The early modern period

Re-arranging the spelling
Later changes

The early modern period of English is that which is taken to have begun at the end of the middle period, conventionally set at the year 1476 when printing was introduced by William Caxton. It is also common to regard it as having lasted to about 1800, after which one talks of modern English, although there is no single event, internal or external, which would justify this cut-off point.

The early modern era is characterised by a large influx of words from classical languages, i.e. from Latin and Greek. The flood of Latin loans into English peaked in the period from approximately 1580 to 1660. There is a familiar pattern to the establishment of English in fields of study which were originally the domain of Latin. Firstly one has translations of Latin originals, the works which follow Latin models slavishly and finally those in which English is used as an independent medium. There were many purists in this sphere such as Ralph Lever who in a book on logic published in 1573 suggested such contrived native formations as endsay ‘conclusion’, witcraft ‘logic’, saywhat ‘definition’. This kind of attempted purist influence on the vocabulary was to re-surface now and again, in the 19th century with the Dorset poet William Barnes for instance.

Latin borrowings with unaltered form: genius, species, militia, radius, specimen, squalor, apparatus, focus, tedium, lens, antenna

Adaption of inflectional endings is usually to be found, though in some instances one simply has truncation of the Latin grammatical suffix: complexus > complex.











-ence, -ency

resistence, frequency


-ance, -ancy

entrance, necromancy

By the end of the 16th century there was a considerable body of opinion criticising the wholesale borrowing of words from Latin. Richard Mulcaster complains of this in 1582, and in Shakespeare´s Love‘s Labour Lost Holofernes is ridiculed for his overtly Latinate speech.

Rearranging the spelling

Part of the endeavour of conservative scholars to Latinise their English included the use of altered spellings which were supposed to render the Latin original recognisable in the English form. This curious behaviour would hardly be worth commenting on if it had not had a lasting effect on English in some cases. Where an l or c (both before a further consonant) was re-introduced it came to be pronounced; this did not happen with pre-consonantal b. Recall that these consonants had already been lost as part of cluster simplification from Latin to Old French so that they did not exist in the forms borrowed into Middle English originally.

Inserted b


doubt < ME doute

Latin dubitare

debt < ME dette

Latin debitum

Inserted l and c


fault < ME faute

Latin fallitus

assault < ME assaut

Latin assaltus

verdict < ME verdit

Latin verdictus

perfect < ME perfit

Latin perfectus

Spelling pronunciations have a certain tradition in English. In our time one can see it with words like again and often which are pronounced by many English speakers as /əˡgein/ and /ɒftən/ respectively although the vowel of the first word was previously short /əˡgen/ and in the latter the post-consonantal /t/ had not been present in the spoken form for centuries, /ɒfṇ/.

FALSE SEGMENTATION A quite different phenomenon to what has just been discussed can be seen where sounds of word are truncated or added by speakers who have not grasped their phonological composition correctly. In English such phenomena could involve the addition or deletion of the /n/ of the indefinite article before nouns with an initial vowel or a nasal. For instance the /n-/ at the beginning of nickname is spurious as the input form was an ekename, lit. ‘an also-name’. With apron and adder the opposite is the case: the original /n-/ came to be regarded as part of the article, the input forms were nap(e)ron (from French) and nædder (from Old English) respectively.

False segmentation also arose by speakers misinterpreting singular for plural forms. For instance the words cherry and pea derive from French originals which ended in /-s/ — compare Modern French cerise and pois — having this deleted from the singular and added in the plural.

Changes from the 16th century to the present

BACKGROUNDING OF MORPHOLOGY A pervasive theme in the development of English is the backgrounding of morphology. By this is meant that the morphology came to play less and less of a role in the indication of grammatical categories. This development was triggered by the attrition of inflections. A consequence of this is that the remaining inflections were partly re-interpreted or re-deployed for semantic purposes. A clear example of this is provided by the present tense -s in many dialects of English (but not in the standard). Here there is frequently a contrast between present tense verb forms without any endings and those with a generalised -s for both numbers and all persons. The semantic distinction is between an unmarked present (no ending) and a narrative present (with the inflectional -s).

She have no time for the children anymore.
They walks out the door and they meets him coming up the drive.

Still other dialects distinguish between an unmarked present and an habitual aspectual present with the s-ending.

The lads works the night-shift in the summer if they can.