How Far Back in Time Could a Modern English Speaker Go and Still Communicate Effectively?

Neikoptic asks: If I was transported back in time to Medieval times like in a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court could I still talk to people or would we not understand each other?

Contrary to what many a Grammar Nazi the world over would have you believe, language is constantly evolving, occasionally extremely rapidly, and there is nothing wrong with that, despite such individuals lamenting that fact pretty much as long as we have documented reference of people discussing language. For example, when the earliest use of some form of punctuation started to be introduced, many, like the famous Roman orator Cicero, scorned such, noting things like when and how long to pause “ought to be determined not… by a stroke interposed by a copyist, but by the constraint of the rhythm.”

It’s noteworthy here that at that point even spaces between words wasn’t a thing. Those weren’t around until approximately the 7th and 8th centuries (and are said to have been invented, or at least popularized, by Irish and Scottish monks of this era who were tired of wrestling with separating unfamiliar Latin words). It was also around the end of the 8th century when Charlemagne helped to introduce lowercase letters to the masses after requesting that the monk, Alcuin, develop a unified alphabet, which ultimately included these.

Summing up this seemingly never ending evolution and just as never ending groaning by those who strictly adhere to more of a prescriptive mindset, Betty Birner of the Linguistic Society of America notes,

The speech patterns of young people tend to grate on the ears of adults because they’re unfamiliar. Also, new words and phrases are used in spoken or informal language sooner than in formal, written language, so it’s true that the phrases you may hear a teenager use may not yet be appropriate for business letters. But that doesn’t mean they’re worse – just newer.

And that’s not to mention accents and how those change over time. Pertinent to the topic at hand today, if you were to travel back to Shakespearean times and listen to the bard speak, he would have actually sounded much more like one of the pirates on the Pirates of the Caribbean than the refined Received Pronunciation accent that is so often associated with his work in modern times. (More on this in a bit.)

So with all that in mind, let’s look at the scenario in which you, as an English only speaker, have invented a time machine and wish to take a little jaunt through history to observe first hand all the moronic things we humans have gotten up to over the centuries.

First, I hope you remembered to make your time machine a space ship as well.  Remember, along with orbiting around the Sun at 66,600 miles per hour., the Earth is also rotating on its axis at about 1,070 mph. On top of that, don’t forget our whole solar system is rocketing through space around the center of the Milky Way at around 560,000 mph. On top of that, our galaxy is hurtling through space at around 670,000 mph with respect to our local group of galaxies.

So, bottom line, even if you went back in time just a few seconds, you’re going to be in a VERY different place than when you first achieved 88 mph with your DeLorean. Go back several hundred years, and you are going to need an extremely fast space ship and some good star chart data to find your way back to Earth.

But let’s say you’ve figured all that out. After a quick stop to murder baby Hitler and a few of his top cronies (or at the least bring a wizened Mister Rogers back to give their parents some life lessons to instill in their children), how far back could you go and still be able to communicate effectively in the English speaking world?

To begin with, it would depend on who you were talking to. There are a shocking number of dialects of English in England alone despite being a relatively small area. Some of these dialects are even difficult for a general modern English speaker to understand fully if the people that are speaking them aren’t interested in modifying their speech so you can understand them. Go back further in time and it would only get more difficult, with much less standardization as you woosh back through the centuries.

That said, if we restrict ourselves to more of what the upper class of England spoke, it turns out a modern English speaker could go back quite a ways before things become too difficult, and you’d do mildly better if you also spoke German and/or Dutch.

On that note, English as we know it today more or less developed from a series of invasions to the mother island, most notably the invasion of Germanic tribes known as the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons around the 5th and 6th centuries. Along with a smattering of Latin, this mix ultimately gave us a large percentage of what is Old English.

Pertinent to the exact original question, note here that the 6th century or so is when A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is set and around when, legend has it, King Arthur lived.

As an example of what you’d be facing trying to talk to someone in the ballpark of this period, consider the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (late 9th century) and the following (and note here that the “sc” makes the “sh” sound, which helps in understanding slightly):

Brytene igland is ehta hund mila lang and twa hund mila brad, and her synd on þam iglande fif geþeodu, Ænglisc, Brytwylsc, Scottysc, Pihttisc and Boclæden.

In modern English, this translates to:

The island Britain is 800 miles long, and 200 miles broad. And there are in the island five nations; English, Welsh, Scottish, Pictish, and Latin.

