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 languages. Whereas a speaker of Persian, Russian, Occitan, Icelandic or Welsh needs only some glossing to be able to understand a 10th 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. To misquote Wheeler Thackston, the earliest poem the editors of the Oxford Book of English Verse could find that bears much 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, let alone for a modern Icelander to read the Saga of Kormákr.

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 the language John Donne bequeathed to his readers as "mine English tongue" at the end of the 16th century sounded very different than English as spoken today by anybody anywhere. 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.

1010s: Bishop Wulfstan of York delivers a famous sermon to the English

1380s: Geoffrey Chaucer writes the Canterbury Tales

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

1590s: John Donne writes a versified will

1603: Death of Ben Jonson's Son

1609: Publication of Shakespeare's sonnets

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.

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

COMING SOON (or at least eventually):

Caedmon's Hymn in Old Northumbrian
— Bede's Deathsong in Old Northumbrian
— Charles d'Orléans speaking Middle English with a French Accent
— Gavin Douglas' Middle Scots Aeneid
— Anne Askew's ballad
— Donne's 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 in 19th century Cumbrian
— Thomas Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard
— Keats' In Disgust of Vulgar Superstition

— 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


  1. really look forward to seeing more of your work here, so thought-provoking it is.

    There's something I've always wondered about though, which I though you might give pointers on:

    Since I was 19, there's a book I've really loved to read: Grant's Memoirs. reading it, I always wondered what Grant's English sounded like: There are hints here and there, but nothing that builds a coherent picture.

    It's particularly interesting, as Grant's from the same general part of Ohio my mom's family is from. It would be a window into how the English in the region evolved.