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The chronological divisions in the history of English: the Middle English period

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According to English scientists Henry Sweet the periods of the English development may be classified with the development of English endings: 1.The Period of Full Endings 2.The Period of Levelled Endings in reality contains the levelled vowel in the ending, but at the same time lots of endings were already lost; 3.The Period of Lost Endings. Generally held classification is as follows:1)Early Old English (5th cent-7th cent.) 2)Old English or Anglo-Saxon(8th cent. – 11th cent.) 3)Early Middle English(1066(Norman Conquest) - middle oh 14th cent.) 4)Late or classical Middle English (2nd half of 14th cent. -15th cent.) 5)Early New English (1475 (introducing of printing) – 1660(Age of Shakespeare)) 6)The age of normalization&correctness(mid 17th cent. – end 18th) 7)New English(from 19th cent.)


In the course of ME many new devices were introduced into the system of spelling. In ME the runic letters passed out of use.Thorn – þ – and the crossed d – đ, ð – were replaced by the digraph th, which retained the same sound value: [Ө] and [ð]; the rune “wynn” was displaced by “double u” – w – ; the ligatures æ and œ fell into disuse. After English regained its prestige as the language of writing. Therefore many innovations in ME spelling reveal an influence of the French scribal tradition. The digraphs ou, ie, and ch which occurred in many French borrowings and were regularly used in Anglo-Norman texts were adopted as new ways of indicating the sounds [u:], [e:], and [t∫]. A wider use of digraphs. (ch, ou, ie, th, d sh-later) digraph wh replaced the OE sequence of letters hw as in OE hwæt, ME what [hwat]. Long sounds were shown by double letters, e.g. ME book [bo:k], though long [e:] could be indicated by ie and ee, and also by e. The letter y came to be used as an equivalent of i and was evidently preferred when i could be confused with the surrounding letters m, n and others. Sometimes, y, as well w, were put at the end of a word, so as to finish the word with a curve, e.g. ME very [veri], my [mi:]; w was interchangeable with u in the digraphs ou, au, e.g. ME doun, down [du:n], and was often preferred finally, e.g. ME how [hu:], now [nu:].


Word Stress in ME and Early NE

In OE stress usually fell on the first root syllable of the word, rarely on its second syllableThe word accent acquired greater positional freedom and began to play a more important role in word derivation. As the loan-words were assimilated, the word stress was moved closer to the beginning of the word. It is known as the “recessive” tendency, e.g. vertu [ver´tju:] became NE virtue [və:t∫ə].In words of three or more syllables the shift of the stress could be caused by the recessive tendency and also by the “rhythmic” tendency. Under it, a secondary stress would arise at a distance of one syllable from the original stress. Stress was not shifted to the prefixes of many verbs borrowe. Corresponding nouns sometimes received the stress on the first syllable: NE ΄present n - pre΄sent v;

Unstressed vowels


In Early ME the pronunciation of unstressed syllables became increasingly indistinct. As compared to OE, which distinguishes five short vowels in unstressed position [e/i], [a] and [o/u], Late ME had only two vowels in unaccented syllables: [ə] and [i], e.g. OE talu – ME tale [΄ta:lə] – NE tale, OE bodiз – ME body [΄bodi] – NE body. The final [ə] disappeared in Late ME though it continued to be spelt as -e. When the ending –e survived only in spelling, it was understood as a means of showing the length of the vowel in the preceding syllable and was added to words which did not have this ending before, e.g. OE stān, rād – ME stone, , new unstressed vowels appeared in borrowed words or developed from stressed ones, as a result of various changes, e.g. the shifting of word stress in ME and NE, vocalization of [r] in such endings as writer, actor, where [er] and [or] became [ə].

Quantitative vowel changes in Early ME


In Later OE and in Early ME vowel length began to depend on phonetic conditions. The earliest of positional quantitative changes was the readjustment of quantity before some consonant clusters:


1) Short vowels were lengthened before two consonants– a sonorant and a plosive; consequently, all vowels occurring in this position remained or became long, e.g. OE wild – ME wild [wi:ld] – NE wild.

2) All other groups of two or more consonants produced the reverse effect: they made the preceding long vowels short, and henceforth all vowels in this position became or remained short, e.g. OE cēpte > ME kepte [΄keptə] – NE kept.

3) Short vowels became long in open syllables, e.g. OE nama > ME name [na:mə] – NE name. In spite of some restrictions no lengthening occurred in polysyllabic words and before some suffixes, OE bodiз > ME body [΄bodi] – NE body.

In Early ME the dialectal differences grew.In some areas OE [y], [y:] developed into [e], [e:], in others they changed to [i], [i:]; in the South-West and in the West Midlands the two vowels were for some time preserved as [y], [y:], but later were moved backward and merged with [u], [u:], e.g

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