I am looking for data that either confirm or refute the following statement:

During the Renaissance (let's say, 14th to 16th centuries), Western European languages changed very rapidly. The pace of language change was much greater than before or after that period.

Background: I have observed that in both English and Portuguese, the language used in literary texts changed significantly during that period. Chaucer's Middle English is very different from Shakespeare's Early Modern English, which, by contrast, can be reasonably well understood by today's English speakers. Similarly, Gil Vicente's Old Portuguese clearly contrasts with Luís de Camões's Modern Portuguese. 21st century Portuguese speakers can understand Camões's language with almost no difficulty. This is just anecdotal evidence, so feel free to challenge these assumptions, as well.

Update: As Cerberus pointed out, it may not be a good idea to try to understand this phenomenon from a modern speaker's perspective. But I hope that historical linguists have an objective way of measuring and evaluating the process of change in a certain period, as well as making comparisons between different historical periods. The anecdotal evidence above was intended merely to show the motivation for the question, so please don't get much distracted by it.

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    There is one major methodological problem here: you should not measure whether modern readers can read Shakespeare against modern readers reading Chaucer, but against an 18th-century merchant reading Chaucer, to cover equally long periods. Whether or not this merchant can still read Chaucer is the sum of all the changes that happened between Chaucer and himself; at some point, the sum passes a certain threshold (say, 1700), but you don't know anything about the distribution in between, while you are in fact looking for dense spots. You'd need to do many comparisons over many sub-periods.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 2:41

1 Answer 1


There were other periods of rapid language changes in Western Europe besides the Renaissance. "Faster" is hard to measure.

First, I think you need to specify your point of comparison. There have only been about 300 years since the end of the Renaissance. Of course people have lived in Western Europe for at least 40,000 years, but for this question I suppose we should limit our scope to Indoeuropean languages. IE speakers were certainly in Western Europe by the second millennium BC, 4000 years ago.

So did the languages of Western Europe change at a greater rate during 1400-1700 than at any other 300 year period from 2000 BC- present? We just don't have evidence for most of that period.

So let me suggest: what about the rise of the Romance languages from Vulgar Latin? That happened sometime between the breakup of the Roman Empire and the 9th century. Langue d'oïl is known since the 9th century, Old Spanish since the 10th, and Common Romanian since the 9th.

I don't know how you propose to compare the rate of change. I would certainly say, though, that the rise of the Romance languages within 400 years is as significant as the changes due to the Renaissance.

EDIT: Since you mention English above: Middle English arose out of Anglo-Saxon starting in 1066 and the transition was rather abrupt, complete by about 1154, the time of the Plantegenets. Invasions have long been a mechanism for rapid language change.

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    Good points, Mark! I don't know how to compare them, either. That's, by the way, part of the question. I was hoping that some kind of objective measure had been proposed already. But, by your answer, I'm getting the impression that this may not be the case. Commented Feb 28, 2012 at 23:52
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    Regarding Middle English: I have read that the transition from Old English was gradual, but didn't reach the upper levels of society until the Norman invasion. When the Anglo-Saxons were overthrown from power, so was the old language of law, religion and bureaucracy. The path to written records was, then, open to the language of the streets (what we now call Middle English). Commented Feb 29, 2012 at 0:04
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    Actually renaissance and enlightenment is all the trickier because for European languages, this is the era of massive relexification. Particularly Romance ones - ever noticed how Italian, Spanish and French look similar to the point of mutual intercomprehensibility? Thought it is because they are all romance languages? WRONG! The basic, original vocabulary in each of these languages is largely not intercomprehensible and fairly varied, it is the massive influx of Latin vocabulary that happened during renaissance and enlightenment periods.
    – Eleshar
    Commented Nov 19, 2016 at 20:20

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