English, like all languages, has continually changed through time. Some of these changes have involved new words coming into the language either through innovation or through borrowing from other languages. In the fourteenth century, for example, an estimated 15,270 new words were adopted into English, including words such as creator, humanity, noun, and substantial.
In some instances, the meanings of words change over time. Other changes involve pronunciation and the spelling of words.
Sometime in the early 1300s, William of Nassyngton, a clerical administrator and translator, wrote in what we today call Middle English:
Bothe lered and lewed, olde and gonge,To the modern reader, accustomed to both reading and speaking what we now call modern English, the phrase “lered and lewed” seems a bit strange. “Lered” is not a word in use today and “lewed” sort of looks like it could be “lewd,” but this word doesn’t really seem to fit. What happened is explained in the sections below.
alle vnderstonden English tonge
The Middle English “lered” is the Modern English “learned.” The origins of “learn” can be found in the prehistoric West Germanic “*liznōjan.” Going farther back in time, this seems to have developed out of the proto-Indo-European “*leis-” meaning “track” which has an underlying meaning of “gaining experience by following a track.” The English verb “lere,” meaning “to teach,” seems to have died out by the nineteenth century. The English word “lore,” which is related to it, still survives.
While the Middle English “lewed” did morph into the modern “lewd,” it did so with some changes in meaning. The origins of “lewd” can be traced back to the Old English “læwede” which meant “lay, not belonging to the clergy.” Going back farther in time, “lewd” is related to the Vulgar Latin “*laigo-”. By the time of the development of Middle English “lewd” (or “lewed”) carried the meaning of “low class, unlearned, ignorant, and ill-mannered.”
A Final Note on Middle English:
The transition from Old English, with all its strange declensions, did not happen overnight. People did not simply wake up one morning and decide to switch to Middle English. First of all, there was a difference between the way people spoke and how they wrote. In the period leading up to William’s poem cited above, those people who wrote usually did so in either Latin or French. William’s poem is one of our first written indications of English as it was spoken at the time. John McWhorter, in his book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, writes:
“…Middle English is what had been gradually happening to spoken Old English for centuries before it showed up in the written record.”Note: the * indicates that the Indo-European or prehistoric word has been reconstructed by historical linguists.