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Richard-Business Eng
Professional Teacher
Can you translate 500-year-old English? ... Would you like to speak this way?

The English that was used between 1500 and 1800 was different in very many ways from modern English.

This form of English was called Early Modern English, Elizabethan English and Shakespearian English.
The grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and spelling have all changed greatly since the 1500s.
Some of the most striking differences are in the way verbs and pronouns were used.

Can you translate the old English into English that we use today?
Would you like to speak this way?

Just think of how you would translate these old English sentences.
Take your best guess.
THEN... to see the Modern English that we use today, drag your mouse across the section following the arrow.

-  Tell me what thou knowest.  ––>  Tell me what you know.

-  How can I help thee?  ––>  How can I help you?

-  Where thy master goeth, there goest thou also.  ––>  Wherever your master goes, you also go there.

-  Oh come, all ye faithful.  ––>  All the faithful people are invited to come.

-  I fear thou art sick.  ––>  I fear you are sick/I worry that you are sick.

-  Wert thou at work today?  ––>  Were you at work today?

Questions and negatives were originally made without do; later forms with and without do were quite common.

-  Came you by sea or by land?  ––>  Did you come by sea or by land?

-  They know not what they do.  ––>  They don’t know what they are doing.

-  Be not afraid.  ––>  Don’t be afraid.

Simple tenses were often used in cases where modern English has progressive forms.

-  We go not out today, for it raineth.  ––>  We are not going out today because it is raining.

Subjunctives were more widely used than in modern English.

-  If she be here, then tell her I wait her pleasure.  ––>  If she is here, then tell her I’m waiting for her.

Inversion was more common, and infinitives and past participles could come later in a clause than in modern English.

-  Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.  ––>  Hamlet, You’ve really pissed your old man off  J

-  Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.  ––>  Hamlet, you have seriously offended your father.

-  And she me caught in her arms and therewithal so sweetly did me kiss and softly said 'Dear heart, how like you this?'  ––>  And she took me in her arms and kissed me sweetly and softly said ‘Dear heart, do you like this?

These forms were not only common in older literature; some of them continued to be used by 19th-century and early 20th-century writers (particularly in poetry and period novels, plays, TV shows, and movies)

Mar 10, 2018 2:31 PM
Comments · 26


There is a very important English translation of the Bible called The King James Version.  It had a huge influence on English literature.  It is from 1611.  Most of the Bible verses that people know are from that version.  The problem is that many people are not familiar with those references in the literature because many people never read the Bible at all anymore.  I was amazed that a Social Studies teacher at one of the high schools in my city did not recognize the expression from the gospels that goes "you strain out a gnat, and you swallow a camel."  

   So anyway, if you happen to have grown up in church hearing the King James Version, the language sounds familiar.  Young people today who don't go to a church that uses the King James Version would be completely lost.  Well, not completely lost.  They would not understand "Whither goest thou?"  for example.

    So it turns out that many people don't catch the biblical references in a lot of the English literature.

   All of these expressions are references to the Bible:

He really goes the extra mile.

He saw the light.

He saw the writing on the wall.

They are wolves in sheep's clothing.

He is on the straight and narrow.

He became a scapegoat.

He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

I escaped by the skin of my teeth.

The blind leading the blind

March 10, 2018
I read lots of versions (actually , translations) of Shakespeare before venturing the original and wish I never did. You do struggle with the language at first, then it becomes more natural.

By the way, English's Germanic roots are way more evident in this form of English and it's interesting to see how the language has changed.

As for real Old English, I can't make head or tails of it.

March 10, 2018
I'm interested in the Bible, and have read it with missionaries. Some part is written in old English. Missionaries in the church taught me some  basic old words as follows:

thou  = you(subjective)
thy  = your
thee = you (objective)
thine = yours
shalt = shall
wilt = will
hast = have
art = are
dost = do

I remember I saw these old English words in 'Hamlet' and some English poems before. Well..I feel something archaic and elegant in these vocabulary, different from modern English.
March 10, 2018

@Dan Smith

My God, I've been misunderstanding "strait is the gate" for my entire life.

I looked up the word strait, and we still see it in straitjacket,                                                             dire straits, strait-laced and straitened circumstances.

This is almost as traumatizing as when I discovered that I wasn't pushing a wheelbarrel, but a wheelbarrow.  So were there other types of barrows, and finally someone said, "Hey, let's put some wheels on this thing?"

March 11, 2018

If you go to parts of northern England you will find that 'thee' and 'thou' (or 'tha' which would be a more accurate transcription of what it sounds like when spoken) have been retained. You kind of need the corresponding local accent if you want to use those words and not sound like an idiot.

@'Lawrence, Middle English is fine to understand, it's still recognisable as English and understandable. Old English is the one that is unintelligible to modern speakers.

March 10, 2018
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Richard-Business Eng
Language Skills
English, French
Learning Language