Old, Middle, and Modern English

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The Differences between Old English, Middle English and Modern English

By Danièle Cybulskie

When people study Shakespeare in high school, I often hear them refer to his language as “Old English.” As far as the language goes, Shakespeare’s English actually falls under the category of “Modern English.” This may be a little hard to believe, considering the conspicuous lack of “thee” and “thou” in modern writing, but the forms of English that came before are even more foreign.

What, then, are the most distinguishing characteristics of the three main stages in the development of English?

The most noticeable difference between older forms of English and today’s English is the alphabet. In the Middle Ages, English had five additional letters:

Æ / æ (ash) – sounds like the “a” in “cat”
Þ / þ (thorn) – sounds like “th” as in “the”
Ð / ð (eth) – sounds like “th” as in “Seth”
Ƿ / ƿ (wyn) – sounds like “w” as in “will”
Ȝ / ȝ (yogh) – sounds like “gh” as in “thought” (although it has a more throaty, phlegmy sound)

[ VHM:  The missing letters in the last two lines are that way in the original Medievalists.net post.]

[photo  Opening page from Beowulf – British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV]

The first form of recorded English, which we call “Old English,” was spoken and written before the Norman Conquest of 1066 AD, although it continued to be used afterwards. (Old English is also sometimes referred to as Anglo-Saxon, since it was the language of those people.) Even though it is the ancestor of today’s English, it is hardly recognizable to modern eyes.

As an example, here is an excerpt from the most famous work in Old English: Beowulf:

Cōm on wanre niht / scrīðan sceadu-genga
In the dark night he came / creeping, the shadow-goer
(translation by R.M. Liuzza in Beowulf: A New Verse Translation)

Because of the huge differences in language, Beowulf is hardly ever read in Old English these days. (I recommend Liuzza’s translation for modern readers.)

Middle English was my specialty in college, so I feel special affinity for it.

[photo  Opening page of The Wife of Bath’s Prologue Tale, from the Ellesmere manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.]

“Middle English” came about after the Norman Conquest, when the Norman French of the conquering people integrated itself into Old English, increasing vocabulary immensely. This English evolved steadily over several hundred years, and is a little easier to read, as you can see from the first two lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…
When that April with his showers sweet / The drought of March has pierced to the root…

As you can see, even Middle English seems far-removed from the English we use today, but it is looking much more similar to the language of Shakespeare.

Although the invention of the printing press helped to level out our alphabet and to standardize spelling, it didn’t stop the evolution of our language. After all, Modern English encompasses everything from Shakespeare’s words to text-message short forms. In a few hundred years, who knows what shape English will take? An interesting question. Ttyl.

Danièle Cybulskie is the lead columnist of Medievalists.net and the host of The Medieval Podcast. She studied Cultural Studies and English at Trent University, earning her MA at the University of Toronto, where she specialized in medieval literature and Renaissance drama. You can follow her on Twitter @5MinMedievalist or visit her website, danielecybulskie.com.

As we've been seeing synchronically with English accents across space, diachronically there is also great variation in the language through time.  The same could be said of Sinitic, Arabic, and many other "macrolanguages".


The last term of the o.p. has become a minefield.  Witness these definitions and notes from Wiktionary:

Etymology 2

From macro- +‎ language.


macrolanguage (plural macrolanguages)

    1. (linguistics) A "language" by common usage, which is in fact a dialect continuum consisting of widely varying varieties that may be distinct languages by the criterion of mutual intelligibility.
    2. (linguistics) A group of mutually intelligible speech varieties that have no traditional name in common, and which may be considered distinct languages by their speakers.
    3. (international standards) A book-keeping device where – when a language as defined under the ISO 639-2 standard developed by the US Library of Congress, for the purpose of encoding the languages that published books are written in, does not correspond to a single language under the ISO 639-3 standard developed by the Summer Institute of Linguistics, for the purpose of listing all the world's languages in their publication Ethnologue – the ISO 639-2 language is assigned an ISO 639-3 code as a "macrolanguage".
Usage notes

