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Home arrow Blog arrow Shakespeare is not Old English

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Shakespeare is not Old English Print
Written by Mike Noel   
Wednesday, 15 September 2010

There is a common misconception about Shakespearean English. That is that it is "old English".  This is not true.  In fact, Shakespeare is considered "modern English".  This misconception is fairly widespread accross a broad range of education levels.  In fact, just last night I was talking with a college president and he referred to Shakespeare as "old english".  I would like to shed a little bit of light on this topic.


There are four major historic forms of English: Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English, and Modern English.  The most well known example of Old English is Beowulf. The most well known example of Middle English is The Canterbury Tales.  Shakespeare is probably the most well known example of Early Modern English.  And, well, we literally have millions of examples of Modern English. Let's look at each of these in more detail.

For all intents and purposes Old English is unrecognizable by Modern English readers.  At first Old English didn't even use the latin alphabet (that's what we use now).  The  earliest writings use a rune based alphabet which would be impossible for any of us to recognize without a transliteration key.  Once the alphabet had been latinized the text was still far from what we know now.  Here is an example from Beowulf:

monegum mægþum,         meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas.         Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden,         he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum,         weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc         þara ymbsittendra 

Most Modern English speakers would not even recognize that as English.  Middle English is not much better but the vector towards Modern English is evident.  Some of the words start to look more like Modern English.  The vocabulary is still quite different but there are enough "glue" words that some hint of the meaning of the text can be guessed.  Here is an excerpt from The Canterbury Tales:

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;

Shakespeare is a typical example of what is called Early Modern English.  Here is an excerpt:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. - Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember'd. 

While Shakespeare's language may seem archaic, it is clearly more closely related to Modern English than Middle or Old. 

I don't mean to ridicule those who make the mistake of calling Shakespeare "old english".  When I was in High School I thought that was the case but our (very good) English teacher made clear the differences between Old, Middle, and Modern English.  I've heard the whole range of education levels make this mistake -- the college president mentioned above has a Ph.D! So it is a common mistake and easy to make.  I just hope that this little article helps to correct the error in some small way.



Last Updated ( Wednesday, 15 September 2010 )

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