Language and Linguistics









Early Modern and Modern English


  • Early Modern English (1500-1800)
  • Modern English (1800-present)


  • HENRY VIII (r. 1509-1547)

  • ELIZABETH I (r. 1558-1603)

  • JAMES I of England (VI of Scotland) (r. 1603-1625), patron of King James Bible

  • ENGLISH CIVIL WAR, 1642-1651, royalists vs. parlamentarians, execution of Charles I (1625-1649)

  • OLIVER CROMWELL, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth (1653-1658)

  • RESTORATION, Charles II (1660-1685)

  • ACT OF SETTLEMENT (1701), provision by Parliament preventing Catholics from inheriting the throne and resulting in the eventual transfer of the English crown to the German house of Hanover

  • ACT OF UNION (1707), England and Scotland united to form Great Britain

  • GEORGE I (r. 1714-1727), greatgrandson of James I, could not speak English, begins Hanover (German) dynasty (five kings) which ended with Queen Victoria

  • GEORGE III (r. 1760-1820), independence of American colonies (1783); beginnings of industrial revolution

  • WAR WITH FRANCE (1789-1815), English against French Revolution and later against Napoleon I (Emperor of France, 1804-1814); English victories by Nelson at Trafalgar (1806) and finally by Wellington at Waterloo (1815), Napoleon's death (1821).

  • IRELAND incorporated to England 1801

  • English victory over Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo (1815)

  • QUEEN VICTORIA (r. 1837-1901), granddaughter of George III

  • WORLD WAR I (1914-1918): In 1917 King George V issued a proclamation changing the name of the British royal family to "Windsor" instead of the actual German name "Saxe-Coburg and Gotha" which was deemed awkward at a time of war with Germany

  • WORLD WAR II (1939-1945)


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 like Greek and Latin

new vocabulary developed for technical and scientific work; also new words related to exploration, discovery, and colonialism


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


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


gradual expansion of British power since the days of Elizabeth I, culminating in British dominion over about one quarter of the world around 1922 and then declining until its dissolution in the last decades of the twentieth century


separation of English and American 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 native 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 native 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 θ 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

  • William Caxton, French-English vocabulary for travelers (1480)
  • Richard Mulcaster's treatise on education,The Elementarie (1582), 8,000 English words but no definitions
  • Roger Williams's Key into the Languages of America (1643)
  • First English dictionary, Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall (1604), 2,500 rare and borrowed words, intended for literate women who knew no Latin or French, and wanted to read the Bible; concern with correctness
  • John Bullokar's An English Expositor (1616), marked archaic words
  • Henry Cockeram's English Dictionarie (1623), including sections on refined and vulgar words and mythology
  • Thomas Blount's Glossographia (1656), 11,000 entries, cited sources and etymologies
  • John Kersey's A New English Dictionary (1702), first to include everyday words
  • Nathaniel Bailey's An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721) and Dictionarium Britannicum (1730), 48,000 entries, first modern lexicographer, ordinary words, etymologies, cognate forms, stress placement
  • Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), 40,000 entries, based on Dictionarium Britannicum; illustrative quotations
  • Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828)
  • Oxford English Dictionary (OED), dictionary on historical principles; followed model of Johnson's dictionary; origins in 1857 proposals at Philological Society in London; first installment published 1884; first full version 1928; second edition 1989, 290,500 main entries


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


spirit of the Age of Reason (17th-18th centuries): 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:

  • Thomas Wilson's The Arte of Rhetorique (1553) based on classical models
  • Henry Peacham's The Garden of Eloquence (1577), dictionary of rhetorical tropes
  • William Bullokar's Bref Grammar (1586)
  • Alexander Gil's Logonomia Anglica (1621), very tied to Latin
  • Jeremiah Wharton's The English Grammar (1654), accepted lack of inflections
  • Robert Lowth's A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762), most prominent of 18th c. grammars; authoritarian, prescriptive, moralistic tone
  • Joseph Priestley's The Rudiments of English Grammar (1761), more enlightened and liberal attitude towards language usage, awareness of change and conventionality of language features
  • Noah Webster's Plain and Comprehensive Grammar (1784), American grammar, based on common usage but concerned with "misuse" by Irish and Scots immigrants


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

great vowel shift

GVS examples:

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

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

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

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

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


addition of phonemic velar nasal ([ŋ], 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 [ ʒ ], as in 'mea/s/ure'], the result of a phenomenon known as assibilation which is the development of a 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 ([ ʃ ], [ ʒ ], [ ], [ ]): e.g. pressure, seizure, creature, soldier (this phenomenon is known as assibilation); dialectal exceptions and reversals: graduate, immediately, Injun/Indian

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


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

spelling pronunciations:

French loans spelling [t] as "th" led to [θ] 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)

apostrophe used in contractions and 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

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

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, it 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 continuation of native tradition of parataxis, use of coordinators (but, and, for)

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'

Semantic Change, some examples:

narrowing: ('deer' formerly had meant 'animal')

amelioration: ('jolly' had meant arrogant)

pejoration: ('lust' had meant pleasure, delight)

weakening: ('spill' had meant destroy, kill)


Recommended texts:

  • Celia M. Millward, A Biography of the English Language (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988)
  • Albert C. Baugh & Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language, (Prentice Hall, 2002)
  • Thomas Pyles & John Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993)

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Last updated: November 27, 2018 23:03


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