Follow TV Tropes


Useful Notes / History of English

Go To

Ye knowe eeknote , that in forme of speche is chaungenote 
With-inne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden prysnote , now wondernote  nycenote  and straungenote 
Us thinketh hemnote ; and yet they spakenote  hem so,
And speddenote  as wel in love as men now do;
Eek for to winne love in sondrynote  ages,
In sondry londesnote , sondry been usages.note 
Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, Book II (roughly, "You know that language changes over a thousand years, and words that were then in use now seem strange to us; but they really did talk that way, and they spoke as eloquently about love as anyone did in any age or country.")

TV writers often have an odd idea of what "old-fashioned" English sounds like. Generally, they seem to think, it sounds vaguely like Shakespeare or the King James Bible, with plenty of "thee"s and "thou"s and verbs ending in "-est" or "-eth". This results in the bizarre fake language Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe, a bastardization of modern English grammar and vocabulary, with archaic terms sprinkled throughout. Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe is occasionally even dignified with the name "Old English"; this, naturally, is quyte wronge.

Note: If this stuff interests you, and you're not already an academic linguist, The History of English Podcast by Kevin Stroud is a great and much more detailed introduction (all done in a delightful soft Southern accent, in case you've ever wondered what the Beowulf poet would sound like if he was a trusts and estates lawyer from eastern North Carolina).

Old English

Actual Old English, which developed after the Angles, Saxons and Jutes settled in England at about the 5th century, was spoken until about 1100 (a convenient cutoff is 1066 as the literary record almost stops after the Norman invasion and doesn't really pick up again until Chaucer and company). It is the earliest form of the English language, and provided the base for English's grammar, vocabulary and phonology. A West Germanic language, it is closely related to Modern Frisian and Dutch, and slightly less closely related to German, to Old Norse and its modern descendants like Swedish, and to the extinct Gothic language. Along with its native West-Germanic vocabulary, it has a few Celtic loanwords, and obtained substantial influence from Old Norse in the tenth and eleventh centuries. It goes to show how much English has changed, with features such as noun declensions that modern English doesn't have. As an example, the first two lines of a 7th century poem called "Cædmon's Hymn" are:

Nu scilun herga hefenricæs uard
metudæs mehti and his modgithancnote 

An excerpt from Aelfric's "Homily on St. Gregory the Great" reads as follows:

Eft he axode, hu ðere ðeode nama wære þe hi of comon. Him was geandwyrd, þæt he Angle genemnode wæron. þa cwæð he: "Rihtlice hi sind Angle gehatene, for ðan ðe hi engla wlite habbað, and swilcum gedafenað þæt hi on heofonum engla geferan beon.
(Translation: "Again he [St Gregory] asked what might be the name of the people from which they came. It was answered to him that they were named Angles. Then quoth he, 'Rightly they are called Angles, for they have the beauty of angels, and it is fitting that such as they should in heaven angels' companions be.")note 

People who wish to hear what Old English sounded like can watch the DVD of Benjamin Bagby's recitation of Beowulf; it's available on Netflix. Michael Drout has also made recordings of all surviving Old English poetry available free at his site. The excellent Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf is printed in Old English and modern English on facing pages.

The Old English alphabet contains a few letters that didn't survive into modern times: þ, thorn; ð, eth; ȝ, yogh; and ƿ, wynn. The first two represent the "th" sound (as in "thin" and "then" respectively, although they are mostly used interchangeably in manuscript spellings); yogh, hard and soft "g"; and wynn, "w". (Thorn and eth are still used in modern-day Icelandic for more or less the same sounds as in Old English.)

Old English literature makes extensive use of the kenning, a poetic allusion—such as referring to the ocean as the "whale-road"—that was often standardized into cliche; and the litotes, a form of understatement, which Old English speakers were not unlikely to use. (Some things never change it seems.) Kennings were mainly used to get a word with the right sound at the beginning, because Old English poetry was based on Added Alliterative Appeal, not "rhyme".

