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How Far Back Could You Understand English?

July 31, 2018


Let's face it, nothing ever stays the same. What you read or hear in the current year does not resemble the English language as spoken or written by Shakespeare or Chaucer. In fact, most ancient speakers of English would be shocked to hear what has happened to their language over centuries of time. When the Roman Empire started to dissolve, the intruders abandoned occupation of Britain as part of post-Rome Europe. Old English developed from a Germanic language that originated from Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain by Anglo-Saxon soldiers and settlers from Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, displacing the Celtic languages that previously dominated.

History of the English language can be traced to three tribes: the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes who invaded Britain. Geoffrey Chaucer was a London-born author, poet, bureaucrat, philosopher and diplomat who was become known as the "Father of English Literature". Trilingualism, which combined words from English, French and Latin, had evolved around the time of Chaucer and became popular as spoken in business and trade. Speakers would simply cross from one to the other using words from all three languages as well as communicate using loanwords borrowed from German or Scandinavian languages. If you scroll through the etymologies of any English dictionary, you can see the massive number of words entering the English language from French, Latin and elsewhere during the late medieval period.

Assuming you had a time machine, exactly how far could you go back in history and still understand a book written in the English language? The "Great Vowel Shift" occurred from 1350 to 1700 and, at that point, words became much more difficult to understand. Middle English would be slow to transform into Modern English. During the late 1500s, people spoke similar to how the Bible reads. In the early Modern English era, you find books and poetry like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Gulliver's Travels and Robinson's Crusoe as well as many of Shakespeare's greatest plays. That's not to say that you would not struggle with some of the words, which have been replaced over the last half-dozen centuries. However, most of us would be able to interpret an accurate meaning. The same would likely not be true for any Old English or Middle English passages.

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