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Speaking Middle English 

I started watching Sleepy Hollow a few days ago, and I love so many things about it. The matter-of-fact diverse casting, the fact that both leads are sassy, smart, and action hero-y, and especially the Buffy-esque mixture of folklore, history, and horror. And I love it when the fated saviours of the world hit the books!

But when I was watching Ep.5, John Doe (Spoilers Ahead!), I was jolted out of my happy place when Ichabod recognized what little Thomas from Roanoke spoke as “Middle English,” the language of England in the Middle Ages, the language of the poet Chaucer. 

On the one hand, I’m glad that the writers of the show recognize that language change happened, and that the colonists of Roanoke, who disappeared in 1587, are almost as distant from Ichabod’s life in the 1780s as he is from 2013.  A less dedicated staff of writers could easily have decided that they are both from “Ye Olde Colonial Times,” and therefore dress, speak, and behave the same.

But the Roanoke colonists were close contemporaries with Shakespeare (1564-1616), and should speak something closer to Shakespeare’s English (And we actually know what Shakespeare’s English sounded like!) Chaucer (1343-1400) lived and wrote a further 180 years before the Roanoke colonists left England. What’s more, he wrote before the Vowel Shift of 1400-1450, a period in which the usually slow rate of change in pronunciation kicked into high gear: “The change was so fast that an adult in 1400 might pronounce words completely differently from the way his grandchildren would in 1450” (vowel shifting continues today!)  Reading Chaucer at Oxford couldn’t help Ichabod understand the Roanokers. In fact, the term Middle English itself, as well as the study of historical pronunciation, were developed by scholars over a long time, and may not even have been current among scholars of Ichabod’s day (I don’t know- I’m not a scholar of historical linguistics, just a fan!).

However, language change, both in pronunciation and word usage, is gradual. There was no moment when all English speakers stopped speaking “Middle English” and started speaking “Early Modern English.” One of the major dictionaries of Middle English includes texts from 1150 to 1580 in order to glean as much information about words used in Middle English. So Ichabod’s education might have helped him understand a few words or forms of words used in Roanoke that had fallen out of common English usage by his day (and ours).

TL;DR: The colonists of Roanoke should have sounded more like Hamlet, Juliet, or at least Dogberry than they sounded like Chaucer- old fashioned, but intelligible.