Shakespeare Is Not “Old English”

A pet peeve: people constantly complain–students and adults alike–that they can’t understand Shakespeare because he wrote in “old English.”

No, he didn’t.  Shakespeare wrote in exactly the same modern English we still speak and write today.  He used a much larger vocabulary, tons of poetic phrasings and figures of speech, a lot of specialized references, and often simply waxed eloquent in his singularly elegant style, but his language was no different from ours.

I realize that when people call it “old English,” they mean precisely the aspects of Shakespeare’s language which I just mentioned, but still, the inaccuracy bugs me.  A little effort, time, and homework makes Shakespeare comprehensible and enjoyable, but actual old English is, practically, a foreign language.

Really.  Quick English lesson summary: The defining work of modern English is that of one of its earliest practitioners: Shakespeare.  Middle English (which could be dated very roughly from about 1000 AD to 1500 AD) is best exemplified by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  Old English is illustrated best by the epic poem Beowulf

Shakespeare, as I said, can be read with a little effort.  In fact, most of us could understand most of his work right now with practically no assistance.

Chaucer, however, is usually “translated” into modern English when printed, as his vocabulary and spelling are so different from what we use today that much of it is very difficult to read.  A sample of the middle English text is below, with a modern equivalent to help. 

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