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Ever wonder how far back in time you could go and still understand English?



Our latest video is an English lesson for time travellers, and explores the question by looking at how the English language sounded throughout the ages and how the accent and pronunciation would change as you travelled back in time.

The video features Modern, Middle and Old English being spoken, along with several slang words of the day.

So how would you have fared?




In the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, you’d probably still understand most of what was being said, as long as it wasn’t a heavy dialect.

This passage is from the book ‘Robinson Crusoe’, published in 1719:

“I, poor miserable Robinson Crusoe,

being shipwrecked during a dreadful storm in the offing,

came on shore on this dismal, unfortunate island,

which I called “The Island of Despair”


Easy enough to follow, but you might struggle with a few slang words of the day:

batty fang – a beating

kickerapoo – dead

land pirates – highway robbers

gutfoundered – very hungry

whapper – a big lie

Nitsqueeger – Hairdresser

Xantippe – an ill tempered wife

Abbess – a nun


Thornback – a spinster

Barber-monger – a vain man

Bleater – someone who complains a lot

Brabble – to quarrel loudly

Crapulous – the feeling of being too full

Hugger-mugger – secretly

Pigarlik – a bald head

Petty fogger – a dodgy lawyer

Birthday suit – the suit you wear on your birthday


The 1600s

The sixteen hundreds, of course, is best known for Shakespeare.


“Thy natural magic and dire property,
On wholesome life usurp immediately.”

Hamlet, Act III

Here, Lucianus talking about the natural magic of poison. and how using it to kill the king will usurp the throne. It’s tricky to follow, but luckily not everyone around the time spoke like this. You would hear lots of words you didn’t understand though.

The bigger problem for you now is the pronunciation. The sound of the vowels has changed, and the accent is becoming much harder to understand.

For example, “tea” is pronounced “tay”, and “gone” is pronounced “goan”.

The Great Vowel shift, as it came to be known, occurred between 1350 and 1700.


The 1500s



In the fifteen hundreds people essentially speak like the text of the Bible.

“Now therefore thus saith the Lord,

Thou shalt not come down

from that bed on which thou

art gone up, but shalt surely die.”

KJV 2 Kings 1:4


At this stage, while the vocabulary is smaller, there are hundreds of words that don’t mean a thing to you.




Before about fourteen hundred, you’d hear Middle English, and you would hardly understand anything, written or spoken.

“Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;”

The Canterbury Tales, 1389


1000 AD

If you went all the way back to one thousand AD, you’d hear Old English:

Lord’s Prayer

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum;

Si þin nama gehalgod

to becume þin rice

gewurþe ðin willa

on eorðan swa swa

on heofonum.


Good luck explaining that you need ‘one point twenty-one Jigawatts’ to get home!





Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Dafoe, Read by Mark F. Smith, Librivox, 2010, PD-US

Hamlet, William Shakespeare, Read by Allex, Librivox, PD-US

King James Bible, 2 Kings Chapter 1, Read by Joy Chan, Librivox, PD-US

Canterbury Tales, lines 1-42, Geoffrey Chaucer, Read by Youtube user: pronuntiatio

CC-Attribution 3.0

Fæder Ūre – Lord’s Prayer in Old English, Read by Youtube user: Hrothgar Simonus

CC-Attribution 3.0

Delorean Photo:

“ DeLorean Time” by Terabass – Own work. CC BY-SA 4.0

With thanks to

Reddit: veritate_valeo, mearcstapa, johnnynono

Mental_floss & Erin McCarthy

Buzzfeed & Luke Lewis