Tips for Reading Older English Work

The English language has changed greatly over its existence. Old English more closely resembles modern German, betraying the language’s Germanic origins. Middle English spelling and pronunciation resemble that of modern French and Spanish. Modern English is an odd mishmash of the old and the new. Words with Latin origins exist alongside newly created-words, words borrowed from other languages, and words inherited from earlier forms of English. All of this can make reading works written before the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries incredibly challenging. Here are some things to keep in mind if you need or want to read a work of pre-modern English.

Non-Standard Spellings

Consistent spellings for English words are a relatively recent development. Newspaper articles dating from the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I include multiple spellings of the same words, sometimes within the same document. The editors of modern reproductions of pre-modern works have done their best to “fix” this. If you buy a recent printing of one of Shakespeare’s plays, the spellings of words will be largely consistent with their modern equivalents. Nevertheless, you will still encounter some anomalous spellings, particularly if the editor of a pre-modern work has attempted to remain faith to its source material.

Shifting Words for “You”

“Though, thee, thine, and thy” were the accepted forms of the second person singular during the Early Modern period. During Shakespeare’s time, “thou” and “thee” were used for the familiar second person singular, while “you” and “ye” considered more formal. Today “you” is used exclusively; the other forms have fallen by the wayside. Nevertheless, you may encounter some anachronistic uses of these forms of “you.” The editors and translators of the King James Edition of the Bible, for example, used second person singular forms that were already obsolete in their own time. They did this in an attempt to impart an “ancient” or “timeless” quality to the Biblical texts that they were translating.

Early Modern English Was Dirty

There’s no way around this one. Earlier forms of the English language were decidedly bawdier than modern English. The Victorian era “cleaned up” the language to such a degree that earlier writings can seem downright obscene by comparison. Try your best to accept that pre-modern English works were written in a very different cultural and moral landscape than modern English works were/are. If a word or phrase in one of Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets sounds decidedly lewd, the Bard probably meant it as such.

Antiquated and “One Off” Words

Even with the proliferation of modern translations, you will still encounter works with words that are either no longer in use or were made up by an author for a singular purpose. Your best bet in these situations is to search of an edition of said work that includes copious footnotes. If the first publication of a pre-modern work that you pick has little in the way of annotations, keep searching until you find one that explains such things to your satisfaction.