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How Far Back in Time Could You Go and Still Understand English?

You probably won’t make it past 1350.

Just as species evolve over time, so do our languages. Over the past hundred years, according to Mental Floss, English has changed considerably. The language has moved away from the “to” forms of verbs in favor of the “-ing” version. For example, these days we tend to say, “He didn’t bother calling” rather than “He didn’t bother to call.” As the world grows closer together, words from other languages are being assimilated into English, and technological terms are changing our tongue by the day. Keeping this recent evolution in mind, a recently created video asks, “If you had a time machine, how far back could you go and still understand English?”


The video argues that if you went back to 1719, when Robinson Crusoe was published, you’d probably understand what most people were saying. If you took your time machine back to the 1600s, in the time of Shakespeare, you’d still get by but would be overwhelmed by slang terms such as “xanippe,” “abbess,” and “thornback.” In the 1500s people’s speech was pretty much like the language of the Bible, so if the New Testament is a breeze, then you’re still hanging in there. But if you go back any further, you’d encounter a massive vowel shift. Wake up in 1350 and “tea” would be pronounced “tay” and “gone” would sound like “goan.” So even if you knew the words, you’d be flummoxed by their pronunciation, and Google Translate is still centuries away.

Could you decipher this prose from The Canterbury Tales, circa 1389?

“Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The dragothe of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour”


The real question is: If you had a time machine, how far back could you go before no one understood you?



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