A Comparison of Old Middle and Early Modern English

Below is an excerpt of The Nativity according to Luke, first in Old English, then in Middle English (two translations, about 225 years apart). If you look at them carefully, you can see the similarities -- and the striking differences. Those who know German or a Scandinavian language can see why English is called a sister language of German. Also, there was a time back in the Old English period when the Scandinavian languages (Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic) and English were mutually understandable. English is certainly the one that has broken further away from the other four (Scandinavians can still pretty much understand each other's dialects), but the strong influence of Latin (mostly through the church and scholars) and the Norman invasion of England brought about significant changes in the language, as did a host of smaller influences.

The Nativity has been chosen because the gospels are available in all three "languages".


Old English

Soþlice on þam dagum wæs geworden gebod fram þam casereAugusto, þæt eall ymbehwyrft wære tomearcod. Þeos tomearcodneswæs æryst geworden fram þam deman Syrige Cirino. And ealle hig eodon,and syndrige ferdon on hyra ceastre. Ða ferde Iosep fram Galilea of þæreceastre Nazareth on Iudeisce ceastre Dauides, seo is genemned Bethleem, for þam þe he wæs of Dauides huse and hirede; þæt he ferde mid Marianþe him beweddod wæs, and wæs geeacnod. Soþlice wæs geworden þa hi þar wæron, hire dagas wæron gefyllede þæt heo cende. And heo cende hyre frumcennedan sunu, and hine mid cildclaþum bewand, and hine on binne alede, for þam þe hig næfdon rum on cumena huse. And hyrdas wæron on þam ylcan rice waciende, and nihtwæccan healdende ofer heora heorda. Þa stod Drihtnes engel wiþ hig, and Godes beorhtnes him ymbe scean; and hi him mycelum ege adredon. And se engel him to cwæð, Nelle ge eow adrædan; soþlice nu ic eow bodie mycelne gefean, se bið eallum folce; for þam to dæg eow ys Hælend acenned, se is Drihten Crist, on Dauides ceastre. And þis tacen eow byð: Ge gemetað an cild hræglum bewunden, and on binne aled. And þa wæs færinga geworden mid þam engle mycelnes heofenlices werydes, God heriendra and þus cweþendra, Gode sy wuldor on heahnesse, and on eorðan sybb mannum godes willan.


Middle English

(translation by John Wycliffe, c. 1380-83)

And it was don in tho daies, a maundement wente out fro the emperour August, thatal the world schulde be discryued. This firste discryuyng was maad of Cyryn, iustice of Sirie. And alle men wenten to make professioun, ech in to his owne citee. And Joseph went vp fro Galilee, fro the citee Nazareth, in to Judee, in to a citee of Dauid, that is clepid Bethleem, for that he was of the hous and of the meyne of Dauid, that he schulde knouleche with Marie, his wijf, that was weddid to hym, and was greet with child. And it was don, while thei weren there, the daies were fulfillid, that sche schulde bere child. And sche bare hir first borun sone, and wlappide hym in clothis, and leide hym in a cratche, for ther was no place to hym in no chaumbir. And scheepherdis weren in the same cuntre, wakynge and kepynge the watchis of the nygt on her flok. And lo! the aungel of the Lord stood bisidis hem, and the cleernesse of God schinede aboute hem; and thei dredden with greet drede. And the aungel seide to hem, Nyle ye drede; for lo! Y preche to you a greet ioye, that schal be to al puple. For a sauyoure is borun to dai to you, that is Crist the Lord, in the citee of Dauid. And this is a tokene to you; ye schulen fynde a yong child wlappid in clothis, and leid in a cratche. And sudenli ther was maad with the aungel a multitude of heuenli knygthod, heriynge God, and seiynge, Glorie be in the higeste thingis to God, and in erthe pees be to men of good wille.

(King James version, c. 1604)

And it came to passe in those dayes, that there went out a decree from Cesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was gouernor of Syria) And all went to bee taxed, euery one into his owne citie. And Joseph also went vp fro Galilee, out of the citie of Nazareth, into Judea, vnto the citie of Dauid, which is called Bethlehem, (because he was of the house and linage of Dauid,) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that while they were there, the dayes were accomplished that she should be deliuered. And she brought foorth her first borne sonne, and wrapped him in swadling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no roome for them in the Inne. And there were in the same countrey shepheards abiding in y field, keeping watch ouer their flocke by night. And loe, the Angel of the Lord came vpon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the Angel said vnto them, Feare not: For behold, I bring you good tidings of great ioy, which shall be to all people. For vnto you is borne this day, in the citie of Dauid, a Sauiour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a signe vnto you; yee shall find the babe wrapped in swadling clothes lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the Angel a multitude of the heauenly hoste praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good wil towards men.


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