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Early Modern English

Re-arranging the spelling
Later changes
Introductions to this period

  For literature on Early Modern English please consult the relevant section of the Reference Guide

The early modern period of English is that which is taken to have begun at the end of the middle period, which by one common convention is 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 Late Modern English, although there is no single event, internal or external, which would justify this cut-off point.

The early modern period is, in its initial phase, that of the House of Tudor in England, i.e. the period from Henry VII (1485-1509) to that of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). See overview of English monarchs.


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 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.

Latin English Example
-atus -ate desperate
-itas -ity continuity
-entia -ence, -ency resistence, frequency
-antia -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

ORTHOGRAPHY 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. 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 Model
doubt < ME doute Latin dubitare
debt < ME dette Latin debitum
Inserted l and c Model
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.

THE TIME OF SHAKESPEARE 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.


BIBLE TRANSLATIONS AND RELIGIOUS WORKS 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 (of England) it is also known as the King James Bible. Another major religious work Book of Common Prayer which was compiled by Thomas Cranmer (1489-1566), a Protestant reformer from the Tudor period, and first published in 1549. There were many later revised editions including that from 1662, illustrated below. It is a central document of the Church of England. However, it was not accepted by the non-conformist Protestants of the time, e.g. the Presbyterians in Scotland.



EARLY COLONISATION 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.

For more information on colonisation, please consult the website Studying Varieties of English.

Introductory books on Early Modern English