When it comes to reading, many students, and indeed many people in general, can definitely say they are pretty well practised. When it comes to reading texts from several centuries back, however, there are far fewer that are versed in the art. And it is something of an art. Just as the painter must learn the brush strokes, and the many details of creating his or her masterpiece, the historian must learn how to read once again, almost as though it was for the first time.
Perhaps this is something that can be sympathised with, by a painter who has lost use of his right hand, and now must learn with his left. Many of the practises are still the same, but both the painter and the historian must tackle the problem from a different angle, and learn the habits once again. After all, some of the language used, alongside spellings that might seem alien to the modern reader, must be adopted by the historian, in order to truly understand what is being written in a text, and what the words truly mean.
We all have our own struggles with transcribing documents of an archaic nature, but perhaps, rather than railing off several issues with the task of transcribing itself, it would be better to simply conclude that manuscripts are occasionally difficult to read, even in modern English. The fact that the language in the texts historians tackle routinely is different in many ways simply exacerbates this issue, up until the printing press is more widely in use, or documents are readily and conveniently transcribed on the internet, easily accessed by the modern historian. However, the issues with the language often make me note the similarities, too.
It is easily understood, on the most part, why modern English is constructed on the page as it is. A single, uniform type allows persons from wherever in the country, and even the world, to understand the text. This draws attention to the fact that early modern societies did not have such a globalised language to ascribe to, and many individuals would not know life far outside the county within which they were born and raised. I’ve often wondered if the English language is perhaps the most diversely spoken in the world. There seems to me to be more variation in the spoken accent ranging from the south – for example, my home county of Suffolk – to Scotland – for example, Edinburgh – than there is ranging from the East coast of the United States to the West coast. This difference in accent is not perceived in modern written text, due to the adoption of the standardised English language. From this post, I could as easily be from Ipswich as from Edinburgh.
And yet, in the texts of early modern England and Scotland, one can almost hear the accent come through the page. The word is written phonetically, in a language that could be easily understood by those in your locality, but perhaps more difficult to understand for a very distant reader. Of course, I’m not assuming that it would be so difficult to read a Scotsman’s book as it would be to read one in French, but there does seem to be a discernible difference. Whilst I could likely read a text from my county, or those surrounding in Essex and Norfolk with a degree of ease – assuming I’m given some legible handwriting – the meaning of words may take a little more concentration, as well as the way in which language is used. After all, it can take a bit of effort to simply translate a Tweet, written by a Northerner.
To conclude this post, I would like to suggest what I consider to be at least a contributing factor in why the modern English language developed, and was standardised. Most writing their manuscripts, be they family recipe books or anything else, often did not expect their work to see outside their own family, and friends. They almost certainly did not expect their work to be broadcast across the nation, and it’s perhaps more than doubtful that they thought historians would look at their pages with such interest, as we do. Therefore, the phonetic language and the implied knowledge of the locality makes sense, when reading these texts. When methods of disseminating knowledge with ease came into being, and were more accessible to the people, perhaps a standard form of English was required, to allow the knowledge of Suffolk to be learned in Edinburgh, and elsewhere. Of course, this is likely also the case across the world. I don’t claim to be knowledgeable in the regional variations of accent in other countries to any extent, but I would guess that any phonetic differences in the written word fizzled out at around the same time as the written word gained the ability to be spread with more ease and haste.