Since its adoption by the ISO, the word "macrolanguage" may be avoided in linguistics, as it has no linguistic meaning in ISO usage. Its primary usage has become to coordinate between ISO 639-2 and ISO 639-3 when those standards have different definitions of a language: The ISO 639-2 definition of a language is based on a shared writing system and literature, while the ISO 639-3 definition is based on mutual intelligibility (with some exceptions such as Serbo-Croatian, Hindustani and Malay, which are single languages linguistically but which for political reasons have been assigned multiple ISO 639-3 codes). This results in e.g. Chinese, Arabic, Quechua and Zapotec being coded as single languages under ISO 639-1 and ISO 639-2 but as multiple languages under ISO 639-3, so they are each assigned a macrolanguage code under ISO 639-3 in addition to their multiple individual language codes under ISO 639-3.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Don Keyser]


  1. kmh said,

    September 2, 2023 @ 7:41 am

    "Þ / þ (thorn) – sounds like “th” as in “the”
    Ð / ð (eth) – sounds like “th” as in “Seth”"

    The phonetic examples are opposite to how these letters are used in modern Icelandic (þ is voiceless and ð is voiced); my understanding is that both letters were used for the voiceless phoneme (/θ/) in Old English.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    September 2, 2023 @ 8:28 am

    Somewhat confused by

    [photo Opening page from Beowulf – British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV]
    [photo Opening page of The Wife of Bath’s Prologue Tale, from the Ellesmere manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.]

    Is it the case that the text on Mediaevalists.net is in the public domain but the images are copyright ?

  3. Cervantes said,

    September 2, 2023 @ 10:37 am

    I would certainly not agree that the extra letters of the alphabet are what mostly distinguishes Old English from Middle and Modern. OE had much more elaborate conjugations, and it had noun declensions. In other words the grammar was very different. All of this has been lost, in part as the natural evolution of language over time, but accelerated by creolization with French. Word order, rather than word form, is now more important in rendering English intelligible.

  4. Maddy B. said,

    September 2, 2023 @ 10:43 am

    Thorn and eth do not indicate a distinction in pronunciation in Old English. Either letter may be used for the voiced or voiceless TH sound. TH is voiced medially between other voiced sounds and unvoiced initially and finally. Either positional variant may be spelled with either letter.

    The advent of voiced TH in initial and final positions (as in Modern English the, with), and with it a phonemic distinction between the voiced and unvoiced variants (teeth/teethe), is a development of the Middle English period.

  5. Laura Morland said,

    September 2, 2023 @ 11:34 am

    I second what Cervantes wrote. Altogether I find this post very elementary and incomplete, far beneath the level I have come to expect on Language Log.

  6. Adrian Bailey said,

    September 2, 2023 @ 11:57 am

    I'm always a bit hazy on the transition from Middle English, though I'm certainly aware that Shakespeare came after that stage – I'm reminded whenever I play Scrabble because standard dictionaries only list Modern English words, and contain lots of words from Shakespeare and his contemporaries which we can pay in the game. I would qualify his language as Early Modern English though – laypeople rightly baulk at simply calling it Modern English.

  7. RfP said,

    September 2, 2023 @ 12:30 pm


    The phonetic examples are opposite to how [þ and ð] are used in modern Icelandic (þ is voiceless and ð is voiced); my understanding is that both letters were used for the voiceless phoneme (/θ/) in Old English.

    American Heritage, Merriam-Webster and NOAD all agree that both letters were used for both voiced and voiceless “th” sounds in Old English.

    I’m fascinated—as a long-time observer who isn’t a linguist, and who always assumed that the letters were used consistently in Old English along the same lines that they are currently used in Icelandic—that there is so much apparent confusion among people who I would expect to have solid information about this distinction.

  8. RfP said,

    September 2, 2023 @ 12:31 pm

    Sorry for the mangled blockquote!

    It was only supposed to be for the first paragraph.

