The MIDDLE ENGLISH stage was pre-eminently the Dialectal period of the language. It was not till after the middle of the 14th century that English obtained official recognition as a language. For three centuries, therefore, there was no standard form of speech which claimed any pre-eminence over the others. The writers of each district wrote in the dialect familiar to them ; and between extreme forms the difference was so great as to amount to unintelligibility ; works written for southern Englishmen had to be translated for the benefit of the men of the north :
"In sotherin Inglis was it drawin,
And turnid ic haue it till ur awin
Langage of the _e northin lede
That can na nothir Inglis rede."
-- Cursor Mundi, 20,064.
Three men dialects were distinguished by contemporary writers, as in the often-quoted passage from Trevisas tanslation of Higdens Polychronicon competed in 1387 :"Also Englysche men
.handde fram _e bygynneynge _re maner speche, Sou_eron, Nor_eron, and Myddel speche (in _e myddel of _e lond) as hy come of _re maner people of Germania
. Also of _e forseyde Saxon tonge, _at ys deled a _re, and ys abyde scarslyche wi_ feaw uplondysche men and ys gret wondur, for men of _e est wi_ men of _e west, as hyt were under _e same part of heyvene, acorde_ more in sounynge of s_eche _an men of _e norp wi_ men of _e soup ; _erfore hyt ys _at Mercii, _at bu_ men of myddel Engelond, as hyt were parteners of _e endes, undurstonde_ betre _e syde longages Nor_eron and Sou_eron, _an Norpern and Sou_eron undurstonde_ oy_er o_er."
The modern study of these Middle English dialects, initiated by Mr Garnett, and elaborated by Dr Richard Morris, [Footnote 394-3] has shown that they were readily distinguished by the conjugation of the present tense of the verb, which in typical specimens was as follows :
Of these the southern is simply the old West-Saxon, with the vowels levelled to e. The northern second person in es is older the southern and West-Saxon est ; but the es of the third person and plural is derived from an older eth, the change of th into-s being found in progress in the Durham glosses of the 10th century. In the plural, when accompanied by the pronoun subject, the verb had already dropped the inflexions entirely as in Modern English. The origin of the en plural in the midland dialect, unknown to Old English, has been a matter or conjecture ; most probably it is an instance of form-levelling, the inflexion of the present indicative being assimilated to that of the past, and the present and past subjunctive, in all of which en was the plural termination. In the declension of nouns, adjectives, and pronouns, the northern dialect had attained before the end of the 13th century to the simplicity of Modern English, while the southern dialect still retained a large number of inflexions, and the midland a considerable number. The dialects differed also in phonology, for while the northern generally retained the hard or guttural values of k, g, sc, these were in the two other dialects palatalized before front, vowels into ch, je, and sh. Kyrk, chirche or church ; bryg, bridge ; scryke, shriek, are examples. The original á in stán, már, prreserved in the northern stane, mare, became o elsewhere, as in stone, more. So that the north presented the general aspect of conservation of old sounds with the most thorough-going dissolution of old inflexions ; the south , a tenacious retention of the inflexions, with an extensive revolution in the sounds. In one important respect, however, phonetic decay was far ahead in the north ; the final e to which all the old vowels had been levelled during the Transition period, and which is a distinguishing feature of Middle mute, i.e., disappeared, in the northern dialect before the latter emerged from its three centuries of obscuration, shortly before 1300. So thoroughly modern did its form consequently become that we might almost call it Modern English, and say that the Middle English stage of the northern dialect is lost. For comparison with the other dialects, however, the same nomenclature may be used, and we may class as Middle English the extensive literature which northern England produced during the 14th century. The earliest specimen is probably the Metrical Psalter in the Cotton Library, [Footnote 395-1] copied during the reign of Edward II. from a original of the previous century. This is followed by the gigantic versified paraphrase of Scripture history called the Cursor Mundi, [Footnote 395-2] also composed before 1300. The dates of the numerous alliterative romances in this dialect cannot be determined with exactness, as all survive in later copies, but it is probable that many of them are not later than 1300. In the 14th century appeared the theological and devotional works of Richard Rolle the anchorite of Gaytrigg, William of Nassington, and other writers whose names are unknown ; and towards the close of the century, specimens of the language also appear from Scotland both in public documents and the poetical works of John Barbour, whose language, barring minute points of orthography with that of the contemporary northern English writers.
