MIDDLE ENGLISH is a relatively precise term to us. Hindsight and the usually artificial divisions of history enable us to fix on the conquest of England by the Normans in 1066 as a starting point: English disappears almost at a stroke in the written records, and when it reappears it has been transformed from Old English to Middle English. The end of Middle English is less easy to determine. We can look back to the great divide of the vowel shift that makes Chaucer's pronunciation so different from Shakespeare's or ours, or point to the introduction of the revolutionary new technology of printing to England in 1476. In literary terms the importing of the sonnet form marks a distinctive change in style and fashion; in religious terms Henry VIII's break with the medieval Church is crucial. All these events leave their marks in language and literature, but focusing on them blurs the essential continuities: spoken English evolved gradually; written English, simply by virtue of being written, provides us with fixed though fragmentary landmarks. Literacy itself would have given medieval writers a particular place within a social and linguistic structure. English, either spoken or written, was only one of the languages current in the British Isles, and English itself came in many varied forms.
There had been no one form of English even in the days of the first Anglo-Saxon settlers in the British Isles. The groups who came to England in the fifth and sixth centuries spoke a variety of related dialects: these took centuries to coalesce into today's standard written English. There is still an enormous variety of spoken dialects and non-