How does Middle English grammar work?

Some of the tricky endings of Old Anglo Saxon may have worn away, but the grammar of Chaucer's English is still a ways from Modern English.

I will use Modern English grammar as a point of reference (since we both speak it!) and explain many of the differences between Middle and Modern English as we go along. This is an overview of the grammatical features of Middle English, using Chaucer as our basis and our principle source for examples.

The Middle English Pronoun

Pronouns in Middle English look much the same as their Modern English counterparts, with a few exceptions:

  • The first person singular ("I") is variously spelled i, ich, ih, and is found capitalized as I from 1250. The objective (accusative and dative case) form is the same as Modern English: me. The possessive form myn, min may occur without the -n, but takes a final -e when used with plural nouns.

  • The second person singular is thou (older thu). The objective (accusative and dative case) form is thee. The possessive thyn is sometimes written without the -n, but takes a final -e when used with a plural noun.

  • He, him, his appear virtually unchanged. She may also be spelt sche, but we find hire rather than her and hir instead of hers. The third person singular neuter (it, also found in the older form hit) relates to the possessive his (not its!): ...Aprille with his shoures soote ...April, with its showers sweet.

  • The first person plural we, us, and oure are easy to understand. In older texts, expect to find ure instead of oure.

  • The second person plural ("all of you") is ye, but we find you as an object and possessive case your.

  • The third person plural ("they") has they as a subject, but hem instead of them and hir for their.

The Middle English Verb

Verbs are a bit more complicated in Middle English, but only somewhat so. Let's look at the verb singen conjugated in the present tense, indicative mood (used for making a statement or asking a question (indicative mood) about an action taking place now (present tense)).

Singular PronounSingular VerbPlural PronounPlural Verb
he, shesingeththeysingen

In other words, the phrase she singeth is used for she sings, I singe for I sing, etc. Notice that the plural forms all end in -en. Infinitives also end in -en, like to singen rather than to sing.

When we talk about the past tense, we distinguish between strong verbs (like singen) and weak verbs (like bathen). This is because preterite indicative verbs (actions that happened in the past) change their root vowel and add fewer endings if they're strong, or add -d- or -t- and take more endings if they're weak:

Strong Verbs in the Past Tense

Singular PronounSingular VerbPlural PronounPlural Verb
isang / songwesonge(n)
he, shesang / songtheysonge(n)

Weak Verbs in the Past Tense

Singular PronounSingular VerbPlural PronounPlural Verb
he, shebathedetheybathede(n)

Strong verbs include seen, knowen see, know, and nearly any other verb that still changes (through "ablaut") its root vowel in Modern English. Weak verbs are the majority, but other examples are loven, wende love, went.

The imperative mood uses a verb as a command. In the singular, the bare verb occurs (sing!), while the plural ends in -(e)th (singeth!).

When talking about the future, making conditional statements, or for other moods, modal verbs are used as auxiliary or helping verbs: I shal singe, thou mightest come, we sholde goon I will sing, you might come, we should go.

The present participle ends in -ing or -inge (like bathinge). The past participle of weak verbs ends in -d or -t, while strong verbs modify their stem's vowel and take -e(n). Both weak and strong past participles often take the prefix y- (like bathed or y-sungen bathed, sung).

The subjunctive mood is found more frequently than in Modern English. It occurs in contrary-to-fact statements. In the singular, we find a form with -e (she singe she (may or may not) sing), while the plural has -en (ye singen all of you (may or may not) sing).

Negative sentences use the particle ne before the verb and, increasingly common in Chaucer's day, nat after the verb: I ne wol, I wol nat I don't wish (to); he ne wot, he wot nat he didn't know; tarieth nat! don't wait! It is quite common to find ne contracted with the verb: nis (ne + is) isn't; not (ne + wot) didn't know (from the verb witen to know (facts or information)).

The Middle English Noun

Nouns in Middle English do not reflect the complex three-gender system of Old English. They change to reflect singular and plural number, typically by adding -s (dayes and nightes days and nights) or -n (namen, yën names, eyes).

The possessive (genitive) case adds -s to nouns in the singular (nominative day versus possessive daies day's). Some nouns in -r and -s take no possessive ending (the father sone, Mars ire the father's son, Mars' anger).

