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Ye knowe eek, that in forme of speche is chaunge
—Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, Book II (roughly, "You know that language changes over a thousand years, and words that were then in use now seem strange to us; but they really did talk that way, and they spoke as eloquently about love as anyone did in any age or country.")
TV writers often have an odd idea of what "old-fashioned" English sounds like. Generally, they seem to think, it sounds vaguely like Shakespeare or the King James Bible, with plenty of "thee"s and "thou"s and verbs ending in "-est" or "-eth"; this results in the bizarre fake language Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe, a bastardization of modern English grammar and vocabulary, with archaic terms sprinkled throughout. Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe is occasionally even dignified with the name "Old English"; this, naturally, is quyte wronge.
Actual Old English, which developed after the Anglo-Saxon-Jute invasion/colonization/settlement/takeover of England in about the 5th century and was spoken until the early Middle Ages, is a language completely incomprehensible to the modern ear, though a few words and idioms have survived. It is a West Germanic language, closely related to Modern Frisian, Dutch and, to a lesser extent, German, with a smattering of words derived from Latin, Greek and Celtic, and substantial Norse influence in the tenth and eleventh centuries. It really is a separate language, with features such as noun declensions that modern English doesn't have. As an example, the first two lines of a 7th century poem called "Cædmon's Hymn" are:
Nu scilun herga hefenricæs uard
... which, even with "and his" having helpfully survived unchanged, is just about impossible for the modern English speaker to turn into "Now let me praise the keeper of Heaven's kingdom, / The might of the Creator, and his thought..." without having studied Old English. Other words (nu as "now", scilun as "shall", hefen as "heaven", uard as "ward" or "guard") are only obvious in a hyperliteral side-by-side translation, which necessarily ignores the changes in meaning which many of these words have undergone. If provided with a translation following Woolseyist principles, these original words would be practically indiscernible.
People who might want to hear what Old English sounds like can watch the DVD of Benjamin Bagby's recitation of Beowulf; it's available on Netflix. Keep the subtitles on if you want to follow the action. Michael Drout has also made recordings of all surviving Old English poetry available free at his site. The excellent Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf is printed in Old English and modern English on facing pages.
The Old English alphabet has a few extra letters: þ, thorn; ð, eth; ȝ, yogh; and ƿ, wynn. The first two represent the "th" sound (as in "thin" and "then" respectively, although they are mostly used interchangeably in manuscript spellings); yogh, hard and soft "g"; and wynn, "w". (Thorn and eth are still used in modern-day Icelandic for more or less the same sounds as in Old English.)
Old English literature makes extensive use of the kenning, a poetic allusion--such as referring to the ocean as the "whale-road"--that was often standardized into cliche; and the litotes, a form of Understatement, which Old English speakers were not unlikely to use.
An example of Old English still in use would include "the" (þē), and other articles with a thorn in it (not too many languages other than Icelandic still use it). Such as, well, the word "thorn", an ancient word. And other agrarian expressions. Additionally, all English pronouns except "she" and the ones that start with th- are from Old English, as are the prepositions, as are family words like mother, father, brother, sister, child, and baby. In fact, most of the most commonly used words in English have survived from Old English.
For more about Old English, go here.
XXIII. For to make Tartys in Applis. Tak gode Applys and gode Spycis and Figys and reyſons and Perys and wan they are wel ybrayed co-lourd wyth Safron wel and do yt in a cofyn and do yt forth to bake wel.
- Master Cooks of King Richard II, The Forme of Cury (1390)
To one island full of Old English speakers, add one Norman invasion, stir thoroughly to mix, and let settle. The resulting mix is Middle English, heavily influenced by the French- and Latin-speaking ruling class that existed after 1066. Middle English, spoken from the Middle Ages through a few decades before Shakespeare's day, is more understandable for a speaker of modern English. For example, Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales begins with the lines:
Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote
This looks much more like the English that modern readers know than "Cædmon's Hymn" does--especially if one has a reference handy to "translate" some of the more unfamiliar terms like "sote" and "perced," which translate to "sweet" and "pierced" respectively. It can still be rather headache inducing, however, to have to read said piece of literature wholly in Middle English.
