Language Comprehension Check

I need to level-set on what’s considered normally comprehensible English.

Here’s the question… Given the samples below, where do we reach the point where an intelligent, literate person would benefit from having a modern language paraphrase? Or, conversely, at what point would the same person have difficulties given archaicisms and technical terms that would be unfamiliar?

Sample 1

Say fyst this psalme with loke dyrecte to heuen
Iudica me deus with hole herte entere
Theyr conscyence purge fro the synnes seuen
Or they presume to go to the awtere
The same psalme sette in the sawtere
For a memoryall of the captyuyte
How Iherusalem stode in grete daunger
At Babylon that frowarde fell cyte.

Sample 2

After Ite missa est. the prest stondeith in the mydes of the Awter . and so blyssyd the people.

Then call to your remembrance thys holly medytatyon . how owr sauyour standyng in the mydes of hys disciples at the movnte of Olyveite . blyssing thaym . dyd ascend to hewyn . where he ys now resydent . and euer more schall be . syttyng on the ryght hond of hys father this Ascensyon of our Lord . ys signefyed by the wordes . which [fo. 25.b.] the prest saith at the end of the masse . that ys to say Ite missa est which wordes doith sovnd after thys Exposytyon of Doctoures . Goo and departt, for our Lord ys send and offerd vp to hys Eternall Father In oblatyon and sacryfyce.

Sample 3

when þo auter is al dight,
& þo preste is reuysht right,
þen he takes in bothe his hende
a clothe o-pon þo auter ende,
and comes obac a litel doune,
dos hit o-pon him al a-boune.
alle men knelen, bot he stondes,
and haldes to god vp bothe his hondes;
þere, or he þo messe bi-gynne,
wil he meke him for his synne;
til alle þo folk he shryues him þare
of alle his synnes lesse & mare:
so dos þo clerk a-gayn to him
shryuen hom þere of all hor synn,
and askes god forgyuenes,
or þai bigynne to here þo mes.

Where do things break down as far as your concerned for the average reader–so, not just did you have problems with it, but where do you think a normal college level English speaker would?

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About Derek Olsen

I'm a layman within the Episcopal Church with a PhD in New Testament and an interest in most things medieval, monastic, and liturgical. My chief job is keeping up with my priestly wife and our two awesome kids. In addition to that, I earn a living, run the St Bede's Breviary, listen to loud goth/industrial music, and do some stuff for the church. I currently serve as Secretary to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music where I'm also co-chair of the Calendar committee and chair of the Digital Publications committee.
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20 Responses to Language Comprehension Check

  1. I don’t think its a question of literacy or intelligence. To the modern reader, this is being able to still read misspelled words. That is a different part of the brain from regular reading. Its a matter of pattern recognition. I think everyone who does not read Old or Middle English will be slowed down a great deal and may never get all of the words. It depends on what you want to do with it. The average person in the pew may not be what you call college level English anyway.

    The first two are pretty easy to figure out but the Old English letters in the third would be lost on the average reader.

  2. bls says:

    It’s work to read any of them, although I can sort-of comprehend the first two and the last not at all.

    Actually, the second one is the easiest to read and understand; I’m missing some of the words in the first sample – I suppose because the format is poetic rather than expository….

  3. Jonathan says:

    I think a college level English speaker would have difficulty with all of them, although they could probably puzzle out the first two samples with only a little pushing.

  4. Felix Alexander says:

    I find stuff tranlated by contemporary bibles hard enough to read with all these epicine “he”s and “one” as a pronoun and “for” to mean “cos” and the awful and confusing practice of moving prepositions to the start of a relative clause. At best, they make the bible (and other works produced by Christians) sound boring; at worst, they can make it hard to understand and like I’m outside the ingroup these works were produced for, so that I’m looking somewhere I’m not allowed to be.

