Old and Middle English

The sole surviving medieval manuscript of Beowulf (British Library)

I used to teach a unit about the history of the English language. It sounds like a very academic (i.e. "boring") topic, but I think it turned out to be be more interesting than most of my students expected.

It all starts with invasions. Three Germanic tribes invade Britain during the 5th century AD. The Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, crossed the North Sea from what today is Denmark and northern Germany.

The people of Britain spoke a Celtic language and the invaders pushed them west and north into what is now Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Which tribe dominated? Well, the Angles who came from Angleland were successful enough to give us - through some mispronunciations  of Angleland - "Englaland" later England. Their language was called "Englisc."  And most of us have heard the term Anglo-Saxon.  The Jutes, who settled in Southern Britain, didn't fare as well.

When I was in college, a professor played us recordings of Old English. I expected it to sound like Shakespeare or Chaucer, but it sounded like a foreign language. You could hear hints of German, Norse an, as I was taught, some Latin and Celtic.

Old English is the English of Beowulf, and it sounds like another language. To me it sounded more like German, with some Latin, Norse, and Celtic influences.

Listen to this brief excerpt:

Beowulf might sound like something J.R.R. Tolkien made up for his elves to speak in The Lord of the Rings.

So, we had speakers of “Old English,” “Middle English,” and “Modern English.” Shakespeare, much to my freshmen English students' disbelief, was speaking Modern English.

A few, but not that many, modern English words come from Old English. Some of them are commonly used ones like our articles, pronouns and prepositions.

That Middle English period (1100-1500) got a kickstart from William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy (part of modern France), in 1066 when he invaded and conquered England.

These "Normans" spoke a form of French that became the language of the Royal Court, the ruling class and business classes. there was certainly a class division based on language. The lower classes spoke English and the upper classes spoke French.

But, by the 14th century, English became dominant again, though many French words had been added. Enter Middle English.

This was the English of the poet Chaucer. A bit more understandable to us today that Old English, but still difficult - as any student who had to study Chaucer's Canterbury Tales will tell you.

Take a listen to his Prologue:

Around 1500, there is a distinct change in pronunciation (actually called "The Great Vowel Shift") with vowels being pronounced shorter. The British are much more global and connecting with other languages. Add in the Renaissance of classical learning, and the invention of printing and we get a much more common language. Books being cheaper meant more people learned to read and that led to standardization of English spelling and grammar.

The dialect of London, home of the publishing houses, was the standard. In 1604 the first English dictionary was published.

Though the Early Modern English of Shakespeare still sounds odd to students, the big change that comes after this to late Modern English (1800+) is mostly vocabulary.

For that, we can point to the Industrial Revolution and technology which created many new words (and still does today) and at that time the British Empire was at its height globally. English was spoken around the world and also took on many words from around the world.

Here is a brief History of the English Language in 10 Animated Minutes - from the Open University

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