For a long time, Dr. Boli has been saying that the English language is changing now at a faster rate than at any time since the days of the Tudors.

In that context, he would like to point out the collection “The Eighteenth Century” in the Internet Archive, an accumulation of eighteenth-century English books digitized from microfilm copies.

It’s a huge pile of thousands of forgotten books well worth losing a few hours or years in. But what Dr. Boli found interesting was that, for every book that he glanced at in the collection, the librarian has identified the language as “Middle English.” As far as he can tell, all 6800 or so books in the collection, which are all from the 1700s, are identified as written in “Middle English.” Because the collection is so large, the great majority of books in the Internet Archive identified as in “Middle English” are from the 1700s—about 92% of them, as of yesterday.

What does this observation mean? It’s hard to say. A glance at Wikipedia’s article on Middle English, which seems to be up to date with current scholarship, reveals that linguists still use “Middle English” as a term for English from some time after the Norman Conquest to the late 1400s.

So we must consider the designation in the Eighteenth Century collection a mistake, though one that has persisted through 6,863 volumes as of yesterday, and we must search for a psychological explanation of the mistake. What does the mistake indicate? It would seem to imply that, to a reader in the early twenty-first century, the language of Addison or Johnson is as foreign as Chaucer was to a reader of the middle twentieth century. Our language is racing ahead into the uncertain future, and a curtain of unintelligibility has fallen across the literature from before 1800.

Enterprising publishers should take note. That line of unintelligibility is moving toward us rapidly. Now is the time to prepare editions of Austen and Dickens and Trollope in translation, so that they can be read by non-specialists with no training in extinct languages. Henry James will be added to the list soon, although late-period Henry James required a translation from the moment the work left his desk. This is also a good opportunity to remove anything in those books that would be offensive to modern taste, such as subtlety. It will be profitable for a publisher to spend a little on a competent translator who understands nineteenth-century English but can speak the language of the twenty-first century fluently. It will be especially profitable if you can persuade a certain number of professors of literature to declare that students will be given an automatic F if they are caught using your translations. With that recommendation, nothing in the world will prevent the students from buying them.


  1. D. Smolken says:

    Does the curtain fall faster on children’s literature? I already noticed about 15 years ago that A.A. Milne’s writing is far from easy for children.

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