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Video: How Far Back in Time Could You Go and Still Understand English?

english time machine langaugeEnglish is a crazy language with irrational and illogical syntax which is largely due to a history stemming from Norman conquerors trying to hookup with Saxon barmaids. It has stolen bits and pieces from many other languages over the centuries while its speakers spontaneously invented new terms willy-nilly.

Have you ever wonder if you had a time machine, how far back could you go and still understand English?

The following video tries to answer that question, but I think it falls short. The video’s makers underestimate how slang and colloquialisms affect one’s ability to understand a speaker, and how accents can render a known word into a completely unrecognizable gibberish. (You don’t even need a time machine to witness that first-hand; simply move from one part of the US to another, or talk to someone from another country.)

But on the plus side, the video does get certain points right. Take, for example, the works of Shakespeare. His plays are difficult to understand today not only because of unusual syntax but also because we no longer pronounce words the same way they were said when he was writing his plays.


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Mike Hall March 18, 2016 um 3:19 pm

What I found a bit odd was the way they put words up on screen that were supposed to be unfamiliar but are actually still in fairly common usage (for example hugger-mugger, petty-fogger, abbess and crapulous, though the last of these is not really common).

It also reminded me of what I learnt many years ago: Chaucer is pretty obscure on the page but surprisingly understandable when read aloud, though more so when read using modern pronounciation!

Nate Hoffelder March 18, 2016 um 3:45 pm

Really? I didn’t know most of the terms.

Mike Hall March 18, 2016 um 8:13 pm

Well, I’m not claiming I knew most of them, just that I would have expected them all to be really obscure. My surprise was that they put up any that I understood (given the large supply of truly obsolete words).

Barry March 18, 2016 um 8:21 pm

I went through a couple of tutorials on the history of the English language and that video has one thing wrong, if those tutorials were right. In King James day writing lagged behind spoken English and that’s why we have "thou" in the Bible but when "thou" was read aloud it was prounced "you". The spoken language had already changed. Both tutorials used this as examples of how written language lags behind spoken language.

Interesting stuff, huh. 🙂


tarwin March 20, 2016 um 1:23 pm

Huh. From what I understand (though I could be completely wrong as I have no reference material at the moment, just remember being told this) "thee" and "thou" were actually singular while "you"(ye) was plural and then "you" just was adopted for both, ergo the fact that we conjugate "you" as the other plural pronouns. Although it seems that wikipedia seems to back this up, for whatever that’s worth.

corporal lint March 21, 2016 um 5:26 pm

You’re both right. "Thou" was singular and familiar, "you" was plural and formal. But "thou" fell out of day to day use among upper class speakers in the 15th and 16th centuries, and by 1600 was diminishing among all speakers, at least in the dialects spoken in southeastern England. Upper class speakers would still use "thou" when referring to servants and the like, but it became infrequent in daily conversation.

"Thou" made it into the Bible in large part because written language tends to be far more conservative than spoken. (Consider how a person today might say, "Everyone has their word choices", while even semi-formal written language would use "his", "her", "his or her", etc.) Also a lot of the actual translation in the KJV dates to the mid-16th century, when "thou" had a bit more traction.

And of course, when God addresses someone He is by definition addressing a social inferior, no matter what some of us might think of ourselves.

(Source: my partner is an English prof who specializes in 17th century English literature.)

tarwin March 21, 2016 um 5:41 pm

Thanks corporal! ?
I love getting a deeper understanding of most things. Say thanks to your partner =)

Kevin March 19, 2016 um 1:35 am

Hmm interesting. But it’s not just a matter of time. One of the current presidential nominees stated the following, which is right up (down?) there with stuff from 1,000 years ago: "I cannot say I have to respect the person that if it’s not me, the person that wins. If I do win and I’m leading by quite a bit. That’s what I want to do. I can totally make the pledge if I’m a nominee. I am discussing it with everybody. But I’m talking about a lot of leverage. We want to win and we will win."

tarwin March 20, 2016 um 1:24 pm

I think the stuff from 1,000 years ago was easier to understand…

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