Social Factors Affecting Phonological Change during the Early Modern Period: Pronunciation and Stigmatization


By Brad Fliss

Copyright 2003




            The period ascribed to Early Modern English (EModE), which is generally and problematically applied to the years between 1500 and 1650, witnessed an unprecedented change to the language as it consciously sought after an applicable standardization in the face of a steadily increasing access to education, and thus literacy, particularly amongst the middle class.  As a result, surviving text of this early period demonstrate the degree to which diverse regional dialects flourished throughout the country, and indeed helped to foster the spirit of English educational instruction.  Yet, as the we look toward the later half of the sixteenth century, we observe that these regional vernaculars pose, in their astounding variety, a serious dilemma for translators finding themselves having to choose among the dialects as a surrogate language.  To textually represent one dialect would mean a minimal readership, and thus buying market, in other regions.  As a result, translators were concerned with reaching the widest readership possible, and thus began looking to the more popular, and profitable, dialects of the largely populated South East, London in particular.  Particularly during the Industrial Revolution  where large migrations into these city centres took place, we find the situation where geographically-merged linguistic communities defined the speaking vernacular becoming increasingly common (Strang 105). Over time, these dialects would take on more important value and would consequently become the adopted vernacular for the movement toward standardization, a vernacular more or less familiar to us today as Standard English (Gorlach 36). 

            Once the South Eastern dialect had taken prominence as a standard vernacular to fall back upon, another quite similar problem was soon to reemerge, namely, that this dialect, particularly in London, was itself instable and changing over time.  These changes were recognized as deriving from the social mobility of both the lower- and middle-classes, thereby ‘corrupting’ the high Court vernacular, considered the accent of the “better sort” of English citizen and thus most prestigious, with the dissonant dialects of the other classes (Barber,103).  An expanding mercantile class meant a greater availability of wealth and education, as well as a more frequent interaction between the upper and middle classes.  Education, which entailed an exposure to the standardization of spelling and pronunciation, became a decisive factor in distinguishing the dialects of competing social classes.  Social network theory considers both social and geographical mobility a prime source in locating causes for what are called ‘weak links’ in sociolinguistic diffusion, or in other words, that dialects and phonological disruption is most likely to occur with the sudden interaction of usually isolated social or geographic population (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 331).  In fact, what contemporary philologists realized was that the distinctions between class dialects in London were ultimately disappearing.  The gradual change in pronunciation of vowels during this period came to be known as the Great Vowel Shift, an event, along with an ever increasing consciousness about class differentiation, which greatly characterizes Tudor London. 




Perhaps one of the most documented examples of this process lies in the fluctuating appearance and disappearance of the letter ‘h’ over the last 1500 years.  Today, such phonological simplification tends to be considered a lower or working class phenomenon, yet in Middle English, /h/-dropping actually held value as a prestige affectation.  This practice finds its origin in the linguistic effects of the Norman Conquest.  Anglo-Norman speech was almost certainly /h/-less, more so in the early period due to the influence of an /h/-less French phonology and its imposition on English following the conquest, an influence which would have added to the prestige of /h/-dropping.  Diffused both regionally and socially, this practice of /h/-dropping would effect nearly all English and Welsh dialects.  Under the Labovian model of social diffusion, the /h/-dropping can be explained by understanding the way in which linguistic change tends to originate within the middle classes of a social class hierarchy, only later to spread out into both the higher and lower classes over time (Milroy 47).  This middle range typically displays a ‘hypercorrect’ or ‘hypersensitive’ attitude toward formal linguistic style, being the class with most to gain and most to lose, while subsequently diffusing any linguistic change downward in the social hierarchy.  In this way, early Middle English /h/-dropping resulted in regions with the greatest commercial and administrative importance, thus the greatest number of middle-class, which can be attested to by the rigidly formal and often learned style of their own text and documents being circulated at the time, but their less-formal representation in text of the other classes.  As a result, /h/-dropping in Middle English carried a degree of prestige value, for those who could demonstrate an /h/-loss in the vernacular, or who feigned as much, indicated their social position within the hierarchy.  Being least frequently in contact with the Anglo-Norman aristocracy, the lower classes, especially the rural peasantry, would have been the last to demonstrate or adopt such a linguistic affectation. 


