Over the past 700 years or so, English sentences have shrunk from around 70 words per sentence in circa 1380 to around 20 words in a typical general-internet book today. An analysis of a work each from the respective periods indicates that such change in the linguistic features of the language relate to the cultural aspects of the respective age.
English sentences have shrunk from around 70 words per sentence in around circa 1380 to 20 words or even in a typical internet book today. This becomes evident when analyzing Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in 1387, and Clive Cussler’s Sahara, written in 1992.
Extract from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387)
Chapter 2: The Knight’s Tale
Whilom, as olde stories tellen us, Ther was a duc that highte Theseus; Of Atthenes he was lord and governour, And in his tyme swich a conquerour, That gretter was ther noon under the sonne. (35 words)
Ful many a riche contree hadde he wonne, What with his wysdom and his chivalrie;
He conquered al the regne of Femenye, That whilom was ycleped Scithia, And weddede the queene Ypolita, And broghte hir hoom with hym in his contree, With muchel glorie and greet solempnytee, And eek hir yonge suster Emelye. (53 words)
And thus with victorie and with melodye Lete I this noble duk to Atthenes ryde, And al his hoost, in armes hym bisyde. (23 words)
And certes, if it nere to long to heere, I wolde have toold yow fully the manere How wonnen was the regne of Femenye By Theseus, and by his chivalrye, And of the grete bataille for the nones Bitwixen Atthenes and Amazones, And how asseged was Ypolita The faire hardy queene of Scithia, And of the feste that was at hir weddynge, And of the tempest at hir hoom-comynge; But al the thyng I moot as now forbere, I have, God woot, a large feeld to ere, And wayke been the oxen in my plough, The remenant of the tale is long ynough. (103 words)
I wol nat letten eek noon of this route, Lat every felawe telle his tale aboute, And lat se now who shal the soper wynne; And ther I lefte, I wol ayeyn bigynne. (33 words)
This duc of whom I make mencioun, Whan he was come almoost unto the toun, In al his wele and in his mooste pride, He was war, as he caste his eye aside, Where that ther kneled in the hye weye A compaignye of ladyes, tweye and tweye, Ech after oother, clad in clothes blake; But swich a cry and swich a wo they make, That in this world nys creature lyvynge That herde swich another waymentynge! And of this cry they nolde nevere stenten, Til they the reynes of his brydel henten. (93 words)
Average word count per sentence: 57
Analysis of the linguistic features adopted in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
The “Canterbury Tales” written in 1387 is a representation of the English polity and society of Chaucer’s time. The Black Death or the bubonic plague and the Hundred Years War between England and France decimated the population and resulted in a great socio-cultural upheaval in England. The feudal system lost ground, and a middle class preoccupied with acquiring wealth and status emerged. The powerful and dominant Church became corrupt and strayed from its spiritual mission to obtain secular wealth. The plot and the literary features of the Canterbury Tales reflect these realities. Chaucer documents the social tensions in the popular genre of the estates satire. He depicts the social evils around him but refrains from making overt political statements.
Chaucer, under inspiration of Italian Renaissance writers like Boccaccio and Dante adopted vernacular English, spoken by the common people in London to write Canterbury Tales, making his work linguistically accessible to all. This was a departure from the convention to use either French, the official court language, or Latin, the language of the Church.
The language of Canterbury tales, later called Middle English Language bears a close visual resemblance to the English written and spoken today, and departs from Old English through the influx of many French words, again a reflection of the social and cultural interactions of the age. Words such as “noble”, “baudes”, “lecherye”, “glotonye” and others all used in the Canterbury tales trace their origin to the French elements in Chaucer’s times rather than Old English.