It is worth noting that Middle English was so variable from place to place and between generations that many words were not understood outside the immediate area of their origin. Hence Caxton's tale of a traveller unable to make a woman in London understand his meaning when he asked her for some eggs: "And the goode wyf answerde, that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry, for he also coude speke no frenshe, but wolde have hadde egges, and she understode hym not." The reason? What he called "egges," she called "eyren."
This is actually a beautiful example of an Old Norse borrowing, where egg means egg (cf. German Ei). Modern English is full of these examples, the most drastic example being the adoption of the entire plural of personal pronouns. For more examples one has cast, sky, and every place whose names end in -by, -thorp(e) and many more (including some very common verbs such as get or take, or skirt, which also had a native cognate in shirt).
The process of language mixing was here so variable and untidy that there is no definitive standard to which Middle English may be held. Mercifully, from a historical linguistic perspective, people from this time actually wrote what they heard, in contrast to the often goofy spellings of Modern English. Those "extra" Es were generally appended only where they were actually pronounced. Thus, the word "egges" above is understood to be not one but two syllables.
An example of Middle English still in use would be the uncommon word "yclept" (ee-klept), "named"; as in the expression "aptly yclept".
Early Modern English
A few centuries and a major vowel shift later (long story short: A lot of words changed pronunciation but not spelling, resulting in the sometimes confusing spellings we have nowadays), Shakespeare and his contemporaries spoke and wrote Early Modern English: mostly understandable to modern English speakers, though with archaic features. This is the language of the King James Bible. Pseudo-early-modern-English seems to be what writers of Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe are aiming for--grammar and vocabulary are modern, and some archaic features are sprinkled in for flavor, without real knowledge of what those features were. In particular, "thou" really doesn't work the way some people seem to think it does--see below.
On the written front, spelling, while increasingly standardized, had not significantly changed from to reflect changes in pronunciation--particularly not in the case of vowels, which had undergone a massive change in the transition from Middle English. This resulted in two things: first, the vowel sounds attached to the letters in English are vastly different from what they are in most European languages (causing huge headaches for English-speakers wanting to learn French, Spanish, German, etc., and vice-versa), and second, it is possible to understand Middle English texts, with some difficulty, although spoken Middle English would have been virtually impossible for anyone since at least Spenser's day to understand.
As a written language, Modern English until only relatively recently (we're talking into the 1700's) did not have standardized spelling rules--the same word might be written differently within even the same sentence. This can be seen in any text of the time that has not been edited to make the spellings consistent. Many of the standards people are familiar with were not set until the first dictionaries were printed, and even a good number of those have morphed over time. This also accounts for various spelling differences between British English and American English (and, to a lesser extent, Canadian English), with the two sides of the Atlantic mostly--apart from Webster's meddling--standardising (or, for Americans and Canadians, standardizing) their orthography around different variant spellings of the same words. Vocabulary differences tend to describe inventions or institutions with their origins in the 19th or early 20th centuries; as late as just before World War One it was the thought that American and British English would ultimately evolve into completely separate languages. Then came mass telecommunications.
Thou, thee, and you
Like many west Indo-European languages, English used to have both singular and plural modes of address: English "thou", like French "tu", Spanish "tú", and German "du" were all used when speaking to (singular) intimates and social inferiors; while English "you", French "vous", Spanish "vosotros", and German "Ihr" were used when speaking to more than one person, as well as (singular) individuals who did not fall into the previous categories--especially someone of higher social rank. Unlike most of those, English has lost its singular mode ("thou") and now uses the plural mode ("you") exclusively.
The singular-plural distinction as a marker of politeness in western Indo-European languages originated in the later stages of Latin, specifically in reference to the Emperor (who was referred to directly by the plural "vos" rather than the singular "tu" (hence "t-v"). (Latin of earlier stages, notably that of the Catholic Bible, had yet to develop this distinction, resulting in even the Judeo-Christian God being referred to with the singular "tu".) This eventually spread to the rest of the aristocracy, and became a standard feature of etiquette.