  5. kljolly says:

    I found sample 2 the easiest and sample 3 the hardest, but agree with others that it depends on what you want the reader to be doing–reading slowly and struggling, or reading quickly and easily. Recognizing letter differences (y for i) is easy to adapt to, but unfamiliar vocabulary (dight) or very different spelling (fyst) makes the reader puzzle over it and lose the sense.
    Editions of Middle English poems (Gawain and the like) try different approaches. One is to use facing page “translation” or modernization; another is to put a modern version of tricky words in the margin as a side note.
    The question I guess you need to ask is what is it about the original that you want readers to get: the sound of words, the rhythm and rhyme, or just the meaning?

  6. rfsjny says:

    Derek – Sample 3 is probably over the line. Sample 2 is OK if one is biblically and/or liturgically literate, but if not, one might not figure out the references. Same with Sample 1. I don’t know the context or the potential audience here, but I think I’d give a translation and/or lots of annotations. Bob

  7. C. Wingate says:

    It’s something of an unfair test for me, because I’m used to dealing with middle English at least to a limited degree and thus know the letter substitutions which make them a little less borderline. One thing that makes both the first and last examples more difficult, though, is that the verse form is making something of a hash out of the word order in order to keep the rhyme going.

    I’ve just started taking German with my son, which is interesting in this light because of my observation of the difficulties people are having. It’s surprising how much of the time the trouble comes because people can’t pick up the pattern of what’s going on. Not that the pattern is difficult or complicated, but that they simply don’t see any of the patterns. They would have a very hard time decoding any of these without a vocabulary.

  8. I took two courses in Middle English in my PhD program 40 years ago and was able to understand all of samples 1 and 2 save for a few unusual spellings (for example, sawtere). Sample 3 is significantly more difficult because of the distinctly unmodern spellings, words (dight, for example), and characters. Most college-educated readers would likely give up rather than struggle through passages such as this (my undergrads don’t like to read MODERN English!). Either a modern English paraphrase side-by-side (preferred) or lots of explanatory notes would be necessary for the vast majority of today’s audience, I think.

  9. David says:

    another example of what I would often say when one of our kids asked me to read their essays.. “read it out loud”- then sentence fragments and other unworkable structures would be obvious.. same thing here- read it out loud- and the first two sort of work – not sure how much reading aloud to sound things out gets done. On the other hand- the first two might work for me because my spelling isn’t exact- so it looks sort of familiar.. might be easier to just put in a paraphrase than to suggest reading it out loud and thinking about creative spelling.. your spell checker must be going nuts on this though…

  10. Derek Olsen says:

    Thanks, all!

    Yes, Michelle, you’re right—from our perspective it’s more a matter of different spelling patterns with some odd vocabulary and a few false friends thrown in (like “Or” meaning “Before” rather than offering an alternative).

    And, David, that’s exactly how I was taught to read both Middle and Old English—read it aloud and much of it will fall into place. Even the third one isn’t so bad if you read it phonetically in your best (or worst!) Scottish accent. (I’ve been told that linguistically the Scottish dialect preserves more of the Middle English vocabulary and sounds than most English dialects.)

    I’m primarily looking at this question with e-readers in mind. I like a parallel set-up and that’s how I did the Ælfric translations included in my dissertation; I’m just wondering if there’s sufficient screen real estate on the non-touch screen Kindles for that to be effective. For any reader that can be rotated, though, I think the problem goes away. That’s likely how I’ll go…

  11. I understood most of all three, with some work, but am not your typical 21st century college student. Nor am I a PhD or Middle-English scholar except an attentive reader of Tolkien’s appendices. Oh, and I have studied — if not remembered — Chinese, Mongolian, Russian, and German, all of which study really emphasized the need to cull the possible/potential/probable meanings of new words from their context. I picked up “sawterre” as psalter; “dight” as laid (what else would you do with your garments on the altar, anyway, as you are ready to ask the congregation to absolve you before you begin the mass?).

    That said, I think that most college students would have a very difficult time with these. If you want them to learn how to read Middle English, give them notes and definitions and make them fight it out. If you want them to read for sense, give them a translation alongside the original and let the curious fight it out if they have time/desire.

    It’s nice to have a little mental workout for the morning – thank you!

