The Medium of the English Language by James Longenbach | Poetry Magazine

Every language has different registers of diction, but the English language comes by those registers in a particular way, one that reflects 
the entire history of the language. Unlike the romance languages, which were derived from the Latin spread throughout Italy, France, and Spain during the Roman Empire, English descended independently from German. Old English, the language of the eighth- or ninth-century poem we call “The Seafarer,” now looks and sounds to us like a foreign language, close to the German from which it was derived: with some study, one can see that the Old English line “bitre breostcaere gebiden hæbbe” means “bitter breast-cares abided have” or “I have abided bitter breast-cares.” The language of Chaucer’s fifteenth-century Canterbury Tales, or what we call Middle English, feels less strange, in part because its sense now relies largely on word order rather than on word endings: “Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages” or “then people long to go on pilgrimages.” And the Modern English of the Renaissance we can read easily, because it is the language we speak today, even though the language has continued to evolve: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments.”

Source: The Medium of the English Language by James Longenbach | Poetry Magazine


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