Why did Middle English change so quickly?

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were written between 1387 and 1400. The language, while recognizable as English of a sort, is not comprehensible to a contemporary reader without a handy dictionary or other mechanism for translating Middle English.

Skip ahead a mere two hundred years, and we have Shakespeare writing in perfectly understandable (if dense by contemporary standards) Modern English. Another hundred years brings us to Defoe, whose Moll Flanders seems to me to be utterly contemporary in its language.

I understand that by the time Shakespeare, and even more Defoe, came around, printing was common, tending to very much slow the speed of linguistic change. I also recognize that Shakespeare is typically printed with regularized and modernized spelling, while Chaucer is generally not. But still, isn’t two hundred years kind of fast for that dramatic a change? It took longer than that to go from Old English to Middle English (admittedly a much more dramatic change), and that had the Norman Conquest as impetus.

Any ideas?

In that two-hundred year period, the printing press was invented. That was a big deal for the spread of literacy.

While spoken ME is very difficult for a modern speaker to understand, I don’t think the written form is too difficult:

1 Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
2 The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
3 And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
4 Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
5 Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
6 Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
7 The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
8 Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
9 And smale foweles maken melodye,
10 That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
11 So priketh hem Nature in hir corages-
12 Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
13 And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
14 To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
15 And specially, from every shires ende

There certainly are a few strange spellings but spelling conventions weren’t standardized until much later. Otherwise, you surely get the message of this poetic passage: It’s springtime and this is when folks make pilgrimages.

Yes, but I could probably get that much (it’s springtime and people want to pilgrim down!) from a Latin verse or a German verse. I’ll grant you that this is much closer to modern English than is Latin or German, but it still seems to me to be a significant change for 200 years. However, I don’t really have anything to compare it to, except OE to ME and ME to modern. So maybe I’m just not realistic in my expectations?

You’re right, John, that the lack of standardization in spelling (as I believe I mentioned in my OP) makes one hell of a difference. And you’re quite right that spoken ME is close to incomprehensible to an uneducated ear. But then, Shakespearean English may well have been the latter as well.

By the time of Shakespear, people would be visiting churches and listening to Bible readings in their own language (as opposed to Latin). This had the effect of spreading a standard form of English thereby reducing the differences between regional dialects that were previously all but mutually incomprehensible.

Furthermore, people wished to learn to read for themselves. Possibly encouraged by the new religious freedom of the Tudor times (all things are relative of course).

What made this possible, was the invention of printing. This provided cheap, standard texts.

The overall effect was to freeze the language to a relatively stable version that resisted further change.

I also think you’re overestimating the ease with which modern readers can comprehend Shakespeare w/o notes and annotations. Of course, we also have to remember that we’re talking about poets in both cases, and poetry is probably not a good judge of language-- hence the phrase poetic license.

As others have noted, the introduction of printing, and increase in literacy, and an English translation of the Bible probably did a lot to slow down language change since the time of Shakerspeare. I would suspect that the changes seen in English beteen the 1400s and the 1600s is typical of language change in a largely illiterate society over a 200 year period.

I bet the spelling thing is a lot of it. When the printing press came in, spelling became standardized, which is why the spelling in a play by Shakespeare is so much closer to modern spelling. In Chaucer’s time, people simply wrote the way they talked; it’s possible that the spoken language of Shakespeare’s time would have been almost as incomprehensible to modern-day listeners, and is only easy to read because the spelling got somewhat frozen and so we can still read it. (Obviously many spellings don’t reflect modern pronunciations; if we all wrote the way we talk now, we would probably find Shakespeare pretty unreadable as well. Or rather (::Excalibre quickly thinks up a phonetic spelling scheme::slight_smile: if wii al rout thu wei wii tawk nau, wii wuud prabublii faind Sheixpiir pritii unriidubl az wel.

Goddamn smileys always popping up when I don’t want them!

Out, out damn smiley!

I don’t understand that. Must be Old English. :slight_smile:

U R teh l33t!!!

Actually, because of the Great Vowel Shift, Shakespeare would probably have found Chaucer incomprehensible, too. On the other hand, (from what I understand), Shakespeare’s English was pretty close to ours, although a bit more guttural and “Scottish” sounding.

As John Mace said, I think it;s important to consider prose versus verse.

Read Izaak Walton’s “The Compleat Angler”, written in prose in 1653. It’s astonishingly close to our modern language. I think Shakespeare’s form impedes understanding somewhat.

Unfortunately, I’m not aware that much written prose from Chaucer’s time exists.

Chancery scribes. http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/fisher.htm

When was the King James Bible written? I can read and appreciate Shakespeare, but I can’t make heads or tails of the KJV. It makes me dizzy.

AskNott, I believe the King James Bible was translated in King James’s reign (ba-bum chic). James I was a contemporary of Shakespeare and there is actually speculation that Shakespeare might have been involved in the translation project, but it usually doesn’t go beyond “Shakespeare was smart and a comtemporary. King James requested that smart people translate his Bible.” That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but whatever.

This link will take you to a syllabus that will help you see the bigger picture


:smack: Yeah . . . I really did know that, honest.

The fact that he’s not credited, when it seems like he ought to have been involved and most of his contemporaries were, is one of the weak pieces of evidence the Shakespeare Does Not Exist crowd uses. But the KJV, it’s important to note, was written to imitate an already obsolete style - so it’s not necessarily directly comparable to Shakespeare, who was pop culture at the time.

SNOUT: O Bottom, thou art changed! what do I see on thee?
BOTTOM: What do you see? you see a smiley of your own, do you?

Here is a collection of Middle English online. The memoirs of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe are in prose–it’s a little difficult to tell since the website breaks them into lines.

In the KJV, Psalm 46, the 46th word from the start is “shake” and the 46th word from the end is “spear”. Shakespeare was 46 years old when the KJV was published. Coincidence??