In the southern dialect, the works of Layamon was succeeded at an interval estimated at from 15 to 25 years by the Ancren Riwle or "Rule of Nuns," written for a small sisterhood at Tarrant-Kaines, in Dorsetshire, in which we find the Middle English stage fully developed, and also recognize a dialectal characteristic which had probably long prevailed in the south, though concealed by the spelling, in the use of v for f, as valle, fall, vordonne, fordo, vorto,for to, veder, father, vrom, from. Not till later do we find a recognition of the parallel use of z for s. Among the writings which succeed, The Owl and the Nightingale of Nicholas de Guildford, of Portesham at Dorsetshire about 1250, the Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, 1298, and Trevisas translation of Higden, 1387, are of chief importance in illustrating the history of southern English. The earliest form of Langlands Piers Ploughman, 1362, as preserved in the Vernon MS., appears to be in the intermediate dialect between southern and midland. [Footnote 395-3] The Kentish form of southern English seems to have retained specially archaic features ; five short sermons in it of the middle of the 13th century have been published by Rev. Dr Morris ; but the great work illustrating it is the Ayenbite of Inwyt (Remorse of Conscience), 1340, [Footnote 395-4] of which we are told by its author Dan Michel of Northgate, Kent
"_et tis boc is y-write mid engliss of Kent ;
ûis boc is y-mad or uor lewede men,
Vor uader, and uor moder, and uor oter ken,
Ham uor to berze uram alle manyere zen,
ûet ine hare inwytte ne bleue no uoul wen."
In its use of v (u) and z for f and s, and its grammatical inflexions, it presents an extreme type of southern speech, with vowel peculiarities specially Kentish ; and in comparison with contemporary midland English works, it looks like a fossil of two centuries earlier.
Turning from the dialectal extremes of the Middle English to the midland speech, which we left at the closing leaves of the Peterborough Chronicle of 1154, we find a rapid development of this dialect, which was before long to become the national literary language. As was natural in a tract of country which stretched from Lancaster to Essex, a very considerable variety is found in the documents which agree in presenting the leading midland features, those of Lancashire approaching the northern dialect both in vocabulary, phonetic character, and greater neglect of inflexions. But this diversity diminishes as we advance. The first great work is the Ormulum, or metrical Scripture paraphase of Orm or Ormin, written about 1200, it is generally assumed, in Lincolnshire or Notts, though there is much to be said for the neighbourhood of Ormskirk in Lancashire. Anyhow the dialect has a decided smack of the north, and shows for the first time in English literature a large percentage of Scandinavian words, derived from the Danish settlers, who, in adopting English, had preserved a vast number of their ancestral forms of speech, which were in time to pass into the common language, of which they now constitute some of the most familiar words. Blunt. Bull, die, dwell, ill, kid, raise, same, thrive, wand, wing, are words from this source, which appears first in the work from this source, which appear first in the work of Orm, of which the following lines may be quoted:
"_e Judewisshe folkess boc
hemm sezzde, _att hemm birrde
Twa bukkes samenn to _e preost
att kirrke-dure brinngenn ;
And tezz _a didenn bli_eliz,
swa sumn _e boc hemn tahhte,
And brohhtenn twezzenn bukkess _aer
Drihhtin _aerwi__ to lakenn.
And att te te kirrke-dure toc
_e preost ta twezzenn bukkess,
And o _att an he lezzde _aer
all _ezzre sake and sinne
And lét eornenn for_wi__ all
Út inntill wilde wesste ;
And toc and sna_ _att o_err bucc
Drihhtin _aerwi__ to lakenn.
All _iss wass don forr here ned,
And ec forr ure nede ;
For hemn itt hallp biforenn Godd
to clennssenn hemn of sinne ;
And ll swa mazz itt hellpenn _e
ziff _att tu willt [itt] follzhenn.
ziff _att tu willt full innwarrdliz
wi__ fulle troww_e lefenn
All _att tatt wass bitacnedd taer,
to lefenn and to trowwenn."
-- Whites Ormulum, 1. 1324.
The author of the Ormulum was a phonetists, and employed a special spelling of his own to represent not only the quality but the quantities of vowels and consonants,a circumstance which gives his work a peculiar value to the investigator.