When vulgar Latin evolved into proto-Romance, the distinction was carried over, and the t-v distinction passed on into French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and so on. In other Indo-European languages like the Germanic branch, it was traditionally perfectly acceptable for a subject to refer to his king in the second person singular when speaking to him. Following the Norman conquest, the French t-v distinction was loosely imposed on top of English customs, but it was fairly rare until perhaps the end of the early-modern period, when France was a dominant cultural power. Other languages in the French sphere of influence (such as German) adopted the distinction fairly normally. However, in a misguided attempt to outdo each other in fashionability, the higher end of the social order in England abandoned the use of thou/thee/thy altogether, and since the dialect they spoke eventually became the spoken standard, most variants of the language lost the distinction entirely.
(Interestingly, something similar happened in Argentina: people of equal rank or with an existing intimacy address each other with the once formal "vos", now regarded as an even more intimate, less formal pronoun than tú. The usage of "vos" is called "voseo".)
An interesting result of this is that (mostly thanks to its fossil presence in the King James Bible) "thou" now appears more formal and rigid to the ears of modern English speakers. That's why you find Vader asking the Emperor "What is thy bidding?" in Star Wars, amongst other things.
The only English dialect still to use forms of "thee" and "thou" in everyday speech is Yorkshire English; and, to a lesser degree, the other dialects found Oop North. (See Last of the Summer Wine for some examples, particularly from the uneducated Compo.) In Yorkshire English the "thee" and "thou" have mutated over time to "thi" and "tha", and there is also "thissen" (informal "yourself"). Here the original use of these terms is preserved, with "thi" and "tha" being used informally and "you" being used formally and respectfully. See All Creatures Great and Small for examples.
For more information (such how those "-est" endings on verbs work), see The Other Wiki.
Most languages have pronoun cases, and English is no exception. "Thee" is the objective case of the second person singular (used when it's the object of the sentence's action), while "thou" is the nominative case (used when it's the subject). "Thou":"thee"::"I":"me". "Thy", meanwhile, is the genitive (possessive) case. "Thou":"thy"::"I":"my". Now go forth, troper, and impress thy teachers.
Most people seem to think that in archaic speech, "mine" can be substituted where we would use "my". Actually, the rules for where to use which are much the same as the rules for using a versus an - "mine" before words starting with a vowel (or an h), "my" before ones with a consonant. So you have "mine eyes!", but also "my feet!" The same rules apply for thy/thine.
"Ye Olde Barne Shoppe" and other mutations that make the baby Chaucer cry
"Ye" is often used in the eponymous Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe to mean "the", being pronounced "yee"; this is a case of Did Not Do the Research, as this is in fact just a variant spelling of "the", where the thorn (see under Old English above) was gradually worn down into a similar-looking Y. Originally this was abbreviated with the E floating over the thorn, which is how umlauts evolved in European languages: see this Wiki image - . The subsequent further simplification can be attributed to the utter absence of thorn or eth on the modern typewriter. By the time computers proved capable of rectifying this shortcoming, the standard misconception had been thoroughly integrated into the chintzy subregions of popular culture.
This incorrect "ye" (=="the") should not be confused with the historical "ye", which is either the long dead subject form of you or else an alternate pronunciation of "you". "Ye" has now largely died out except in fake Piratical talk (e.g. "Be ye looking for treasure?"). Note that in some areas "ye" is also still informally used in the second person plural (e.g. "How are ye?" when referring to a familiar group).
- pronounced chon-j
- were commonly used
- wonderfully, in the sense that you wondered at it
- meant "unusual" at this point; by Shakespeare's day would mean "trivial"
- pronounced stron-j
- "they seem to us" : "us thinketh" is the plural of "methinks" and "hem" = "them"
- archaic past tense of "speak"
- got ahead
- various (c.f. British English "sundry")
- ages and usages rhyme with mod. Am. Eng. "lodges"
- makes a great emoticon, too!
- compare, in modern English, the degeneration of the simile "bold as brass" into the adjective "brazen"
- To make apple tart. Take good apples, and good spices, and figs, and raisins, and pears, [and cook them together] and when they are well cooked, color [the mixture] with saffron, and place it in a covering [of pastry] and bake.
- Shakespeare and the King James Bible are probably the most modern-sounding examples of early modern English--contrast them with contemporary works like Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen, which is much more difficult for modern English speakers to read.
- Spanish has evolved, too; "usted", a contraction of "vuestra merced", "Your mercy", eventually became its third person singular pronoun. "Vosotros" found a new role as the second person plural pronoun.