  9. Sally Thomason said,

    September 2, 2023 @ 12:48 pm

    @Cervantes — "creolization with French" is a very strong claim, and a very controversial one. I'm on the definitely-no-creolization side of the debate: the lexical influence from French (and Latin, sometimes by way of French) is certainly extensive, arguably extreme, but it's heavily concentrated in the non-basic vocabulary. The basic vocabulary — a useful concept, though fuzzy — has only about 14% loanwords, and about half of those are from Norse, not French. The structural influence of French on English, as a result of the Norman Conquest, was significant, but far from overwhelming. Many of the major simplifications in word structure (loss of suffixes, all that) started north of the area occupied by French-speaking Normans after the Conquest in 1066. Loss of grammatical gender, for instance, wouldn't have been a likely influence from French anyway, because French had, and has, grammatical gender (admittedly only masculine and feminine, not neuter).

  10. Cervantes said,

    September 2, 2023 @ 2:22 pm

    The way Creolization works is that non-native speakers — in this case French speakers — are trying to speak English. They end up speaking a grammatically simplified version, and that then spreads. It has nothing to do with the amount of French vocabulary or French grammar. It's actually the loss of grammar. That French has grammatical gender is irrelevant. French speakers didn't know the gender of English nouns, nor could they fully conjugate verbs, or decline nouns. That's the point. As I say, this sort of grammatical simplification seems to be a natural feature of linguistic modernization, but the Norman conquest accelerated it.

    Regardless, that's the main difference between Olde and more modern English, not the extra letters.

  11. djw said,

    September 2, 2023 @ 5:22 pm

    Laura Moreland, I agree with you–and I am neither a linguist nor a medievalist; I'm just a run-o-the-mill language person who enjoys this blog. But I've followed medievalist.net for a while now, and it's always seemed pretty elementary to me, so I haven't felt particularly confident in much of what I've read there.

    I do like reading about medieval stuff, but I like and trust Going-Medieval.com more.

  12. AntC said,

    September 2, 2023 @ 5:35 pm

    @MaddyN a phonemic distinction between the voiced and unvoiced variants (teeth/teethe)

    Would these also be a minimal pair? this'll vs thistle

    (Thanks, I was aware that in old English Thorn and eth do not indicate a distinction in pronunciation; and it's always confused me. Does the distinction show there was a pronunciation difference once upon a time? If not, why two letters?)

  13. Maddy B. said,

    September 2, 2023 @ 6:45 pm

    Yes, they're minimal pairs, though there are surprisingly few for which this is the salient distinction.

    Why two letters? Probably because the Anglo-Saxons came up with two solutions to address the lack of a TH sound in the Roman alphabet when they adopted it, one borrowed from the Runic alphabet (thorn) and one a modification of the D letter (eth). Both were fine, some scribes preferred one or the other for visual reasons in certain positions, but neither won out.

    Fun fact: Abbo of Fleury, a French grammarian visiting England in the 10th century to teach English monks a bit of Greek, remarks to his students/readers, "You English are really good at pronouncing θ (theta), but we French can't pronounce it at all." Plus ça change and all that.

  14. Maddy B. said,

    September 2, 2023 @ 6:47 pm

    And to other comments: Medievalists dot net is not a source to rely on. They're sometimes half right. They're better known for aggregating posts from other sources with minimal or unclear attribution. If you see something published there, look for the real source elswhere. If it's their original content, look elsewhere, too.

  15. David Marjanović said,

    September 2, 2023 @ 7:10 pm

    Naturally I agree that writing systems aren't a great way to distinguish languages or stages of the same language. Indeed, the spelling system changed somewhat gradually during (especially Early) Middle English times; the þorn still occurred in abbrevations in the decidedly Early Modern King James Bible (published 1611).

    As we've been seeing synchronically with English accents across space, diachronically there is also great variation in the language through time. The same could be said of Sinitic, Arabic, and many other "macrolanguages".

    Of course – but diachronic variation isn't in any way limited to macrolanguages. You'll see it in any language that has been documented for long enough. (Sometimes that means just 30 years.)

