Before about 500 C.E. (1500 years ago), the languages spoken in what is now England were related to modern Welsh, which is still spoken in parts of Wales, the west part of Britain. The video above is from a modern Welsh TV broadcast. You can hear that the language is completely different from English.
About 1500 years ago, England was conquered by peoples who spoke languages related to modern German. This kind of language is called “Old English.” Above, a student recites a famous Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, poem: this language is also very unlike modern English.
After 1066, this Germanic language began to mix with Norman French, and became what we call “Middle English.” Middle English is very difficult for a modern English speaker to understand, but we can make out some words and phrases. Below is a Middle English text by the great 14th-century poet Geoffry Chaucer:
By the late 1500’s and early 1600’s, the language was what we call “modern English.” This was the period of Shakespeare, and the most famous English translation of the Bible, called the “King James Version.” For a modern English speaker, the English language of this period has some strange vocabulary and expressions, but can be understood much of the time. If you are used to Shakespeare or the King James Bible, it is much easier. Below is a sonnet, a kind of poem, by William Shakespeare:
Those lips that Love’s own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate’
To me that languish’d for her sake;
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
‘I hate’ she alter’d with an end,
That follow’d it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away;
‘I hate’ from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying ‘not you.’
This video clip that shows you how the poem sounded 400 years ago. The written language was closer to our English than the speech.
The last video clip, below, gives some examples of the differences between modern American and modern British English: