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Monday, March 20, 2017

How Far Back In Time Could You Go And Still Understand English?

The English language has changed over time - if you had a time machine, how far back could you go and still understand English? At what point in history would you not be able to understand?


If you went back in time to the 1800's and 1700's, you'd probably still be okay. This except is from the book 'Robinson Crusoe', in 1719:

"I, poor miserable Robinson Crusoe, 
being shipwrecked during a dreadful storm in the offing, 
came on shore on this dismal, unfortunate island, 
which I called “The Island of Despair”

That's fairly easy to understand, but you might struggle with old slang words like 'batty fang' and 'kickerapoo'.

batty fang - a beating
kickerapoo - dead
land pirates - highway robbers
gutfoundered - very hungry
whapper - a big lie
Nitsqueeger - Hairdresser
Xantippe - an ill tempered wife
Abbess - a nun
Thornback - a spinster
Barber-monger - a vain man
Bleater - someone who complains a lot
Brabble - to quarrel loudly
Crapulous - the feeling of being too full
Hugger-mugger - secretly
Lettice-cap - a medical device like a hair net
Pigarlik - a bald head
Petty fogger - a dodgy lawyer
Mumpsimus - the act of sticking to old mistaken beliefs about language and customs simply out of habit

The 1600s is the time of Shakespeare. 

"Thy natural magic and dire property,
On wholesome life usurp immediately."

Here, Lucianus talking about the natural magic of poison. and how using it to kill the king will usurp the throne.

Trickier to follow, but not everyone spoke like that. You would hear lots of words you didn't understand though.

The bigger problem for you now is the pronunciation. The sound of the vowels has changed, and the accent is becoming much harder to understand. 

For example, "tea" is pronounced "tay", and "gone" is pronounced "goan".

In the 1500s people essentially speak like the Bible. 

"Now therefore thus saith the Lord, 
Thou shalt not come down 
from that bed on which thou 
art gone up, but shalt surely die."

KJV 2 Kings 1:4

There are also hundreds of words that don't mean a thing to you. 

Before about 1400 AD, you'd hear Middle English, and you would hardly understand anything, written or spoken. 

"Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;"

The Canterbury Tales, 1389

If you went all the way back to one 1000 AD, you'd hear Old English:

Lord's Prayer

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum;
Si þin nama gehalgod
to becume þin rice
gewurþe ðin willa
on eorðan swa swa 
on heofonum.

Good luck explaining that you need 'one point twenty-one Jigawatts' to get home!

h/t PreSurfer


  1. An "Abbess" in the 18th century was NOT a nun. She ran a brothel.

  2. King James Version of the Bible is from the early 17th century (1600s), not the 1500s.

    Also, Shakespeare died in 1616, and he stopped writing some years before that, so his writing reflects the language only of about the first decade of the 1600s.

    1. The KJV was based on earlier translations (most notably the Tyndale Bible of 1526) which supply much of its text. (Something like 80% of the words of the KJV come from Tyndale by way of the Great Bible and the Bishop's Bible, and nearly 1/3 of it is word-for-word Tyndale.) The rest was made to match the already archaic style of the source material.

  3. A more difficult problem than the vocabulary would be the accents. Since there are no recordings from these eras, we don't know how they sounded. But chances are that the ways of pronunciation were different, and would make it difficult to understand.

  4. Because poetry uses rhyme, you can "reverse engineer" probable phonetics. So verses of Shakespeare or Chaucer can be used to identify how people actually spoke at the time...

    Oh, and abbess is not a common nun but head of a nunnery.

  5. I visited England about ten years ago (from USA) and could barely understand some of them there folks, especially ones I met from Scotland and Wales. I'd wager that they had no easier time understanding me.

    Based upon that and upon how differently American and British English have evolved over the mere course of America's existence, I should think that English of three hundred years ago would be virtually indecipherable to modern American ears, even English spoken in the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania of that time, much less that spoken in rural England or other colonies.

  6. Fun video. Shared on Twitter, facebook and G+.