Thirty years after the Ormulum, the east midland rhymed Story of Genesis and Exodus [Footnote 396-1] shows us the dialect in a more southern form, with the vowels of modern English. In 1258 was issued the celebrated English proclamation of Henry III., or rather of Simon de Montfort in his name, which, as the only public recognition of the native tongue between William the Conqueror and Edward III., has been spoken of as the first specimen of English. It runs
"Henri purz godes fultume king on Engleneoloande. Lhoauerd on Yrloande. Duk on Normandie on Aquitaine and eorl on Aniow Send igretinge to alle hise holde ilaerde and ileawede on Hunterdoneschire. _aet witen ze wel alle _aet we willen and vnnen _aet we willen and vnnen _aet _aet vre raedesmen alle o_er _e moare dael of heom paet beop ichosen purz us and purz _aet loandes folk on vre kuneriche. Habbe_ idon and schullen don in _e wor_nesse of gode and on vre treow_e. for _e freme of _e loande. Purz _e besizte of _an to-foren-iseide redesmen. Beo stedefaest and ilestinde in alle _inge a buten aende. And we hoaten alle vre treowe in _e treow_e _aet heo vs ozen. _aet heo stedefaestliche healden and swerien to healden and to werien _o isetnesses _aet beon imakede and beon to makien purz _an to-foren iseide raesdesmen. o_er _e moare dael of heom alswo alse hit is biforen iseid. And _aet aehc o_er helpe _aet for to done bi _an ilche o_e azenes alle men. Rizt for to done and to foangen. And noan ne nime of loande ne of ezte. Wher_urz _is bisizte muze beon ilet o_er iwersed on onie wise. And zif oni o_er onie cumen her onzenes ; we willen and hoaten _aet alle vre treowe heom healden deadliche ifoan. And for _aet we willen _aet _is beo stedefaest and lestinde ; we senden zew _is writ open iseined wi_ vre seel. To halden a manges zew ine hord. Witnesse vs seluen aet Lundene. _ane Ezteten_e day. On _e Mon_e of October In _e Two-and-forwetize_e zeare of vre cruninge. And _is wes idon aetforen vre isworene redesmen
"And al on _o ilche worden is isend in to aeurichce o_re shcire ouer al _aere kuneriche on Engleneloande. And ek intel Irelonde."
As to the dialect of this document, it is more southern than anything else, with a slight midland admixture, and represents no doubt the London speech of the day. London being in a Saxon country, and contiguous to the Saxon Kent and Surrey, had certainly at first a southern dialect ; but its position as the capital, as well as its proximity to the midland district, made its dialect more and more midland. Even in Chaucer however, it has still southern features, for Chaucers language is well known to be more southern than standard English eventually became. Inflexionally, the proclamation is much archaic than the Genesis and Exodus or Ormulum ; but it closely resembles the old Kentish Sermons and Proverbs of Alfred in the southern dialect of 1250.
In the writings of the second half of this century, the language becomes rapidly more modern in aspect, till we arrive about 1300 at the name of Robert of Brunne in south Lincolnshire, with whom we pass from the Early to the Later Middle English. Different tests and different dates have indeed been proposed for sudviding the Middle English, but the most important is that of Mr Henry Nicol, based on the discovery that in the 13th century, as in Ormin the Old English short vowels in an open syllable still retained their short quantity, as n_ma, _ver, m_te ; but by the beginning of the 14th century they were lengthened to n_-me, _ver, m_-te, a change which has also taken place at a particular period in all the Teutonic, and even the Romance languages, as in bu_-no for b_-num, c_-ne for c_-nem, &c. The lengthening of the penult left the final syllable by contrast shortened or weakened, and paved the way for the disappearance of final e in the century following, through the stages na-me, n_-m_, n_-m, n_m, the one long syllable in nam(e) being the quantitive equivalent of the two short syllables in n_-m_ ; and thus came the idea that mute e makes a preceding vowel long, the truth being that the lengthening of the vowel made the e mute. The late Middle English produced the prose of Mandeville and Wycliffe, and the peotry of Chaucer, with whom it may be said to have culminated, and in whose writings its main characteristics as distinct from Old and Modern English may be studied. Thus, we find final e in full use representing numerous original vowels and terminations as
Him thoughtè that his hertè woldè brekè, in Old English
Him _aet his heorte wolde brecan, which may be compared with the modern German
Ihm däuchte dasz sein Herze wollte brechen.
