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My inexpert perception of things is that the distance between The Canterbury Tales (end 14th century) and Romeo and Juliet (end 16th), from a language perspective, is vast, and vastly greater than the distance between Romeo and Juliet and today's English.

The Canterbury Tales reads like a different language. I can't make much sense of it at all. Romeo and Juliet is broadly intelligible without outside help.

If this is right... why did English change so much in the space of 200 years, and comparatively little in the next 400?

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    Sadly, when it comes to language development, we usually have to accept that asking why? simply isn't a very good idea. We just don't know why changes in language happen or don't happen the way they do or don't. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 19 '14 at 13:22
  • Related, but not duplicate: english.stackexchange.com/q/130028/13804 – cobaltduck Dec 19 '14 at 15:01
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    Just to check, are you comparing like for like? R&J Act I: "A my word wee'l not carry coales // No, for then we should be Colliars // I mean, if we be in choller, wee'l draw // I, While you liue, draw your necke out o'th Collar // I strike quickly, being mou'd...". Which is all modern English, but likely still hard to read at first. Chaucer: "Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote // The droghte of March hath perced to the roote // And bathed every veyne in swich licour // Of which vertu engendred is the flour" isn't actually that much worse... – Steve Jessop Dec 19 '14 at 16:55
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    ... But Shakespeare is commonly printed with modern spelling since it doesn't contain all that many words that just aren't in current English at all. This is enough to make it extremely accessible despite 400 years. Whereas Chaucer printed in modern English is a translation, albeit the above happens not to have any non-modern English words unless you count "soote". – Steve Jessop Dec 19 '14 at 16:56
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    And let's not forget that most English-speakers are exposed to a lot more Shakespeare than Chaucer from a early age, so not only does the idiom seem familiar to us, but, as a result of this exposure, much has been carried forward into "modern" English. If Shakespeare or some other highly popular author had not "anchored" English to that time period it would seem a lot stranger. – Hot Licks Dec 19 '14 at 22:14
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The printing press changed everything.

Prior to Gutenberg, English was primarily a spoken language and stories were often passed on in the oral tradition. The introduction of printed works in the mid-15th century had two major effects:

  1. Standardization, as printed works were distributed beyond the reach of the local authors. This led to standardization of the language from what had been myriad local dialects to a more common single lexicon.
  2. Stabilization, as the shift from an oral tradition for recording stories to a printed one fixed the form of the tales being written. As you can imagine, passing a story verbally for a century leads to many slight alterations of the story and even of the language in which the story is told. Once printed, however, its form is essentially fixed and will change very little - and the same is true of its language.

It is this second effect which results in what you've noticed: prior to the mid-15th century, the English language changed much more rapidly than afterwards.

Example of some research into this effect: http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~cpercy/courses/6361dickens.htm

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    Asimov was right? We need the computers? – Edwin Ashworth Dec 19 '14 at 9:52
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    This may be part of it, but it is certainly not the whole truth. Languages go through phases of change and stability all the time, for reasons we simply do not know, with or without printing presses and standards. Icelandic is about as close now to 12th-century Old Norse as English is to Shakespeare, while modern spoken Irish is further separated from 17th-century Irish than English is from Chaucer. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 19 '14 at 12:51
4

I think there are two major factors at work.

1) Chaucer was the first person to write and publish in what was Middle English (check your copy of Canterbury Tales, I bet it is a translation into "Modern English" although the English in my copy isn't very modern and is still very difficult). Before then back to the time of the Norman Conquest the main language of the educated / ruling class was the French of the conquerors and so secular published material was either French or Latin.

Once Chaucer published everything was up for grabs and change was fairly rapid. Books were rare and normally one upper class person read a book out loud to his/her less educated peers. Chaucer's work extended the written word to the middle classes if not the proletariat. His bawdy tales in the vernacular naturally attracted a much wider audience and perhaps marked the start of literacy beyond just the elite in England.

2) Society went through enormous changes between 1400 and 1600. Elizabeth turned England into a world power. Having said that Spencer's "Faerie Queen" 50 years earlier may mark the start of modern English and that was before Elizabeth's time. These societal changes were reflected in the language.

The European development of the printing press in about 1450 was important but I don't see how that accounts for the differences. After all it comes only 50 years into the 200 year period. Note that the Chinese had the printing press much earlier.

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    Spenser was a contemporary of Elizabeth (born some 20 years later and predeceasing her); The Fairie Queene was published in 1590 and 1596. The English of the play Mankind (playwright unknown, ca 1470) is essentially recognisable, however, though it would have been spelled in a "foreign" manner, what with the y thorns, unnecessary sigla (abbreviations), and the u/v reversal and all. Chaucer died before movable type hit Europe; it was Caxton who published his work. – bye Dec 20 '14 at 0:44
0

Both English and French changed dramatically between 1450 and 1500. Both English and French had vowel shifts.

As Mark Thompson points out, this is when the printing press was introduced. It was also when the Hundred Years War ended, and the War of the Roses occurred. France got control of Burgundy, Aquitaine, and Northern France; Austria gained the Low Countries; and Spain completed the Reconquista.

These historical events caused the rulers of both France and England to focus on creating a distinctly French nobility and a distinctly English nobility, and caused the Anglo-French nobles to choose whether they were English or French.

In terms of "fixing" the language, probably the most important event was the publication of the King James Version of the Bible in 1611. This text is still read daily by a noticeable fraction of the world's English speakers.

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    It isn't clear to me how the vowel shift, which is a change in pronunciation relative to spelling, would radically change the language in a printed book. It would just be pronounced in the new way. – Oldcat Dec 19 '14 at 22:51
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    "This text is still read daily by a large fraction of the world's English speakers". Care to put a guesstimate on the fraction that (a) read the Bible daily, and (b) use KJV rather than another version? Here in the UK I'd guess below 1%, but then we're not what you'd call a very religious country and even those Christians who are often use NIV. – Steve Jessop Dec 20 '14 at 13:55
  • Citing a Barnas poll, The Deseret News reports that about 13 percent of Americans read the bible daily. (deseretnews.com/article/865577728/…). Based on that, I would guess that about 3 percent of English native speakers read the King James Version daily (using the 1769 standard text, or a very similar text). – Jasper Dec 20 '14 at 18:46
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It's not just a change of language over time but also over location. The focus of written culture moved South following the courts.

  • The courts of Edward III and Richard II during Chaucer's life were already based in London (and France). Richard completed Westminster Hall. Could you flesh your answer out a bit? Otherwise, it's just a comment. – Andrew Leach Dec 20 '14 at 12:55

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