Sownynge in Moral Vertu was his Speche

25 Oct

When I used to teach World History, one of the things I would demonstrate is how much English as a language changed in just 600 years… but I’m realizing that English hasn’t stopped changing, and will continue to do so.

So in my class, I would start with Beowulf, circa 1000 CE, and quote:

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon
hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon.

Listen! We –of the Spear-Danes in the days of yore,
of those clan-kings– heard of their glory.
how those nobles performed courageous deeds.

It’s unintelligible – it doesn’t even sound like English. You catch maybe two words that you recognize. That’s only a thousand years old.

Then I would go to Chaucer. Since the motto of my alma mater, Illinois State University, had a quote from the Canterbury Tales (circa 1400), I memorized the Clerk’s introduction in the General Prologue:

Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly tech.

Filled with moral virtue was his speech;
And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.

This time, it sounded more recognizable, but still foreign. It’s also rather cool and appropriate for a teacher’s college. Side note: right before I graduated, ISU decided that their motto wasn’t gender-inclusive, so they asked their professors to suggest new mottos that didn’t have he or she. Instead of going with any of those, the committee went with “Gladly we learn and teach.” Seriously? (groan) That’s why the unofficial motto of ISU is “I Screwed Up.”

Then I would advance two hundred years and hit them with Shakespeare. However, only recently did I learn about The Great Tonal Shift ™. So even Shakespeare – 400 years ago – didn’t sound like Shakespeare, it sounded closer to Middle English. We softened some vowels around 1800, changed some pronouncations – I can’t help but think that had more to do with London English suddenly getting deluged by all the countryside accents that combined when their owners came in to work in the factories. So what sounded closer to what we think of as Cockney accent – or more likely, West Cornish – was closer to how Shakespeare sounded.

There’s a particular actor named Ben Crystal who works in London whose made performing in OP (Original Pronunciation) his particular niche. It also helps that his dad is a linguist, so he grew up with this, however, it’s amazing to hear him perform:

Of course, it doesn’t stop with Shakespeare. Every year, thousands of high school sophomores are subjected to The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which was only written 150 years ago… and it’s very difficult to read. Not unintelligible, but written for people who had a very different expectation from their books… a very different worldview than a modern-day reader. I used to love Sherlock Holmes stories as a teenager – only 100 years old – but now I cannot enjoy them at all. It’s difficult to read anything written before Hemingway (70-90 years old).

I find this incredibly fascinating – and should expect to change in the future. Did I miss something? Is there a better example of changed English? Let me know in the comments below!

One Response to “Sownynge in Moral Vertu was his Speche”

  1. spwilcen October 25, 2020 at 9:22 am #

    Fascinating. There are those people I cannot understand today who swear they are speaking (some manner of) English. Beowulf – I’d not seen that in forty years. Lovely, entertaining, and most informative read. Thank you.

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