Extract from Clive Cussler’s Sahara (1992)
She seemed to float above the ghostly evening mist like a menacing beast rising from the primeval ooze. (Word count: 18)
Her low silhouette stood black and ominous against the backdrop of the trees along the shoreline. (word count: 16)
Shadowy, phantom-like images of men moved across her decks under the eerie yellow glow of lanterns as moisture trickled down her gray, sloping sides and dripped into the sluggish current of the James River. (Word Count: 34)
The Texas tugged at her dockside mooring line as impatiently as a hound about to be unleashed for the hunt. (Word count: 20)
Thick iron shutters covered her gun-ports and the 6-inch armor on her casemate showed no markings. (Word count: 16)
Average word count: 10
Analysis of the linguistic features of Clive Cussler’s Sahara (1992)
Clive Cussler’s action packed adventure novel “Sahara” is characteristic of the modern fast-paced and networked society, and the novel’s linguistic features depict the impact of the culture of the contemporary society.
The relentless string of scientific inventions and developments has made civilization sophisticated and complex, resulting in a fast-paced life with constant change. Travel has become quicker than ever before, and the natural and national boundaries are no longer barriers for transportation or communication. These changes have resulted in people becoming engrossed in many things and hence having less time to devote to a particular item or concept. This finds reflection in the literary works of the age through the adoption of multiple plots or stories within stories, a departure from concept of uniformity in time and place of the plot and the characters assuming an increasingly complex nature closer to real life individuals.
The linguistic characteristics of Clive Cussler’s work also bear a striking relationship to the culture of the society. The use of active tense, the short and brisk sentences, the use of new words to describe processes or ideas as needed, the incorporation of foreign words into the language on a need basis all stand testimony to this fact.
The change in literary features of language between Chaucer and Cussler’s time
The differences in linguistic features in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Cussler’s Sahara relate to the cultural differences of the age.
Starting from the 16th Century, the continuous intermingling of the English people with different languages and cultures in distant colonies led to the enhancement of the vocabulary. The Great Vowel Shift resulted in a sudden and distinct change in pronunciation. The passage of time led to a shorter vowel pronunciations. This trend has continued to date, and the establishment of English as the global language for computing, communication and entertainment has resulted in conformity and standardization of the language and the dominance of a direct approach free from cliques and redundancies.
A study of the evolutionary principles of the language over the last twelve hundred years by scientists of the Harvard University indicate that of the one hundred and forty five irregular verbs of Middle English taken up for analysis, only ninety eight remain irregular today. Most of the verbs that do not take an “-ed” ending in the past tense tend to “regularize” with the passage of time.
The loss of inflection leads to flexibility of word-use, and words once marked as nouns or verbs by their inflections now find use both ways. The language also tends to adopt any word as needed to name a new object or describe a new process.
All these changes have led to considerable shortening of the sentence. What took around 70 words to convey or complete a sentence in circa 1380 now takes just 20 or less words. The audience of Chaucer’s time had time and effort to go through 70 words and remember them. The pressures of modern day life and the multiplicity of tasks and information has thrust brevity upon the language, and the catering to the decreased attention span of most people catering to their doing multiple tasks, the modern day internet books have a sentence structure that incorporates an average of less than 20 words per sentence.
The similarity of Clive Cussler’s work Sahara with Canterbury Tales lies not just in the plot being a reflection on the social and cultural factors of the respective ages. The infusion of French words and the adoption of vernacular English by Chaucer, and the short brisk sentences in straightforward England, hovering on the tinge of slang by Cussler both reflects the dominance of realism, or literature being part of social and cultural life and therefore not distinct from normal life.
The most striking change in the literary characteristic between the two ages is the brevity of words and sentence length. While the average length of Chaucer’s sentences remained around 70, the internet books of Clive Cussler’s age have a maximum sentence length of 20, and this brevity is a reflection of the socio-cultural features of the respective age.
The Electronic Literature Foundation. The Canterbury Tales. Retrieved July 1, 2009 from http://www.canterburytales.org/canterbury_tales.html.
Cussler, Clive (1992). Sahara. Harper Collins, New York. ISBN 0-00-719439-0.
Rothwell, R. (2004, April). Henry of Lancaster and Geoffrey Chaucer: Anglo-French and Middle English in fourteenth-century England. The Modern Language Review.
Harvard scientists predict the future of the past tense. Retrieved July 1, 2009, from