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About the story
What’s with this “Wren” thing?
   The oldest extant version of the fable we are presenting here appeared in 1913 in the first volume of a two-volume anthology of Low Saxon folktales (Plattdeutsche Volksmärchen “Low German Folktales”) collected by Wilhelm Wisser (1843–1935). Read more ...


Early Modern English

Language information: English is currently the most important language in the world, its origin, however, is highly complex. It began as a mixture of Anglish, Old Saxon, Old Jutish, Old Frisian and possibly other Old Germanic varieties imported from the Continental Lowlands, as well as numerous Medieval Latin loans.ALL languages and dialects are beautiful, precious gifts. So cherish yours and others! Share them with the world! The resulting Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) language came to supplant most Celtic language varieties of Britain. Viking and Norman invasions resulted in layers of Scandinavian and Norman French influences. English morphology underwent radical simplification, and this caused the syntax to lose much of its earlier flexibility. Dialectical diversity is considerable, the most densely occurring diversity being in the British Isles and Ireland, followed closely by the North American East Coast, especially New England and Canada’s Maritime Provinces. Having changed little since the fourteenth century, today’s English orthography is one of the most historical systems and takes much time and effort to master.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
whose body of literary work is
universally regarded as representing
the zenith of Early Modern English

               Early Modern English was used from around 1500 to around 1700, predated by Middle English. Its advent resulted not only from the Great Vowel Shift and from considerable lexical changes that began to take place in the latter half of the 15th century but also from increased literary activities and rapid standardization that resulted from the introduction of movable letter types and other great advances in communication technology. Relatively rapid dissemination of printed material probably also helped to increase the literacy rate, and it allowed poems, songs and theater plays to reach larger numbers of people more quickly than ever before. Of great importance were also greater political stability, increasing trade and growing prosperity in England, in part in that this brought with it more time for education, reading and writing as well as greater mobility and communication on a national level, thus setting the stage for the establishment of something approaching a standard language. By and large, this language variety developed from a more or less standardized London-based dialect used primarily in government and administration. This development culminated in the great blossoming of English literature and performing arts in the Elizabethan era, of which particularly the works of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) have influenced the development of English and remain great monuments today. Of particular importance as well is the fact that during the Early Modern English phase the English language came to largely replace Latin in Anglican churches and two English language Bible versions were published: The Great Bible (1539) and The King James Bible (1611). While these Bible versions were not altogether based on the everyday language of the time but contained numerous elements that were archaic already then they undoubtedly contributed to the establishment of a literary standard language.
     The turn from Late Middle English to Early Modern English witnessed numerous changes, many of them lasting till this day. Much of this has to do with shifts in semantics and word usage. A striking example is the word for “bird,” found in many of the English translations here. “Bird” is fuğel, fuğol or fuğul in Old English, and it is foghil, fuwel, voğel, fowle, foule or foul in Middle English. These are related not only to words for “bird” in various Modern Germanic languages (e.g., Dutch vogel, Low Saxon Vagel, German Vogel and Danish fugl) but also to the modern English word “fowl” which at about that time had begun to specifically denote winged game, certain water birds and barnyard birds. At the same time the idea of “bird” in general came to be expressed by means of a word that in Old English (brid) and in Middle English (bryd, byrd) had the specific meaning “young bird,” also “young person” or “small person” (a word that seems to have no relatives in other Germanic languages and whose origin is so far uncertain (and is likely to be derived from Celtic; cf. Gaelic brìdeach ‘dwarf’, brìdeag ‘little woman’, brìdeun ‘little bird’, ‘sea-piet’).
     Early Modern English remains fairly understandable to most of today’s English speakers, in part because English spelling has not significantly changed since that time. However, this requires some special study or special familiarity, mostly because of semantic differences, greater syntactic flexibility and now defunct words and idiomatic expressions.
     Early Modern English works are usually read and performed in the various English dialects of today, which greatly facilitates comprehension. However, our theoretical knowledge of Early Modern English pronunciation has made considerable advances lately, and there is an effort underway to perform some of Shakespeare’s plays with the pronunciation of his time. Novice audience members that are used to such plays being performed with today’s “posh accents” are in for a surprise, because Elizabethan pronunciation may seem to them like a mixture of today’s non-standard British dialect pronunciations, including what these days many perceive as being “Pirates’ English,” of which some undoubtedly served as the foundation of American English pronunciation. While in Elizabethan times most vowel shifts were well on their way to approach today’s pronunciations, others lagged behind, or words that rhymed then do not rhyme now (as many a reader and performer of Shakespeare’s poetry has had to discover). An example of this is found at the end of the last two lines of the poem of the wren: feare and sweare both had the vowel [ε:] while nowadays “fear” has the vowel [i:] and “swear” has the vowel [ε:].
     All words and expressions used in this “translation” have been verified as occurring in Elizabethan literature, all but very few in the works of Shakespeare.

Genealogy: Indo-European > Germanic > Western > Anglo-Scots > English

    Click to open the translation: [Click] Click here for different versions. >

Author: Reinhard F. Hahn

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