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Old English vs. Middle English: What's the Difference?

Edited by Janet White || By Harlon Moss || Updated on October 11, 2023
Old English is the Anglo-Saxon language used from the 5th to 12th centuries; Middle English, used from the 12th to 15th, shows Norman influence and has more recognizable vocabulary to Modern English speakers.

Key Differences

Old English, used from approximately 450 to 1150 AD, had a robust system of inflections, presenting complexities in verb conjugations and noun declensions. Middle English, used from 1150 to 1470 AD, exhibits a reduced inflectional system, leaning towards the analytical structure found in Modern English.
Old English possesses a vocabulary that is often unrecognizable to the modern reader due to its Germanic roots. In contrast, Middle English, influenced significantly by French due to the Norman Conquest, exhibits vocabulary items that are more easily recognized by speakers of Modern English.
Grammar and syntax in Old English adhere closely to other Germanic languages of its time, employing strong verb conjugations and a relatively free word order due to its synthetic nature. Middle English leans towards a fixed word order, particularly SVO (Subject-Verb-Object), marking a shift towards the syntactical characteristics of Modern English.
Old English used a runic alphabet initially and later transitioned to a version of the Latin alphabet. Conversely, Middle English utilized a form of the Latin alphabet heavily influenced by French orthography, introducing new letters and letter combinations to the English language.
While Old English literature is epitomized by works like "Beowulf," which exhibit distinct Germanic features, Middle English literature is typified by works like Geoffrey Chaucer’s "The Canterbury Tales," which reflect the socio-linguistic impact of French.

Comparison Chart

Time Period

450-1150 AD
1150-1470 AD


Robust inflections in verbs and nouns.
Reduced inflectional system.


Predominantly Germanic vocabulary.
French-influenced vocabulary.

Grammar and Syntax

Complex, with a relatively free word order.
Simpler, with a leaning towards SVO order.

Literature Examples

“The Canterbury Tales”

Old English and Middle English Definitions

Old English

English as used in England between the 5th and 12th centuries.
The writings of Bede are some of the earliest examples of Old English.

Middle English

The English language stage following Old English, used from 1150-1470 AD.
The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer is written in Middle English.

Old English

A language with rich inflections and Germanic vocabulary.
Old English words, like ætheling, are often unfamiliar to modern readers.

Middle English

A language stage that leaned towards a fixed SVO word order.
Middle English often displayed a more consistent word order than Old English.

Old English

A language stage with complex grammar and a relatively free word order.
Old English often utilized verb conjugations unfamiliar in Modern English.

Middle English

English as used in medieval England, notable in literature.
Middle English is showcased in the poetic work Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Old English

The language of the Anglo-Saxons, with initial use of the runic alphabet.
The Ruthwell Cross inscriptions are in both runes and Old English.

Middle English

English with simplified inflections and significant French vocabulary influence.
Middle English texts often contain French loanwords, like beauty.

Old English

The earliest form of the English language, used from 450-1150 AD.
Old English can be seen in the epic poem Beowulf.

Middle English

A form of English influenced heavily by the Norman Conquest.
After 1066, Middle English began to display distinct Norman influences.


What is a notable literary work in Old English?

"Beowulf" is a notable literary work in Old English.

Which version of English has more recognizable vocabulary to modern speakers?

Middle English has more recognizable vocabulary to modern speakers.

How did the Black Death impact Middle English?

The Black Death had social and economic impacts that influenced the evolution of Middle English, such as changes in population distribution and social mobility, which affected dialect development and language use.

Is Middle English closer to Modern English than Old English?

Yes, Middle English is considered closer to Modern English, especially in terms of vocabulary and grammar.

What are some linguistic features distinct to Old English?

Old English had strong verb conjugations, a complex case system, and utilized a largely Germanic vocabulary.

What are the time periods for Old English and Middle English?

Old English was used from 450-1150 AD, and Middle English from 1150-1470 AD.

Which one uses a more robust inflectional system?

Old English uses a more robust inflectional system compared to Middle English.

Were both Old English and Middle English spoken in England?

Yes, both languages were historical phases of English spoken in England.

Which language was significantly influenced by French?

Middle English was significantly influenced by French.

Is Old English similar to any modern Germanic languages?

Old English shares more similarities with older forms of Germanic languages than their modern counterparts.

What led to the transition from Old English to Middle English?

The Norman Conquest in 1066 significantly influenced the transition from Old English to Middle English, introducing French vocabulary and altering grammatical structures.

Does Old English have a freer word order compared to Middle English?

Yes, Old English had a relatively free word order compared to Middle English.

Which English period utilized a version of the Latin alphabet influenced by French?

Middle English utilized a version of the Latin alphabet that was significantly influenced by French orthography.

What impact did the Viking invasions have on Old English?

Viking invasions introduced Norse vocabulary and influenced grammatical changes in Old English, particularly in the northern regions of England.

Why is Old English often difficult for Modern English speakers to understand?

Old English is difficult for Modern English speakers mainly due to its vastly different vocabulary, extensive inflectional system, and unfamiliar grammar and syntax.

Which era of English was influenced by the Normans?

Middle English was heavily influenced by the Normans.

Was Old English also spoken outside of England?

Predominantly, Old English was used within England and parts of what is now Scotland, but its use was largely confined to these areas.

Is Middle English literature typically easier for Modern English speakers to understand than Old English literature?

Generally, yes. Middle English literature, such as "The Canterbury Tales," tends to be more accessible to Modern English speakers than Old English works like "Beowulf."

Can Old English speakers and Middle English speakers understand each other?

It would likely be challenging due to significant differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammatical structures between Old English and Middle English.

What alphabet did Middle English use?

Middle English used a form of the Latin alphabet, influenced by French orthography.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.

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