Voices of Earlier English

A language changes as soon as, and every time, it is spoken. English in particular, over the past thousand years, has changed especially radically and rapidly compared to many other European languages. Whereas a speaker of Russian or Welsh needs only some glossing to be able to understand a 10th or 11th century text in their language, the English contemporary with such a text is more alien to modern Anglophones than German or Dutch and must be learned like any other foreign language. The earliest poem the editors of the Oxford Book of English Verse could find that bears any resemblance to the language spoken today dates from the thirteenth century, but the first pages of the Oxford Book can be read only with many more glosses and annotations than are necessary for a modern Russian to read the Primary Chronicle. The sound of English, like everything else about the language, has undergone extreme reconfiguration over the past millennium. The English texts of the past sounded very different when read aloud in their own day than they do when read by those alive now. The 14th century literary Tuscan of Dante's Commedia when read aloud by its author was perhaps only minimally different from the pronunciation one might hear from a conservative speaker of Modern Standard Italian, but language which John Donne bequeathed to his readers as "mine English tongue" at the end of the 16th century sounded very different than any English heard today. What John Donne bequeathed to his readers as "mine English tongue" at the turn of the 16th century was a very different-sounding language than English as you or I would pronounce it. I created this series because, for some weird reason, I feel compelled to demonstrate the fact of this to the modern reader.

Below are recordings of me reading English texts from the Middle Ages through the early 20th century. For each text, I use a reconstructed pronunciation that attempts to demonstrate — or, more honestly, approximate — what the text might have sounded like in its own time and place. The evidence in each case varies, and therefore so does the exactitude I feel able to claim for my approximation. With Benjamin Franklin, we have the man's own rather detailed description of his speech sounds and a phonetic script apparently patterned on the man's own speech, as well as a wealth of orthoepic evidence for 18th century pronunciation in America and in Britain. With H. P. Lovecraft, I have only conjecture and based on his language attitudes, the impressionistic descriptions of what he sounded like, and a fortunately rather detailed historical dialect geography.

1400: A cash-strapped Geoffrey Chaucer has something to tell his purse

1536: Thomas Wyatt witnesses the execution of Anne Boleyn from his prison window

1570s: William Harrison explains why English-speakers are good at foreign languages, but foreigners can't learn English. (Yes, really)

1586: Execution of Chidiock Tichborn in the wake of the Babington plot.

1603: Ben Jonson buries his son who died of plague in the most recent outbreak to hit London.

1609: Publication of Shakespeare's sonnets

1611: Publication of the King James Bible

1650s: Andrew Marvell feels the muse stirring in his blue balls as he tries to persuade his mistress to skip the foreplay

1655: John Milton gets outraged at the massacre of Waldensians in Piemont

1667: Publication of Milton's Paradise Lost

1668: Edmund Waller muses on language-change and unwittingly sets up the most ironic thing on this page

1776: The United States declares independence from Great Britain. Benjamin Franklin helps proofread the written declaration.

1780: William Blake, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, writes about child exploitation

1849: Edgar Allan Poe writes about sleeping next to a dead girl's tomb and is entombed himself that same year.

1887: Mark Twain reads one of his speeches at the Hartford Monday Evening Club

1929: H. P. Lovecraft writes his only non-bad poem

COMING SOON (or at least eventually):

Poetry:
Caedmon's Hymn in Old Northumbrian
Deor in Late West Saxon
— Charles d'Orléans speaking Middle English with a French Accent
— Gavin Douglas' Middle Scots Aeneid
— Anne Askew's ballad
— Donne's Will, To Ms. Magdalen Herbert, and selections from the Holy Sonnets
— Milton's two sonnets on the response to the Tetrachordon
Dryden's Stanzas on the Death of Cromwell
— Excerpt from Pope's Essay on Criticism
— William Wordsworth's Resolution and Independence (19th century Cumbrian
— Thomas Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard
— Keats' In Disgust of Vulgar Superstition

Prose:
— Excerpt from the Old English Bede
— Excerpt from John Trevisa's comments on English dialects
— John Donne's 17th Meditation
— Excerpt from Milton's Areopagitica
— Preamble to the US Constitution






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