Early Modern English (1500-1800) and Modern English (1900-present)



William Caxton, introduction of printing to England in 1474; fixing of spelling; literacy; translations of classics; loanwords from Latin and Greek


interest in classical learning; many loanwords; attempts to improve English according to vocabulary, grammar, and style of classical languages (Greek and Latin)


Henry VIII's disputes with the Pope; Reformation; Church of England; Bible, translations into English, Authorized Version 1611 (King James Bible), effect on style


wool production, large sheep pastures, migration to cities, urbanization, rise of middle class, upward mobility

dilution of dialectal differences through population blending at urban centers

middle class quest for "correct" laguage usage; production of authoritarian grammar handbooks

Industrial Revolution: more intensive urbanization, technical vocabulary based on Latin and Greek roots, decreased literacy due to child labor


defeat of Spanish Armada 1588, control of seas, acquisition of colonies throughout the world (Bermuda, Jamaica, Bahamas, Honduras, Canada, American colonies, India, Gambia, Gold Coast, Australia, New Zealand); many loanwords from languages of the colonies used to designate new and exotic products, plants, animals, etc., spread of English around the world


separation of English speakers, beginning of multiple national English varieties


17th c. scholarly writing still mostly in Latin, (e.g. Newton, Francis Bacon); middle class embraced English as scholarly language during18th c.


perceived lexicon inadequacies, borrowing from Latin, deliberate attempts to improve the language; Sir Thomas Elyot, introduction of neologisms (e.g. consultation, fury, majesty)

critics of borrowings and neologisms called them "inkhorn terms" (Thomas Wilson, Roger Ascham, Sir John Cheke); John Cheke tried to translate the New Testament using only English words

attempt to preserve "purity" of English, reviving older English words; archaizers like Edmund Spenser (1552-1599); compounding of English words: Arthur Golding (1587): "fleshstrings" (instead of the French borrowing "muscles"), "grosswitted" (instead of the French borrowing "stupid");

others tried to produce English technical vocabulary: threlike (equilateral triangle), likejamme (parallelogram), endsay (conclusion), saywhat (definition), dry mock (irony)


Greek and Latin technical vocabulary; continued borrowing from French (comrade, duel, ticket, volunteer), also Spanish (armada, bravado, desperado, peccadillo), Italian (cameo, cupola, piazza, portico)


John Cheke (1569): proposal for removal of all silent letters

Sir Thomas Smith (1568): proposal to make letters into "pictures" of speech; elimination of redundant letters like c and q; reintroduction of thorn (þ), use of theta for [ð]; vowel length marked with diacritical symbols like the macron (a horizontal bar on top of a vowel to indicate a long sound)

similar proposals by John Hart (1570): proposals for use of diacritics to indicate sound length; elimination of y, w, c, capital letters

William Bullokar (1580): proposed diacritics and new symbols, noted the desirability of having a dictionary and grammar to set standards;

public spelling eventually became standardized (by mid 1700's), under influence of printers, scribes of Chancery

DICTIONARIES: desire to refine, standardize, and fix the language


17th-18th c., movement favoring the creation of an organization to act as language sentinel, keep English "pure"; following the model of the Académie Française (1635); proponents: scientist and philosopher Robert Hooke(1660); Daniel Defoe (1697); Joseph Addison (1711); Jonathan Swift (1712); Queen Anne supported the idea but died in 1714 and her successor George I was not interested in English; opposition from liberal Whigs who saw it as a conservative Tory scheme; Samuel Johnson's dictionary substituted for academy; John Adams proposed an American Academy


Age of Reason, logic, organization, classification; attempts to define and regulate grammar of language

notion of language as divine in origin, search for universal grammar, Latin and Greek considered less deteriorated, inflections identified with better grammar

18th century attempts to define proper and improper usage; aspiring middle classes, desire to define and acquire "proper" linguistic behavior to distinguish themselves from lower classes