    The grain of truth here, though, is that the geographic/dialectal center of gravity of the English language shifted between Old and Middle English – very roughly speaking from Wessex to Anglia, whose dialects were already clearly distinct in Early Old English times.

    The way Creolization works is that non-native speakers — in this case French speakers — are trying to speak English. They end up speaking a grammatically simplified version, and that then spreads.

    For this to work, the nonnative speakers need to be a large part of the population. (If they have very high prestige, the top register may be affected, but that won't spread.)

    That seems to have been the case in parts of northern England, where the nonnative speakers of English natively spoke Norse, not French. It was definitely not the case with native French speakers.

    Concerning gender in particular, lots of more or less identical nouns have different genders in Old English and Old Norse. (Often they're different derivatives of the same root.) This has been suggested as causing the loss of gender as a compromise: instead of trying to resolve the confusion, people just dumped it.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    September 2, 2023 @ 7:33 pm

    @Laura Morland:

    It is always my aim in posts on Language Log to expand horizons and to generate interesting, informed discussion. That dual aim has been abundantly demonstrated by this post and the comments appended to it.

  17. JPL said,

    September 2, 2023 @ 8:03 pm


    Sally can correct me if I am wrong (I'm not an expert here), but I don't think the term 'creolization' is the correct term to describe the changes to the Old English system or the sociolinguistic mechanisms that it looks like you're referring to. In your first comment, I think the term "extensive borrowing" would be sufficient to account for the changes it looks like you are talking about in the expression "accelerated by creolization with French".

    In the second comment, where you refer to speakers of the influencing language (French) trying to speak the language undergoing changes (English) and introducing items not conforming to English grammar, but rather influenced by French grammar, which then get picked up by native (English) speakers of the changing language: I think Sally would refer to this as a case of "shift-induced interference", which is a pretty common process (the French speakers here doing the shifting). So again, I don't think it's necessary to invoke "creolization", which normally refers to a much more drastic type of change.

    The necessary conditions for "abrupt creolization", to take the most interesting case, include a socially coherent speech community (A) speaking many different mutually unintelligible native languages (which nevertheless may be typologically similar wrt core grammatical properties), interacting with an influencing language spoken by a different, socially dominant speech community (B), which provides a single source for the process of lexical borrowing. The result is that speech community A constructs a norm for a new language system, functioning as a native language, genetically unrelated to either the borrowing source language B, or the diverse native languages (of A) that are sources of the grammatical features, a conserving process which could be seen as constituting a generalized language maintenance. In the case of Norman French influence on Old English, there is only one relevant pre-existing native language, of the speech community making modifications in their linguistic system (or two if you include the French shifters), which persists in normal genetic fashion through the extensive changes. (E.g., as Sally says, core vocabulary persists.) It's not a completely new system.

  18. Chris Button said,

    September 3, 2023 @ 10:53 am

    writing systems aren't a great way to distinguish languages or stages of the same language.

    They are, nonetheless, sometimes incredibly useful for identifying things that otherwise might seem to have disappeared without a trace in the daughter languages:


  19. David Marjanović said,

    September 3, 2023 @ 11:33 am

    sometimes incredibly useful

    Yes, of course, but I'm sure you agree that's an unrelated issue.

  20. Cervantes said,

    September 3, 2023 @ 12:37 pm

    Well, you can quibble over exactly how narrowly you want to define the term creolization, but I think we can all agree that English and French speakers, in trying to communicate with each other, wound up borrowing words and sanding down the grammar. Whatever you call want to call it, that happened. If you think the term creolization can only mean something more specific than that, go ahead but it doesn't seem to be a substantive point.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    September 3, 2023 @ 1:03 pm

    @Philip Taylor:

    Why make it a question of copyright?

    I simply didn't want to include the photographs in the post, but did want readers to know what they were.

  22. CuConnacht said,

    September 3, 2023 @ 2:17 pm

    "Ȝ / ȝ (yogh) – sounds like “gh” as in “thought” (although it has a more throaty, phlegmy sound)" is a very strange thing to say, since the gh in "thought" has no sound at all, except insofar as we can say it changes the expected pronunciation of the "ou".

