History Of English
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Basic Information

Languages are not stable, and English is no exception. If you go back in time even just a few hundred years, you'll find slang and phrasing quite puzzling, and be amazed at how different (and inconsistent) the spelling is.

Old English has strong Germanic roots, and is almost entirely indecipherable to a Modern English Speaker that hasn't studied it extensively. It was spoken from the 5th Century until sometime around the end of the 11th Century. If there's one familiar word per sentence, consider yourself lucky.

Middle English has French/Norman influences, and uses plenty of words that have since been retired. With time and effort and a reference book, most modern readers will be able to decipher the majority of it, though it feels pretty alien at first glance. Spelling is particularly strange, especially in regards to vowels. That said, the difference between early period works (like Piers Plowman, which virtually needs to be translated) and later ones (Like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales which can be read straight off after a little practice) is fairly marked.

Early Modern English, which is the language of Shakespeare, came to be in the wake of the Great Vowel Shift. The Renaissance, the Printing Press, and further exposure to other languages caused a shortening of English vowels. The result was Early Modern English, which is poorly recreated by the faux-language of the trope called Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe.

What you'll recognize as real Modern English didn't come about until after Samuel Johnson published the first major English Dictionary in 1755. Prior to that setting of the standard, spelling was very piecemeal and inconsistent.

One factor that many non-native speakers of English seem to find very troubling - the irregular to non-existant grammar1, seems to have originated during the Danelaw period in which the North-East of England was occupied various nations of Scandinavians speaking their own languages whilst the South West remained Saxon and speaking Old English in one form or another. Most of the vocabulary was similar enough to be mutually understandable (due to the common roots of the languages) but grammatical rules differed. The simplest solution (and therefore the one that was actually followed, given the lack of government to bugger things up) was to grind off the grammatical rules as far as possible and take advantage of what the various peoples had in common. This also explains why English very often has several words that mean almost the same thing but can take on different shades of meaning when context requires. Also very annoying for non-native speakers. However, contrary to popular rumour, the English do not have fifty different words for rain.

See Also: Language and Language Tropes



Game and Story Use

  • A Time Traveler is likely to have a hard time with the language. Some GMs will hand wave this will a little Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe for the sake of plot, but other GMs prefer realism and the challenges it provides. Do not go blindly into that Portal To The Past, or you might be in for a rude awakening. In particular, prior to 1000 AD, expect your English won't get you anywhere unless the game is a comedy.
    • The Continuum RPG has some specific metagame tricks for handling in-character translation, as they expect you to be fairly accurate with language (or rather, they have language change realistically, but give the party the tools to get by with a little effort).
  • If there's no time travel, it's probably easiest to substitute modern language and vernacular for the default tongue of the setting. Don't worry about the "Thou Didst Give Me Thy Counterfeit Fairly These Monthes And Fortnights Past, Oh Where Hast Thou Been?" and the like, unless you're trying to depict a specific character who's very formal (or not very fluent). That said, some modern phrases might take it too far: "Wazzup biotch?" may strain verisimilitude beyond belief, especially from the lips of a Knight or Courtier.
    • A trick that often works is to use a sort of translation convention - when you have two people using essentially the same language, use modern English (or whatever language you play in). Use accents (or begatery) when one of the speakers is speaking a different language or is from a different time period so:
      • Two French PCs talking to one another in French (played by English players): Use standard English.
      • English PC talking French (or French PC speaking English): Use your best French accent.
      • English from the middle ages talking to modern English speaker: Apply begatery.
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