Adventures in Old English

First, I want you to go here and then tell me if you have any idea what’s being said.

That, my friends, is Old English. If you were belaboring under the misconception that, say, Shakespeare is Old English, you now know better. You’re welcome.

(I know this seems like a very random topic. But I was discussing high school English over at Turtleduck Press and was reminded that this is a thing because my junior English teacher gave us Beowulf in the Old English and was like, “Enjoy!” and then let us flail for ten minutes before she told us it was a joke.)

Isn’t it ridiculous? Look at those funny letters we don’t have anymore. It’s completely unreadable. (The end of the Wikipedia article on Old English has the opening of Beowulf next to the modern translation for comparison.)

…and now, an hour later, I have finally escaped from Wikipedia, where I have learned much about language structure but mostly been confused by the number of categorizations of word types and sounds and so forth. I literally have no idea what some of this means. Here, someone decipher this for me: “Middle English [aː] (ā) fronted to [æː] and then raised to [ɛː], [eː] and in many dialects diphthongised in Modern English to [eɪ] (as in make). (The [a:] in the Middle English words in question had arisen earlier from lengthening of short a in open syllables and from French loan words, rather than from original Old English ā, because the latter had in the meantime been raised to Middle English [ɔː].)” (From the Wikipedia article on the Great Vowel Shift.)

Long story short, Squiders, I went in to try and figure out how we got from Old English to Middle English, and from there to Modern English (Shakespeare is Early Modern English, by the by), and it turned out to be a very long and complicated answer with lots of linguistic terms that I apparently lack the capacity to understand. (So it’s probably good that I got a degree in aerospace engineering and not linguistics. Ha! In this case, rocket science is the easier path. I have yet to figure out why some verbs are “strong” versus “weak”–besides endings–and that’s probably a fatal error.)

From what I can glimpse, Old English, in use between about 450 to 1150 AD, or CE, or whatever you want to use, was a Germanic language brought over by the Angles and the Saxons. It was largely a regular, though complex, system (apparently having 12 different articles – we have, like, two now). It, like Modern English, also borrowed words from other languages, mostly Old Norse and Latin in this case. Then the Normans invaded in 1066, bringing their own language, which was used as the “polite” language of the day and eventually got mixed in and so forth. Also, several of the more complex bits of Old English got simplified.

So Middle English (examples next to the Modern English translation on the Wikipedia page) starts at the invasion and goes until about 1470, when the printing press was invented and everything was standardized. (This is, apparently, why some of our spelling is so strange. Apparently the standard spelling comes from Middle English and has not been changed, while pronunciations have. Middle English pronounces all their consonants and vowels.)

Also, Middle English stole a whole bunch of words from other languages as well, which is why English is the Most Complicated Language in the world. (It’s not really. I even looked it up, and it’s not even in the top 10. Perhaps we shall go with Most Confusing instead.)

Huh.

Well, Squiders, I have forgotten where I was going with all this, so I think I’d better just stop. You’re welcome to go at it yourselves on Wikipedia, but BEWARE.

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