  23. Jerry Packard said,

    September 3, 2023 @ 3:42 pm

    Great post; greater discussion. Yes, the biggest change was not the alphabet, and identifying the creole in competing languages can be difficult.

  24. Josh R. said,

    September 3, 2023 @ 8:25 pm

    The gap between Old English and Modern English, while certainly significant, is often overstated. Beowulf is a particularly distinct kind of poetry, after all, and not at all indicative of everyday Old English speech*.

    For example, here is a line from Aelfric's Life of St. Edmund.

    Sum swyðe gelæred munuc com suþan ofer sæ fram sancte Benedictes stowe on Æþelredes cynincges dæge to Dunstane ærcebisceope, þrim gearum ær he forðferde; and se munuc hatte Abbo.

    Here is is with slightly more phoneticized spelling, for those not familiar with Old English orthographical conventions:

    Sum swythe yelaered munuc com suthan over sae fram sancte Benedictes stowe on Æthelredes cynincges dæye to Dunstane aerchebisheope, thrim yearum aer he forthferde; and se munuc hatte Abbo.

    Now, I daresay that many people could puzzle out the meaning just from that alone, but we can actually rewrite it in Modern English maintaining virtually same word order.

    Some very learned monk came south over sea from Saint Benedict's place in Ethelred King's day to Dunstan Archbishop, three years ere he forth-fared, and the monk [was] called Abbo.

    I think that if you deal with isolated texts, Old English, Middle English, and Early/Late Modern English can seem wildly different, but if you read a variety of texts throughout history, you can see a very clear throughline from King Alfred and Aelfric to Chaucer and the Gawain poet to Shakespeare to today. I've never formally studied Middle English, but simply having learned Old English, I could easily read and understand Middle English texts.

    *But I recommend that anyone with the ability to read and/or inclination to learn Old English read Beowulf in the original. No modern English translation can do it justice.

  25. sally thomason said,

    September 4, 2023 @ 12:15 pm

    @Cervantes: The distinction between creole and non-creole languages isn't a trivial terminological distinction. There are certainly borderline cases — Berbice Dutch is perhaps the best-known one — but English isn't anywhere near the borderline. The vast majority of its basic vocabulary AND the great majority of its grammar are of Germanic origin, not French. Structural influence from Norse is more extensive than structural influence from French, but still nowhere near the creole borderline, because most of the grammar of Modern English is inherited from Old English. Many of the grammatical changes between Old English and Modern English were shared by Frisian, the closest relative of English, and Frisian underwent no significant influence from French (or Norse, as far as I know), so it's not as if contact is needed to account for those changes. The sharing of those changes was caused by drift, not by direct inheritance (they mostly happened after Frisian and the predecessor of Old English split) or borrowing. In a prototypical creole, the majority of the vocabulary — certainly including most of the basic vocabulary — comes from one language and the structure (phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, discourse) comes neither from that language nor from any other single language. What makes Berbice Dutch a borderline case is that it has a lot of Dutch grammar as well as a lot of Dutch vocabulary, and there was only one major African language that contributed to its makeup. The number of widely agreed-upon creoles arising in two-language contexts is vanishingly rare; Pitcairnese may be the only one (although Berbice Dutch is usually called a creole). All the others involve multilingual contact settings. As JPL explained above, a creole is a new system, not primarily a continuation — through descent with modification — of a single old system. Old English to Modern English shows clear continuity.

  26. pat flaherty said,

    September 4, 2023 @ 3:56 pm


    I'm not formally a linguist but, while Am, have lived in both Europe and E Asia and have often wondered about languages comparatively. I observe that English is not verb-final and that it doesn't have cases like German (or does it have vestigial remnants?) and it seems to me that English grammar changed very substantially. Again not an expert, but I've generally thought that English acquired word order to mark the parts of speech from French and not German? My feeling (knowing French and Japanese well and some German and Mandarin) is that word order is the more 'efficient' solution.

