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I have seen several times on TV documentaries where the presenter is taken to something like a library archive, and shown a book which they proceed to read an excerpt from.

On a couple of occasions the camera has shown the text they were reading and generally I have thought that I would struggle to read the words because of how the letters were formed (e.g. The thorn, or long S).

This got me to wondering about how pronunciation and sentence formation may have changed over time as well, and how far back in time could I travel and still be understood while speaking my "modern" English in England (while obviously not talking about modern concepts like mobile phones or space travel)?

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    Nice question, +1. A completely non-expert opinion: back to Shakespeare's time, spoken English would sound very odd to you (and vice-versa) , but you'd get by. Back to Chaucer's time, you'd have to speak really slowly. A lot of the vowels would be completely different, and you'd really struggle to understand. Back a couple more centuries - no chance: it would be like landing in (say) modern Iceland, where although your languages are related, they really are very different. – David Garner Nov 20 '15 at 16:40
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    What @David Garner said. I can barely read Chaucer, and I remember 50 years ago listening to a recording that supposedly faithfully reproduced the diction of the time - it might as well have been Swahili for all I understood. But I can read Shakespeare just fine, and I think I'd understand it once I got my ear "tuned in" to the way they spoke then. – FumbleFingers Nov 20 '15 at 16:51
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    At the museum of London there is a particular interactive exhibit of life in London read by the inhabitants of variously Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Chaucerian, etc. It's absolutely fascinating but I can only go back as far as 16/1700s before most of what is said is lost on me (at least first time round). (Obviously I know they didn't speak English as far back as Roman times.) – Jascol Nov 20 '15 at 16:59
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    My choir is singing a Christmas song at our upcoming concert that is a new composition but the lyrics are in middle English. Now, I understand the concept of singing lyrics in foreign languages to preserve the "sound" of the lines and there's some chance the audience may actually have someone that understands the language. But in the case of "middle English", it seems preposterous and pretentious to sing this language because it is largely incomprehensible. One line is supposed to mean "loud and high" (referring to singing joyfully) but is pronounced lewd und hee. SMH, what's the sense? – Kristina Lopez Nov 20 '15 at 17:30
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    @fumblefingers, perhaps I underestimated the difficulty of understanding ME. It's one thing to follow text that you already know when listening to a reconstruction. Quite another to walk into the Dog and Duck in 1400 and successfully order a pie and a pint. – David Garner Nov 20 '15 at 21:46
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It largely depends on your current dialect. Regions of the English-speaking world vary in pronunciation to the point where communication can be impossible. For example, my Canadian-influenced Upstate New York dialect often goes with a lot of blank expressions in West Virginia. Even in Boston, I'm sometimes caught in a loop of both speakers asking to repeat each other.

So, adding time into the change of the language, it's not impossible to say that even one hundred years back in time would be immensely difficult, depending on where you go. Supposing you only needed to speak to one or few English speaking persons, and you had foresight on where to travel, you'd be in much better shape.

You'd probably be hard-pressed to understand anyone at first in Shakespearian times, though, unless you speak a rural dialect in England - the language we associate with Shakespeare is a highly Romanticized ideal of England that came out of the 19th century. In fact it's closer to what we might think of as an Irish accent (Check around minute 2 in this video for a comparison of Received vs Original English: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hi-rejaoP7U)

Bear in mind that Shakespeare wrote beautifully, and everything fell into place, ultimately shaping the whole language that came after him. The commoners did not have his eloquence. Top it off with the slang of the day that never became canonized by print (there was a lot), you'd have your work cut out for you any time before, say, 1700.

Any time before the Norman Invasion, and you would be speaking an entirely foreign language.

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    +1 for adding effect of dialects to effect of time. I couldn't understand a word of the movie Mr. Turner for the first 5 minutes (working class English in London first half of 19th century), but then something went click in my brain and it was perfectly intelligible. But that was a mere 150-170 years ago. – ab2 Nov 20 '15 at 18:31
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    @ab2 You were watching movies 150-170 years ago?!? ;-) – David Richerby Nov 21 '15 at 9:19
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    @David Richerby Heh, heh,heh, they made better movies better in them good old days. – ab2 Nov 21 '15 at 13:21
  • Thank you for your answer; as always this has been much more complex and interesting than I imagined! – Craig H Nov 23 '15 at 9:22
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I gather this is largely about spoken English so I will focus on that.

Long time ago, one of our teachers played us an audio version of the General Prologue to Canterbury Tales, in a reconstructed pronunciation. It was from a tape then, but similar versions are available around the net now. Here's one.

Even dipping one's nose into a facsimile of the Prologue leaves one unprepared for this, I'm afraid. The vowels and the consonants, not to mention the basis of articulation, are quite different from what we are used to today.

Canterbury Tales were written in the southern dialect (between ca. 1380 and 1400), i.e., in the dialect from which modern standard English largely evolved. Parallel to Cantebury Tales in the south, one may look at the poems of the Pearl Manuscript. Here is a transcription of Pearl, section 1 (it is admittedly alliterative, which may be occlusive; a normal chat would not be so), in the Northumbrian dialect. (Cf. the Wikipedia entry for 14th century Middle English.)

All in all, I think, one would have a great lot of trouble understanding, or makine oneself understood, around AD 1400. (With marginally better chances in the south, perhaps, unless one is akin to the northern dialects of today, language-wise.)

Even in Elizabethan England, pronunciation (of vowels especially) would take us by surprise, as the vowel shift was still taking place by then. (Again we're talking south of England.) Not to mention the vocabulary.

By way of an example, we recently had a question here at ELU on Adam lay ybounden, a 15th century English carol.

By and large, I believe up to three hundred years back would land one in a setting where one might make oneself basically understood, as to pronunciation and vocabulary.

  • +1 for mentioning the vowel shift, which I imagine would probably be the first big surprise if one were to steadily travel back in time trying to speak English. – Kyle Strand Nov 20 '15 at 23:51
  • That linked Prologue is a long way off. Most of the a instances (particularly in the word and) should be rendered as [æ] (or [ɐ], depending on stress and position) rather than [a] or [ɑ], the e is usually [e] or [ɛ] rather than a schwa in stressed syllables, the o was already starting to head towards [u] (raising) in some "little words", and the t in vertu should probably not be rendered as [tʃ] (that seems to be recent, since naïve spelling much later indicates that the phantom y characteristic of some British and Canadian dialects that caused it hadn't arisen yet). – bye Nov 21 '15 at 9:28
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    @bye I think you're probably right, in that many aspects of that particular rendering of the reconstruction are exaggerated. The basis especially, and hence the [tʃ], for example. As to vowels, are you suggesting it is taking us further back in time than it should? – anemone Nov 21 '15 at 9:37
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    I'm very suspicious of the linked Prologue. I've no knowledge of the subject, but the video description basically says, "This is different from how everyone else does it but they're all wrong and I'm right because I went to a prestigious university, and I studied with a famous professor, and I have most of a PhD! P.S., I've disabled comments totally because they'd be distracting and not at all because I'm unwilling to enter into a discussion of any this." – David Richerby Nov 21 '15 at 10:24
  • Thank you for your answer... 1700 from Mudly's answer and 300 years from anemone seems to give a consistent time period. – Craig H Nov 23 '15 at 9:24

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