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English in the world today
English in the world today

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English through history (Part 2)

Before going on to discuss what conclusions we can draw from the way the language has changed over the years, let’s have another look at the first translation again and see if we’re able to recognise more similarities between it and the others than might have been apparent at first glance. It will help if you know that the character þ, known as ‘thorn’, is used for the sound th in words such as thin; that ð, known as ‘eth’, is used for the sound th in words such as that; and that æ, known as ‘ash’, is used for the vowel sound in words such as nap. If you compare the words in this translation with the equivalent words in the other translations – and if you try speaking them out loud – you may well find that you’re able to read much more than you originally thought.

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.

It’s not possible to work through the passage word by word here, but I’ve highlighted a few words which we can scrutinise in a little more detail:

  • From looking at the later translations, you can probably see that næddre is in the equivalent position to ‘serpent’. If you separate the first letter from the rest of the word, you’ll perhaps be able to identify a connection. The meaning has changed somewhat – the Old English word was used to refer to snakes generally, whereas the modern word is used for a particular type of snake – but the Old English word is the original form of the modern word ‘adder’.
  • Moving on to oðre, if we replace the ð with a th, we can recognise this as the word ‘other’.
  • A similar shift in spelling conventions can be seen in the word cwæþ, where we now use qu instead of cw. If we then substitute th for þ in this word, we end up with something which would be pronounced ‘quoth’ – which we still have in the modern form of ‘quote’.
  • In the case of the word hwi, if we simply reverse the first two letters of the word we get modern-day ‘why’.

So we can see that there is indeed a fair amount of continuity between Old English and Modern English, albeit that surface features such as spelling conventions have changed quite considerably.

It’s also worth noting that one of the words we were able to identify from the very beginning – ‘wife’ – actually has a slightly different meaning in this first translation from its modern sense. In all the later translations of the passage it’s given as ‘woman’. This is because the word’s meaning has narrowed since the tenth century. Nowadays we use ‘wife’ specifically to refer to a married woman, whereas back in the centuries of the first millennium it simply meant ‘woman’.

So in conclusion, we can see that the language has changed considerably over the last thousand or so years. It has changed in terms of its lexis (vocabulary), its orthography (spelling) and its semantics (meaning). And, although we haven’t commented on it here, it’s also changed in terms of its syntax (word order). At the same time, however, we can still discern a very definite line of continuity back through all the passages, which justifies us in referring to them as being instances of a single developing language.