To speak? Or not to fpeak?
March 18, 2010 1:25 PM   Subscribe

How far back in history can I go before the English language I know and love is of no use to me?

Suppose I had a time machine. How far back in history could I set the dial before people would no longer be able to understand my speech? What about me understanding them? What about writing? If there is no mutual intelligibility between my spoken English and their spoken English, how much further back before I wouldn't even be able to write out my thoughts?
posted by Geppp to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
As you might guess, there wouldn't be a clean break; there are still very limited instances of intelligibility with English and German. But the Great Vowel Shift, starting around 1450 would probably be the single biggest hurdle, as it's commonly the demcaraction between Modern and Middle English.
posted by spaltavian at 1:31 PM on March 18, 2010

This is a difficult (impossible?) question to answer, since there isn't mutual intelligibility between all contemporary dialects of English.
posted by aught at 1:34 PM on March 18, 2010

You need to define what you mean by "to be understood." Even if you went back only as far as the 50s, for example, you'd be understood, but most people would instantly mark you as somehow different, although they might not know exactly why -- they'd just think you were from another part of the country, perhaps, because of your word choices, inflections, non-verbal reactions, etc.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:36 PM on March 18, 2010

Seconding spaltavian: the Great Vowel Shift would seem to be a major turning point, though according to Wikipedia it lasted 300 years. Definitely not a single brief event you could set your time machine to.

Another useful Wikipedia link: The earliest recognizable English is probably "Early Modern English" (with the example text from Paradise Lost being pretty readable). Of course, since audio recording didn't come around until recently, I'm not sure it's possible to know if that language was spoken anything like what we speak today. It's been said (even here on MetaFilter) that Shakespearian English sounded more like modern American English than British English, for what's it's worth.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 1:40 PM on March 18, 2010

Yeah, impossible perhaps to answer. But as a generic answer, I'd second spaltavian in saying that the Great Vowel Shift, which lasted roughly from 1450 to 1750, would probably be the barrier you're looking for. As a gross simplification, the great vowel shift is what pushed middle english - which you probably wouldn't be able to understand well, to early modern english (Shakespeare) to modern english, which is essentially what we use today.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:40 PM on March 18, 2010

Ah, my answer is pretty much exactly what Parker Lewis said, a few seconds later. Seconded. (or thirded or whatever).
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:41 PM on March 18, 2010

I want to point out that there's an experience which I think every speaker of English should have which illustrates this somewhat nicely. You should try reading Chaucer's Caunterbury Tales in the original Middle English; it's truly an interesting process, as you'll find that at first it's very strange and alien, but as you get used to it (and particularly if you read it out loud) it will slowly start to be perfectly intelligible. I actually believe that you would have been able to understand and communicate, with some work, in Chaucer's time – which was six hundred years ago, as the Caunterbury Tales were written around 1400.

One thing you'll notice in reading through Caunterbury Tales as well is that English is a language particularly focused on the spoken word. In fact, written English has almost always simply followed on spoken English, so I don't think you would have had tremendous trouble with that once you'd learned the current system of phonetics (which was not very different from it is today). People would not have been the ridiculous sticklers about spelling that they are today, and you'd probably get by just fine.
posted by koeselitz at 2:06 PM on March 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

2nd aught. It probably also depends on your accent and experience with accents. I had a hell of a time with non-Dublin Irish accents just a few years ago. When I was a kid I met a woman from Dunedin that I couldn't make head nor tail of.
posted by pompomtom at 2:09 PM on March 18, 2010

So - I guess I disagree with the above. I think you can go back to before the "Great Vowel Shift" and still be communicating effectively, though it might take a little bit of getting used to. In my experience, most native speakers of English can read Chaucer in the original, sometimes quite smoothly.
posted by koeselitz at 2:09 PM on March 18, 2010

One important milestone for English was the adoption of the Chancery Standard which was a common bureaucratic form. "Common" is a key word here since English had many dialects. Chancery Standard came in during the 1420s and took maybe fifty years to become, well, the standard for written English. But examine manuscripts for yourself at, for instance, the British Library website. Can you read the 1410 Chaucer? After about 1470 I expect you can read most printed works (though handwritten script might be a problem.) So what about spoken language? Could you understand Chaucer's speech? Probably not (but try reading this aloud and see).

But there is something else here: If you are a time-traveler who drops into medieval England you might be able to pass as someone with a different regional dialect. And you might recognize enough of the language, wherever you are, to muddle through.
posted by CCBC at 2:17 PM on March 18, 2010

Well, just for a frame of reference, here's an excerpt from a performance of Beowulf in its original Old English. Listen to part of it without looking at the subtitles, and see if you can pick up anything (I'm guessing not). This would be the language in about 1000 AD.

Now here's part of the Canterbury Tales, recited in Middle English. This would be at the end of the 1300s/early 1400s. It's much easier to pick out modern words, but still pretty foreign sounding. But you could probably get the gist of what someone was saying if they repeated it slowly enough. Given enough exposure, your ear could become quite used to it.

Then there's Early Modern English, which is what you hear -more or less- in Shakespeare's works. If you were plopped into the middle of 1550s or 1600s London, you'd be able to understand well enough, and even have conversations, but people sure would look at you weird, and they'd immediately place you for an out-of-towner, if not a foreigner. But if you are talented at mimicking accents, after several days you could probably speak as they do.

posted by castlebravo at 2:30 PM on March 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

Other things to remember are that accents and dialects were "stronger" before mass communication and universal education. George Stephenson (the engineer) is often reputed to have required an interpretor when in London, due to his accent/dialect making him hard to understand. I don't know if the story is quite true, but it shows that even just 200 years ago, "standard" English was perhaps not, you know, the standard.