In nouns the es of the plural and genitive case is still syllabic
Reede as the berstl-es of a sow-es eer-es.
Several old genitives and plural forms continued to exist, and the dative or preopositional case often has a final e. Adjective retain so much of the old declension as to have e in the definte form and in the plural
The tend-re cropp-es and the yong-e sonne.
And smal-e fowl-es maken melodie.
Numerous old forms of comparison were in use, which have not come down to Modern English, as herre, ferre, lenger, hext = higher, farther, longer, highest. In the pronouns, ich lingered alongside of I ; ye was only nominative, and you objective ; the northern thei had dispossessed the southern hy, but her and hem (the modern em) stood their ground against their and them. The verb is I lov-e, thou lov-est, he lov-eth; but in the plural lov-en is interchanged with lov-e, as rhyme or euphony requires. So in the plural of the past we love-den or love-de. The infinitive also ends in en, often e, always syllabic. The present participle, in Old english ende, passing through inde, has been confounded with the verbal noun in ynge, -yng, as in Modern English. The past participle largely retains the prefix y- or i-, representing the Old English ge-, as in i-ronne, y-don, run, done. Many old verb forms still continued in existence. The adoption of French words, not only those of Norman introduction, but those subsequently introduced under the Angevin kings, to supply obsolete and obsolescent English ones, which had kept pace with the growth of literature since the beginning of the Middle English period, had now reached its climax; later times added many more, but they also dropped many that were in regular use with Chaucer and his contemporaries.
Chaucers great contemporary, William Langland, in his Vision of William concerning Piers the Ploughman, and his imitator the author of Pierce the Ploughmans Crede (about 1400) used the Old English alliterative versification for the last time in the south. Rhyme had made its appearance in the language shortly after the Conquestif not already known before; and in the south and midlands it became decidedly more popular than alliteration; the latter retained its hold much longer in the north, where it was written even after 1500: many of the northern romances are either simply alliterative, or have both alliteration and rhyme. To these characteristics of northern and southern verse respectively Chaucer alluded in the prologue of the "Persone," who, when called upon for his tale, said
"But trutesth wel; I am a sotherne man,
I cannot gaste rom, ram, ruf, by my letter,
And, God wote, rime hold I but litel better:
And therefore, if you list, I wol not glose,
I wol you tell a litel tale in prose."
The changes from Old to Middle English may be summed up thus:Loss of a large part of the native vocabulary, and adoption of French words to supply the blank; not infrequent adoption of French words as synonyms of existing native ones; modernization of the English words preserved, by vowel change in a definite direction from back to front, and from open to close, a becoming o, o tending to oo, u to ou, ea to é, é to ee, ee to _, and by advance of consonants from guttural to palatal; obscuration of vowels after the accent, and especially of final a, o, u to _; consequent confusion and loss of old inflexions, and their replacement by prepositions, auxiliary verbs, and rules of position abandonment of alliteration for rhyme; and great development of dialect, in consequence of there being no standard or recognized type of English.
But the recognition came at length. By the reign of Edward III., French was so little known in England, even in the families of the great, that about 1350 "John Cornwal, a maystere of gramere, chaungede pe lore in gramere scole and construccion of [i.e, from] Freynsch into Englysch;" [Footnote 397-1] and in 1362-3 English by statute took the place of French in the pleadings in courts of law. Every reason conspired that this "English" should be the midland dialect. It was the intermediate dialect, intelligible, as Trevisa has told us to both extremes, even when these failed to be intelligible to each other; in its south-eastern form, it was the language of London, where the supreme law courts were, the centre of political and commercial life; it was the language in which the Wycliffite versions had given the Holy Scriptures to the people; the language in which Chaucer had raised English poetry to a height of excellence admired and imitated by contemporaries and followers. And accordingly after the end of the 14th century, all Englishmen who thought they had anything to say worth listening to said it in the midland speech. Trevisas own work was almost the last literary effort of the southern dialect; henceforth it was but a rustic patois, which the dramatist might use to give local colouring to his creations, as Shakespeare used it to complete Edgars peasant disguise in Lear, or which 19th century research might disinter to illustrate obscure chapters in the history of language. And though the northern English proved a little more stubborn, it disappeared also from literature in England; but in Scotland, which had now become politically and socially estranged from England, it continued its course as the national language of the country, attaining in the 15th and 16th centuries a distinct development and high literary culture, for the details of which readers are referred to the article on SCOTTISH LANGUAGE.
