If I could somehow transport myself back in time to London during Shakespear’s time would I be able to understand anything that was being said by anyone? I have no special knowledge of that dialect of English except from reading a few of his plays in high school. I know there are words that we still use from that time but my guess is that it would sound more or less like jibberish to me. Am I selling myself short?
I may just be talking out of my ass here but…
I don’t think anyone ever really talked like the way Shakespear wrote. If anything I think you would here a deep English dialect that may be hard to understand because of a heavy accent. More of a street dialect. But not a lot of hither, thou, and arts.
So there was difference between the “common language” and that which was used in literature and in plays at the time? Would I be able to understand the common language then? Assuming I could navigate through the heavy accent/dialect?
Huh? Of course people would say thee and thou, that’s how people talked 400 years ago. Thou is just the intimate form of “you” which was dropped from modern english in favor of the formal form “you”. You are, he is, they are, we are, thou art. “Art” is just the form of “be” that goes with “thou”, since we’ve dropped “thou” we’ve also dropped the conjugation of “be” that goes with it.
The reason it sounds affected is because it is old fashioned. It is old fashioned because thats how people talked in olden times. We talk differently, so the way they talked sounds odd to us.
I think you’d experience something similar if you went to England, went way out into the country to some little known town removed from civilization, went into the local pub, and listened to the old locals chatting it up. It’d be pretty hard to understand them as an American.
Actually, probably a lot of hither, thou, & arts, but that’s not the worst of it. What did English vowels sound like at the time?
Shakespeare was only a century or two before American colonization. Imagine the common parent dialect of modern accents of New England, Appalachia, & southern England accents. Not unintelligible, but a bit strange.
I’ve heard ata least one prof- Kathryn Zabelle Stodola- make the case that Southern American English is the closest to Elizabethan English.
So, I s’pect some of us’d 'ave ‘neasier time wi’ the time trip than others.
What if we went back to Chaucer’s time? Or when Beowulf was written?
How much/little could a modern English speaking person understand?
Chaucer would have been much more difficult. Shakespeare was using early modern English – it was essentially similar to current English.
Chaucer wrote in Middle English, which was different enough to probably be unintelligible. Pronunciation was very different: the velar fricative (the “ch” sound in the German “Bach”) was still a part of the language. Silent “e” was pronounced. “Knight” was pronounced k-nicht
Here’s someone reading from the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (clear on the link at the top).
And of course there’s the great vowel shift. I don’t think it’s even been established when it happened, & it presumably happened slowly, but depending on when you landed, some words would definitely seem to have the “wrong” vowels. By some I mean most Anglo-Saxon words with a “long e,” “long a,” or “long i,” & a few words which drifted between internal “a” & internal “o” from dialect to dialect, & that’s off the top of my head.
Except “sneak,” which was sneaky enough to keep its pronunciation |sni:k| & confuse etymologists by doing so. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t |snaik| in some Late Middle English dialect, too.
I’m sorry. I expect Shakespeare is mostly our side of the Great Vowel Shift. Chaucer was probably mostly the other side. But in either case, it would be a whole new accent to learn.
I believe she was referring to the “hoi toid” accent on the North Carolina Outer Banks. I’m sure there are some audio clips out there. It really is a most fascinating accent. Unfortunately, it is rapidly disappearing.
Yes. Read Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, published in 1653, about 40 years after the end of Shakespeare’s work. It’s prose, not poetry, and sounds perfectly normal (though a bit formal).
Text from Project Gutenberg: