Reading Old English

I was reading a magazine today and it gave passages in Old English, Middle English and Modern English.

What shocked me was that I was able to figure out what the Old English was. Now I must say the only reason I could do this was it was a passage. (For example one was the lord’s prayer)

My question is I really couldn’t even get one word of the Old English. But was I able to figure it out from the pattern (in otherwords the fact I realized it was a famous passage), possibly that I took German many years ago in High School (I don’t remember much of it)

Or is it some subtle way of actually being able to read Old English as a whole? Again I realize that if I wasn’t familiar with the passage in Modern English I couldn’t have gotten it.

Why don’t you give us the passage in Old English (and its translation in Modern English) and we’ll try to figure out what sorts of analogies you used in understanding it?

And ich secge thissum ga and he gath. And ich secge thissum cum thanna cymth he. And ich secge thissum do this and he daeth.

That’s the Old English I had to memorize. Some of the words are unchanged (and, he, do, this). Others are close to modern forms (ga=go thissum=this one cum=come (or should I put that in the unchanged column? :wink: )) Others are a bit harder to figure out, but are close enough once you know the word (secge=said daeth=doth).

So many of the words are close enough to modern English words so that you might be able to figure things out.

My hypothesis is that since you already knew the Modern English equivalent, you just matched the ME words with the OE words that looked the closest to each other. I suppose it also helped to know a bit about Germanic syntax so you could guess where to find the words, approximately.


Find a copy of Beowulf in Old English, read it, then report back on how much you understood. Old English is a foreign language. Yeah, knowing some German will help with a bit of vocabulary here and there, and might let you be less confused about some of the word endings, but that’s about it. In fact, I’ll bet you’d struggle thru Canterbery (sp?) Tales in the original form. The latter you might get about 70% of, but even then it would be SLOOOOOOOOW reading.

It’s kind of fun trying to figure the stuff out, though. (And if you heard it spoken, you’d understand it even less!)


Check out this site:

Here’s a sample:

Ða wæs on burgum Beowulf Scyldinga,
leof leodcyning, longe þrage

folcum gefræge (fæder ellor hwearf,
aldor of earde), oþþæt him eft onwoc
heah Healfdene; heold þenden lifde,
gamol ond guðreouw, glæde Scyldingas.

NOW Beowulf bode in the burg of the Scyldings,
leader beloved, and long he ruled
in fame with all folk, since his father had gone
away from the world, till awoke an heir,
haughty Healfdene, who held through life,
sage and sturdy, the Scyldings glad.

Yes, it’s basically a different language; however, Old English poetry (like the passage from Beowulf quoted above) is much more difficult than Old English prose. The reason is alliteration. It was often necessary for a poet to come up with a word for, say, “man” that alliterated on a particular letter – which meant that OE poetry needed about twenty different words for “man,” most of which weren’t used in everyday speech. Throw in the usual difficulties of poetic diction and word order, and most Anglo-Saxon poetry is unintelligible to a modern-day reader. The prose, however, can be surprisingly transparent (especially if you already know the modern English equivalent, as Marxxx’s experience suggests).

For comparison purposes, here’s an excerpt from an Old English paraphrase of the Book of Genesis; I expect most readers will be able to get the gist of it:

Yes. I once saw (heard) someone write a little story about a guy going hunting, all in Old English carefully selected so that it was totally understandable to the modern reader.

Anyway, I do want to correct myself about Chaucer, though. I went to one of the sites with the Canterbury Tales (text and audio), and I’ve got to say that the text was pretty much (~95%) understandable with almost no effort. The audio, though, was almost incomprehensible. Kind of a good demonstration as to why English spelling is so screwed up, as it better reflets the pronunciation of words 500 yrs ago.


One last thing about comparing religious texts. It’s kind of cheating, because our source of reference is not really modern English, but English of at least several hundered years ago.

Look at the first few lines of the Lord’s prayer:

Our Father who art in heaven
Hallow’ed be thy name.

Three words in two lines that are archaic to begin with. This can’t really be called “Modern English”. That’s one reason it easier to read relgious text in Old English.