Textual Evidence


Between Late Middle English and Early Modern English, the practice was particularly established in middle-order English vernacular of the South-East and Eastern Midlands, and textual evidence of /h/-loss during this time is abundant, despite the growing push for standardization.  Chaucer, for one, implements many /h/-less words, mimicking the Eastern vernaculars and regional dialects, and it is important to remember that these were particular dialects, specific to certain areas of the country while uninfluential in others.  Scotland, Northern England, and the West Country, for example, were all largely unaffected by the spreading influence of /h/-dropping.  The fact that areas colonized from the sixteenth century onwards, especially North America, Ireland, South Africa, and Australia were, and remain, /h/-ful may attest to the regions and social groups from which the majority of settlers came, namely the lower classes (who are least susceptible to linguistic change) first from North-Western England, and then Ireland and Scotland by the eighteenth century, and suggests that geography, and not a differentiation in spelling pronunciation, is the cause.  The published diary of Henry Machyn is another invaluable example of /h/-loss in a single text during the mid-sixteenth century.  Additionally, Shakespeare’s punning on ‘air,’ ‘heir,’ and ‘hair’ lends proof to the idea that /h/-loss was less explicitly stigmatized as it is today; however, by the turn of the seventeenth-century, there is clearly a decisive turn in its reception, and /h/-dropping is readily considered vulgar speech use and associated strictly with the mercantile or middle classes, and so an indication of ignorance and poor education (Milroy 48). 




Towards the end of the Early Modern English era, as standardization of language begins diffusing through the church, universities, and scholarly texts, an apparent rift between pronunciation and spelling emerges.  In her book A History of English, Barbara Strang notices that with the increasing access to education, “a new view about ‘h’s’ comes to dominate usage, at the expense of traditional pronunciation” (Strang 81).  She further notes how his new view, that a word should be pronounced exactly as its spelled, “can only prevail where spelling itself is highly regularized, and this regularization reached an advanced stage after the publication of Johnson’s Dictionary” (81).  This new strict adherence to a spelling-based pronunciation is borne first of the educated middle class and then adopted by the elite class before diffusing more thoroughly throughout the population.  The reason for this being that the upper class, obstinately adhering to traditional pronunciation, adopt to linguistic pressures more cautiously than the middle class, while the lower classes, unable to afford, and thus be affected by, education, are typically the last social group to adopt to reforming linguistic pressures and thereby also retaining a more traditional /h/-less pronunciation (81). 

Consequently, the upper class and academic elite recuperate /h/ use as an attempt to once again separate the classes through linguistic variation.  Accordingly, the middle class at this time is using both an /h/-less and /h/-ful vernacular depending on the formality or informality of the situation, a duality found exclusively in concentrated urban centres, though London would retain the /h/-less vernacular.  Because of this, /h/-dropping would predominantly be associated with ‘vulgar,’ ‘Cockney’ accents particular to London and its surrounding districts, especially in the dropping of initial ‘h’ in words such as ‘happy’ and ‘help’ (McArthur, 627).   The spelling-based pronunciation further complicated the relationship between words of native and French origin.  While native words (such as ‘he,’ ‘heaven,’ and ‘heart’) tended to follow a lexical (spelling based) distribution, the ‘h’ was not pronounced in words originating from French (such as ‘honour,’ ‘herb,’ and ‘hour’).  Those adhering most strictly to /h/-use were often confronted with confusion in determining the ‘correct’ pronunciation of these French-based words (81).  By the nineteenth century, /h/-loss is strongly critiqued and ridiculed by the English elite, from which we find, as is the same today,  /h/ is no longer a stylistic variable but a given for ‘polite’ or ‘proper’ English.   This is not to say, however, that /h/-dropping has since been eradicated, indeed, far from it.  Remarkably, /h/-loss is today widespread in numerous dialects of England despite being considered ‘non-standard’ English and usually associated with the same stigmatization as previously mentioned, such as poor education. 