    A minute ago I was asking Perplexity.ai (something like ChatGPT) whether Frisian was verb-final or had cases – and, for the most part, Perplexity didn't know.


    This use of perplexity is a term of art from AI. It's intuitive, but also a measure.


  27. Michael Watts said,

    September 4, 2023 @ 8:18 pm

    American Heritage, Merriam-Webster and NOAD all agree that both letters were used for both voiced and voiceless “th” sounds in Old English.

    I’m fascinated—as a long-time observer who isn’t a linguist, and who always assumed that the letters were used consistently in Old English along the same lines that they are currently used in Icelandic—that there is so much apparent confusion among people who I would expect to have solid information about this distinction.

    Well… there isn't a distinction. There's only one sound involved; Old English does not have a voicing contrast for any fricatives. So it isn't possible for the letters eth and thorn to refer to different sounds, and they don't.

    The Medievalists post cannot have come from someone familiar with the subject matter, which raises all kinds of questions.

  28. Michael Watts said,

    September 4, 2023 @ 10:14 pm

    The advent of voiced TH in initial and final positions (as in Modern English the, with)

    Where is this? As far as I'm concerned, the only way to get a voiced consonant at the end of "with" is through an optional phonetic reduction, sort of like how a dental stop might be deleted from a word as actually pronounced. Phonemically, "with" is most certainly /wɪθ/ and not /wɪð/.

    /ð/ in final position is… not exactly rare, but marked. It's signaled in the spelling (and the signal is absent in "with"), as in lathe, bathe, teethe, clothe, lithe…

    (With the exception of "teethe", the orthographic final E is doing double duty by also signaling vowel quality. I assume the word-final /ð/ is mostly present due to intervocalic voicing of the consonant in an earlier form of English, which would explain why "word-final /ð/" and "silent E" appear to be the same phenomenon.)

  29. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 4, 2023 @ 10:44 pm

    Well there are two sounds in the sense that [ð] was a positional allophone of /θ/… so from what I see there has been sustained interest in whether the spelling difference eth/thorn could in some subtle way track this distinction… with newer opinion thinking no (or not to any meaningful degree) and pointing instead to spelling conventions that at times separate scribal traditions. Good lesson for the study of early writing sytems generally…

  30. /df said,

    September 5, 2023 @ 12:51 am

    @Michael Watts

    "Where is this [voiced TH in initial and final positions]?"

    In the UK? Australia/NZ? Personally I don't recall using, though it might depend on the following sound, or hearing, except from Scottish or Irish speakers, /wɪθ/. I've heard /θ/ as a noticeable feature of the breathy Hebridean accent especially, and even of Icelandic-accented English.

  31. Taylor, Philip said,

    September 5, 2023 @ 3:46 am

    I’m with /df here — I pronounce "with" with final /ð/, invariably hear "with" with final /ð/, and cannot recall ever having heard "with" with final /θ/. Someone who so pronounced it in the UK (well, in England and Wales at least, assuming that /df is correct about Scots and Irish English) might be thought to have a lisp, even if he or she did not lisp in the conventional sense of the word.

  32. Michael Watts said,

    September 5, 2023 @ 4:45 am

    I spent some time browsing UK results for "with" on Youglish, and learned a few things:

    – final [ð] is quite common, especially when followed by a vowel. That doesn't really come as a surprise to me; I would be unsurprised to hear "with" so reduced by an American.

    – There were still some cases where I felt that I was hearing [θ] and not [ð]. But I don't want to be very definite about this; I don't feel that I have a perfect ability to distinguish them.

    – Youglish was not a great tool for investigating this question; there were about 5 different speakers represented in the first 80 results. (Combining this observation with the previous one, speakers seem to be capable of producing the word in either variant.)

