Old English, Middle English, and Modern English

“I can’t read Shakespeare. Old English is too confusing.”

That’s a sentence I’ve heard more than once from both students and casual readers, but it is inaccurate. Shakespeare actually wrote in Modern English, the language in which I am currently writing and the one you are familiar with. The truth is that Old English-the language of Beowulf and Caedmon’s Hymn-cannot be deciphered at all by the average reader because it is written with letters that no longer reside in the English alphabet and with a grammar, spelling, and syntax that is not familiar to us. Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon, is a Germanic language that can only be read by someone who has learned it, just as Modern German or Dutch are difficult to discern except by native speakers and those who have been taught. However, just as with Modern German, some Old English words are similar in sound or spelling to Modern English:


  • Eald               Old
  • Brodor           Brother
  • Hus               House
  • Nett               Net
  • Riht                Right
  • Widuwe         Widow
  • Wif                 Wife
  • Hwael             Whale


However, many words look very different from ours:


  • Isensmiþ         Blacksmith
  • Eadig              Blessed
  • Maest             Greatest
  • Eaxle              Shoulder
  • Hlin                 Maple
  • Laes               Pasture
  • Holt                Wood

(Sources: http://reference.yourdictionary.com/dictionaries/old-english-words-and-modern-meanings.html and http://www.mun.ca/Ansaxdat/vocab/wordlist.html)

Old English gave way to Middle English with the Norman Conquest of England by William the Conqueror in the year 1066. Middle English is also far removed from Modern English and is the language in which Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales (and his other works). Middle English also used several letters we would no longer recognize, though many current texts spell the words with the modern alphabet for ease of reading. Here is an excerpt from the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales:

Whan that April with his showres soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flowr;
Whan Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne
And smale fowles maken melodye
That sleepen al the night with open ye —
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages —
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry ondes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Canterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martyr for to seeke
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seke.
(Norton Anthology of English Literature, Eighth Edition, Volume A: The Middle Ages, 218-219.)

This, too, is difficult for the unskilled eye to read, though it bears a closer resemblance to modern English than does Old English. You can get the gist of it if you read it aloud. Here is a rough translation:

When April with his sweet showers
Has pierced March’s drought,
And bathed every vein in such liquor,
By which power engendered is the flower;
When Zephyr also with his sweet breath
Inspired has in every grove and field
The tender crops, and the young sun
Has in the Ram his half-course run,
And small fowls make melody
That sleep all the night with open eye —
So stirs them Nature in their hearts —
Then long folk to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seek strange strands
To far-off shrines, known in sundry lands
And specially from every shire’s end
Of England to Canterbury they wend,
The holy blissful martyr for to seek
That helped them when they were sick.

You may have noticed that the rhymes no longer work once put into modern English (seek/sick, melody/eye). This is largely due to the Great Vowel Shift, which was a change in the pronunciation of English that occurred between the 1300s and 1500s. The Great Vowel Shift had not yet occurred when Chaucer and others were writing Middle English; so in Middle English, each vowel is pronounced differently than it is today. For instance, “sweet” would have been pronounced “swate,” “flowr” would have been pronounced “fluer,” and so on. Additionally, each consonant in Middle English carries its own sound, so “knight”=”k-ni-ght” (that’s the joke in Monty Python and the Holy Grail with the French soldier who berates the “English K-ni-ghts.”) Also, the letter “e” at the end of a word is always pronounced; it isn’t silent like it usually is today. So “hadde”=”had-a.”

Have you ever wondered about all of the strange rules and spellings in English? Well, you can blame it on the dynamic nature of the language. The pronunciation of English has changed a great deal over the centuries while some of the spellings remain. Of course, these examples of pronunciation are only general guidelines and by no means rules. The first dictionary wasn’t to be developed for another four centuries, and both spelling and dialect differed widely across England. For further discussion of Middle English pronunciation, see The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Eighth Edition, Volume A: The Middle Ages (15-19). If you happen to have a Middle English text in your possession and can’t make heads or tails of it, the University of Michigan has created an amazing Middle English Dictionary that may be of some use.

By the time Shakespeare was composing plays and poetry in the late 1500s, the Great Vowel Shift was largely complete and English could at last be recognized as Modern English, the language we speak today. There may be a few “thys” and “thous” strewn about in Shakespeare’s work, and the order of words might be changed up a bit here and there, but most people can understand:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
(Romeo and Juliet Act II, Scene 2).

Shakespeare was no more writing in Old English than I am typing it! In fact, Shakespeare wouldn’t have been able to read the original copy of Beowulf any better than you or I would. Old English and Middle English are both essentially foreign cousins to our current tongue.

Do you think the English language is currently undergoing another change caused by rapidly advancing technology (e.g. texting)? Will we one day be writing “b” “u” and “c” instead of “be” “you” and “see?” Will the English language as we know it one day be transmuted into typing alone, with fonts and spellcheck ensuring uniformity across all speakers? Let me know what you think in the comments!

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