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Medievalists net: The Distinctions among Old English, Middle English, and Modern English

By Danièle Cybulskie

When people study Shakespeare in high school, I often hear them refer to his language as “Old English.” As far as the language goes, Shakespeare’s English actually falls under the category of “Modern English.” This may be a little hard to believe, considering the conspicuous lack of “thee” and “thou” in modern writing, but the forms of English that came before are even more foreign.

The most noticeable difference between older forms of English and today’s English is the alphabet. In the Middle Ages, English had five additional letters:

Æ / æ (ash) – sounds like the “a” in “cat”
Þ / þ (thorn) – sounds like “th” as in “the”
Ð / ð (eth) – sounds like “th” as in “Seth”
Ƿ / ƿ (wyn) – sounds like “w” as in “will”
Ȝ / ȝ (yogh) – sounds like “gh” as in “thought” (although it has a more throaty, phlegmy sound)

Opening page from Beowulf – British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV

The first form of recorded English, which we call “Old English,” was spoken and written before the Norman Conquest of 1066 AD, although it continued to be used afterwards. (Old English is also sometimes referred to as Anglo-Saxon, since it was the language of those people.) Even though it is the ancestor of today’s English, it is hardly recognizable to modern eyes.

As an example, here is an excerpt from the most famous work in Old English: Beowulf:

Cōm on wanre niht / scrīðan sceadu-genga
In the dark night he came / creeping, the shadow-goer
(translation by R.M. Liuzza in Beowulf: A New Verse Translation)

Because of the huge differences in language, Beowulf is hardly ever read in Old English these days. (I recommend Liuzza’s translation for modern readers.)

Opening page of The Wife of Bath’s Prologue Tale, from the Ellesmere manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

“Middle English” came about after the Norman Conquest, when the Norman French of the conquering people integrated itself into Old English, increasing vocabulary immensely. This English evolved steadily over several hundred years, and is a little easier to read, as you can see from the first two lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…
When that April with his showers sweet / The drought of March has pierced to the root…

As you can see, even Middle English seems far-removed from the English we use today, but it is looking much more similar to the language of Shakespeare.

Although the invention of the printing press helped to level out our alphabet and to standardize spelling, it didn’t stop the evolution of our language. After all, Modern English encompasses everything from Shakespeare’s words to text-message short forms. In a few hundred years, who knows what shape English will take? An interesting question. Ttyl.

Danièle Cybulskie is the lead columnist of Medievalists.net and the host of The Medieval Podcast. She studied Cultural Studies and English at Trent University, earning her MA at the University of Toronto, where she specialized in medieval literature and Renaissance drama. You can follow her on Twitter @5MinMedievalist or visit her website, danielecybulskie.com.

Click here to read more from Danièle Cybulskie

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