18th c. grammarians: attempts to provide rules and prevent further "decay" of language, to ascertain, to refine, to fix; usage as moral issue, attempt to exterminate inconvenient facts


fossilization of spelling; spelling fixed in printed words by end of 17th c.

addition of phonemic velar nasal ([], as in 'hu/ng/') due to loss of g in final positions; evidence from alternative spellings: tacklin/tackling, shilin/shilling

addition of phonemic voiced alveopalatal fricative [], as in 'mea/s/ure'], the result of a phenomenon known as assibilation (see below)

general loss of r before consonants or in final position; also regular loss of r in unstressed positions or after back vowels in stressed positions: quarter, brother, March

development of palatal semivowel [y] in medial positions (after the major stress and before unstressed vowel: tenner/tenure, pecular/peculiar; when [y] followed s, z, t, d, the sounds merged to produce a palatal fricative or affricate: pressure, seizure, creature, soldier (this phenomenon is known as assibilation and is the origin of voiced alveopalatal fricative []); dialectal exceptions and reversals: graduate, immediately, Injun/Indian

Spelling pronunciations:

French loans spelling [t] as "th" led to [] pronunciation in English, e.g. anthem, throne, author, Anthony, Thames

French and Latin words with unpronounced initial "h" led to English words with pronounced initial h: habit, hectic, history, horror (exceptions: hour, honor) (compare heir/heritage)

respellings under Latin influence: influence of Latin words led to introduction of "l" into loans from French: Latin fallita, OF faute, EMnE fault; other consonants also introduced in pronunciation in the same manner a/d/venture, perfe/c/t, bapti/s/m (ME aventure, perfit, bapteme); some exceptions featuring resistance to the pronunciation of the unhistorical p or b: receipt, debt, doubt (Latin receptus, debitus, dubitare)

Great Vowel Shift (GVS): Middle English (ME) long vowels came to be pronounced in higher positions, the highest were diphthongized. GVS examples:

ME leef [lf] > Modern English leaf [lif]

ME grete [grt] > Modern English great [gret]

Early Modern English tea [te] > Modern English tea [ti]

ME bite [bit] > Modern English bite [bait]

ME hous [hus] > Modern English house [haus]

extensive use of contractions. Early Modern English preferred proclitic contractions ('tis), while Modern English prefers enclitic contractions (it's)

abandonment of yogh in writing

common nouns often capitalized

comma replaced the virgule (/) as punctuation for a pause

apostrophe used in contractions

2nd person singular pronouns (þu and thou) disappeared in 17th c; the plural forms (ye/you) prevailed for both singular and plural

Pronouns: most heavily inflected word class; development of separate possessive adjectives and pronouns (my/mine, etc)

Verbs:-s and -th were 3rd person singular present indicative endings (e.g.does/doth)

interjections: excuse me, please (if it please you), hollo, hay, what; God's name used in euphemistic distortions: sblood, zounds, egad

full-fledged perfect tense, be as auxiliary for verbs of motion (he is happily arrived); increasing use of have as auxiliary; periphrastic use of do (I do weep, doth heavier grow); do as auxiliary in questions and negatives (why do you look on me?); phrasal quasi-modals: be going to, have to, be about to; some continued use of impersonal constructions (it likes me not, this fears me, methinks)

syntax of sentences: influence of Latin, "elegant English," long sentences featuring subordination, parallelism, balanced clauses; bus also native tradition, parataxis, use of coordinators (but, and, for)


narrowing was the most common, ('deer' formerly had meant 'animal')

generalization ('twist' formerly meant twig or branch)

amelioration ('jolly' had meant arrogant)

pejoration ('lust' had meant pleasure, delight)

strengthening ('appalled' had meant only pale or weak)

weakening ('spill' had meant destroy, kill)

shift of stylistic level (stuff, heap, lowered in stylistic level)

shift in denotation ('blush' had meant look or gaze)

fixing of written language obscured dialectal differences; information about dialects from personal letters, diaries, etc; e.g. New England dialect features observable in spellings like 'Edwad', 'octobe', 'fofeitures', 'par', 'warran', 'lan'