Hello friends. As most of you know, I am an author. This basically means I am a full time literature nerd. So, obviously, I like to occasionally dive into learning about my language itself. (Note: I like the history, but please note this DOES NOT mean I have perfect grammar or mechanics in my posts. My books are only close to that level of mechanic perfection because my editor rocks. )
I’ve previously done a collosallialy nerdtastic series of posts on the history and birth of our language from Latin, French, German, and bits and bobs from other languages, as well as what “Old English” actually means. But today I was enjoying a video on YouTube about rare punctuation (it’s basically the book dragon’s version of rare Pepe memes) when tragedy struck and I realized the one letter in the alphabet I had yearned for my whole life had once existed before we abandoned it. Did you know we once had a letter to resent the “th” sound??? Did you realize we once had spellings that were a little less phonetically confusing? And to find out we lost this just because early German printing houses didn’t want to be bothered to install an additional letter on their presses. Imagine my outrage at this! It hit me even harder than Pluto being kicked out of the planet club.
This is a weird category a lot of people have problems with. The stuff in here is from the Rennaisance, so it’s not what most of you might consider “modern”. Writers like Shakespeare fit in this category, and if you were ever forced to sit through an awkward read aloud of “The Taming of The Shrew” in an English class in school then you will remember that very few English speakers can actually read the stuff.
At this point in English, though, the letters look a lot like what we use today, and many of the spellings are similar to our current spelling system. Additionally the Renaissance saw the creation of the first universities where students of upper and middle classes were taught standardized spelling and grammatical forms of the language and used the newly invented dictionaries mass produced via the new printing press to bring greater literacy to the masses- at least the Middle Class masses.
This is the third entry in this series of “Eye Spy” posts. In previous posts the rules were that you’d gain points if you could decipher the letters, more points if you could pick out whole words, and even more points if you could figure out entire sentences. All of that is over now. This is a form of Modern English, after all, so the fonts are really similar to what we’d see today. The challenge today is figuring out what the old spellings and old fashioned vocabulary actually means.
Here we have an early compilation of Shakespeare’s plays. Keep in mind that very few pages of the actual scripts survive, because they were used and reused by the actors on the stage, so my understanding is that mostly all we have left are early anthologies of his work which were made a little after the originals. I am not actually a Shakespeare scholar, however, so referencing one of them might be a good idea if you want a better history of his work.
I didn’t just include his work because Shakespeare is one of the most famous Renaissance writer. He’s important because he was at the beginning of a new wave of English authors who actually wrote in their own language- English- instead of using a fancy language only a few rich people and scholars could understand. (Cough, Latin, cough. But actually sometimes Ancient Greek was used for this as well.)
I can make out every word on this page, of course, but the challenge in this edition of the series is not really to spot individual words, but rather to be able to understand what the writing actually means.
It’s clear that tragedie=tragedy, and scena=scene, and finis=finish. But it can be a little hard to understand the whole content. I recommend that if you want to give the challenge on this one a full go, you check out an annotated edition of one of the plays, and that should give a translation side by side the original text so you can check if your guesses at translation are accurate or not.
This is “The Prince,” by Machiavelli. Can you figure out what is written here?
Don’t worry if you can’t, this one was a trick entry! “The Prince” was originally written in Italian, so it’s not really a test of your ability to decipher English. Fooled you!
Imperfectum A Diabolo
This one is a historical text, probably vaguely medical. It’s written by Philippi Theophrast (what a mouthful that name is too!) It’s written in Latin and I can’t find out anything about it because I don’t speak or read Latin at all. Bonus points if you can figure out anything about this one. I definitely made this a challenge round.
We have had quite a series of posts this month about the History of The English Language. If you want to read the entire series you can visit the English Language tab posted in the top of this post’s page, or go to the first post here. I’ve been posting them every Wednesday this month and enjoying it a lot.
How about you? Do you like this series? Can you figure out the meaning of the challenge round texts?
Middle English is a little bit odd. The Battle of Hastings happened where the Normans had officially conquered the Anglo-Saxons and their language we call Old English. A new order had begun. That said, because Middle English is directly a mix between Old English and Old French, I still prefer to call it “Frenglish” instead of “Middle English”. It just sounds more fun that way.
And true there are other linguistic influences that happened- at some point in this messy time period some Norse invaded the language after some Viking traders did business on the isle- and sometimes when business wasn’t so hot they went into the pillaging business instead- and at the end of this period we started to see a little bit of some “scholarly” languages creep in, but that’s mostly an “Early Modern English” thing so we’ll talk more about all of that next Wednesday.
Middle English feels like it should be readable, but it definitely isn’t.
Eye Spy Game
Continuing my series of posts playing around with the history of the English language starting with episode one, and continuing with Old English I Spy, here we are today playing with Middle English.
The rules are pretty simple. All you do is look at a passage from an original Middle English work, and try to figure out what it’s saying. You get points if you can decipher the big illuminated letters, more points if you can decipher the letters in the actual body of the work, and even more points if you can figure out whole words in the passage. If you can figure out entire sentences or a whole passage then you obviously get genius points- but no cheating and looking up an already translated version of the passage!
Take this passage from Chaucer who, by the way, is probably the most famous Middle English writer. The handwriting is obviously gorgeous, but darned if I know what it’s saying.
I personally can kind of figure out that the first two words on the third line are “hateful to”. The last line looks like it starts with “For is was free and open at,” but I can’t read the last of that line.
Here wehave a passage from the “Everyman” play. This Medieval play was a full on allegory, meant to illustrate each vice and sin as a character as our average joe character called “Everyman” goes on the journey of life.
I figure that the first two words say, “There begynneth a,” which I am sure means “There begins a.” As to what follows that, I can only pick out a handful of words, which is surprising because the writing looks like it should be much easier for a modern person to read than the Old English passages. Alas, I am not much better at this edition than I was at the last episode of this game.
Here we are at Le Morte D’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory. The Arthurian legends actually come from the time of Old English, but it had always been a spoken epic. Malory was one of the first British authors to actually write about it. (As opposed to the many French books on the subject.)
What I’ve got from the first sentence is “And anyone that knew you called upon his,” something or other. I got that by translating “kyn,” which I’d guess means “ken” , which I know for sure is basically an old timey way of saying “knew”. I’m sure it would all be very frustrating if I didn’t at least know old versions of words so I was mostly just figuring out the letters of the passages and I get to skip being confused by the meanings of the words.
The period we call “Old English” lasted from 450-1100 AD. The first version of the English language started when three Germanic tribes invaded the land we today call England. All three tribes spoke a roughly similar language, and in very little time their languages merged into one.
You can read more about the overall history of the language here.
Today we are going to have fun with the language and play a game of I Spy. Normally Eye Spy (or sometimes I Spy) is a game- using specific I Spy series books or just using passing landmarks as a car trip game- and you look through many different objects to find a select few. It’s sort of like the kid’s game version of hunting through the cupboard to find the things you need to make dinner but you can’t find the parmesan because someone hid it in the cupboard even though you’ve always put it away in the refrigerator.
Today we’re going to look at different snippets of Old English and see if you can decipher any letters in it. Bonus points if you can figure out any whole words!
For practice I first included a rough alphabet of the letters. Keep in mind this alphabet was written in modern times for modern audiences to be an approximation of Old English letters and not clones of originals. Additionally, this was made into a typeface, while everything originally written in Old English was handwritten so there will be variations in handwriting and lettering styles. So, now that we have somewhere to start, let’s go!
This is a snippet from Beowulf. Can you figure out any of the letters in this?
My guess is that thesecond sentence starts with “Oft”, an old timey version of the word “often”.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is supposedly the longest piece of intact Old English writing we have- even longer than Beowulf- according to Wikipedia. Use your own judgement on the accuracy of that. According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is basically an early encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon history, hence the name.
My best guess is that the first word looks like “Brittene”, which I would guess means Britain, but keep in mind I am new to this particular game of Eye-Spy and I have very untrained eyes for it so who knows if I’m right.
Bede’s Ecclesiastes recorded snippets of the Synod of Hatfield in year 679 many years after the fact. If you want to read one theory as to why he limited his work to only some portions of that meeting I found an interesting post from Proffesor Miranda Wilcox at the blog for the Medieval Studies division of York University.
I included this post as the last one because, to me, it is the hardest to decipher. I have no clue what it says, and I can only pick out a handful of letters like the distinctive “l” and “p” and all of the larger illuminated letters on the left side.
I thought it would be interesting to talk about one of the main tools of my trade today- the English language. It’s especially cool to me because it’s not something that we really touched on in American English classes so it’s a lot of new material for me- please forgive me if you were taught this and are sick and tired of the subject though!
The history of the English language really started with the arrival of three Germanic tribes who invaded Britain during the 5th century AD. These tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, crossed the North Sea from what today is Denmark and northern Germany. At that time the inhabitants of Britain were Celts who spoke their own language. These Celts were pushed off of their lands into Wales, Scotland, and Ireland (this part is before the invaders became the kingdom of England which eventually pushed into those last bastions of the Celts and conquered them, too.) The Angles came from a home country they called “Englaland” and their language was called “Englisc” – which is how our language came to be named English.
