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I am reading the book "The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood" by James Gleick. Every now and then an old/archaic English sentence, from some reference, is quoted in this text.

How should someone, with no background in such archaic literature studies, go about finding the meaning of such sentences? For example, when reading modern books written in English, be it of any genre, I can depend on dictionaries (or their online counterparts). Let me clarify the necessity of a systematic way to address this challenge with an example below.

As a reference, I faced the following phrase (in this case it is the title of a book) -

The First Part of the Elementarie which Entreateth Chefelie of the right writing of our English tung

I asked for an answer here. I did find an answer in the comments. But it opened this larger query to me.

I have been trying the following ways, and am pointing out the possible challenges with each -

  1. Google search - for some words/phrases/sentences it works. For others, Google thinks them to be typos. Example, entreateth yielded appropriate results, but chefelie did not (and I also did not connect it to the all too popular word "chiefly").
  2. Dictionary - It does not generally contain such words. In rare cases, probably due to use in some major literary works, an archaic usage might get recorded in modern dictionaries.
  3. Stackexchange sites - I am not sure if I should be asking such questions here. Afterall, these questions are not of any broad nature and might be suitable for a study-group type environment. If I know a systematic approach, I can do my initial research first.
  4. Guides - By guides I mean any guide books, online references, courses, online study groups etc., related to this particular book. But this is just a popular science book, and nowhere near as popular as, say, Shakespeare's plays. Hence, I do not expect to find the meaning of any arbitrary sentence from this text, by any of the above means.



PS: I am not sure if this query belongs to English Language & Usage or Language Learning. The former does allow questions regarding archaic usage, but this is not a particular usage-related query. I avoided the later, because I do not want to learn archaic English; just methods to be able to understand a few phrases.

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    For reading things written in Middle English or Early Modern English, you have to pronounce them mentally, and figure out what words they are. This is tricky even if you're a native English speaker, and if you're not, it could be very hard. Dictionaries don't contain Middle English spellings ... there are too many of them. For example, looking in the OED, chiefly was also spelled chefly, chevely, chieflye, chiefely. For the words themselves, many archaic words and meanings are contained in Wiktionary. Aside from the OED (which you may not have access to), this may be your best bet. Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 17:38
  • @PeterShor that truly summarizes the essence of the challenge. I had been pronouncing the word chefelie in an incorrect way, and failed to to make the proper connection to chiefly. I had made the connections for many other words in the mentioned phrase. So there's a high chance of falling into this trap of pronouncing as per the exact spelling. On top of that, this is the first time I am being exposed to quotes with such Early English spellings; hence the usual disadvantages of a first-timer. Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 18:30
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    Incidentally, that (Mulcaster's Elementarie, 1582) is Early Modern English. Middle English would be substantially harder, and Old English almost impossible.
    – Henry
    Commented Oct 31, 2023 at 16:42
  • @Henry ... if you are extrapolating from modern English. These archaic languages can be learned in their own right as essentially separate foreign languages, of course.
    – tripleee
    Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 6:43

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Dictionaries can get you pretty far if you know how to use them. With late Middle English and Early Modern English, most of the words are spelled the same except for the vowels, which may be different or (in some cases) missing entirely. For example:

  • Searching for ch*f*l* in the Middle English Dictionary brings up "chẹ̄flī" as the second result
  • The same search using the OED's advanced search brings up "chiefly" as the first result
  • Searching for ^ch[aeiouy]*f[aeiouy]*l[aeiouy]*$ in Visca (regex search for Modern English) only brings up "chiefly"

There are some obvious patterns to this (e.g., "ie" for "y" is pretty obvious) but sometimes not (e.g., "shew" for "show").

The MED and OED are historical dictionaries, which will have both obsolete words and definitions.

Some other substitutions you might see:

  • U for V (liue vs live)
  • I for J (iustice vs justice)
  • VV/UU for W (vvhere vs where)
  • C for K
  • Doubling letters (counsell vs counsel)

(And for some of these, vice versa.)

Note: Foreign words and especially names can be harder to interpret. For example, trying to decipher the name "Bathe Cane" from John Frampton's translation of a certain famous work via these rules is basically impossible without having an understanding of the context. The correct translation is:

Batu Khan

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  • A truly programatic style of approaching dictionaries. It's like computer programs meeting lexicography. Never thought that dictionaries were providing this capability. Brilliant answer. Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 3:50

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