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Since ELL is primarily aimed at English learners (not native speakers) and the guide lines state

If you have questions about the following topics, you may want to visit other Stack Exchange sites to see if they would be a better place to ask your question … historical English You may get a more detailed answer at english.stackexchange.com

Should we be trying to gently steer such questions to other SE sites? For example there is a user on ELL who is valiantly trying to plough their way through "The Wrecker" by Robert Louis Stephenson which was written over 130 years ago and contains many constructs and references that would be easily understood by a late Victorian reader, but have now fallen out of use. Consequently they have posted numerous questions about the meanings of various obscure passages. What should we do about this?

  • Shrug our shoulders and answer the questions to the best of our ability (as we are doing now)?
  • Vote to close as, technically, the questions are break the rules? - harsh
  • Get the questions moved to another site?

Does anyone have any views on this?

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  • Could you more clearly connect the dots about what the problem is? I'm having trouble coming up with a response because I don't know what issues to address. In terms of the health of this site, what problems do you see this type of question causing?
    – gotube Mod
    Nov 6, 2023 at 20:17
  • If a learner is asking these questions here, why wouldn't ELL give them an answer appropriate for the site's scope? ELL's audience is not limited to beginners or non-native speakers. What is on-topic isn't limited to only questions easily answered by native English speakers. The difference between ELU and ELL is the type of answer the asker wants. Maybe the asker doesn't want an answer that covers all of the detail an ELU answer would.
    – ColleenV
    Nov 6, 2023 at 21:03
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    @gotube I don't see any serious problem with this type of question other than it appears to go against the guidelines. I think my question boils down to "Should we continue to answer questions about archaic / non-standard / old fashioned English or is there a better way, such as moving to ELU?" Nov 6, 2023 at 22:34
  • @ColleenV I agree that ELL is not exclusive to non-native speakers or beginners, but I'm wondering if the interpretation of "old fashioned" English is within it's remit. Possibly such questions are better answered on ELU. Note that the ELL guide lines basically say historical English interpretation is not a suitable question and also "asking for meaning" is grounds for closure, although I admit that this usually applies to words and phrases that can be looked up in a dictionary. I'm happy with the status quo, just curious as to what others think. Nov 6, 2023 at 22:46

2 Answers 2

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tl;dr Those questions are OK, not against any rules, but that's not clear from that guidelines page because it needs rewriting, which will happen soon, now that we're aware of it.


The actual rule that covers questions about historical English is in the first bullet point about the type of questions to ask (all emphasis is mine):

In general, ask here if you have a question which covers:

  • Word choice, usage, and meaning

This means that questions about meaning are on-topic. This includes historical English.

The next paragraph is about suggestions for where to ask about specific topics, or maybe cautions, but not rules:

If you have questions about the following topics, you may want to visit other Stack Exchange sites to see if they would be a better place to ask your question:

  • ...historical English -- you may get a more detailed answer at EL&U

This means that we suggest for most people with questions about historical English, that they might prefer the type of answer they get at EL&U --a custom-written, fully-referenced encyclopedia article-- but they're still welcome to ask here if they just want a simple answer.

The other two bullet points belong in the third paragraph about topics which are out of scope for this site. It's a mistake, and misleads people to believe that whole section is rules, which is not the case. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. It will be fixed soon.

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  • An English learner who would keep reading a word on some sites that are not about historical English and wants to understand more about that word could not know that word is "historical English." I agree that a question asking the meaning of Fyrst forð gewát should be closed as off-topic, especially if the person was reading Beowulf.
    – apaderno
    Nov 26, 2023 at 11:54
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In Summary

ELL should be able to handle pretty much any question about English from Shakespearean times (starting circa 1500) to now, so a book from the 1800s like in that question is fair game assuming it follows the other rules.

Modern English on ELL

While this is hardly a situation that comes up often, I think that it's best that ELL only cover questions about Modern English, unless there's some context that ties it to learning English specifically. For questions about older English, those are likely best being migrated to English Language and Usage (this isn't an available close reason; you'll have to flag for a mod to do it). This may seem daunting considering the amount of expectations put on questions there, but I'm a mod here and I'm a mod there so you can trust me to help sort this out.

To be clear, Modern English includes Shakespeare and some writing before that. Let's just say it started in about 1500 AD, though I don't think the exact dates are so important here. That's Early Modern English, the period of English where English really starts looking like the English we're familiar with. It's mostly readable to any native speaker without any particular training, and the original Shakespeare is even covered in English classes (at least in countries with a native English speaking majority) as if it was a rule. In other words, I think a number of learners also encounter this type of work in their studies.

Note that "Modern English" also includes many translations of older works, like Beowulf (originally written in Old English) and Chaucer (Middle English). While the language of the originals should be asked about on EL&U, their translations are also on-topic here on ELL. Askers may not say or even realize they're using a translation so be careful. It's also important to get an actual timeframe for if someone is asking about "Old English" since that's a term casually misapplied to English as recent as 100 years ago, even by native speakers. (Old English properly refers to English from before about 1100 AD and is entirely unreadable without a lot of specific training.)

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  • I guess it depends also from where the word/phrase is read. If I were to read the same phrase on Facebook (or other social network), I could not realize it is an Early Modern English phrase they keep repeating for some reason.
    – apaderno
    Nov 26, 2023 at 12:08

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