Almost all of the Bible pages displayed on this site are written in English. However, the first time
you try to read one of these older Bibles, you may think it's in a foreign language. English is a
living language. It is spoken, written and used everyday by hundreds of millions
of people. As a result, the English Language is in a constant state of change.
Because our language is changing all the time, we cannot expect 500-year-old English to look very much like the language does today.
In fact, at first glance some early English Bibles really do look like they're written in a foreign language. But by learning how English
has changed, and with a little practice, you should be able to read these early Bibles as easily as
Henry the Eighth.
- Words fall from use (when was
the last time you used the word "henceforth" or "hitherto"?)
- Words change their
meaning (In one old Bible version, the prophet Nathan was called a "gay fellow".
Some words have taken on completely different meanings than they one had — even just 50 years ago.)
- Words are invented as needed, such as
and "asphalt"; these words were not in the
vocabulary of our European forefathers.
- Some letters look different. One
of the first things you may notice is that you don't recognize some of the letters. Part of this is
because of the typeface used by the printer. Most early Bibles were printed in black gothic
typeface most closely resembled the handwriting of the copyists who wrote manuscripts of the Scriptures in the days before printing.
Black gothic letters are very bold and typically printed close together. On occasion, this makes individual letters hard to
distinguish. Additionally, just to add to the challenge, you'll find words made up of letters that are printed
differently from the way they are printed today.
To read Old English, you need to recognize these antiquated alphabetical characters:
There are two different styles of the letter "R".
A lower-case (not capitalized) "R" in the middle of a word is turned upside down and squeezed
a little. "R's" that are at the beginning or ending of a word look like the letter
we use now.
There are also different flavors of "S". A lower-case "S" in the middle of a word
looks like a lower case "F" without its crossbar. This use of "S" continued well
into the 1800's. (You can even see examples of this type of "S" in our own Declaration of Independence.) Note in the
example to the left, the first "S" in "Moses" is of this style, but the
final "S" in the word looks like it does today.
- Some letters are missing. Our
English alphabet evolved from the characters used in Latin, which occasionally was missing a letter U.
In words that we would expect to see the letter "U", we typically find a "V". (Some
government buildings still display the motto "IN GOD WE TRVST".) Now some
Bibles, just to be contrary, do just the opposite -- there is no "V"; it is replaced
by "U". In short, both "U's" and "V's" should be
considered interchangeable when reading Old English.
Another letter that was missing from some Latin alphabets was "J". It was normally
replaced with either the letter "I" or sometimes the letter "H".
This creates strange-looking sentences, as: "Iob was a iust man", and
"Iesus entered Herusalem"
Several of the examples in this site are also missing the letter "W". When it was needed, the printer
sometimes printed two "'U's" together — (In God UUe Trvst);
in fact, that's how the letter
got its name — it was printed as a Double U. Just to make life interesting, other printers
would use double-V's — (In God VVe Trvst).
- There are lots of abbreviations. When
Scriptures were copied by hand in the Middle Ages, many abbreviations came into use; their purpose was
to make the job of copying go faster and to minimize the use of vellum. (Vellum is a form of animal
skin that has been specially processed so it can be used like paper.) Vellum was not cheap, so anything
that could help limit its use was welcomed. Many common words were given standard abbreviations, and this convention
continued when printing replaced hand-copying.
One of the most-used words in the English language is "and". This word was shortened to a single
character that looked like a stylized "AE". It later evolved into today's plus sign.
(In fact, this character is actually just a plus sign with some other marks around it.)
Other commonly-used English words are "ye" (you),
"that". Each had a two-letter abbreviation, where the two letters were placed
one on top of the other -- another vellum-saving technique. These abbreviations, however,
were seldom used consistently; sometimes "with" was printed as a full four-letter word,
and other times it was abbreviated. Often abbreviations were used to keep
the length of each line the same, so the text would be both left- and right-justified. Other times there
appears to be no rationale as to when abbreviations were used and when fully-spelled words were used.
A horizontal bar over any vowel (A, E, I, O or U) is followed by an implied "M" or
"N" (with no indication of which letter to insert). Bibles printed before 1560
made extensive use of this type of abbreviation. Note in the example, however,
that this could cause confusion — "then" and
"them" being abbreviated
- Forget everything you've learned about spelling. (For
some of us, that's not too hard.) Many centuries
were to pass before Noah Webster came on the scene with his English Dictionary.
Words were spelled as they sounded. Often "Y's" were used in place of
extra silent "E's" were attached to many words. Spelling was often
inconsistent; examples can be found where the same word is spelled two different ways on the same page! When you find a
word that you cannot interpret, read it aloud phonetically — just say the word as best you can. When you
do that, the word will often pop right out at you. As you can see in the examples, some common words
look mighty strange when spelled like this.
There are many other differences between Old English and today's English,
but these are the major ones. Look
at the two examples below; do they make sense to you? They made sense to readers in the 16th Century.
Are you ready to try it on your own? Below are several examples taken
directly from old Bible leaves. Do you think you can read them? Carefully try each one; to see if your
translation is correct, put your mouse over the text.
Old English isn't all that hard, once you get the knack of it. Often the hardest part is just getting
used to the gothic black typeface that was used back then.
Old English Class is now dismissed. Thank you for your attention. You may now want to practice your
knowledge on some of the examples of early Bible versions in this Web Site. You never know when there might be a pop quiz.