The 15th century of English history, with its bloody French war abroad, and Wars of the Roses at home, was a barren period in literature, and a transition one in language, witnessing the decay and disappearance of the final e, and most of the syllabic inflexions of Middle English. Already by 1420, in Chaucers disciple Hoccleve, final e was quite uncertain; in Lydgate it was practically gone. In 1450 the writing of Pecocke against the Wycliffites show the verbal inflexions in en in a state of obsolescence; he has still the southern pronouns her and hem for the northern their, them:
"And here-a_ens holi scripture wole _at men schulfen lacke _e coueryg which women schulden haue, & thei schuldem so lacke bi _at _e heeris of her heedis schulden be schorne, & schulde not growe in lenghe doun as wommanys heer schulde growe
"Also here-wi_alinto _e open si_t of ymagis in open chirchis, alle peple, men & women & children mowe come whanne euere _ei wolen in ech tyme of _e day, but so move _ei not come in-to _e vce of bokis to be delyuered to hem nei_er to be red before hem; & _erfore, as for to soone & ofte come into remembraunce of a long mater bi echo on persoon, and also as forto make _at _pe mo persoones come into remembraunce of a mater, ymagis & picturis serven in a specialer maner _an bokis doon, _pu_ in an o_er maner ful substanciali bokis seruen better into remembraucing of _o same materis _an ymagis & picturis doon; & _erfore, _ou_ in an o_er maner ful substanciali bokis seruen better into remembraucing of _o same materis _an ymagis & picturis doon; & _erfore, _ou_ writingis seruen weel into remembrauncing upon _e before seid _ingis, _it not _e ful: Forwhi _e bokis han not _e avail of remembrauncing now seid whiche ymagis han."[Footnote 397-2]
The change of the language during the second period of Transition, as well as the extent of dialectal differences, is quaintly expressed a generation later by Caxton, who in the prologue to one of the last of his works, his translation of Virgils Eneydos (1490), speaks of the difficulty he had in pleasing all readers:
"I doubted that it sholde not please some gentylmen, whichle late blamed me, saying, y in my translacyons I had ouer curious termes, whiche coud not be vnderstande of comyn peple, and desired me to vse olde and homely termes in my translacyons. And fayn wolde I satisfy euery man; and so to doo, toke an olde boke and redde therin; and certainly the englysshe was so rude and brood that I counde not wele vnderstande it. And also my lorde abbot of Westmynster ded do shewe to me late certain euydences wryton in olde englysshe for to reduce it in to our englysshe now vsid. And certainly it was wreton in suche wyse that it was more lyke to dutche than englysshe; I coude not reduce ne brynge it to be vnderstonden. And certaynly, our langage now vsed varyeth ferrer frm that whiche was vsed and spoken whan I was borne. For we englysshemen ben borne vnder the domynacyon of the mone, whiche is neuer stedfaste, but euer wauerynge, wexynge one season, and waneth and dycreaseth another season, And that comyn englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a nother. In so much that in my days happened that certain marchauntes were in a shipe in tamyse, for to haus sayled ouer the sea into selande, and for lacke of wynde thei taryed ate, forlond, and wente to lande for to refreshe them. And one of theym named sheffelde, a mercer, cam in to an hows and axed for mete, and specially he axyd after eggys, And the goode wyf answered, that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry, for he also coude speke no frenshe, but wolde haue hadde egges; and she vndertode hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren; then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstod hym wel. Loo! What sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, egges or eyren? Certainly, it is harde to playse euery man, by cause of dyuersite & change of language. For in these dayes, euery man that is in ony reputacyon in his counter wyll vtter his comynycacyon and maters in suche manedrs & termes that fewe men shall vnderstonde theym. And som honest and grete clerkes haue ben with me, and desired me to wryte the moste curious termes that I coude fynde. And thus bytwene playn, rude, and curious, I stande abashed; but in my Judgemente, the comyn termes that be dayli vsed ben lighter to be vnderstonde than the olde and auncynet englysshe."
