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[personal profile] martyfan
So I've had a few people talk to me lately who are convinced that Shakespeare wrote in Old English. Being an English major and a passionate yet asexual lover of books, this bugs the ever-loving shit out of me. Therefore I have decided to write up a quick history lesson... ish... thing. Including examples!

So a long time ago, Britain was inhabited by people called the Picts. Then the Celts came along and the Picts eventually disappeared off someplace, and everything was fine and dandy until the Romans showed up in 43 BCE to hang out, build roads, subjugate the locals, you know. The usual. While they were there, they flung a few Latin influences into the English language. During this time, the only writing that was done was in RUNES. That would be these things. The Latin alphabet influenced a change in the way things were written, but as writing wasn't in widespread circulation, there was no such thing as standardized spelling or even what alphabet should be used, so runes stayed in use until around 1100 BCE.

One of the earliest known English works that still exists is a poem called Cædmon's Hymn, written in about the 7th century. This is what part of it looks like. It's not very clear, so here's a typed version of what it says:

Nū scylun hergan hefaenrīces Uard,
Metudæs maecti end his mōdgidanc,
uerc Uuldurfadur, suē hē uundra gihuaes,
ēci dryctin, ōr āstelidæ.
Hē āērist scōp aelda barnum
heben til hrōfe, hāleg Scepen.
Thā middungeard moncynnæs Uard,
ēci Dryctin, æfter tīadæ
firum foldu, Frēa allmectig.


Does that look like Shakespeare? Nope. Doesn't even look like English, does it? But you might be thinking, well if it's not standardized, maybe it's just this one guy. I present exhibit B, one of the most famous works of Old English, the epic poem Beowulf, written down somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries (it was all oral before then):

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
5
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
10
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning!
Ðæm eafera wæs æfter cenned,
geong in geardum, þone god sende
folce to frofre; fyrenðearfe ongeat
15
þe hie ær drugon aldorlease
lange hwile. Him þæs liffrea,
wuldres wealdend, woroldare forgeaf;
Beowulf wæs breme (blæd wide sprang),
Scyldes eafera Scedelandum in.


And then it goes on like that for a long, LONG time. About three THOUSAND one hundred eighty-two lines, to be exact. And I'm willing to bet that none of that looks much like English to people either.

Okay, so that's Old English then. So how did we get from that to what I'm writing in now?

Well, in 1066 BCE, the Normans thought it would be fantastic to invade. Hell, the island had already been invaded by the Celts, the Romans, the Vikings, the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes, the Danes, the Romans (again), why not them? So they came in and brought French with them, setting it as the language of the court or upper-class people. (On a side and unimportant note, this is why we have different words for the kinds of meat we get from an animal, for example pork vs. pig. Pork came from the old French word for pig, whereas pig comes from the Old English word for... pig. Whatever that was. Incidentally, this is also why a lot of our swear words are considered more vulgar than their "polite" equivalents.) So anyway, the upper class spoke French, the lower class spoke English, and the middle class were bilingual. Eventually the two languages merged a bit into a creole (not Creole with a capital C), and when disasters like the Black Plague rolled around in 1250, it killed off a third of the population, and then more plagues hit in the 14th to 15th centuries, killing even more people. This condensed the language further, and with the addition of lots of people joining convents to avoid the wrath of God and thus learning Latin, this gave us Middle English.

One of the more prominent pieces of literature in Middle English is The Canterbury Tales, written in the 14th century. It looks like this:

Whan that Aueryłł wt his shoures soote,
The droghte of Marcħ, hath perced to the roote;
And bathed euery veyne in swich lycour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek wt his sweete breeth,
Inspired hath in euery holt and heeth;
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne,
Hath in the Ram, his half cours yronne;
And smale foweles, maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open iye;
So priketh hem nature, in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrymages;
And Palmeres for to seeken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from euery shyres ende,
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende;
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan þt they weere seeke.


Does this look like English? Compared to Old English, it's a hell of a leap. Everything just looks spelled wrong, and half the words don't make sense, but it's more readable. Reading it out loud helps it make even more sense (hint: pronounce every letter as written with no silent letters and all vowels are short. It tends to come out vaguely Irish-esque when I do it).