John, Modern English is a term with meaning to linguists: It is the language spoken in London after the Great Vowel Shift (circa 1600), and therefore is the language of both William Shakespear and the King James Version (what you quoted). Some people make a distinction between Early Modern English, but it’s still recognizably our language.

You do have a point that certain words and constructions are fossilised in Biblical passages and Shakespearean plays to the point where we don’t use them in everyday speech but we understand them when we come across them in a familiar context. But it’s hardly cheating, IMHO. It’s just how the language developed.

Sorry, but you’re about 100 years off on the dates of the Great Vowel Shift and the beginning of Modern English. The Great Vowel Shift happened in the 15th century (i.e., between 1400 and 1500). Actually, the Great Vowel Shift involved several successive shifts, so it perhaps it started slightly earlier than this and to have continued for a century or so past this date. The dates frequently given for the periods of English are as follows:

Old English: 450-1100
Middle English: 1100-1500
Early Modern English: 1500-1700
Late Modern English: 1700-present

Some sources would break up Middle English into Early and Late periods going from 1100-1300 and from 1300-1500.

Let’s face it, sometimes I think English is nothing but one massive vowel movement.

I want to take a guess at this…
“And he said go and he went. And he said come then he came. And he said do this and he did it.”
I can’t figure out what “thissum” means, however, so I left that part out. I got some of the rest of it by trying to read it outloud and seeing what it sounded like, then the rest by context.

Looking at this version of beowolf, I noticed big gaps, almost but not quite forming two columns. How should one read this? Reading one column down, then the next, or ignoring the gaps? :confused:


Cutteth me some lack, man. I said “kind of cheating”, and it is KIND OF cheating, if you use it to guage how well the modern speaker can understand Old English.

The interesting thing is how quickly English went from what is essentiall seen today as a foreign language, to what can pretty much be understood. [And I’m speaking about the WRITTEN language, not the spoken version.] Take a text from 1100 AD and you’ll struggle understanding it. Take a text from 300 yrs later, and it’ll be very readable.

Like I said I didn’t really get the passages. In fact I am quite sure if it hadn’t been say “the Lord’s Prayer” I wouldn’t have made it out.

I guess another way of phrasing the question is this the way linguists figure things out? They back figure the text.

Another interesting point. You can read Middle English but not understand it. I have the same problem with a lady from Scotland I know. She has a really thick accent. I can’t understand how she pronounces things.

Esperanto is similar. If you hear it you can’t tell. But since it is based on European type languages you can get the jist by reading it and kind of figuring it out.

And these word appearance-similarities are often misleading. Take the word kontroli, for instance. It means ‘to check’, as in ‘I checked to see whether the bathtub was full’, rather than ‘to control’. There are a lot of words that came from the same Latinate root, so to speak, but headed off in a totally-different direction. I believe that more of the Esperanto word-roots look and mean roughly the same as French roots than English roots.

Here is a chunk of Esperanto (in Unicode). Can you get the gist?

Good job, Sunspace! Another thing is that Esperanto is not based on European-type languages. Its vocabulary is mostly drawn from European languages. That’s not the same thing at all. What its rules are based on is Zamenhof’s idea of what would be an ideal (in his opinion) grammar.

& by “back figure the text,” I’m going to guess that Marxxx means that linguists make use of the tools of Comparative Historical Linguistics and Internal Reconstruction.

I hate to hijack the thread, but few Esperantists nowadays would claim that the language is not very European, as Asian Esperantists are much chagrined by claims by Westerners that the grammar is somehow easier for non-Europeans. The Academy member YAMASAKI Seiko, for example, has stated “Esperanto estas durch und durch euxropa lingvo” (“Esperanto is durch und durch a European language”).


I didn’t say it wasn’t very European. Look closely and you will see that I said its vocabulary was drawn from European languages. Its grammar is a different issue altogether.

And nowhere did I ever say or imply that the language is “somehow easier for Non-Europeans.” What it is, though, is easier than natural languages for someone to learn as a foreign language.