As you can see, it wouldn’t be a wholly foreign language. In fact, it’s estimated approximately 50% of the core of the modern English language derives from words in Old English. However, meaningful communication would be mostly an effort in futility, especially when accounting for accents and something else we’ll get into shortly.

After this, the Vikings would also invade for a few hundred years starting in the 8th century, lending some words to Old English from Old Norse.

Much more significantly was the Norman Conquest around 1066. They firmly established a version of French (Old Norman) as the language of choice for the elite of the country.

The language of the Normans trickled down to the masses and vice-versa, adding a whole host of words to English, which starts to give us more of the vocabulary we are used to today. This and some other changes to the language that occurred at this time all combined bring us to Middle English, which spanned around the 12th through the 15th centuries, the latter of which is also generally considered to be when the so-called “medieval times” ended.

Noteworthy here is that during the 14th century, while the upper class still spoke Anglo-Norman, as this century progressed, it was almost completely displaced by English.

This brings us to the latter half of the 14th century when Chaucer was writing Canterbury Tales. As an example of what English looked like at this point, or at least a poetic form of it, consider these lines from that work:

A KNYGHT ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.
Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
And therto hadde he riden, no man ferre,
As wel in cristendom as in hethenesse,
And evere honoured for his worthynesse.

which translates to:

A KNIGHT there was, and what a gentleman,
Who, from the moment that he first began
To ride about the world, loved chivalry,
Truth, honour, freedom and all courtesy.
Full worthy was he in his sovereign’s war,
And therein had he ridden, no man more,
As well in Christendom as heathenesse,
And honoured everywhere for worthiness.

While you might think from this example you’d be able to be mildly conversational if you and a native of the time talked slowly enough, it wouldn’t be quite that easy owing to the way the words would have been spoken.

One of the principal problems is that while a lot of the words might at this point be somewhat familiar, this pre-dated the bulk of what is known as the “Great Vowel Shift” which occurred primarily from around the mid-14th century through the 16th century or so. In a nutshell, this is where the pronunciation of various vowels in English changed considerably. For example, in Middle English the word “bite” would have been pronounced “beet” and something like the word “meet” would be pronounced like “mate”. This could get really awkward, for example, if a native of the time were to ask you if you’d like to “Meet later.”

As an interesting brief aside, because some of the spellings for English words were beginning to be standardized before the Great Vowel Shift had completed, we still have many English words whose spellings don’t really match the way we pronounce them because of this.

In any event, from all this, you can start to see why it would be extremely difficult to understand anyone before this Great Vowel Shift occurred. Given a little time, you could probably start to figure out those vowel sound differences, but in the meantime you aren’t likely to recognize a lot of words that you otherwise know.

You might at this point be thinking you could get around the problem by reading and writing as a way to converse. But even if you were to find such a well educated person to write back and forth with, a quick perusal of surviving text from this era in its original form would quickly dissuade you from the notion that this would be an effective way to communicate. The way they wrote their words and letters wasn’t exactly Times New Roman.

Over the following century, however, you would start to make some rapid progress in communication. For example, consider this text from the play Gorboduc, written in 1561:

A pestilent plage, a poysonous ill
Hath sowen sores in certaigne now of late:
A wood sprited hart : with a wayward wyll :
A stubborne stomache, to nourishe debate :
Blered, yea blynded eyes; a brasen brest:
A leden brayne: I recken not the rest.

This brings us to around the turn of the 16th/17th centuries. As you might have guessed from the fact that you probably have little trouble reading Shakespeare’s plays and the King James Bible, which were written during this period, at this point you would very solidly be able to grasp a reasonably large percentage of the vocabulary of English.

Just as importantly, the Great Vowel Shift was more or less wrapped up around this time, meaning as long as someone wasn’t speaking a particularly peculiar dialect, you’d finally be able to communicate conversationally with a reasonably large percentage of the English speaking world.

Speaking of dialects, you also wouldn’t have quite as much trouble with that at this point either, as the language was starting to become somewhat standardized, with London more or less functioning as the epicenter of that standardization.

As for the exact accent you’d encounter, this could vary in the melting pot that was London at the time, but, as alluded to previously, if you were dealing with the more affluent and educated in the area, you could expect something akin to Original Pronunciation or OP, which is usually described as a mix of an Irish and American accent, or otherwise, as noted previously, somewhat similar to the stereotypical way pirates speak in movies.