And yet, this still isn't Shakespeare, is it?

Starting in about 1450 and continuing until around 1750, there was a major shift in the way vowels are pronounced in the English language, called the Great Vowel Shift. With it came the invention of the printing press, which stabilized spelling (well, more than it had been) and also led to more people being taught to read and write. And in the late 16th century, that is when Shakespeare showed up, and he wrote in Early Modern English. What did his stuff look like?

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.


Is it more flowery and pretentious than we're used to seeing nowadays? Definitely. Does it use vocabulary choice we're unfamiliar with? Perhaps. Is it Old English? NO. Compared to even Middle English, Shakespeare is as easy to read as See Spot Run. It even uses all the same letters we do, whereas Old English throws in symbols the average person doesn't know.

Thanks to the Renaissance, and peoples of the British Empire making contact with other nations, a lot of foreign words got adopted and thrown into the language. Spelling and grammar became more and more rigidly fixed as more books were printed, and in 1604 the first English dictionary was published, though it took until 1755 for the first Modern English dictionary to come around. The difference between those two dictionaries, and therefore the dialects, is mostly just vocabulary. That's it. That's all that separates us from how Shakespeare wrote.

Not looking like such Old English now, is it?


This entry took me an hour to write. Hopefully it helps SOMEBODY. :/ I'm going to unlock just this one entry, so maybe other people will see it.

on 2009-09-17 12:45 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] foxywriter.livejournal.com
As I said earlier, I SHARE YOUR PAIN! I get to hear it every year when I teach Shakespeare to the high schoolers, and I'm so over it. When I was writing and researching PIT2, I learned in intimate detail about old English, middle English, and modern English. The teacher in me cringes to hear the kiddies today be so uninformed!

on 2009-09-17 01:00 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] martyfan.livejournal.com
I learned a lot of this in British Literature last year - we started not with the actual writing, but the history of how the language evolved, which was kind of awesome. Learned all sorts of nifty tidbits I never knew before, like the swear words vs. "polite" words thing, as well as why it changed to be the wacky hybrid that it is now. (Although it took me until taking German this year that I understand our silent "gh"s, for example, night - it comes from the German word nicht, where the "ch" is pronounced kind of like cat hissing.)

It also came in handy when I wrote my story for NaNoWriMo, although I went the other way. The main character is from the 51st century and speaks a language that descended from English, but he lives on a colony world and humans have had contact with non-English-speaking aliens for centuries, so the vocabulary and sentence structure's changed enough that it's like us trying to understand Old English in runic form. I haven't gone far enough to fully invent a whole new form of English just for that, since the narration would get boring that way and make no sense if I told it in gibberish, but I like to throw it in where appropriate.

on 2009-09-17 01:47 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] cleothemuse.livejournal.com
Allow me to introduce to you a friend of mine: [livejournal.com profile] aelfgyfu_mead. Aelf is a professor of Anglo-Saxon Studies (or some such), and gets giddy over Old English stuff.

Philology is fascinating, and early this evening, I was discussing with my parents how the rapid advance of communications technology is probably the only reason English-speakers across the world can still somewhat understand one another!

on 2009-09-17 03:03 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] martyfan.livejournal.com
Hee, I've read some of Aelf's fanfics (as well as the Beowulf rants). Good stuff! A guest speaker in my Brit Lit class last year (husband of our professor) told us all about how he got to actually handle the actual manuscript that Beowulf is in. I'll have to share that story sometime. :)

I found out an interesting thing the other day - the reason why languages like Dutch are so phonetically spelled is because every ten years or so, they revise all their spellings to keep up with any pronunciation shifts. Imagine what that would be like if Anglophone countries did that. England, Australia, and the US would no longer be able to talk to each other without a lot of huhwhatnow?

on 2009-09-17 03:09 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] cleothemuse.livejournal.com
The Soviets did that to the Russian language, too. Double letters were removed, spellings were standardized, and all but a few of the more common verbs were given a consistent conjugation.

Eep, yes. There'd be enough problems just in the U.S. itself! (Now is that the Southern spelling, "eys", the Upper-Midwest "ays", or the traditional "ice"?)
Edited on 2009-09-17 03:13 am (UTC)

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