  12. Toni says:

    I have a background in Linguistics as well knowing something about liturgical things so I don’t know that I qualify as a typical college level reader but the first two were easier than the last. I think most readers would have problems with all of them, but the last would be nearly incomprehensible I think. I second Michelle on her observation that it’s more a case of pattern recognition.

  13. bls says:

    As some people have mentioned here, though: reading #3 out loud makes a huge difference! I immediately understood the entire thing.

    That’s amazing….

    • Derek Olsen says:

      Isn’t it, though? :-)

      Once you know that the ‘thorn’ is a ‘th’ and that there is fluidity between a ‘u’ and a ‘v’ (almost a reversal, but not quite) it’s much more comprehensible. I’m going to do both–offer strategies for reading the Middle English and a Modern English paraphrase. I’m working through the text from which the second sample came now.

  14. All three are a bit of a slog. Sample 2 was the least amount of work, and Sample 3 was nearly impenetrable. Of course, I find archaic character sets much more difficult to read than archaic and non-standard spellings.

    I think you’re going to have a real problem with e-readers. I’m one of those who prefers the e-ink readers over the more tablet oriented devices. Placing a translation beside the original is going to cause some very small print on many devices.

    Fascinating site, by the way. I’ve been enjoying it.

  15. Sarah says:

    I’m probably representative of the target audience, with a solid liberal arts education but no training in Old or Middle English whatsoever. My difficulty, from easiest to hardest was 2, 1, and 3. I have the gist of #3 from context, but would probably benefit from a modern paraphrase. For #2 and #1, simply identifying unfamiliar words would be enough. However, working with texts about church, my familiarity with being church works in my favor when identifying context. I couldn’t say that for everyone.

  16. turmarion says:

    First time commenter here–what a fascinating post!

    I haven’t formally studied Middle English, but I’m a language buff and have read large parts of the Morte D’Arthur and The Canterbury Tales, so I’m pretty good at it. The second selection I could read about as smoothly as I could modern English. The first selection was not significantly more difficult–maybe a tiny bit, since it’s poetry and 2 is prose, in addition to which I didn’t recognize “fyst” (“first”?) or “sawtere” (no clue). The last is the hardest–it requires concentration, and for me it’s the one most like reading a foreign language that one is not quite fluent in. I failed to recognize “dight”, ” reuysht”, “doune”, and “a-boune”. Even then, I could give a pretty good translation of it.

    To use other Middle English literature as examples, I can read Malory or Caxton almost as smoothly and easily as I can modern English, with maybe a couple words a page needing to be looked up; I’m right about at the cusp of my ability with Chaucer–I can read him in the original, but it’s slow going and I need lots of glosses; and except for a few phrases that I can puzzle out here and there, I can’t meaningfully read Gawain and the Green Knight at all.

    Now I’m not the “average college-educated person” in this context. I’d guess that such a one would be able to read number 2 with a little effort, would feel about one somewhat like I felt about three, and be pretty much at sea with number three, requiring a paraphrase or modern translation.

    Does this help?

  17. bls says:

    “Sawtere,” we think, is “Psalter”….

      • dominic1962 says:

        I know I’m a little late, but I would concur with what the first poster said-its mostly a word trick akin to how we can read words that are misspelled or missing letters. There is also the context issue-if you have any interest in liturgy/”churchy” things, it is also much easier than if you do not.

        Personally, I got through all three of them without horrendous trouble but that is only because I’ve read a fair number of more archaic texts (mostly 18th Cent. though), enjoy liturgical history and happened to remember that the “P” looking letter sounds like “th” in the third passage from some random reading I did (and probably on Wikipedia or some such) on Anglo-Saxon/Old English. If you don’t have these interests and read random articles on archaic languages or think its fun to read those paragraphs were a number of the letters are missing or rearranged to see how your mind fills in the gaps, then you’d probably just skip.

        For your average person who isn’t terribly interested in things like this, I would heartily suggest a more modern rendition, with nothing more archaic than KJV/D-R thees and thous-at most!

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