English, with all its vagaries and annoying inconsistencies, remains the single most important and influential language in today’s world. It has proved itself the most flexible and resilient of languages, remarkable for its ability to adopt and absorb vocabulary from other cultures. It has survived incursions by invading armies, outfaced potential extinction on more than one occasion, and navigated the changing cultural zeitgeist, growing ever stronger in the process. Its continued vitality is evidenced by the number and diversity of its worldwide variations today.
The history of the English language has been subsequently neatly divded, by modern scholars, into about 5 distinct periods. Of course the language itself has ever been evolving and would have transformed gradually over time so we shouldn’t regard these periods as absolute but see the English language as a spectrum of change, morphing gradually over time.
The main phases identified by scholars are : Old English; Middle English; Early Modern English; Late Modern English and English Today.
The Main Influences on the Development of the English Language
c500 – c1100
c1100 – c1500
Great Vowel Shift
Early Modern English
c1500 – c1800
Late Modern English
c1800 – Present
As you can see from the above diagram, Middle English spanned the period from c1100 – c1500 AD so looking at the English of Chaucer, whose works appeared mid-way through this period, is a good way of trying to asses what Middle English might have sounded like, and whether we, today, would even be able to understand it.
A Middle English reading of John Skelton’s poem “Speke Parrot”
An Extract from the Miller’s Tale by Chaucer Read Aloud in Middle English
3687 Whan that the firste cok hath crowe, anon When the first cock has crowed (about midnight), at once 3688 Up rist this joly lovere Absolon, Up rises this elegant lover Absolon, 3689 And hym arraieth gay, at poynt-devys. And dresses himself handsomely, in every detail. 3690 But first he cheweth greyn and lycorys, But first he chews cardamom and licorice, 3691 To smellen sweete, er he hadde kembd his heer. To smell sweet, ere he had combed his hair. 3692 Under his tonge a trewe-love he beer, Under his tongue he had a true-love herb, 3693 For therby wende he to ben gracious. For thus he thought he would be gracious. 3694 He rometh to the carpenteres hous, He goes to the carpenter’s house, 3695 And stille he stant under the shot-wyndowe — And he stands still under the casement window — 3696 Unto his brest it raughte, it was so lowe — Unto his breast it reached, it was so low — 3697 And softe he cougheth with a semy soun: And softly he coughs with a gentle sound: 3698 “What do ye, hony-comb, sweete Alisoun, “What do you, honey-comb, sweet Alisoun, 3699 My faire bryd, my sweete cynamome? My fair bird, my sweet cinnamon? 3700 Awaketh, lemman myn, and speketh to me! Awake, sweetheart mine, and speak to me! 3701 Wel litel thynken ye upon my wo, Well little you think upon my woe, 3702 That for youre love I swete ther I go. That for your love I sweat wherever I go. 3703 No wonder is thogh that I swelte and swete; No wonder is though that I swelter and sweat; 3704 I moorne as dooth a lamb after the tete. I mourn as does a lamb after the tit. 3705 Ywis, lemman, I have swich love-longynge Indeed, sweetheart, I have such love-longing 3706 That lik a turtel trewe is my moornynge. That like a true turtledove is my mourning. 3707 I may nat ete na moore than a mayde.” I can eat no more than a maiden.”
3708 “Go fro the wyndow, Jakke fool,” she sayde; “Go from the window, you idiot,” she said; 3709 “As help me God, it wol nat be `com pa me.’ “So help me God, it will not be `come kiss me.’ 3710 I love another — and elles I were to blame — I love another — and else I were to blame — 3711 Wel bet than thee, by Jhesu, Absolon. Well better than thee, by Jesus, Absolon. 3712 Go forth thy wey, or I wol caste a ston, Go forth thy way, or I will cast a stone, 3713 And lat me slepe, a twenty devel wey!” And let me sleep, in the name of twenty devils!” 3714 “Allas,” quod Absolon, “and weylawey, “Alas,” said Absolon, “and woe is me, 3715 That trewe love was evere so yvel biset! That true love was ever in such miserable circumstances! 3716 Thanne kysse me, syn it may be no bet, Then kiss me, since it can be no better, 3717 For Jhesus love, and for the love of me.” For Jesus’ love, and for the love of me.”
3718 “Wiltow thanne go thy wey therwith?” quod she. “Wilt thou then go thy way with that?” said she.
3719 “Ye, certes, lemman,” quod this Absolon. “Yes, certainly, sweetheart,” said this Absolon.
3720 “Thanne make thee redy,” quod she, “I come anon.” “Then make thee ready,” said she, “I come right now.” 3721 And unto Nicholas she seyde stille, And unto Nicholas she said quietly, 3722 “Now hust, and thou shalt laughen al thy fille.” “Now hush, and thou shalt laugh all thy fill.”
3723 This Absolon doun sette hym on his knees This Absolon set himself down on his knees 3724 And seyde, “I am a lord at alle degrees; And said, “I am a lord in every way; 3725 For after this I hope ther cometh moore. For after this I hope there comes more. 3726 Lemman, thy grace, and sweete bryd, thyn oore!” Sweetheart, thy grace, and sweet bird, thy mercy!”
3727 The wyndow she undoth, and that in haste. The window she undoes, and that in haste. 3728 “Have do,” quod she, “com of, and speed the faste, “Get done with it,” said she, “come on, and hurry up, 3729 Lest that oure neighebores thee espie.” Lest our neighbors espy thee.”
3730 This Absolon gan wype his mouth ful drie. This Absolon wiped his mouth very dry. 3731 Derk was the nyght as pich, or as the cole, Dark was the night as pitch, or as the coal, 3732 And at the wyndow out she putte hir hole, And at the window out she put her hole, 3733 And Absolon, hym fil no bet ne wers, And Absolon, to him it happened no better nor worse, 3734 But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers But with his mouth he kissed her naked ass 3735 Ful savourly, er he were war of this. With great relish, before he was aware of this. 3736 Abak he stirte, and thoughte it was amys, Back he jumped, and thought it was amiss, 3737 For wel he wiste a womman hath no berd. For well he knew a woman has no beard. 3738 He felte a thyng al rough and long yherd, He felt a thing all rough and long haired, 3739 And seyde, “Fy! allas! what have I do?” And said, “Fie! alas! what have I done?”
3740 “Tehee!” quod she, and clapte the wyndow to, “Tehee!” said she, and clapped the window to, 3741 And Absolon gooth forth a sory pas. And Absolon goes forth walking sadly.
3742 “A berd! A berd!” quod hende Nicholas, “A beard! A beard!” said clever Nicholas, 3743 “By Goddes corpus, this goth faire and weel.” “By God’s body, this goes fair and well.”
3744 This sely Absolon herde every deel, This hapless Absolon heard every bit, 3745 And on his lippe he gan for anger byte, And on his lip he began for anger to bite, 3746 And to hymself he seyde, “I shal thee quyte.” And to himself he said, “I shall pay thee back.”