On the Reading of Old Texts

Many (put not all) of our works are reproductions of 17th century translations, complete with 17th century grammar and spelling. Reading old texts can be quite an eye-opener for the reader who’s only ever read contemporary works or translations. Gone are the contemporary conventions of punctuation and spelling, indeed, in some ways early modern printing was like the time of the judges, everyone doing what is right in his own eyes. For that reason, it can be daunting to pick up a book in which, though supposedly written in English, 90% of the words are spelled “incorrectly.” The purpose of this short introduction is to help the reader become comfortable reading old texts as quickly as possible and to offer this solace: it’s not as hard as it first appears.

Here are some guidelines for reading old texts:

First, when reading, focus more on the sound of the word than on the spelling. For the most part, early modern texts have very different spelling conventions which can make it neigh impossible to decipher some words on the basis of spelling alone, however, when you sound them out the intended word becomes clear. For example, it is not immediately obvious from the spelling that “twise” means “twice,” but when you focus on the sound and read it in context, the meaning is clear, “But that which I haue now twise spoken of, dooth make verie much against ‎this opinion…” A few other examples will illustrate the pattern, you might come across tawnt for taunt, yoong for young, or saie for say.

Second, spelling is a social construct so be aware of the common letter substitutions in the chart below.

jiJesus = Iesus
vuHave = Haue
uvUpon = Vpon
iyHim = Hym
y (final)ie (final)Only = Onlie
ieeeBelieve = Beleeue
eiBecause = Bicause

Third, it is a common practice to add e’s to the end of words where we do not. Therefore, Paul becomes Paule, form becomes forme, law becomes lawe, kingdom becomes kingdome, and soul becomes soule. This shouldn’t prove a real difficulty except in a few specific words where it is combined with a letter substitution, as in the case of “Jews,” which becomes “Iewes.”

Fourth, many letters are reduplicated, particularly l’s, n’s, and o’s. Civil becomes ciuill, sin becomes sinne, do becomes doo, evil becomes euill.

Fifth, shorter words will be more confusing and so it is helpful to familiarize yourself with some of the most common. For example, saie (say), anie (any), maie (may) and vs (us), can throw you off if you aren’t ready for them, but once you see them a few times they prove no obstacle.

Sixth, to save space, printers would often leave out certain consonants and place a bar over the letter (usually a vowel) beforehand to let the reader know there is a missing letter. This is most often done with the letters m and n, so, for example frō is from and thē is either then or them.

Seventh, early modern punctuation was a little looser than we’re used to – commas abound and semi-colons and colons are used in places where you wouldn’t expect them. Just hold their usages loosely and interpret them according to the sense of the passage and you won’t have too much trouble.

If you can familiarize yourself with these rules you’ll do well and be reading at your regular pace within no time.