This, perhaps, isn’t that surprising as another accent OP is often thought to sound like is the West Country English accent, which in turn directly inspired the way Hollywood has pirates talk. More on why this is the case in the Bonus Facts in a bit.

(And if you want to hear OP for yourself, check out this great video by David and Ben Crystal where they demonstrated the accent and briefly discuss how linguists know reasonably well how Shakespeare and those performing his plays talked.)

But to conclude, while certainly there are many words you and a person from this era would trip each other up on, at this point in history you’d have little trouble communicating at a mostly conversational level. Thus, so long as you didn’t set your time circuits for too far before the 16th century, you’d be reasonably fluent in the English of the age, leaving the culture shock to be the bigger problem, such as the extreme racism, sexism, religious extremism, rampant disease, poor hygiene, etc. etc. And don’t even get us started on the god-awful smell in places like London in particular. (See our article The Great Stink.)

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Fact:

As noted, the West Country accent directly inspired the way pirates stereotypically speak in Hollywood productions. This is all thanks to one man- Robert Newton, and the 1950s version of Treasure Island, which pretty much set the standard for the modern conception of how to speak like a pirate.

In the film, Newton, who played Long John Silver, just so happened to be from the same area of England that the fictional Long John Silver was from – England’s West Country. Thus, he went ahead and used that dialect for the character. Noteworthy here is that fishing and shipyards were a part of everyday life in the West Country, and thus maritime slang was often used as well, much of which was adopted by Newton for the character in the film.

Perhaps the most popular “pirate speak” expression that comes from this is “arrrr”, despite that there is no documented evidence that this was a thing pirates said historically.

However, where this was spoken in regular conversation was in the West Country when Newton was growing up in the early 20th century. Here, “arrr” more or less functioned as an expression that acted as a confirmation, like “okay”.

However, while it is always possible that this expression was around in the West Country during the so-called “Golden Age of Piracy” from about the mid-17th to mid-18th centuries, it is unlikely it would have been remotely the norm among the general pirate populace. As noted by historian Colin Woodard, “[Pirate ships] included large numbers of Scots, Irish, Africans, and French, as well as a smattering of Dutchmen, Swedes, and Danes. Of those of English origin, the largest number were probably from London, then by far the empire’s largest port and city.”

Whatever the case, after Robert Newton’s popular portrayal of the character of Long John Silver in the film and TV sequels, his accent and various things he said became more or less the gold standard of how a pirate should look and talk.

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  • Of course, if a Yankee did go back to King Arthur’s court, he would find that they weren’t speaking English at all, but Brythonic, the precursor to Welsh. Arthur was the great enemy of the English invaders.

  • What bugs me is when celebrities make up some word (or mis-pronunciation of a word), and then it spreads to the point of people thinking it is a real word. Case in point: homage. There are two ways to pronounce the word (look it up in a real dictionary), but the celebs started pronouncing it oh-mah-g, as in, “I did it as an oh-mah-g to ________”, rather than the proper “It was done in homage to _____”.

    • Daven Hiskey

      But all words are made up words. 🙂 The ones that people consider “official” just stick for various reasons, including occasionally that some celebrity or other uses them. Shakespeare is a classic example of this. 😉

  • Minor side point, if I were going to stop and murder a baby on the way back, probably would choose Karl Marx. Chances are, without Marx, we get no Hitler. But sadly, there would probably be some other guy whose name we associate with evil. After all, without Marx, we get no philosophical underpinnings for Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao and a host of petty brutal dictators, but we still would have the Armenian genocide. That is assuming of course, that by murdering baby Karl, we don’t set off some chain of events resulting in the utter destruction of the world, which, for some reason, seems more likely that setting of a chain of events that ushers in a greater utopia than we have today.

    Oh, and Bill Bryson has a good book on English, and he said that the upper crust of the Revolutionary War period would sound a lot like Yosemite Sam or a caricature of a hillbilly from Appalachia.

    • Once you radically change history like that, it will end up with a lot of people living who would otherwise have died early, a lot of people moving who would otherwise have stayed put ,and a lot of people staying put who would otherwise have moved. This would have completely altered the marriage and birth time lines. You would almost certainly never have been born.

  • Loved “rant” on time travel logistics. That was awesome! Simon, Daven, well-done gents!