in OED3 offer a body of closely comparable data, compiled by a single team working to a shared set of guidelines over a relatively short period of time. They are consistent in approach and stylistic conventions, and employ rich tagging of primary etymons. This enables us to review traditional, OED-derived, estimates of the numbers of words borrowed from each donor language over time. (Compare especially Scheler (1977), whose summaries and analyses have been much drawn upon by other scholars.)

Using OED3 data, we can look at totals of borrowings from each language by historical period, and we can also look at borrowings from each language as a proportion of all new words in each period. (Compare Dekeyser (1986) on the value of this approach.)

Examination of OED3’s Middle English data points to some important patterns7. The combined totals for words borrowed from French and from Latin (including those borrowed from both languages) reach their Middle English peak in the period 1400-1449, and the figures for each of the periods 1350-1399, 1400-1449, and 1450-1499 considerably exceed those for the whole two-hundred-year period 1150-1349 combined. When considered as a proportion of all new words first recorded in each fifty-year period, the picture is rather different, and it is the ← 12 | 13 → hundred-year period 1300-1399 that emerges with the highest proportion, with loanwords from French, Latin, and French and/or Latin constituting nearly 50% of all words first recorded in this period; the proportion remains above 40% for all of the fifteenth century as well.

The main focus of this paper will be words that may show borrowing from either French or Latin, or (as I will argue is the case in the majority of cases) probably show direct input from both languages. Such words show a very interesting pattern. Their absolute totals peak sharply in the period 1350-1449, as does the proportion that they make up of all new words recorded in English. In the period 1350-1399, 14% of all new words recorded in parts of OED3 so far published are words of this type, just ahead of loanwords from Latin only at 13% of the total, and not far behind loanwords from French only at 22%.

If we are looking at the OED’s wordlist, as in the preceding paragraphs, we must bear in mind that this includes many very rare words. An interesting complementary perspective can be gained by looking more narrowly at those words which have the highest frequency in contemporary English. It should be borne in mind that this gives a teleological perspective, looking at how borrowings in past periods have ultimately come to play a greater or lesser role in the lexis of English as it is used today. If one takes the thousand most frequent words in the contemporary British English BNC corpus, and investigates the historical origins of each, using OED’s data, a very interesting pattern emerges. (A very similar overall pattern results if one repeats the same operation using data from any of the other major corpora of contemporary British or American English. For parts of the alphabet not yet revised for OED3, I have made my own estimation, based on data from OED and from other dictionaries of English, French, and Latin.) Among these thousand highest-frequency words in contemporary English, just under 50% show loanwords from either French only, Latin only, or French and/or Latin. Loanwords from Latin only are greatly in the minority in this data, being outnumbered more than threefold both by loanwords from French only and by loanwords from French and/or Latin. The diachronic distribution of dates of first attestation is also very striking: the loanwords from French and/or Latin cluster tightly in later Middle English. Just in the two-hundred year period 1300-1499, over 130 words entered English from French and/or Latin that figure today among the thousand most frequent words in the BNC data (although not all of them were necessarily high-frequency items in Middle English: see further discussion in section 5).

3. Defining and exploring etymological categories

This section will explain the etymological analysis lying behind the classification in section 2, and will explore some of the salient characteristics of loanwords from French and/or Latin, especially those which have become part of the high-frequency vocabulary of modern English. These are typically richly polysemous ← 13 | 14 → items, often showing a range of meanings that entered English from French and/or Latin during the Middle English period8.

To understand the patterns observable in lexical borrowing into Middle English, it is necessary first to consider some aspects of the lexical history of French. Obviously, French developed historically from Latin, and the bulk of the core lexicon of French is ultimately of Latin origin. Some French words show the direct reflexes (or descendants) of words that have been part of the French lexicon throughout its historical development from Latin. Thus, (Anglo-)French pes, pais ‘peace’ (modern French paix) shows a word that has developed from classical Latin pāc-, pāx, showing the expected sound and form changes from Vulgar Latin to proto-Romance and ultimately to (Old and Middle) French. Many other French words, while ultimately reflecting the lexicon of classical Latin, show borrowing from Latin into French, rather than organic development within French. Thus, in the same semantic field as pes, pais, we find the ultimately related verb Old French pacefier, Middle French, French pacifier ‘to pacify’; this shows a learned borrowing of Latin pācificāre, rather than development from Vulgar Latin to proto-Romance to French. French has shown such borrowings from Latin from the time of the earliest surviving French written data or even before, and from their date of borrowing into French onwards such words have shown sound changes and other formal developments that have occurred in the subsequent history of French, although classicizing influence has sometimes blocked these, or led to subsequent remodelling that has in effect ‘reversed’ an earlier change.

Borrowing into English of words of the first type, typified by (Anglo-)French pes, pais, can normally be identified with confidence as English borrowings from French only. Thus English peace (first attested in the mid twelfth century) can be identified on formal grounds as a loanword from (Anglo-)French, not from Latin. Similar cases are shown by, for instance, (just drawing some examples involving common words from a single letter of the alphabet) chance, change, city, clear, couple, course, cover.

English pacify (first recorded in the late fifteenth century) illustrates a very different sort of case. On formal grounds it could show borrowing from either Latin pācificāre or Middle French pacifier. The ending -ify does not help to resolve the difficulty, because borrowing of words via French established the main morphological patterns by which Latin words were accommodated into English throughout the Middle English period and (with some important exceptions) beyond. Thus we would expect an English borrowing of Latin pācificāre to show the form pacify regardless of whether the transmission had been via French in this particular instance. We are forced to fall back on other criteria, looking at the range of forms and meanings found in each language, their frequency of use (in so far as we can ← 14 | 15 → establish this), and their dates of first attestation, in order to assess the likely route of transmission. In the case of pacify, transmission into English immediately from either language or both seems likely, although figurative uses such as ‘to appease’ and ‘to calm’ appear to have closer parallels in French than in Latin, and these at least appear to reveal French influence (although this could be secondary semantic influence).

English borrowings solely from Latin are thus generally identified more on negative evidence from French – i.e. neither Anglo-French nor Continental French appears to show a borrowing of the Latin word in forms and meanings that would adequately explain the word found in English – than they are on positive grounds. Thus the verb to act (first attested in the second half of the fifteenth century in technical legal uses, but only from the late sixteenth century in more general uses) probably shows a borrowing solely from Latin (from āct-, past participial stem of agere), since French has agir (showing regular phonological development within French) not *acter (a perfectly plausible learned form, which happened not to be adopted). Semantic considerations make borrowing from Latin appear much more likely than conversion from the noun act. However, mention of the noun reminds us that to act belongs to a larger word family in English, and in the case of some earlier members of this word family we cannot be nearly so certain of the immediate donor into English.

In the case of the related noun act (first attested in English in the late fourteenth century), the semantic richness of the English noun (which is attested in a wide variety of meanings in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries) seems best accounted for by borrowing chiefly from Latin āctus and (related) āctum, since (Anglo-) French acte appears to have been somewhat more limited in its range of meanings and uses, being found most characteristically in legal use in Anglo-French, and being found only very rarely in continental use before the fifteenth century. However, on formal grounds either language could have provided the donor, and it would seem rash to assume that the (Anglo-)French word had no input at all.

A further word in the same family, action, is also first attested in English in the late fourteenth century. It shows early forms of the types actioun and action. The former type is attested earliest (by a very small margin), and, since -ioun is a characteristic Anglo-French output in words ultimately showing Latin -iōn, -iō, we may feel that borrowing from Anglo-French seems the likeliest initial input. However, the range of early meanings could be accounted for equally well by borrowing from French or from Latin, or partly from each. It may seem on first consideration that the most parsimonious (or logically most economical) explanation is to assume that the word was borrowed entirely from French, since at least some of the forms point in this direction. However, the semantic history is against the assumption of once-and-for-all foreign-language input. It is clear that a number of the core meanings of the word are the result of foreign-language input, e.g. ‘activity’, ‘act’, ‘deed’, ‘proposal’, ‘measure’, ‘policy’, ‘legal proceeding’. Given the situation of complex interaction ← 15 | 16 → of three languages in late medieval England, it would seem rash to assume that all of the influence came from (Anglo-)French and none from Latin. What is less clear is the precise mechanism: it is theoretically possible that the word became well established in English in a single meaning as a result of borrowing from one language only, and that all of the other meanings result from secondary semantic borrowing; however, it is also possible that there were multiple separate instances of borrowing, perhaps from both Latin and French, and that these gradually coalesced to give a single polysemous English word9.

To take another, more complex, example, person is first recorded in English in the early thirteenth century in the Ancrene Wisse. In both form and meaning it could as easily come from either Latin persōna or (Anglo-)French person, persone, personne. Some of the Middle English forms, such as persoun, point strongly to borrowing of similar forms from Anglo-French. Forms such as parson, parsoun could also be from similar forms in (Anglo-)French, although they could equally show a parallel formal development within Middle English, since both languages frequently show lowering of e to a before r10.

The meaning history of English person suggests continuing influence from French and Latin over several hundred years. In the Ancrene Wisse the word occurs in two meanings, ‘an individual human being’ and ‘a role or character’. The first of these meanings shows a fairly continuous history in English, but the second is not recorded again until the sixteenth century, when it probably shows a re-borrowing. Other meanings that were pretty certainly borrowed from (Anglo-)French and/or Latin include: ‘each of the persons of the Trinity (in Christian theology)’, first recorded in the early fourteenth century, and ‘the living body or physical appearance of a human being’, ‘an individual considered with regard to his or her outward appearance’, ‘an individual corporate body recognized by the law as having certain rights and duties’, ‘grammatical category of person (i.e. first, second, or third person)’, and ‘important personage’, which are all first recorded in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, as are the phrasal constructions in one’s own person and in one’s proper person. The relevant models for these senses and constructions are all found in French and Latin in the thirteenth century or earlier (some go right back to classical Latin), and therefore there are two possibilities: English could have borrowed person in all of this complexity in the thirteenth century, but we simply fail to have evidence of this until our much richer documentation of the late fourteenth century and onwards; or new senses could have continued being borrowed from the source language, considerably after the date of the original borrowing. (The specialization of the form parson in the meaning ‘parson’ (i.e. a rector or ← 16 | 17 → vicar) belongs to the history of the English word; in (Anglo-)French and medieval Latin this is simply one of the meanings of the word for ‘person’.)


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (June)
Sprachstudien Literaturstudien Mittelenglisch Morphologie Semantik Phonologie
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 367 pp., 7 b/w fig., 24 tables

Biographical notes

Michael Bilynsky (Volume editor)

Michael Bilynsky is Head of the Department of English Philology of Ivan Franko National University in Lviv. He also teaches at the University of Social Sciences and Wszechnica Polska in Warsaw. His research interests in the field of Middle English studies pertain to semantics, word-formation, corpus linguistics and reconstruction of lexical spaces.


Title: Studies in Middle English
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