It's important to note that the Old English period lasted some 500-600 years and the language was neither static over time nor uniform across space. The "standard" Old English used in most texts from the period was really just a snapshot of the language in one place (Wessex) and one era (the Old English literary Golden Age of the 10th century). This standard was consciously promoted by the government and the English Church, particularly by King Edgar and his chief minister, the sainted Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury.note  This literary Old English is actually probably not the variety ancestral to the modern standard English, which owes more to the largely unwritten contemporaneous Mercian dialect of London.

Particularly significant is that the Standard West Saxon preserved in the books is also the dialect least impacted by contact with Old Norse. Norse-speaking vikingsnote from Denmark and Norway first raided, then conquered and settled the northern and eastern parts of England (broadly north of the Thames and east of Watling Street), a region historically known as the Danelaw. Within the Danelaw, Anglo-Saxons and Danes intermingled, as did their languages.

Since Old English and Old Norse were both Germanic languages, they shared a lot of vocabulary, especially if you learned to mentally adjust for sound changes (like how the Anglo-Saxons said "sh" where the Norse had "sk"). However, the languages had very different inflectional endings that made it really hard to follow each other's grammar. After a while, though, the "English" and "Danes" figured out that if they just dropped (most of) the inflections and used word order to indicate parts of speech, they could understand each other pretty well.note  The dearth of inflections and reliance on word order is a hallmark of modern English grammar, and was almost certainly a feature of the Danelaw dialects of Old English at the time of the Conquest. Besides this grammatical development, Danelaw dialects of Old English absorbed tons of Old Norse vocabulary, including many basic words like pronouns (e.g. "they").

Almost none of this shows up in the written Old English of the period, since that was largely done in the standard West Saxon that preserved pre-viking grammar and accepted few Norse loanwords. However, a few inscriptions from the Danelaw, such as that of the Kirkdale sundial from 11th-century Yorkshire, strongly suggest that these key grammatical and lexical shifts already existed in England before the Conquest. It seems to have ended up in today's standard English by way of London; London's old East Mercian dialect was heavily influenced by Norse after the Danish conquest, as the city was originally part of the Danelaw. Even though Wessex took the city itself fairly quickly (within Alfred the Great's lifetime), the border with the Danelaw was never far away and the Norse influence still seeped in.

Though Old English words make up a relatively small fraction of modern English vocabulary, they do include many if not most of the most commonly used words (depending on how you count and also depending on how you analyze certain ambiguous etymologies).note  It's basically impossible to create a sentence devoid of Old English vocabulary, but quite easy to write one with hardly any words having any other roots.note  Furthermore, "small fraction" doesn't mean much when it comes to English vocabulary, because English has such a large vocabulary, that this "small fraction" isn't really that small when push comes to shove.

For more about Old English, go here.

Middle English

XXIII. For to make Tartys in Applis. Tak gode Applys and gode Spycis and Figys and reyſons and Perys and wan they are wel ybrayed co-lourd wyth Safron wel and do yt in a cofyn and do yt forth to bake wel.note 
Master Cooks of King Richard II, The Forme of Curynote  (1390)

To one island full of Old English speakers, add one Norman invasion led by William The Conqueror, stir thoroughly to mix, and let settle. The resulting mix is Middle English, heavily influenced by the French- and Latin-speaking ruling class that existed after 1066. As you might expect, the term "Middle English" covers a dynamic period of language evolution. Early Middle English wasn't too different from Old English, and still pretty impenetrable to a Modern English-speaker. For example, an early 13th-century poem begins with the lines:

Sanctus Beda was iboren her on Breotene mid us,
And he wisliche bec awende
Þet þeo Englise leoden þurh weren ilerde.note 

By the Late Middle Ages and up through a few decades before Shakespeare's day, the language had developed to the point that it's usually considered to be more understandable for a speaker of modern English (though your mileage may vary.) Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales begins:

Whan that Aprill with his shouresnote  sotenote 
The droughte of March hath percednote  to the roote

