Language is evolving constantly, which can make it difficult to demarcate specific eras. While it’s obvious that Old English and Modern English are distinct — today’s English speakers have no chance of understanding Old English without studying it — these changes took place over centuries. Even harder to parse is Middle English and Modern English, which still have clear differences but are much closer in grammar and vocabulary. Let’s take a look at when the transformation from one to the other happened, and what distinguishes the two versions of English.
From Old To Middle To Modern English
Old English was a Germanic language spoken in the British Isles. By many measures, Old English’s grammar is closer to German than it is to Modern English. While, as mentioned, there’s no sharp line dividing Old English and Middle English, there is one event that many people point to as a useful boundary: the Norman Invasion of 1066.
Old English had already gone through some changes because of outsiders; Vikings had brought Old Norse to the British Isles in the first millennium CE. The Roman Empire also contributed some Latin terms to the language. With the Normans bringing an earlier version of French into what is today England, there was a more seismic shift in language.
For one thing, the grammar was altered, becoming much closer to the English of today. Plus, a whole host of new vocabulary was added. While the majority of the most common English words are descended directly from Old English, roughly 30 percent originated from French. These changes didn’t happen overnight, so the start of the Middle English period is usually pinned more toward the middle of the 12th century.
The evolution from Middle to Modern is a lot more hazy. The language continued to be in flux for centuries as political power ebbed and flowed in the British Isles. French words continued to pour into English, though less so as time passed and French control decreased. Other changes occurred just because it is language’s nature to change, particularly when there are no standardized spellings or pronunciations.
The end of Middle English and start of Modern English — more specifically Early Modern English — is usually placed in the mid- to late-15th century. While there are a number of factors, one of the biggest was the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg, and its subsequent introduction to England by William Caxton. For the first time, books could be produced (relatively) quickly, which allowed for standardization. Again, this wasn’t exactly a quick process, but it allowed for a single variety of English to be spread much further and wider than it ever had before.
The Biggest Differences Between Middle and Modern English
Unlike Old English, Middle English is roughly intelligible to a modern-day English speaker, though it may be a little bit of a struggle. Take, for instance, the opening eight lines of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, arguably the most famous work in Middle English:
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;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
While you can certainly tell it’s not Modern English, there are a lot of recognizable words, and you can probably at least get the gist of what Chaucer is trying to say.
Compared to the grammatical differences between Old and Middle English, Middle and Modern are nearly identical. The word order is the same, and if you translated each word in Canterbury Tales individually into its modern equivalent, it would pretty much entirely work. There are a couple exceptions worth looking at, though:
- Pronouns — Middle English distinguished between formal and informal second-plural pronouns (like many languages including Spanish and French do today). The formal nominative form was “thou” and the informal form (which was also the plural form, another thing English doesn’t have today) was “ye.” Today, those have both been replaced by “you” (and “y’all” if you use that specific dialect).
- Verbs — The Middle English way to conjugate a verb in the third person was adding -eth or -th, as in “Pride goeth before the fall.” This was replaced with a simple -s during the time of Early Modern English.
This isn’t the full list of grammatical changes, but are the most common ones you’re likely to see.
Spelling is probably the most obvious change when trying to read the above. “Aprill” has become “April,” “roote” has become “root,” “vertu” has become “virtue” and so on. It would take nearly an entire dictionary to enumerate all the spelling differences, but there are a few especially noticeable ones:
- The sound “th” was indicated by a now-unused letter called a thorn (þ).
- The letters “I” and “J” were interchangeable, and so were “U” and “V.”
- The letter s was sometimes elongated in a way that made it look more like an “f” to modern eyes.
- “Y” was sometimes used in place of “I.”
- Many words had an “e” at the end (like “roote”), which over time disappeared.
What’s not reflected in writing is how pronunciation has shifted over the past several centuries. For one thing, the spelling of words originally tried to reflect the pronunciation, so the “k” in “knight” would actually be pronounced. Throughout the period of Middle English and into Early Modern English, however, these pronunciations shifted.
The most notable is the Great Vowel Shift, which is when the vowels in certain words started to be pronounced differently. (Vowel shifts are pretty common, and there’s one going on in the northern cities of the United States right now.) Just because the pronunciation changes doesn’t mean the spelling does, though, which is why English can be such a headache to learners: very often modern spellings reflect entirely unused pronunciations.