Analogous Examples


Using the history of /h/-dropping as a template, it is interesting to look at how similar phonological simplifications were accepted or debated in Early Modern English.  One particularly rich case study concerns loss of distinction between the /e:/ and /έ:/ Middle English phonemes, used to differentiate pronunciation between ‘meet’ and ‘meat’ for instance, as they both merged under the /i:/ phoneme generally found in lower-class colloquial speech.  This was particularly true of the vernacular in Essex and Kent, two chiefly stigmatized dialects throughout Middle and Early Modern English that have been used for comedic effect by both Chaucer and Shakespeare.  Accordingly, the digraph <ea> was promoted by the London bourgeoisie  to emphasize the distinction between themselves and the lower class, as the city began attracting more and more ‘Kentish’ immigrants, though the attempt to establish a ‘prestige pronunciation’ was ineffectual in the end, as the two words even now are indistinguishable orally.  Perhaps more remarkable, the digraph <oa> was invented, by analogy, to prevent the potentially same occurrence between words such as ‘boot’ and ‘boat,’ at the time both spelled with <oo>, and, either as a result or coincidentally, the two phonemes did not merge and are still distinguishable today (Gorlach 186).  Successful or not, this move drew its impetus from the desire to differentiate between the classes, either to maintain distinctions already in existence or to create rifts through language so as to keep the privileged above the lower classes.

Another example whose history closely parallels that of /h/-loss is a phenomenon called ‘final-stop deletion,’ where final /b/ or /g/ proceeding homorganic nasals are dropped in pronunciation, as in the words ‘lamb’ or ‘sing,’ yet this is considered a ‘proper’ pronunciation by contemporary standards.  Other seemingly ‘mis-pronunciation’ have carried similar class attitudes or prestige differences, such as the loss of final or pre-consonantal /r/ in some English and American dialects, or too, the cluster /hw/, found in words such as ‘where’ or ‘which’, a phoneme that has in previous centuries been considered ‘proper’ to pronounce, but has since been lost without stigmatization.  The case of /r/-dropping is interesting in how, initially deemed a vulgar, ‘Cockney’ accent, the affectation prevailed over stigmatization and became accepted as an acceptable phonological attribute (Mugglestone, 100).  As she asserts in her book Talking Proper, Lynda Mugglestone informs that speakers of a vernacular were able to “recognize the discrepancy between ideologies of a standard and its processes, though the dominance of common value-judgements in these contexts would paradoxically lead them to adhere to the former above the latter” (Mugglestone, 101-102).  While examples vary from case to case, what is clear is that phonological change, most emphatically in Early Modern English, is directly related to economic status and internal social pressures as a way of distinguishing groups of people, usually between those with the power and position to set a linguistic ‘standard’ and those without.  As this trend continues today, it becomes increasingly important to question how consciously aware the speakers of a language are to these imposing forces and, too, how a self-conscious awareness either promotes or reacts against such change.

Works Cited



Barber, Charles. Early Modern English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1997.



Gorlach, Manfred. Explorations in English Historical Linguistics. Universitatsverlag,

Heidelberg: 2002.


---. New Studies in the History of English. Universitatsverlag, Heidelberg: 1995.



McArthur, Tom, Ed. The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford: Oxford

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Milroy, Jim. “On the sociolinguistic history of /h/-dropping in English.” Ed. Michael

            Davenport. Current Topics in English Historical Linguistics. Vol. 4.


Mugglestone, Lynda. Talking Proper: The Rise of Accent as Social Symbol. Oxford:

            Clarendon Press, 1995.


Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid. “Social Network Theory and Eighteenth-Century

            English: The Case of Boswell.” Ed. Derek Britton. English Historical

            Linguistics 1994. Vol. 135.