The dative case (used with some prepositions) traditionally added endings to the Anglo Saxon noun. In Middle English, these are mostly gone or reduced to a neutral shwa (like the "e" in "angel"). For example, in the dative on myn lif on my life, the noun looks the same as the plain (nominative case) form of the noun in myn lif my life. Certain popular "dative expressions" (fixed idiomatic expressions) retain the old dative case, such as on lyfe alive or with childe with child.

The article the occurs alongside the noun in the same situations as in Modern English: the father. The article an is shortened to a, especially before a consonant: an father or a father.

The Middle English Adjective

Adjectives in Middle English work much the same way as they do in Modern English. These descriptive words come before the noun they modify: yong sone young son. There is a Germanic twist, though. As in German and Icelandic, Middle English differentiates between strong and weak adjectives.

Strong adjectives stand on their own before a noun, like the yong in yong sone. They often do not have a final -e (schwa sound).

Weak adjectives come between the article the, the demonstratives (this, that, these, those) or a possessive (his, Annes his, Anne's) and the modified noun. Such adjectives have a final -e (schwa): the yonge man and his sweete breeth the young man and his sweet breath.

With plural nouns, it's far easier: adjectives generally take -e, weak or strong (yonge sones, the yonge children young sons, the young children).

The Middle English Adverb

Productive adverbs in Middle English tend to end in -e or -ly/-liche. For example, Chaucer uses brighte brightly and seurely surely.

Middle English Sentence Structure

For the most part, Middle English syntax (or sentence structure) is similar to Modern English. The default, or basic, word order is Subject-Verb-Object. Still, you will find that word order is somewhat less rigid than in the current tongue, specifically:

  • The object and even the "rest of sentence" (adjuncts, prepositional phrases) may precede the verb: Whan he his papir soghte when he sought his paper.
  • In helping verb constructions (comparable to will buy or can go), the helping verb and the main verb may be split by the object and even the rest of the sentence: His maister shal it in his shoppe abye his master will buy it in his shop.
  • One of the commonest examples of reversed word order is found alongside quotations: quod he he said or quod I I said.
  • The famous first lines of the Canterbury Tales have the auxiliary and main verb after the object but before the adjunct: Whan that Aprille...the droghte of March hath perced to the roote When April...has pierced the drought of March to the root.

Negation. Typically, negative sentences use the post-verbal negative particle nat: I may nat ete I may not eat. The preverbal ne also occurs frequently: ne make the... don't make yourself.... The use of the "double negative" is common enough to attract attention, since double negatives are booed and touted as ungrammatical in the modern standard language: For I ne ken nat finde a man...that wolde chaunge his youthe for myn age For I [ne] cannot find a man...that would trade his youth for my age. Lastly, the basic interjection no (the opposite of yis yes) remains the same: "No," quod I "No," I said.

Questions. Subject and verb inversion is the commonest way of forming a question. An inverted word order places the subject after the main verb in Middle English, just as in the modern examples can you? or what is that? (rather than you can or that is). Questions with do and don't hadn't developed yet: eteth he does he eat? (and NOT "doth he eten"). There are examples of thou suffixed to the verb as -tow: Why lyvestow so longe in so greet age why do you live.... General question words tend to look and work like their modern counterparts: And whi nat?

Who are you? & Middle / Old English Resources

I use an old (1933) edition of The Poetical Works of Chaucer, edited by Robinson and published by Houghton Mifflin. More to date, the Norton Critical and Riverside editions have the original text with commentary, whereas many popular versions are actually translations of Chaucer. Penguin does offer a version with the original spelling, however.

Good Middle English course books are hard to find. A Book of Middle English teaches basic grammar & pronunciation, and has plenty of reading exercises from 1100-1400 AD. If you're somewhat of a linguist at heart, try An Introduction to Middle English.

Teach Yourself Old English is one of the few self-study courses for beginners looking to read even older material like Beowulf.

The Germanic Languages, edited by König and Van Der Auerwa, has a detailed article on Old and Middle English, as well as one on the modern language, with overviews on phonology, morphology, lexis, syntax and historical comparative info. If all that means nothing to you, best to move on.