Old English
Middle English
Early Modern English
Late Modern English

Periods in the development of English

Old English



English has been spoken in England since around 450 (449 is the date given by the Venerable Bede in his history written in the early eighth century). To be more precise a set of varieties of West Germanic have been spoken. The three main groups were Angles, Saxons and Jutes. By and large, the Angles settled in the middle and north of England, the Saxon in the south and the Jutes in the area of present-day Kent.

Map of Britain around 550

Opening lines of the Beowulf manuscript

After the Anglo-Saxon invasion there was little awareness of England let alone of English. With the establishment of the West Saxon kingdom in later centuries and with the court which formed the pivot point of this kingdom a first inkling of the idea of English developed. With the invasion of England by the Danes (after 800) it became more clear that the Germanic tribes in England were separate from their fellows on the continent and in Scandinavia.

Among the different groupings in England in the Old English period different dialects (that is purely geographical variants) are recognizable: Northumbrian in the north, Anglian in the middle and West-Saxon in the south. Due to the political significance of West-Saxon in the late Old English period (after the 9th century) – it was this region which under King Alfred (c. 849-899) sucessfully resisted Viking expansion to the south – which the written form of this dialect developed into something like a standard.

Map of Britain in the 9th century

Statue of King Alfred in Winchester

At this time it was Winchester and not London which was the political centre of the country. The term used for the West Saxon ‘standard’ is koiné which derives from Greek and means a common dialect, that is a variety which was used in monastaries in parts of England outside of West Saxony for the purpose of writing.

  Old English

Middle English



After the invasion of England by the Normans in 1066, the West Saxon ‘standard’, which was waning anyway due to natural language change, was dealt a death blow. Norman French became the language of the English court and clergy.

Section of the Bayeux tapistry (called after a town in Normandy where it is kept). The tapistry depicts scene from the Norman conquest of Britain including the death of King Harold.

English sank to the level of a patois (an unwritten dialect). With the loss of England for the French in 1204 English gradually emerged as a literary language again. For the development of the later standard it is important to note (1) that it was London which was now the centre of the country and (2) that printing was introduced into England in the late 15th century. William Caxton (c. 1442-1491) was the first to introduce printing to England in 1476. He also wrote introductions to editions of works he printed.

  

This latter fact contributed more than any single factor to the standardisation of English. It is obvious that for the production of printing fonts a standard form of the language must be agreed upon. This applied above all to spelling, an area of English which was quite chaotic in the pre-printing days of the Middle English period.

  Middle English

Early Modern English



The present-day orthography of English is essentially that of the late Middle English period. Nonetheless after the Middle English period several changes occur which account for the particular form of English spelling today. The Early Modern English period is however of interest to the linguist not only from the point of view of orthography: during this time the vocabulary of English took on the profile which it exhibits today: French loans were consolidated and a whole series of new classical loan-words (from Latin and Greek) were adopted into the language. These were known as ‘hard-words’ and the dispute surrounding their suitability for use in English is known as the Inkhorn Controversy. The explanation of such words provided the impetus for early dictionaries of English such as that by Robert Cawdrey in 1604 (see following two images).

   

The Early Modern period is also interesting as it is from this time that the colonisation of America by the English dates. This meant that the varieties of English of the period were exported to America where several of their characteristics have been retained due to the naturally conservative nature of peripheral dialects of a language. Other dialects of English including the varieties spoken in the developing world are based on the language of the Early Modern period.

Not least because Shakespeare lived at a pivotal period for the development of Modern English (late 16th and beginning of the 17th century) the term Shakespearean English is used quite often. Care is necessary here to determine what is meant as the reference can mean either the English of the period when Shakespeare lived or can have the narrow meaning of the language of his plays and poetry.

   

The Early Modern Period is remembered for the significant translation of the Bible made during the reign of James I (1603-1625). This was done by a group of clerics, begun in 1604 and completed in 1611. The translation was designed to be definitive, hence the label Authorized Version which is given to it. Because it was prepared in the reign of James I it is also known as the King James Bible. Another major religious work from a slightly later date is the Book of Common Prayer (1662) which was produced by the Church of England. This was not accepted by the non-conformists Protestants of the time, e.g. the Presbyterians in Scotland.

   

  Early Modern English

Late Modern English



It is now normal to divide the time since the end of the Middle English period into the Early Modern English period (1500-1700) and the Late Modern English period (1700-1900). The late begins with the Augustan Age (called after the reign Augustus (63 BC - AD 14) which was a period of peace and imperial grandeur) with the end of the Restoration period (1660-1690) and ends in the middle of the 18th century. Dates which can be mentioned for its end are the death of the poets Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and Jonathan Swift (1670-1745). The latter was particularly concerned with ‘ascertaining’ and ‘fixing’ the English language to prevent it from future change (a futile undertaking in the view of linguists).

   

Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope

Among other important authors of the Augustan Age are Joseph Addison (1672-1719), Richard Steele (1672-1729). With the latter two authors are associated the influential periodicals The Tatler (1709-11) and The Spectator (1711-12). which did much to establish the style of English in this period.

  

Joseph Addison and Robert Steele

The eighteenth century is also a period when grammars of English were written – by men and women. The most famous of these is that by Bishop Robert Lowth (1710-1787) which he published in 1762. Many of the recommendations of Lowth later became strictures, even though he may not intended this. The eighteenth century grammarians were concerned with the codification of English. Out of this grew a prescriptive standard, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

   

The title page of Lowth’s grammar and a portrait of the author

One set of writers who most definitely were prescriptive in their condemnation of what they saw as ‘incorrect’ usage are those who wrote pronouncing dictionaries and rhetorical grammars. Foremost among these are the Irishman Thomas Sheridan and the Londoner John Walker. The pronouncing dictionary of the latter was immensely popular and went through more than 100 editions, remaing in print until 1904.

   

The title page of Sheridan’s grammar and a portrait of the author

   

The title page of Walker’s dictionary and a portrait of the author


Sample entry from Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (first edition 1791)

  Late Modern English