    I was intrigued to see that dictionary.cambridge.org represents /wɪð/ as the only American pronunciation of the word, which is definitely wrong; Merriam-Webster more reasonably notes that you might hear [wɪð], [wɪθ], [wəð], or [wəθ]. As I have mentioned, my personal analysis is that the word is phonemically /wɪθ/, but the /θ/ may be reduced to [ð] just as the /ɪ/ may be reduced to [ə] – it's a very weak word.

  33. Chris Button said,

    September 5, 2023 @ 5:47 am

    I have a lovely book on my shelf called "The History of English Spelling" by Upward and Davidson. It's a wonderful read and nicely covers the "th" issue.

    As for "with" with voiced/voiceless alternation of the coda, that's a classic British/American English distinction.

  34. Terry K. said,

    September 5, 2023 @ 11:21 am

    For me, American, with in citation form quite firmly has a /θ/. The word does not sound wrong with with voiced [ð], but it sounds like it's been pulled out of a sentence and something should be following it.

    It it interesting to note that according to Wiktionary
    UK: /wɪð/, (less often) /wɪθ/
    General American, Canada: /wɪθ/, (less often) /wɪð/
    (and there are additional regional and dialectal listings)

  35. sally thomason said,

    September 5, 2023 @ 12:51 pm

    @Pat Flaherty: English grammar has definitely changed substantially over the past 1500 years or so! (Of course, that's true of all living languages.) My only point is that the great majority of those changes are not due to French influence. The only remnants of the Old English case system are in some (not all) of the personal pronouns of Modern English, I/me, he/him, and so on; gender distinctions have also vanished except for a few remnants in the personal pronouns. Word order is a more complicated picture. English wouldn't have inherited word order from German, because German is not an ancestor of English; both of them inherited word order patterns from their closest common ancestor, Proto-West Germanic. But German is only verb-final in subordinate clauses. In main clauses, the finite verb — the verb form that shows person and number, often an auxiliary verb –comes second in the clause; if the verbal construction in a main clause is auxiliary + participle, the participle (which has the actual semantic content of the two-part verb complex) is at the end of the clause. So you get ich esse Fisch`I eat fish, I'm eating fish', but ich habe Fisch gegessen `I ate fish, I've eaten fish'. A subordinate clause with that kind of construction has the order participle + finite verb and is therefore verb-final: ich weiss nicht ob er Fisch gegessen hat `I don't know if he ate fish' (`hat' is the third person singular present tense form of the verb `have'). Reductions in case systems are often claimed to be linked causally to syntactic changes like fixed instead of flexible word order patterns, the idea being that if you don't have a case system that (for instance) distinguishes actor from patient, you can't tell who did what to whom without a fixed word order pattern like SVO (Subject Verb Object) or SOV or … I know such claims have been debated; I don't know what the current status of the debate is.
    Almost all Indo-European languages, including all the languages of the Germanic and Romance (Italic) branches of the family, have greatly reduced their systems of noun inflection, including their case systems, since Proto-Indo-European broke up about six thousand years ago. (The only exceptions are the Baltic and Slavic languages, and even then a few Slavic languages — Bulgarian, Macedonian — have undergone major losses, likely due to contact in the Balkan linguistic area.) English has gone further along that road than German, but not it's not all that much more extreme. The drift effect — a family-wide tendency to reduce noun inflection — is enough to account for the differences. If (and it's a fairly big if) any of the extra reduction in English was due to contact, it would've been contact with Norse, not French; the changes began in areas not settled by Norman French speakers.

  36. David Marjanović said,

    September 5, 2023 @ 3:55 pm

    I think we can all agree that English and French speakers, in trying to communicate with each other, wound up borrowing words

    I don't think much of the borrowing was done to facilitate communication with speakers of the donor language. That's not how borrowing usually happens.

    and sanding down the grammar.

    If you have any example of this, please tell us. I'm not aware of any specifically French grammar in English other than the postposed adjectives in certain fixed phrases (director/secretary/attorney/major general and a few more) that were really borrowed as units and don't count as simplifications of English grammar by any stretch of the imagination.

  37. pat flaherty said,

    September 5, 2023 @ 4:09 pm

    @sally thomason

    Thanks Sally, very helpful (and sorry – I misspelled your last name).

