Early Modern English


Outer History

Political Events

PRINTING: William Caxton1476; fixing of spelling; literacy; translations of classics; loanwords from Latin and Greek

RENAISSANCE: interest in classical learning, loanwords, English style affected, attempts to improve English

REFORMATION: Henry VIII's disputes with the Pope, Reformation, Church of England, reading of Bible, translations into English, Authorized Version 1611 (King James Bible), effect on style, education transferred to state, emphasis on English

ECONOMY: wool production, large sheep pastures, migration to cities, urbanization, dialectal mixing, rise of middle class, upward mobility, quest for correct usage, authoritarian handbooks; Industrial Revolution: more intensive urbanization, technical vocabulary based on Latin and Greek roots, decreased literacy due to child labor

EXPLORATION AND COLONIZATION: 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); exotic products, loanwords from non-Indo-European languages, spread of English around the world

AMERICAN REVOLUTION: separation of English speakers, beginning of multiple national Englishes

SCHOLARLY WRITING: 17th c. scholarly writing still mostly in Latin, Newton, Bacon; middle class embraced English as scholarly language during18th c.

LINGUISTIC ANXIETY: perceived lexicon inadequacies, borrowing from Latin, deliberate attempts to improve the language: Sir Thomas Elyot, definition of neologisms; critics of such borrowings termed them inkhorn terms, Thomas Wilson, Roger Ascham, Sir John Cheke (translated New Testament using only English words); attempt to preserve purity of English, reviving of older English words; archaizers, Edmund Spenser (1552-1599); compounding of English words: Arthur Golding (1587); attempts to produce English technical vocabulary: threlike (equilateral triangle), likejamme (parallelogram), endsay (conclusion), saywhat (definition), dry mock (irony)

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

SPELLING REFORM: John Cheke (1569): proposal for remove all silent letters; Sir Thomas Smith (1568): letters as pictures of speech, elimination of c and q, reintroduction of thorn, use of theta, vowel length marked with diacritics; similar proposals by John Hart (1569-70), elimination of y, w, c, capital letters; William Bullokar (1580): diacritics and new symbols, dictionary and grammar to set standards; public spelling standardized by mid 1700's, under influence of printers, scribes of Chancery

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


ENGLISH ACADEMY MOVEMENT: 17th-18th c., language sentinel, regulate excesses of the Renaissance, precedents in Académie Française (1635); proponents: scientist and philosopher Robert Hooke(1660), curator of experiments of Royal Society; Daniel Defoe (1697); Joseph Addison (1711); Jonathan Swift (1712), Queen Anne supported idea but died in 1714 and her successor George I was not interested in English; opposition from liberal Whigs who saw it as Tory scheme; Johnson's dictionary substituted for academy; John Adams's proposal for American Academy

GRAMMAR: attention given to proper and improper usage after mid 18th c.; aspiring middle classes, desire to acquire appropriate linguistic behavior; 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, inflection identified with grammar; William Jones's Indo-European hypothesis, end of 18th c.; 18th c. grammarians: attempts to provide rules and prevent further decay of language, to ascertain, to refine, to fix

Lowth and Priestly: grammar as art, issue of propriety, effects of analogy; 18th c. grammarians: usage as moral issue, attempt to exterminate inconvenient facts



Fossilization of spelling, difficulty ascertaining phonology, help from written statements about the language; dialectal variations


addition of phonemic velar nasal [ng, as in 'hu/ng/'] and voiced alveopalatal fricative [z, as in 'mea/s/ure']

disappearance of allophones of /h/ after vowel; disappeared before t: sight, caught, straight; disappeared or became f in final position: sigh, tough

loss of l after low back vowel and before labial or velar consonant: half, palm, talk

loss of t/d in consonant clusters with s: castle, hasten

loss of ME instrusive t after s: listen, hustle

g/k lost in initial position before n: gnaw, gnome, know, knight

w lost in initial position before r: wrong, wrinkle, wrist

g lost in ng in final position, producing the phonemic velar nasal; in some dialects further simplification occurred so that the velar nasal became n, alternate spellings: tacklin/tackling, shilin/shilling

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 /j/ in medial positions (after the major stress and before unstressed vowel: tenner/tenure, pecular/peculiar; when semivowel j 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 /z/); dialectal exceptions and reversals: graduate, immediately, Injun/Indian

d > / th/ after major stress and before r: OE faeder> father; th > d after r or before l: OE morthor>murder

Spelling pronunciations:



Long Vowels

Great Vowel Shift (GVS): major changes in ME long vowels, loss of vowel length; long vowels came to be pronounced in higher positions, the highest were diphthongized. GVS example: ME bite > PDE bite

exceptions to GVS:


Short Vowels

further loss of final unstressed -e (exceptions: judges, passes, wanted)

in general a became æ; but then æ > a before r: harm, scarf, hard; also æ > a before voiceless fricatives: staff, class, path; original /a/ remained however when the fricative was followed by another vowel: classical, passage

a before l became lax o: all, fall, walk; also after w: want, wash, reward; but not if the vowel preceded a velar consonant: wax, wag, quack

U> schwa: run, mud, gull, cut, hum, cup; but not if preceded by labial and followed by l, or palatal s, or palatal c: full, pull, push, bush, butcher

lax i (I) and E stable but often confused with each other as attested by alternate spellings: rever/river, derect/direct, niver/never

E followed by nasal became I: wenge>wing, sengle>single

lax o before l became o (bolt, cold, old, bowl) but was retained in other environments; notice British dialectal variant: lax o > a: hot, rock, pocket


Influence of following R:



tendency for diphthongs to smooth into simple vowels; also tendency for new dipththongs to come into being

iu and lax e + u > iu>ju (pure, mute, hew, cute) and sometimes (after non-labials) ju>u (new, glue, rude)

au>lax o (cause, hawk, claw); but before l+labial au> a or æ: half, calf, calm, palm (notice also the loss of l in these examples)

lax o + u> o (know, blow, soul, grow) (notice how o is actually also a diphthong)

æi > e (day, pay, raise, stake, eight) (notice how e is also a diphthong)

ui and lax o + i> laxoi (toil, joy)



rising pitch in questions; falling pitch in statements; tendency to stress on first syllable; but actually quite a bit of variation in placement of major stress in polysyllabic words

often secondary stresses in syllables which today have only reduced stress

variant pronunciations were common

extensive use of contractions. EMnE preferred proclitic contractions ('tis), while PDE prefers enclitic contractions (it's)



abandonment of yogh; thorn became indistinguishable from y; i and j (Iohn) and u and v used interchangeably, v at beginning of words, u elsewhere; use of long s, except at end of word (s)

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

respellings under Latin influence

common nouns often capitalized

comma replaced the virgule (/)

apostrophe used in contractions

heavier 18th c-punctuation than in PDE