The Evolution of English

Lonnie Monka Lonnie Monka / August 14, 2017 / Reading literacy

How to Identify Different Variations of English in Literature. 

Hwæt! We Gardena         in geardagum,  

þeodcyninga,         þrym gefrunon,  

hu ða æþelingas         ellen fremedon.

Oft Scyld Scefing          sceaþena þreatum

Most people would probably have trouble believing it, but the above quote is in English! It’s the first stanza of the famous epic poem Beowulf.

In one of our literature classes at Knovva Academy, we sometimes enjoy reading older texts. For instance, in a recent class, we read the famous story by Edgar Allen Poe, ‘A Tell-Tale Heart’. Some of the language in Poe's story seemed archaic, but the students were surprised to learn that Poe is considered by historians to be part of the same overarching period of English that we are in today -- i.e. Modern English.

With about 1500 years of history, English is split into three period: Old, Middle, and Modern. In order to clarify theses periods, we decided to give them a quick review. Let’s see how many authors you know from different periods!


The Different Periods of English

Old English

Some historians date English as far back as the 5th Century CE. It started as a Germanic language that was brought to England. So, if we look again at the quote from Beowulf, we shouldn’t be surprised if it looks a bit like German.

Hwæt! We Gardena         in geardagum,  

þeodcyninga,         þrym gefrunon,  

hu ða æþelingas         ellen fremedon.  

Oft Scyld Scefing          sceaþena þreatum

Yet, whether it looks like German or not, English has changed so much over the years, that this early form is unreadable to contemporary native speaker. The ability to read Old English requires intense language studies that would be similar to learning a language from the beginning.

Middle English

Middle English began around the year 1000 CE, and was the product of a mixing of people into the Britain Isles. Wars caused people to mix from different areas, which lead to many new cultural exchanges. Like with many other languages, these exchanges from war lead to a new phase of English.

The most famous Middle English book is ‘The Canterbury Tales’, by Chaucer. This epic poem relates traveler's stories, and still has a major impact on literary studies. If we look at the first few lines of this text, we might understand a little bit more than we did with Beowulf.

Whan that Aprille 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;

Some familiar words seem to have different spellings than they do today. However, whoever slows down and tries to decipher these lines can probably begin to piece together that story is speaking about the rain that starts in spring.

Overall, Middle English is difficult, but with some effort (and maybe a bit of studying), most people can learn to read these thousand-year-old books.

Modern English

Starting at about 1500 CE, Modern English is the period that stretches on till today. In fact, most authors that people read -- even those that seem very old and difficult -- are usually from the modern period.

That means that archaic seeming books, like those written by Edgar Allen Poe or even Shakespeare, are much closer to the English spoken today than many people may realize.

Literature & History

At Knovva Academy, we believe that literacy is the skill that will help people excel in the 21st Century. We are dedicated to learning about literature, which means understanding the history and culture of the languages use to write and to communicate.