    In the meantime, I did ask ChatGPT (not Perplexity which didn't know) about Frisian word order and it claims that Frisian is SVO.

    And yes, you make a good point about German verb-finality being only in subordinate clauses. If I'd reflected even briefly, I'd hopefully not have made my categoric [sic] claim and, in general, I've read about there being degrees of verb-finality in different languages.

  38. HS said,

    September 5, 2023 @ 7:11 pm

    "With" is pronounced with a voiced TH here in New Zealand. I am surprised to learn that it is pronounced with an unvoiced TH in America – I don't think I have ever particularly noticed that in American speech.

    But "forthwith" seems to be an exception. I pronounce that with an unvoiced TH – I don't know why.

  39. ktschwarz said,

    September 5, 2023 @ 8:37 pm

    Language Log had a very detailed discussion of voiced vs. voiceless th in "with" over a decade ago, with reference to the preference survey in John Wells's Longman Pronunciation Dictionary and the TIMIT database of American speech. (Dictionaries that aren't focused on pronunciation are going to be less reliable on a question like this where there is no functional distinction and people rarely notice the difference.) Wells says [wɪθ] is favored over [wɪð] in the US and vice versa in the UK, but context affects it a lot. I'm American and I'm pretty sure it could come out either way for me, depending mostly on what follows.

  40. Chris Button said,

    September 5, 2023 @ 9:47 pm

    @ Ktschwartz

    Thanks for sharing that old post.

    FWIW, I have a copy of the LPD and absolutely love it. My only real quibble is his use of /e/ for British and American, and /æ/ for British, in terms of contemporary speech. But he is justified in his choices, and the vowel charts at the front of make it all clear in any case.

    I’m also a big fan of two other things by Wells:

    – How he addresses syllabification, which recently came up here:


    – How he addresses intonation, which follows the “British school”(I heartily recommend his book “English intonation: An introduction”).

  41. Pamela said,

    September 5, 2023 @ 9:52 pm

    Old English was my undergraduate major. Fascinating thread, even though it started with the rather lowering observation that most English speakers are shockingly ignorant of the history of their language–one of the most interesting histories of all languages, and maybe the only good reason for English to be the international language. but things picked up as the discussion went along. modern English has acquired many wonderful characteristics, but some things can't be said as well as in the old days–or, perhaps, some things can really only be said once. "ac swa hit æfre forðlicor beon sceolde swa wearð hit fram dæge to dæge lætre wyrre eallswa hit æt þam ende eall geferde."

  42. David Marjanović said,

    September 6, 2023 @ 6:44 am

    maybe the only good reason for English to be the international language

    What do you mean?

    Only one reason is needed for English to be the international language, and that is the simple fact that after WWII pretty much only the US was left standing. :-|

    or, perhaps, some things can really only be said once.

    “Ein var tunga á Englandi sem í Nóregi ok í Danmǫrku; en þá skiptust tungur í Englandi er Vilhjálmr bastarðr vann England. Gekk þaðan af í Englandi valska er hann var þaðan ættaðr.”
    Gunnlaugs saga Ormstungu

  43. Robert Coren said,

    September 6, 2023 @ 9:16 am

    I'm American, and I definitely pronounce with with a voiced final consonant. However, I incline toward unvoiced in forthwith, possibly under the influence of the first th, since I don't know of anybody who voices the final in forth.

  44. Adrian Bailey said,

    September 9, 2023 @ 6:25 am

    @David re "sanding down the grammar" – It's generally believed that one of the main effects of French influence on English was to simplify the grammar; ie. genders, case endings etc. would've survived (longer, at least) if not for the Norman takeover. Do linguists believe this theory?

  45. Philip Taylor said,

    September 10, 2023 @ 5:55 am

    David M — "the postposed adjectives in certain fixed phrases (director/secretary/attorney/major general and a few more) that were really borrowed as units". How about "runners-up" ? Was that borrowed, and if so, from whom ?

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