Early Modern English

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This page forms part of an etymology course that gives an outline of the development of English. It is written in a sequence that you may want to follow. The best place to start, if you want to follow the whole course, is Etymology course, or, if you are only interested in English, Development of English. You may also arrive at any of these articles from other links. For more information about the history of English, you should of course read a good history of the language, such as Baugh (1993), Strang (1970), or Crystal (2005)

Early Modern English is a convenient label for the first phase of Modern English, which followed Middle English. This is the language of the Tudors and Stuarts, of the Authorised Version, Shakespeare, Milton and their contemporaries. It can conveniently be ascribed as the variety of English current in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and given 'tag' dates of 1485 (the accession of Henry VII) to 1688 (the accession of William III and Mary II).

The chief differences that a modern reader will notice on coming to an Early Modern text are the

  • spelling and punctuation (although these are 'normalized' in most current editions). English spelling was not to be standardised until the eighteenth century, most importantly by Dr Johnson, whose Dictionary came to be regarded as authoritative. (In the USA, Noah Webster (1758 - 1843) had the same influence.)
    • The spelling was variable largely because of the changes in pronunciation which signalled the break between Middle and Modern English, notably the Great English Vowel Shift of the fifteenth century. Such changes in the realisation of the spoken language may seem irrelevant to present-day readers; but it can help to understand some of the puns in Shakespeare and his contemporaries to know that they spoke rather differently from us - and more so from their grandparents.
  • In grammar, early modern English is remarkably similar to our present-day English. Meaning and construction of sentences is largely conveyed by word order, rather than the inflections that governed Old English. The one common difference is in the use of archaic present tense inflections and the associated Archaic personal pronoun. In the Authorised Version, for example, the centurion says "For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it" (Matt. 8, 9); and Jesus asked Pilate "Sayest thou this thing of thyself?" (John, 18 34). Such questions as "think(e)st thou?" and "say(e)st (saist) thou" continued to be current in some poetry, especially that felt to be traditional, until well into the twentieth century.
  • In vocabulary, the language has grown greatly in the past 500 years. There is a page giving some outline of the differences at Early Modern English vocabulary.