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13 Ways the English Language Changed Beyond Recognition

 If you were to randomly stumble upon a 7th-century text written in Old English, chances are that unless you were familiar with the language of the Anglo-Saxons, you wouldn’t recognize it for anything even remotely related to English. Since the 5th century, when Germanic tribes first invaded Britain from what is today north Germany and Jutland in Denmark, English has undergone extreme changes, but it’s important to remember that many of these changes are gradual and that languages don’t quite change overnight. In this article, you will learn how some of our most commonly-used words used to be pronounced in ages past.
To simplify things, four major events rocked the English language more than any other. The first was the invasion of Northmen from Scandinavia in the 8th century that threatened to conquer all of England. From the moment Vikings took over the north of England and until the Norman Conquest, Old Norse was commonly heard throughout the streets of cities like York, where it intermingled with the local English dialects, a process made easy by the fact both languages were related and shared some mutual intelligibility.
English changes: William the Conqueror Norman Conquest

The second was the Norman Conquest in 1066 CE. The Normans, a warlike people of Viking stock that came from northern France spoke a dialect of French that was peppered with some Norse words, and for hundreds of years after they claimed England for their own, their Norman French was the language of the aristocracy. During most of that time, English was the language of peasants, but it was not a literary language and we have relatively few examples of what this early Middle English looked like, but it seems to have looked a lot like Old English, albeit with much more simplified grammar.
 
English changes: William Shakespeare
This all changed in the 14th century, when the nobility of England formally adopted English. Suddenly, English poetry and prose were everywhere, seasoned with a good deal of French borrowings, no doubt to lend the peasant language an air of aristocracy, and this is the Middle English we know from such famous works of literature as the Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
But with English becoming the de facto national language again came another major change, called today the Great Vowel Shift, where all English vowels, as well as several consonants,  seem to have changed. We don’t quite know what prompted the great shift, though some surmise it had to do with the bubonic plague (the Black Death) forcing many populations to relocate, bringing their distinctive pronunciation with them. Whatever the cause, it is the reason why many old poems don’t seem to make any sense to us, as they no longer seem to rhyme.
Every one of these events left its mark on English, and these can be found in the weird and sometimes counterintuitive spelling of English. Here are some of the best examples of this:
1. I
English changes: I
The first-person personal pronoun is one of the best examples of the many changes English went through. In Old English, the word was spelled iċ and was pronounced like “itch”. In Middle English, there were at least three different variants of this word: “ich”, pronounced the same as in the Old English, “ik” and “I”. But the last one which supplanted the other two, “I” was not pronounced as “ai”, but rather as “ee”.
2. Enough
English changes: enough
Oh, the oft-derided “gh” digraph. It can either sound like an F, like a G when in the beginning of a word, or be completely silent. In all cases where “gh” appears in the middle or end of a word, it used to be pronounced like the “ch” in Scottish “loch”. The word “enough” is a particularly curious case, because it used to exhibit a very Germanic feature which is now completely gone from English, an initial ye- sound that typically preceded words in the past tense (a feature that can still be seen in German and Dutch, where past conjugation is formed by adding a ge- prefix to the verb). So the word which we now pronounce “eenuff” used to be “yenoch”.
3. Memory
English changes: memory
For this next word, let me present you with an old friend of mine, William Shakespeare:
“From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory
Something is obviously wrong here. We all know that die and memory don’t rhyme, but they used to. Specifically, words that end in Y like “melody” and “memory” used to end with a diphthong closer to “ai” than “ee”.
4. Knight
English changes: knight
The only sounds that have remained of the original pronunciation of this gallant word are N and T. In the days when knights were around (and we don’t mean musicians and stage actors that the queen happened to like), every single letter in this word was enunciated, especially that initial K: not “nait”, but “kneecht”.
5. Knife
English changes: knife
Other than the initial K, which we now know wasn’t silent, in knife we see one of the biggest changes courtesy of the Great Vowel Shift. Nowadays, in words with a middle I and a final E, such as ride, nice, etc. the E is silent and serves to mark that that the I should be pronounced “ai”. This wasn’t always the case, and in the days of Chaucer, the word “knife” was pronounced “kniffuh”, “ride” was “ridduh”, etc.
6. Give
English changes: give
In Old English, G had a peculiar tendency to turn into a Y before front vowels, and so “give” was actually pronounced “yivuh”.
7. Bathed
English changes: bathed
Going back to knife, it wasn’t just the final E that was sounded out, but also the E in the past tense –ed suffix. So while bathed would be pronounced “beythd” in Modern English, in the Canterbury Tales’ prologue it is pronounced “bahthēd”.
8. What?
English changes: what

Have you ever heard someone from the Deep South asking some WH- questions? Some southerners tend to voice the H so that “what” sounds like “hwat”. Well, rather than a quirky mistake upon their part worthy of ridicule, this used to be the way all English speakers said words like “whale”, “whine” and “whip”. In fact, in Old English, all of those words were written with the H before the W, as can be seen in the first word of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf: “hwæt!”
9. Boot
English changes: boot
While modern English “oo” stands for a long U vowel today, it used to stand for a long O vowel like in the word “bold”, so boot was actually pronounced “bōt”.
10. Hour
English changes: hour
Conversely, the “ou” in words like “hour”, “south” and “house” was pronounced with a long U, rather than an “aw”. Coupled with the fact the H was voiced, “hour” probably sounded like “r” and not “awer”.
11. You and ye
English changes: you
This isn’t so much a change in sounds as much as it is a grammatical one. Just like you can’t say “me want cookies” unless you’re a big fuzzy monster that lives in Sesame Street, saying “I love you” used to be a grammatical gaffe, as “you” used to be a subjective pronoun. Rather, if you wanted to tell a group of people how you felt about them, you would be better served saying “I love ye”.
12. Thou
English changes: thou
On that same topic, if you wanted to tell a special someone that you love them, using “you” would also be wrong, as that form of address is plural. Thou, thee, thy and thine were the appropriate second-person singular pronouns.
13. Pronoun-dependent verb inflections
English changes: King James Bible
If you’ve seen or read a Shakespeare play or leafed through the King James Bible, you’ve probably spied a “sayest” or “cometh”. Well, those aren’t stylistic choices, that’s how second-person and third-person singular verbs were inflected in the past: “he walketh down the street”, “thou seest a bird in the sky”.
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