If I was to time travel, how far back could I go and still have a conversation with someone in my high street?

(204 Posts)
complexnumber Mon 27-Jan-14 10:08:13

I am sorry if I have asked this before, it is one of those things that I think about every now and then, but have no idea what the answer is.

My home town is now a West London suburb and has a quite long history.

I'm fairly sure that if I travelled back 100 years, I would still be able to understand the language of people around me, maybe even 200 years, though I imagine the accent would be a heck of a lot different to nowadays.

300 years ago? I doubt if I could understand much of what was being said.

I have no evidence to base my thoughts upon, so I was wondering if anyone out there could give a rough estimate as to how far back I could travel, and still understand people.

SPsMrLoverManSHABBA Mon 27-Jan-14 10:12:28

I have never thought about it. I'm guessing people where I live have always sounded the same so I think I could go pretty far back

stubbornstains Mon 27-Jan-14 10:13:22

I don't know, but I'm marking my place because this is such an interesting question!

I know that London accents have changed a lot since Dickens was writing them- and my grandma's "typical" cockney accent is nothing like the accents that London kids have nowadays, which seem to have absorbed a lot of Jamaica and Essex, among other things..

..Yet, I think you still would have understood the English of a couple of hundred years ago, even if the said "werry" for "very".

AllMimsyWereTheBorogroves Mon 27-Jan-14 10:14:32

I think you'd have a good chance of having a conversation 400 years ago. Shakespeare was writing then and most of us can still get the gist of what he was writing if we concentrate. Don't know about the effects of accent, but I would imagine once you got your ear in it wouldn't be that difficult to follow what was being said. When I did a bit of Chaucer for A level, we had the original text. That was hard to follow and would have needed a lot more work. That was published in 1475.

Interesting question!

stubbornstains Mon 27-Jan-14 10:14:52

I've heard that American accents sound more like the spoken English of the 1700s than contemporary English accents. Fascinating, if true...

stubbornstains Mon 27-Jan-14 10:16:01

We did Chaucer too, and I remember that, when my English teacher read it out loud, it sounded like someone speaking in a strong Geordie accent.

startwig1982 Mon 27-Jan-14 10:26:19

If you have a tardis it'll translate for you anyway, so you won't have to worry!
<helpful>

complexnumber Mon 27-Jan-14 10:28:38

I'm glad others find this an interesting question.

London accents have changed a lot in my life time.

ChalkHillBlue Mon 27-Jan-14 10:39:37

i love this

Trills Mon 27-Jan-14 10:42:54

I'd hope for a Tardis too.

I imagine there would be a point where you could understand them if you tried hard, but where they wouldn't understand you, not just because of your accent but because you used the wrong words and wrong sentence structure.

This story is what makes me think of it.

he told a story of some merchants going down the Thames. There was no wind so they landed on the Kent side of the river to buy food. ‘And specyally he axyed after eggys. And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she vnderstode hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstood hym wel’

If someone said "eyren" and gestured towards a chicken you might guess that they meant eggs. But if you wanted eggs you wouldn't think to use the word "eyren".

complexnumber Mon 27-Jan-14 11:34:59

An interesting snippet Trills.

I remember reading in a Bill Bryson book; 'Mother Tongue' that the word 'one' used to be pronounced as spelt, and you can still hear it in words such as 'only' or 'alone'

sashh Mon 27-Jan-14 11:47:14

David Chrystal has a book called 'The English Language' fascinating ad easy reading.

It gives the history of the development of English as a language, the changing of plurals to adding an 's' from 'en' or even the word changing completely

Poledra Mon 27-Jan-14 11:49:58

Fascinating question! I live in a 400-yo house, and I love to ponder on what it might have looked like when it was first built. I suspect that the owners then were more well-to-do by comparison to their neighbours than we are now!

MothratheMighty Mon 27-Jan-14 11:50:26

Depends how good you are at accents, but both Chaucer and Mallory are reasonably easy to read. I'd say you could go back 600 years at least and have a basic conversation with an English-speaker comfortably.

SpookedMackerel Mon 27-Jan-14 12:09:18

It might be easier to understand and be understood in London than in further flung parts of the country, as I would have thoughtthat, when there were regional variations, the words used in London would be more likely to survive, because it's the capital. Perhaps more the case after the advent of printing? Might not be the case though, who knows! And people in London would be more used to "foreigners" too, which might help; I'm sure it would make a big difference to being in a more isolated community.

I wouldn't have a hope of understanding even 100 years back, I wouldn't have thought- don't live in the UK and though I am slowly learning the language here, it doesn't take much to flummox me even without any time travel grin

HettiePetal Mon 27-Jan-14 12:09:58

Actually, I don't think you'd have to go back all that far for things to get difficult. You'd probably manage OK for the last 250 or so years, but prior to that I suspect accent & pronunciation would get progressively more alien.

I doubt you could have an easy conversation with Shakespeare. They may have spelled many things the same-ish (so you could obviously read their literature) but standing in the street chatting would be close to impossible. It's been suggested that to our ears the Elizabethans would have sounded as if they had a very, very thick country brogue - put this together with a changed sentence structure, different pronunciations & a whole host of now dead words (not to mention changed meanings) and it would be very difficult indeed. You'd have to mime, I think!

It is a really good question smile

happybubblebrain Mon 27-Jan-14 12:16:09

If you travelled back 100, 200 or 400 years ago nobody would want to talk to you. They'd be terrified. You would be an alien.

ProfYaffle Mon 27-Jan-14 12:27:32

Now I'm Lancashire born and bred, but can't understand more than the occasional word in this!

DrCoconut Mon 27-Jan-14 13:00:55

I've heard that American English is like the English of the 1700's too. the settlers took the language with them and it evolved differently I guess.

Enb76 Mon 27-Jan-14 13:09:06

I think I'd understand a fair amount going back to Chaucer but beyond that. If you have a good sense for linguistics, and have some knowledge of French, German and Latin you'd be ok. I might not be able to make myself understood though until I'd been there a week.

HelpTheSnailsAreComingToGetMe Mon 27-Jan-14 13:29:26

The British Library has this amazing collection of British prisoners recorded while prisoners of war in Germany reading snippets from the Bible in their own accent and dialect, and some folk stories. I've listened to some from around the region where I grew up, recorded almost exactly 100 years ago, and though they speak clearly and slowly, I can barely understand them sometimes.

Anatana Mon 27-Jan-14 13:50:57

That archive is amazing, wow! Thanks for linking it.

The accent from round me is remarkably familiar. There's a "u" sound that has gone from the modern dialect, but that is present in my older relatives' voices (60+), that is even more pronounced, but otherwise it's very close.

complexnumber Mon 27-Jan-14 15:44:30

Snail, that is such a good archive!

Thank you!

SundaySimmons Mon 27-Jan-14 15:49:10

You only have to walk down Leytonstone highstreet TODAY and not be able to understand what anyone is saying!

AllMimsyWereTheBorogroves Mon 27-Jan-14 15:51:06

Correction! My husband has put me straight about Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales was published in printed form in 1475 but written about a hundred years earlier. I think I knew all that once but had forgotten.

Fascinating stuff on this thread, thanks all!

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