Chaucer | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Geoffrey Chaucer, 1340-1400

How far back in history could you go until you could no longer understand the English language?Stanislava Suplatovich has the answer in Quora. To answer this question, she uses three examples. Here’s the first one:

“See ye not yon twa bonny boys,
As they play at the ba?
The eldest of them is Marischal’s son,
And I love him best of a’;
The youngest of them is Henrie’s son,
And I love him none at a’ “.

It’s an excerpt from “Queen Eleanor’s Confession,” a ballad known as early as the 1500s, but which is believed to be even older. It is written in Early Modern English. Do you understand it? Apart from more or less free word order and some unusual spelling, it’s quite understandable.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

These are the very first lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. A bit more challenging, isn’t it? It’s written in Middle English in the 14th century. It looks and sounds more French than English. But it’s still understandable – though not in every detail.

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
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
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.
ðæm eafera wæs æfter cenned,
geong in geardum, þone god sende […]

This is the beginning of Beowulf. Old English. Do you understand, or, to be more exact, can you even read it?

I think that the answer is quite clear. We can go as far as the 14th century and the language is still understandable. The further back in history we would go, the less intelligible and understandable the language becomes in terms of spelling, pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar.

Incidentally, what I found particularly amusing about this answer is that Stanislava is Russian, born and bred, and lives in Vladivostok. Yet, I suspect she can understand English better than many native speakers!