Germanic invaders entered Britain on the east and south coasts in the 5th century
Old English (450-1100 AD)
The Germanic tribes spoke and wrote in similar languages, and as the different tribes interacted with each other they soon became one unified language that became known as Old English. Old English is very different from English today, and is almost impossible for any modern speakers to read unless they are specifically trained in deciphering it. The worst part of reading it is how different the letters look, though. If you read a passage that has been typed out in modern typefaces, a diehard literature nerd might have a chance of figuring out what a few of the words are, though it still would not be easy reading. We still use some of the words today, like be, strong and water. Old English was spoken until around 1100.
Middle English (1100-1500)
In 1066 England got invaded… again. This time the French did it. The Duke of Normandy, which is apparently somewhere in France, invaded England. This made for a few messy years of English politics because this brand new monarchy was also really closely related to the French monarchy, and that monarchy kind of wanted to take power once Britain became a bit of a big deal, but obviously the fresh line of rulers didn’t want to give up their new power. This led to a few wars because, frankly, it was a mess.
The language was a mess too. The new French overlords were trying to give commands to their new serfs- because they just took people who were already serfs and reassigned ownership of them since their former Saxon lords were either killed in battle or hugely demoted by the new rulers anyways- but their underlings only spoke Old English. It was messy. Eventually overtime both the ruler’s and their people’s languages collided into something that was a combination of both. It was sort of like Spanglish, but instead it was Frenglish. It was a weird time linguistically speaking. Plus this language combination took forever to happen because it took awhile before the new rulers finally realized that insisting on only speaking their own language was all well and good but it’s a bit hard to make your subjects do stuff for you when they have no clue what you are saying.
Some English speakers of today can still understand the language. Mainly uber literature nerds. I consider myself a member of that category, but I’ll admit this stuff is a little difficult for me.
Early Modern English (1500-1800)
With the rise of the Renaissance Europe became more connected than it had been since the splintering of the Roman Empire. During the height of the Middle Ages there was a rise in a Middle Class- butchers and goldsmiths and the like having their own businesses and being able to keep their own profits- and by the beginning of the Renaissance a significant chunk of the population was in this new Middle Class and had some free spending money to do things like travel or send mail. With this freedom came an increase in business, and suddenly English vowels were shorter and shorter.
Additionally the Renaissance saw the creation of the first universities where students of upper and middle classes were taught standardized spelling and grammatical forms of the language. The invention of the printing press also made books and education more accessible to the masses, and further increased the standardization of the language. The printing press also led to the first published dictionary in 1604 to further that trend.
Late Modern English (1800-Present)
Late Modern English is what we speak today. There are a lot of new words, and a lot of old words have been forgotten- any native English speaker who had to read Shakespeare at some point in High School English class can attest that there’s a huge difference between Early and Late Modern English. A lot of the difference in vocabulary comes from globalization and influences from immigrants and imported cultures and customs, like the word “kebob” or “sushi” or “ranch”. Plus Industrialization happened, so we got new machinery themed words like “car” or “computer”.
Dialects of English
The English language has been conquered by other languages over time. Think about it: just like England has been conquered many times, they have also conquered quite a few places themselves. This can have a big affect on a language.
The most well known example of this is American English vs British English. With the creation of the dictionary in the American colonies, many words of the time were kept and continue to be kept today, while British English continued to evolve and use new words- words such as trash, and Fall, were once used by all English speakers, though today they are known as American English because British speakers have since introduced new words to replace these historical relics, like rubbish and Autumn. Languages from new waves of immigrants influenced American English as well so the modern dialect is filled with words and borrowed grammar from Spanish, West African languages, Chinese, Creole, and many more, so the New World English became even more distant from the British variety.
Beyond American English each country that had been invaded by the British Empire at some point has developed their own dialect of English, like Canadian and New Zealand English, and all of these many dialects are influenced by their own inhabitants, cultures, native peoples, and immigrants to become unique in their own way.
Many countries that have once been colonized by these New World countries- like former American colonies- also have their own brand of English. Some of our former colonies, like Panama, do not speak English as their national language, but instead have adopted many of its words and grammar into their own language to create a new dialect of their main language which is uniquely their own (If you’ve ever been to Panama you’ll realize that much of what is spoken there is not the same as the Spanish you learned from your South American Spanish teacher in High School and can be difficult to decipher.)