History of the English Language – Part II
Old English and Middle English are relatively hard to read. Even those who speak perfect Modern English will have trouble with written and spoken English versions of the past.
The older incarnations of the English language sounded very different from the English we speak today, mostly due to the Great Vowel Shift which took place in England, between 1350 and 1700 CE. That shift is responsible for the many oddities, absurdities, and anomalies of the present-day English language.
The Vowel Shift occurred in two main phases, where each time another set of vowels were affected. Minor mergers and subtle differences continued to take place, but none were quite as expansive and inclusive as the two main Shift phases.
Let us take the word mate as an example.
In the days of Late Middle English (1400s), mate was pronounced with a long-sounding, open-mouthed A. Something like ma‘at.
Later on, in the days of Early Modern English (1500s-1600s), it was pronounced met.
Only later, in the days of Modern English, did mate acquire the familiar pronunciation with its ei sound.
This was made possible because of the Great Vowel Shift, where many other words underwent similar changes. The differences are astounding, and it is what causes Old and Middle English to be considered almost different languages completely.
Some of the original pronunciations were actually better, since they are easier on the ears and eyes. The more traditional English language had far less alterations made to it, and so invited less room for error and confusion.
For instance, the pronunciations for meet and meat were different. Meat was pronounced met, and meet was pronounced meeyet. There is a good chance such differences could really help foreign English speakers, and avoid mix ups. Alas, things have changed.
On the other hand, words like boat and boot sounded very similar when spoken in Old English. They would be almost indistinguishable, whereas nowadays there is a clear difference between the two, thanks to the A softening the O sound which it follows.
Old English, like many other language at the time, has grammatical gender. This is something which has obviously not survived, and it is another blessed omission. English is already a tough language as it is. Having gender specific grammatical rules would have doubled the trouble, and made it even harder for those who wish to speak and write it!
English is heavily influenced by ancient Norse, so in a way we are all speaking a bit like Thor. Words like awkward, give, husband, ugly, and loose all have their origins in Old Norse.
Stay tuned for my next piece on the history of the English language. I’ll be going more in depth into modern English and the evolution it is constantly going through. Thanks for reading!