Modern English is so standardised that countries as geographically far apart as the UK and Australia (i.e. almost literally as far away as places can be on the Earth) can sell each other entertainment, but Middle English was not: it was so variable from place to place and between generations that many words were not understood outside the immediate area of their origin. Hence Caxton's tale of a traveller from Northern England unable to make a woman in London understand his meaning when he asked her for some eggs: "And the goode wyf answerde, that she coude 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." The reason? What he called "egges," she called "eyren"—the northern dialects used a word borrowed from Old Norse (compare to modern Icelandic egg, Norwegian egg, Danish æg, and Swedish ägg, all pronounced similarly to the English) that eventually became standard, while the southern dialects persisted longer in using the native Old English ey—plural eyren—which is derived from a common West Germanic root shared with Dutch (where it's ei, pl. eieren) and German (where it's Ei, plural Eier).

The process of language mixing was here so variable and untidy that there is no definitive standard to which Middle English may be held. Mercifully, from a historical linguistic perspective, people from this time actually wrote what they heard, in contrast to the etymological spellings of modern English. Those "extra" Es were generally appended only where they were actually pronounced. Thus, the word "egges" above is understood to be not one but two syllables.

Early Modern English

A few centuries and a major vowel shift later (long story short: While the spelling of words stayed the same as they had always been, their pronunciation changed drastically.), Shakespeare and his contemporaries spoke and wrote Early Modern English: mostly understandable to modern English speakers, though with archaic features. This is the language of the King James Bible.Side note  Pseudo-Early-Modern-English seems to be what writers of Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe are aiming for—grammar and vocabulary are modern, and some archaic features are sprinkled in for flavor, without real knowledge of what those features were.

Modern English

What you're reading right now. Although...  (Not the band).

As a written language, Modern English until only relatively recently (we're talking into the 1700s) did not have standardized spelling rules—the same word might be written differently within even the same sentence. This can be seen in any text of the time that has not been edited to make the spellings consistent. Many of the standards people are familiar with were not set until the first dictionaries were printed, and even a good number of those have morphed over time. This also accounts for various spelling differences between British English and American English (and, to a lesser extent, Canadian English), their orthography around different variant spellings of the same words.

Thou, thee, and you

Like many west Indo-European languages, English used to have both singular and plural modes of address — the exact equivalents of "I/we" in first person and "he-she-it-they/they" in third: English "thou", like French "tu", Spanish "tú", and German "du" were all used when speaking to one person; while English "you", French "vous", Spanish "vosotros", note , and German "ihr" were used when speaking to more than one person. Unlike most of those, English has lost its singular mode ("thou") and now uses the plural mode ("you, ye") exclusively (except in a small number of regional dialects. See below for more information).

Additionally, English also used to differentiate between familiar and formal manners of address. Contrary to Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe, it's actually thou which was the familiar, and "you" which was formal—hence the stereotype of Quakers using "thee" and "thou" (they rejected singular "you" as being inegalitarian and "not plain", while Quakers were supposed to be egalitarian and "plain"). English lost the familiar form of address over the course of the 17th century; the most common story is that upper-class people got into a Lensman Arms Race over whose speech was poshest, and eventually started referring to each other exclusively as "you," which later trickled down to everyone else.

"Thou" wasn't always informal, however. It used to be, quite simply, the singular form of address for all contexts. This stayed the case until some time during the Middle English period, when (in imitation of the French nobility) thou slowly became confined to use as an informal pronoun. (Which could be either insulting — thou, baseborn cur, art not worth politeness — or affectionate — thou, my dearest darling, art on such familiar terms with me that there is no need for polite formalities.)

In fact, what is probably the most well known English text, the King James Version of the Bible, opted to use the (by that point very archaic) original use of the pronoun; as a simple, matter-of-fact, second-person-singular pronoun for use in all cases (polite, impolite, or what have you).note  This interesting throwback to the original usage of the pronoun has likely contributed to the word saving face in its perception in today's world. It helped that the Quakers used it indiscriminately as well.

So, one could say in a way that the modern perception of thou is a bit closer to its original use than the informal and degrading nature that it was used with back when it was falling out of use.

The only English dialect still to use forms of "thee" and "thou" in everyday speech is Yorkshire English; and, to a lesser degree, the other dialects found Oop North. (See Last of the Summer Wine for some examples, particularly from the uneducated Compo and, to a lesser extent, Billy, the self-proclaimed descendant of Robin Hood—yes, that one.) In Yorkshire English the "thee" and "thou" are now "thi" and "tha", and there is also "thissen" (informal "yourself"). Here the aforementioned "informal and not all that polite" nuance to thou that thou had developed by the Early Modern English period exists, with "thi" and "tha" being used informally and "you" being used formally and respectfully. See All Creatures Great And Small for examples.

When you use "thou" and the verb "to be" (where we'd say in common usage "You are") it's "thou art." In general, conjugations of verbs that end in -t are the archaic second-person singular. "Do you" is "Dost thou" and the more commonly heard "thou shalt" for "you shall." Other common ones are "thou hast" (you have) and "thou wilt"note  (you will). In the aforementioned northern dialects, conjugation associated with the third person is used (e.g. "thou is", "does thou" "thou shall", "thou has", and "thou will").

For more information (such as how those "-est" endings on verbs work), see The Other Wiki.


Most languages have pronoun cases, and English is no exception. "Thee" is the objective case of the second person singular (used when it's the object of the sentence's action, e.g. "Have at thee!"), while "thou" is the nominative case (used when it's the subject). "Thou":"thee"::"I":"me". "Thy", meanwhile, is the genitive (possessive) case. "Thou":"thy"::"I":"my". Now go forth, troper, and impress thy teachers.

In the "plain speech" of the Amish, "thee" has apparently become used the same way "you" is in surrounding "English" (non-Amish) communities, as both nominative and objective. Until today TheOtherWiki blamed this on an old Oop North dialect, but the evidence is for parallel evolution with "English" contact. For a wider-ranging discussion, see George Fox, Prescriptivist.

Third-person conjugation

Except for the third-person singular conjugation of "be" (he/she/it is), a number of verbs in the singular third person form ended in "-th" or "-eth": he/she loveth, he/she giveth, he/she/it saith, he/she/it hath, etc.; an archaic form whose usage is preserved in the King James Bible.


Most people seem to think that in archaic speech, "mine" can be substituted where we would use "my". Actually, the rules for where to use which are much the same as the rules for using a versus an - "mine" before words starting with a vowel (or an h), "my" before ones with a consonant. So you have "mine eyes!", but also "my feet!" The same rules apply for thy/thine.

Ironically, if you go way back, thy was a variant of "thine" that developed before vowels (or an, often silent, h). The same is true with the article of speech "a" (as in "a house") which was originally just a variant of "an" that developed in the same circumstancesMoreover... .

"Ye Olde Barne Shoppe" and other mutations that make the baby Chaucer cry

"Ye" is often used in the eponymous Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe to mean "the", being pronounced "yee"; this is a case of bad research, as this is in fact just a variant spelling of "the", where the thorn (see under Old English above) was gradually worn down into a similar-looking Y. Originally this was abbreviated with the E floating over the thorn, which is how umlauts evolved in European languages: see this Wiki article - [1]. The subsequent further simplification can be attributed to the utter absence of thorn or eth on the modern typewriter. By the time computers proved capable of rectifying this shortcoming, the standard misconception had been thoroughly integrated into the chintzy subregions of popular culture.

This incorrect "ye" (=="the") should not be confused with the historical "ye", which is either the (mostly) archaic subject form of you or else an alternate pronunciation of "you". "Ye" has now largely died out except in fake Piratical talk (e.g. "Be ye looking for treasure?"). Note that in some dialects, particularly Hiberno-English, "ye" is also still informally used in the second person plural (e.g. "How are ye?" when referring to a familiar group). This should not be confused with the vowel in "you" reducing to a schwa, pronouncing it /jə/ (yuh) - which can be indistinguishable from "ye".