What Makes Old English Hard to Read? | Iris Reading
What Makes Old English Hard to Read

What Makes Old English Hard to Read?

What Makes Old English Hard to Read

We find classics hard to comprehend because we lack the ancient language and cultural context. None of us was around when Plato wrote Republic or when Shakespeare penned Hamlet. Therefore, we aren’t familiar with the complexity of the societies, their morals, and what life was about back then. 

You may find classic books like Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights confusing to grasp due to their complex grammar, slang, vocabulary, and styles. 

The English language has transformed over the years. Therefore, the older publications become hard to read and comprehend with our modern and simplified English.

Has your English professor assigned you a novel that you can’t wrap your head around no matter how hard you try? Are you trying to figure out why the classic on your shelf is so tough to take in? This post is for you.

This article will cover why old English has become a hard nut to crack for our generation. Let’s dive in.

Lack of Context

Context is the circumstance in which the reader can wholly understand an idea or event. As language evolves, so does the prose and style of writing, the culture, the historical setting, and the symbolism. 

If you lack context for classics or old texts, you’re prone to misunderstand and overlook a book’s ideas. 

The following excerpts show how English writing has metamorphosed over the years.

  • Middle English was first spoken after the Norman Conquest in the 16th century. The text subtly resembles modern English, but it’s hard to read without annotations.

“A wys wyf, if that she can hir good, shall beren him on hond the cow is wood,” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s 1475 The Wife of Birth in The Canterbury Tales.

  • Shakespeare wrote in Modern English. There is an improvement in spelling, but he uses figurative language that most literal-minded modern readers cannot follow.

“To be or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” William Shakespeare, Hamlet (1603).

  • In the 19th century, writers used long, descriptive, and flowing sentence structures that seemed inappropriate compared to today’s staccato sentences. An example would be the style of writing by Emily Bronte in Wuthering Heights (1847).
  • In the 20th century, writers like Orwell adopted a more straightforward style, close to what we learn. However, the straightforward prose does not get a simple translation. Take a look at this example:

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” From Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949).

  • In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen talks about young girls “being out in society.” Someone unaware of the importance and meaning of the practice in Georgian gentry would not see how odd and uncommon it was to have five sisters out at once.

 An unschooled reader would miss the satire in Austen’s novels.

Similarly, many classic novels attack contemporary social, religious, and cultural conventions. In the Jane Eyre classic, Charlotte Bronte criticizes the religious belief of charity.

 If you aren’t familiar with the practices in question, you lose context regarding why the novel was so bold and daring.

How can you understand the old English context?

Here are some tips you can apply to better understand the old English context:

  • Revert to the original form of storytelling. For example, you can opt to watch a Shakespeare play or movie like Much Ado About Nothing. Since its purpose wasn’t intended for reading but to be watched, you might grasp a book’s context by viewing it in its original publication context.
  • Consider using Wikipedia to learn about the period when a book was written, the culture, religion, social practices, etc. That kind of preparation might make you appreciate the classics more.

Complex Tone

The Old English literary works have complex ways of displaying tone compared to Modern literature; hence comprehending such texts can take a toll on the reader.  

Tone is the stylistic means a writer uses to convey their attitude toward the subject or audience of a literary work. Through tone, a writer creates a relationship with the reader, which influences the meaning and intention of the written words.

Old English writers adopted a complex tone, as you’ll see in the following example from A Modern Proposal by Jonathan Swift in 1729.

“A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.”

Jonathan Swift’s emotional distance and satirical wording enhance his criticism regarding the economic exploitation of Ireland by England. Such a tone evokes strong emotions such as shock and discomfort when you read the book.

Complex Syntax

Old English differs from the modern English we are used to since its syntax is more flexible than what we learn today. 

Syntax is the grammatical structure of phrases and words in a sentence. The typical word order for Old English is Subject-Verb-Object, similar to modern English.

The postposition of complements, nominal, and prepositions in old English made it seem like English was a free-word-order language. Modern English in written form displays sentences that follow a regular order to make sense.

It can therefore be confusing to tell which sentence is grammatically correct in the following sentences:

  • The baby jumped happily.
  • Happily, the baby jumped.
  • The baby happily jumped.

Out-of-Use Vocabulary

Though English metamorphoses with time, there are still archaic words and phrases you may encounter in your daily reading which may not be in your English dictionary. For example, “alas” is a common expression of pity or grief from traditional concepts.

The traditional style in the Bible has not changed, and you can still find text like “Thou shalt not kill,” which translates to “You will not kill” in modern terminology.

Old literary and poetic references keep popping up in popular culture. You may still hear or read phrases such as “To be or not to be,” by Shakespeare or Burn’s “My love is like a red, red rose.”

Old English literature influences the way you speak or read, although most ancient words are not in use today.

Regional Variations

Like Modern English, Old English or Anglo-Saxon varied based on location. Due to the complexity of ancient English, you might find that even the native English speakers from England and Scotland didn’t use it properly and they sometimes couldn’t understand each other.

Different variations in British and American English have caused many English speaking countries to have different dialects and accents. In that light, it becomes hard to understand the works of ancient writers depending on where you are from and the difference in meaning for different English phrases. 


Language has drastically evolved over the centuries, and the basic Old English is not used anymore in what is taught or spoken today. Slang and simpler variations of English are the new norms.

However, making a point of reading old classics helps broaden one’s vocabulary and is also informative of the ways of the past. With an excellent old book, you get to travel back in time and experience a different life without leaving your couch.

If you have trouble understanding complex sentences in Old English or even Modern English, join Iris Reading’s speed reading and memorization courses, which have helped students and professionals across the globe. Contact Iris Reading to get the best reading assistance.

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