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English in the world today
English in the world today

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English through history (Part 1)

We can see the difficulties in categorising languages and varieties by looking at the way English has changed throughout history. Just as we can ask whether different geographical varieties can be considered the same language, so we can ask to what extent modern-day English – the English you are reading now – is the same language as that introduced to the British Isles one and a half millennia ago.

Activity 3

Have a look at the following passage, which is written in Old English and dates back to the late tenth century AD. If you came across this passage with no introduction, do you think you’d recognise it as English? Can you understand any of it? While reading it through, make a note of any words that you recognise:

eac swylce seo næddre wæs geapre þonne ealle þa oðre nytenu þe God geworhte ofer eorþan. and seo næddre cwæþ to þam wife. hwi forbead God eow þæt ge ne æton of ælcon treowe binnan paradisum.


At first glance this might seem entirely incomprehensible to you. There are only five words in the passage which have a form which is the same as modern standard British English. These are: God, and, to, wife and of. There’s at least one other word which resembles a modern English word: paradisum looks a little similar to paradise. But other than that the words mostly look distinctly alien, and some of them even include letters which are no longer part of the alphabet we use for modern-day English.

Now let’s look at another passage from approximately four hundred years later. This is in what’s known as Middle English, and was written around the late fourteenth century. How much of this passage can you read?

But the serpent was feller than alle lyuynge beestis of erthe which the Lord God hadde maad. Which serpent seide to the womman Why comaundide God to ou that e schulden not ete of ech tre of paradis.

As you might have noticed, both these passages are translations of the same section of the Bible, namely Genesis chapter 3, verse 1. The Middle English version is much closer to modern-day English, and you were probably able to read a great deal more of it than of the Old English version. However, there are still a few features which differ from the language we now use. For example, the character (known as ‘yogh’) is used in place of a y. Also, the spelling of many words is rather different from how it is today. For instance, in the first line the word ‘living’ is spelt lyuynge (y is used instead of i, and u instead of v), and the word ‘beasts’ is spelt beestis. Some of the vocabulary is also no longer regularly used in contemporary English. The word ‘feller’ in the first line, for example, means ‘crueller’ or ‘more ruthless’. It was still to be found in Shakespeare’s time – for example, in the phrase ‘this fell sergeant, Death, is swift in his arrest’ in Hamlet (5.2.341) – but is not in common usage today (except in rather specialised contexts). All in all, though, you’d probably identify this as being English.

Finally, let’s look at two more translations of the same passage. The first is in Early Modern English and dates from the seventeenth century. This is, in fact, a passage from one of the most renowned translations of the Bible: the King James or Authorised Version of 1611. The second is in Modern English, and was translated in 1961.

Now the serpent was more subtill then any beast of the field, which the Lord God had made, and he said vnto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of euery tree of the garden?

The serpent was more crafty than any wild creature that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Is it true that God has forbidden you to eat from any tree in the garden?’

(texts adapted from Freeborn, 1992, p. 407)

The Early Modern English version is closer still to present-day English, although there are still a few features which mark it out as archaic. For example, nowadays ye meaning ‘you’ is only found in certain dialects, and is no longer used in standard British or American English.