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)
Modern English is the name given to the current of three main phases recognised in the history of the English language. (The other phases are Old English and Middle English.) In essence, Modern English embraces the varieties that any native speaker can understand without too much effort - although some of the earlier forms, such as the language of Shakespeare's plays, is well-known to cause problems in secondary school classes, and some archaic forms exist within the limits of Modern English.
Modern English is itself sub-divided into three:
- the language of Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) and his contemporaries is labelled Early Modern English. This is a version of the language that can be read without immense difficulty by people who speak Present-Day English. The single biggest shift between Middle and Modern English was probably the Great English Vowel shift, which affected the sounds and the spelling of the language, and contributed to the loss of inflections in the modern as opposed to the older tongue. The huge importance of Early Modern English is that the two texts that have most shaped the English sense of poetry, rhetoric and 'good writing' belong to this period: the Authorised Version (1611) and the writings of Shakespeare(c. 1590 - c. 1613) and his conemporaries.
- After Shakespeare's time (say by 1700), the language lost most of the inflections now regarded as archaic, and is regarded as full-blown Modern English. This is represented in written texts, and still forms the basis for much of the admired styles of formal academic writing - although few outside academia use it.
- Present-day English is - as its name says - what we speak today; what you are reading and I am writing here. A moment's thought about all the varieties of English one may hear or read in a single day should reinforce the idea that nothing described on this page has any clear or distinct boundaries: language change is a continuous and continuing process.