In the productions of Caxtons press, we see the passage from middle to Modern English completed. The earlier of these have still an occasional verbal plural in n, especially in the word they ben; the southern her and hem of Middle English vary with the northern and Modern English their, them. In the late works, the older forms have been practically ousted, and the year 1485, which witnessed the establishment of the Tudor dynasty, may be conveniently put as that which witnessed the establishment of the Tudor dynasty, may be conveniently put as that which closed the Middle English transition, and introduced Modern English. Both in the completion of this result, and in its comparative permanence, the printing press had an important share. By its exclusive patronage of the midland speech, it raised it still higher above the sister dialects, and secured its abiding victory. As books were multiplied and found their way into every corner of the land, and the art of reading became a more common acquirement, the man of Northumberland or of Somersetshire had forced upon his attention the book-English in which alone these were printed. This became in turn the model for his own writings, and by and by, if he made any pretensions to education, of his own speech. The written form of the language also tended to uniformity. In previous periods the scribe made his own spelling with a primary aim at expressing his own speech, according to the particular values attached by himself or his contemporaries to the letters and combinations of the alphabet, though liable to disturbance in the most common words and combinations by his ocular recollections of the spelling of others. But after the introduction of printing, this ocular recognition of words became ever more and more an aim; the book addressed the mind directly through the eye, instead of circuitously through eye and ear; and thus there was a continuous tendency for written words and parts of words to be reduced to a single form, and that the most usual, or through some accident the best known, but not necessarily that which would have been chosen had the ear been called in as umpire. Modern English spelling, with its rigid uniformity as to individual results and whimsical caprice as to principles, is the creation of the printing-office, the victory which, after a century and a half of struggle, mechanical convenience won over natural habits. Besides eventually creating a uniformity in writing, the introduction of printing made or at least ratified some important changes. The British and Old English form of the Roman alphabet has already been referred to. This at the Norman Conquest was superseded by an alphabet with the French forms and values of the letters. Thus k took the place of the older c before e and i; qu replaced cw; the Norman w took the place of the wén (p), &c. But there were certain sounds in English for which Norman writing had no provision; and for these, in writing English, the native characters were retained. Thus the Old English g (GREEK), beside the sound in go, had a guttural sound as in German tag, Irish magh, and in certain positions a palatalized form of this approaching y as in you (if pronounced with aspiration hyou or ghyou). These sound continued to be written with the native form of the letter as bur_, _our, while the French form was used for the sounds in go, age,one original letter being thus split into two. So for the sounds of th, especially the sound in that, the Old English thorn (_) continued to be used. But as these characters were not used for French and Latin, their use even in English became disturbed towards the 15th century, and when printing was introduced, the founts, cast for Continental languages, had no characters for them, so that they disappeared entirely, being replaced, _ by gh, yh, y, and _ by th. This was a real loss to the English alphabet. In the north it is curious that the printers tried to express the forms rather than the powers of these letters, and consequently _ was represented by z, the black letter form of which was confounded with it, while the _ was expressed by y, which its MS, form had come to approach or in some cases simulate. So in early Scotch books we find zellow, ze, yat, yem, =yellow, ye, that, them.
394-3 See his Early English Alliterative Poems. for the Early English Text Society, 1864 ; Historical Outlines of English Accidence, 1870 ; and Elementary Lessons in Historical English Grammar 1874.
395-1 Edited for the Surtess Society, by Rev. J. Stevenson.
395-2 Edited for the Early English Text Society, by Rev. Dr Morris Hampole, Dan Jon
395-3 The Vision of William concerning Piers the Ploughman exists in the three different recensions by the authors, all of which have been edited for the Early English Text Society by Rev. W. W. Skeat.
395-4 Edited by Rev. Dr Morris for Early English Text Society, in 1866.
395-5 See a list in Mr Kington Oliphants Sources of Standard English, p. 97, a work in which the history of Middle English is admirably developed.
396-1 Edited for the Early English Text Society by Dr Morris, 1865.
397-1 Trevisa, Translation of Higdens Polychromcon.
397-2 Skeat, Specimens of English Literature, p. 49, 54.
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