Back in Time — Old Languages

We read and speak the languages we know as they are today, but undoubtedly, some of us have wondered how the same languages were spoken in the past. No, not during our grandparents’ generation, nor Shakespeare’s era, but way back, at least a thousand years into the past, the time of the legendary sagas of the Viking era, Beowulf and the time when England was ruled by the Anglo-Saxons. Halfway across the world, in China, old Chinese stretches way back into its 5000-year long history, into the Shang and Zhou dynasties up to the end of the Warring States Period, when Qin Shihuang unified China and became the first Emperor of China. Many of us would have wondered, what the language of the Vikings sounded like, or the English spoken by say, Æthelstan, and the Chinese spoken by King Wen of Zhou when they were still alive. For some, they are quite well studied, but others are still shrouded in thick mystery. Brave linguists persevered to uncover the thick cloud of dust that buried the old form of the languages, proposing theory after theory on how the languages may have sounded like back then. There are striking differences in the reconstruction of the old forms of these languages, and that is what we are covering here.

The era of Beowulf was when Old English was used, around the 5th to 11th century CE. Of course, Beowulf was the most notable Anglo-Saxon work which survives to this day, studied time and again by historians, linguists and hardcore literature fans. The Canterbury Tales was also another work of great prominence, but it came out in the mid 14th century so it did not count as Old English. English back then sounded nothing like what we speak and read today. In fact, the grammar reminded me something like German and Icelandic. Before the Norman conquests which introduced old French terms to English, Old English used words similar to that of its Germanic cousins, like Old Frisian and Old Norse. Its grammar too resembled these languages, with the verb position in the second place in main clauses, and final position in subordinate clauses, pretty much like how German is today. We still see remnants of this today, as in the sentence “Never have I seen such an abomination in my life”. Old English had case endings, which are the nominative, accusative, genitive, and the dative, once again, much like German, and Icelandic. English used to have their runic alphabet, the futhorc, but later used the Latin alphabet in the 9th century. This made English readable to us, as in they used the same writing system since the 800s, so we could figure out how it sounded like. Of course, they threw in extra letters to account for the sounds they had and felt a need to create a letter representing it, like þ, ð, ƿ and æ. No, the second last one is not a ‘p’, but something called a ‘wynn’, which represents the ‘w’ sound today. Old English words were a true nightmare; almost none of these words were borrowed from other languages, so most of the words we could recognise were cognates of Modern English like “cyning” (king), and “fæder” (father). Old English came to an end when the Normans conquered England following the Battle of Hastings. Old French mixed in with the English tongue as the Anglo-Saxons turned into mere peasants for their new rulers. English was about to change. Forever. Today we do not say “Hƿæt! ƿē Gār-Dena in ġeār-dagum” but more of “What! We of the Spear-Danes in yore-days”. From this though, we have seen how much English has changed in the past thousand-odd years (and also, I forgot to talk about the Great Vowel Shift but that happened during the late Middle to early Modern English).

Halfway across the world, in the Middle Kingdom, lies an ancient form of a modern language whose script we understand well, but not know how it is spoken back then. From the 14th century BCE to the early centuries CE, this period would be known as the period of Old Chinese. Welcome to the Zhou dynasty, China. The time when people used the oracle-bone script, the earliest form which would eventually evolve into the simplified and traditional Chinese scripts we write today, nearly 3,500 years later. They also used the bronze and seal scripts, words and characters we could make out quite well, and although it required good literature skills to determine the meaning, we knew how it is read, but only in the modern sounds we have. Ancient China carried a mystery which still stays — how did Archaic Chinese sound like? Many reconstruction efforts were carried out to determine how Chinese sounded like almost four millennia ago, and the most recent one was proposed by Baxter and Sagart just a couple years back. The results? They believe that Archaic Chinese used consonant clusters, and they did not use tones, probably because the consonant clusters slowly evolved in the tones we use today. They believed that Archaic Chinese used only six vowels, the “a e i o u” and the “uhh” schwa. The reconstruction sounded like what Cambodian sounds like today. Consonant clusters like “kn” as in 肉 *k.nuk (flesh, meat) and “ml” as in 用 *m.loŋ-s (use). Old Chinese borrowed words from the Austroasiatic languages, particularly from the proto-Hmong-Mien for terms involving rice-cultivation, which sprang up along the Yangtze. The references these linguists used to reconstruct this was amazing. Rhyming dictionaries like the Qieyun published in 601 CE, poetry and Classic of Poetry provided evidence for such a theory on how Old Chinese sounded like. And like all other proposals, this proposal was met with dispute in many of its details, though not specified. Old Chinese would eventually influence other languages in the vicinity, like Sino-Tibetan and Austroasiatic, like the Hmong, Mien and Burmese, for these languages retained some features present in Old Chinese. Old Chinese would eventually evolve into Middle Chinese, and it was during this era when a lot of materials were available which may provide evidence on how Old Chinese sounded like. Middle Chinese would be spoken from the 6th to 12th century CE, giving rise to the modern varieties we speak and read today.

Old forms of all kinds of languages exist, but this time I discussed how strikingly different reconstruction efforts may be, using Old English and Old Chinese as case studies, as different aspects of the language would gain focus, like in Old English, it was the lexis and morphology, and in Old Chinese, it was the phonology. Looking back at these languages truly amazes me on how these languages stood the test of time and changed accordingly. Old languages are truly worth it to look up on and read about as it gives insight on how the words came about in the first place. With this, I conclude this short essay on the old languages.

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