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In Henry V, Shakesperean English is difficult to understand (even for modern native English speakers -- at least for me) without a good amount of help.

However, there are a few scenes conducted mostly or entirely in French, and to my surprise, these scenes were perfectly readable with just a mild knowledge of modern French!

Why could this be? I have a few guesses, but I'm not impressed by any of them:

  • English has changed more in the time since Shakespeare than French.

  • Shakespeare's French was "easy" because he is a non-native speaker.

  • Written modern French reflects a much older version of the spoken language than the analogous situation for English.

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It's your third point: Written modern French reflects a much older version of the spoken language than the analogous situation for English.

Different languages have different orthographic depth, i.e. different degrees of letter-sound-correspondences: while no language has a percent 1:1 correspondence, some get closer to that than others. The reason for an orthography becoming deeper is that spoken language changes through sound changes whereas orthography is far slower to change.

Now at the time of Shakespeare, French orthography pretty much was what it is today - later reforms mostly added some diacritics. However, French spoken language still changed (and changes). So you can easily comprehend written French of that time, but if you pronounce it you would use modern French and not how Shakespeare would have pronounced it.

English orthography, however, just started to be regularized at the time, so the spelling will look weird to you. Besides, English was in the middle of the Great Vowel Shift during that time, which made looking for a common orthography rather difficult, and when the dust settled (and the face of English remaining significantly changed) the orthography that prevailed was not the one of Shakespeare.

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  • @fdb's answer is the correct one: the French spelling is not particularly similar to modern French (though it is also not particularly similar to the French spelling of the day); the asker of the question must have been reading an edition that had corrected and modernized the spelling. – phoog May 2 at 1:21
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This discussion has become a bit abstract. If you look at the actual orthography in Shakespeare’s First Folio you will agree (I think) that it does not look very much like modern French. Here is small sample:

Kathe. Alice, tu as este en Angleterre, & tu bien parlas le Language.

Alice. En peu Madame.

Kath. Ie te prie m'ensigniez, il faut que ie apprend a parlen: Comient appelle vous le main en Anglois?

Alice. Le main il & appelle de Hand.

Kath. De Hand.

Alice. E le doyts.

Kat. Le doyts, ma foy Ie oublie, e doyt mays, ie me souemeray le doyts ie pense qu'ils ont appellede fingres, ou de fingres.

Alice. Le main de Hand, le doyts le Fingres, ie pense que ie suis le bon escholier.

Kath. I'ay gaynie diux mots d'Anglois vistement, coment appelle vous le ongles?

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    I would say that this looks much less like modern French than the rest of the play ressembles modern English. – Luís Henrique Dec 5 '16 at 23:14
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    @LuísHenrique. The problem is that most editions have modernised the spelling both of the English and the French. You to find editions in the original orthography. – fdb Dec 5 '16 at 23:16
  • I don't know; it seems to me that Alice and Kath's French is just... wrong. It should be la main, not le main, les doigts, not le doigts, deux, not diux, Anglais, not Anglois, un peu, not en peu, parles bien la langue, not bien parlas le language. Besides that, I am pretty sure that "I" in Elizabethan English was already "I", while "je" seems to have been "ie" at the time, if we take Shakespeare's French in serious, which perhaps we should not. – Luís Henrique Dec 5 '16 at 23:24
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    @LuísHenrique. "Anglois" was the normal spelling in French until the end of the 18th century. Other things ("le main" etc.) are probably English law French, like "le Morte d'Arthur". – fdb Dec 6 '16 at 9:43
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    @LuísHenrique. I think by the time of Voltaire words like anglois, faisoit were already pronounced with /ɛ/. That is why they changed the spelling to anglais, faisait at about the time of the revolution. – fdb Dec 6 '16 at 10:28
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I do not think that English has changed more than French since the 17th century. A more likely explanation is that the French passages in Henry V are in prose, while most of the English bits are in verse, and thus inevitably in a more elevated (if you like: more difficult) language.

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    You do not think English has changed more than French since the 17th century? This seems strange to me: French mid-schoolers are routinely given Perrault's fairy tales from the late 17th century in the original edition. Is it really the case that a normal English child aged 8 or 9 can read late 17th century English and not be puzzled? Since the 17th century, English has lost lexical verb inversion and negation. What would be a change in the grammar of French even remotely comparable? – Olivier Feb 23 '15 at 15:09

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