If you have a US accent and a early 21st century dialect, you and George Stephenson may well have trouble communicating. On the flip side, perhaps some Midlands dialects would be relatively easy to communicate with as much as 500 years ago, despite the changes in words and pronunciation. Beyond that however you're definitely into the area where it might take a lot of repeating and talking slowly to communicate at all. At least that's my impression.

As for writing, well, by 1400 or so you're pretty much in the clear as that's around the time English was "fixed", as mentioned with the Chancery Standard. It has changed a little, and by no means did everybody write like that immediately, but it's much more what you're used to. You may well be able to write understandable messages to people up to a hundred years earlier than that, but it would depend on how many different kinds of written English they've seen.

Here's The Book of Margery Kempe, which is early 1400s, though somewhat non-standard. With a little adjustment it's really no so hard to understand a lot of it. Here's Mannyng's Chronicle from about a hundred years earlier. Much of it is hard to understand without a fair amount of work, though some is still clear.
posted by Sova at 2:33 PM on March 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'll nth most of what's been said upthread, but in terms of the written language: based on my own experience of doing the grand historical literary sweep: Piers Plowman, Sir Gawain and Pearl feel like they need translating; Chaucer doesn't.
posted by holgate at 2:54 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

CCBC: “So what about spoken language? Could you understand Chaucer's speech? Probably not...”

When I went to school, we were all required to read Chaucer in the original, and very few people had difficulties after getting the hang of it. I'm sure Chaucerian English takes a bit of getting used to, but after some trying it makes perfect sense. This is, I think, an inspiring thing about the language, and I encourage people to try it – they'll get more out of it than they think they will.

As a counterexample, I went to school with a fellow who was Greek, and with some work he was able to read Sophocles and Euripides in the original. English is a young language, a language that changes quickly - so it sort of blew my mind to think of reading something in your own language that's 2,500 years old. Wow.
posted by koeselitz at 2:59 PM on March 18, 2010

I went to school with a fellow who was Greek, and with some work he was able to read Sophocles and Euripides in the original.

The reverse applies: a friend who'd studied classics got a job that involved travelling around the Mediterranean, and he used his knowledge of classical Greek to have conversations with fishermen about the sea, fish and boats, i.e. elemental stuff that hasn't changed too much in the past 2,500 years.
posted by holgate at 3:07 PM on March 18, 2010

Seconding accents as being a very significant confounding variable. Go back 100-150 years, even just in the United States, and you'd find plenty of provincial and immigrant accents that are damn near indecipherable by ear, despite being more or less standard English. Mass communication and cheap transportation have had a profound homogenizing effect since then.
posted by dephlogisticated at 3:09 PM on March 18, 2010

CCBC: But there is something else here: If you are a time-traveler who drops into medieval England you might be able to pass as someone with a different regional dialect. And you might recognize enough of the language, wherever you are, to muddle through."

That's one important thing to keep in mind: especially before the advent of the printing press and subsequent standardization of the language English in particular was a patchwork of regional dialects, with vocabulary often differing according to what nations had recently conquered this particular spot. There is a famous piece by Caxton on that topic:
For we Englysshe men ben borne under the domynacyon of the mone, whiche is never stedfaste but ever waverynge, wexynge one season and waneth and dyscreaseth another season. And that comyn Englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a-nother, in so moche that in my dayes happened that certayn marchauntes were in a ship in Tamyse for to have sayled over the see into Zelande, and, for lacke of wynde, thei taryed atte Forlond, and wente to lande for to refreshe them. And one of theym named Sheffelde, a mercer, cam in to an hows and axed for mete and specyally he axyd after eggys, and the goode wyf answerde that she could speke no Frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry, for he also coude speke no Frenshe, but wolde have hadde egges; and she understode hym not. And thenne at laste a-nother sayd that he wolde have eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she understod hym wel. Loo, what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, egges, or eyren? Certaynly it is hard to playse every man, by-cause of dyversite and chaunge of langage.
So bear in mind that your ability to understand and make yourself understood may vary drastically depending on location.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 3:27 PM on March 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oh, something I forgot to mention: they may not be able to read your handwriting, nor you theirs. This Paston Letter of 1477 is pretty readable to modern eyes, but only in transliteration. A picture of the same letter shows how difficult it would be to read in practice.
posted by Sova at 5:22 PM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh wow! These answers were more than enough to satisfy my curiosity. Thanks for the detailed replies!
posted by Geppp at 11:06 PM on March 18, 2010

Regarding accent/dialects: I found and bought my wife (who has been a linguist) a copy of an early 20th century survey of the five major dialects of Yorkshire.
posted by rodgerd at 12:14 AM on March 19, 2010

Not a direct answer, but a pointer to information which might give more insight. I love the Oxford English Dictionary's Word of the Day. The example sentences go back as far as the editors can find references for it, often into Middle or Old English, and you can see how intelligible or unintelligible the sentences from various eras are to you. Today's word, fathom (n.) is particularly good since they've traced it back to the 8th century. (Others are not so useful for you, such as paraflight from a few days ago where the earliest usage they've found was 1980, but I love that they have both ancient and recent words, and everything in between, as their words of the day.) Unfortunately, they don't make archives of the word of the day publicly available, so you can only see one word a day, but the RSS feed can at least show you the earliest quotation for previous entries.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:34 AM on March 19, 2010

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