Playing “Eye Spy” with Middle English

Middle English

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 we have 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.

Which words can you decipher?


The History of English

wood-cube-abc-cube-letters-48898I 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.

Map of Germanic invasions
Photo credit to English Club dot com

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.

Example of Old English
Passage in Beowulf, an Old English epic

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.

Example of Middle English
Chaucer writing in Middle English

Modern English

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.

Example of Early Modern English
Early Modern English by Shakespeare

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

Library of Congress Collection, artist Glackens, “The Invasion of England”

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.)

What’s your favorite part of English’s History?