Early Modern English grammar:  Change


Main sources and/or further reading


Lass, Roger. “Phonology and morphology.” Volume III of The

          Cambridge History of the English Language. 1999.


Adamson, Sylvia. “Understanding Shakespeare’s grammar: studies in small words.” Reading Shakespeare’s

dramatic language: a guide.  Ed. Sylvia Adamson, Lynette Hunter, Lynne Magnusson, Ann Thompson and Katie Wales. London: Arden, 2001.

Adamson, Sylvia. “Animacy, animism and ‘natural’ language.” Paper presented at LMEC, 30 August 2001.

Blake, N.F.. A grammar of Shakespeare’s language. London: Palgrave, 2002.

Hope, Jonathan. Shakespeare’s grammar. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2003.


Barber, Charles. Early modern English. London: Andre Deutsch, 1976.

Beal, Joan. English in modern times 1700-1945. London: Arnold, 2004.

Görlach, Manfred. Introduction to early modern English. Cambridge University Press. 1991.

Nevalainen, Terttu and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg. Historical sociolinguistics: language change in Tudor

and Stuart England. London: Longman, 2003.




“Our period inherits an already degraded morphology, and most of the later developments involve further simplification and reduction. …

…There is a continuing decrease in morphological expressiveness; the locus for grammatical information becomes syntax rather than word-form …”


Continued generalization of productive morphemes, e.g.

·       noun plural –s

o      native words from other classes, e.g. shoen ‘shoes’ (mad Ophelia), eyne ‘eyes’ (verse)

o      loanwords, e.g. Gk->Lat heros ‘hero’

·       possessive –s

o      from OE –es in strong M and N nouns

o      not from reduction of his to is to s, despite widespread C16th /17th “the King his foole” (and Juno hir bed &c.)

·       weak verbs

o      former strong verbs: “Three times today I holpe him to his horse”; “by strong hand wrokne” ‘wreaked’

o      loanwords: Lat. aestimare ‘estimate’ conjugated weak

·       the odd exception with foreign loanwords, e.g.

o      seraphim, antennae

o      My bonds in thee are all determinate [‘determined’]


Loss of some forms

·       e.g. 2nd person singular pronoun (and verb ending)

o      thou

§       ME status (more fixed)

§       EmodE attitude (more unstable)

·       but cf. PDE dialectal youse, yiz, y’all, you(se) guys


Pronoun case levelling continues in a small way

·       object you replaces subject ye

·       in Quaker usage, object form thee replaces subject form thou

o      “associated with the general trend of the disappearance of case contrast”


And strong verb form levelling too—but “each verb has its own history”

·       tendency to level past and participle (like weak verbs)

o      e.g. stand, stood, stood

o      e.g. hold, held, held


Morphs move down from the north

·       are

·       verb present 3 sg. –(e)s replaces –(e)th

o      variation can be regional, social, stylistic


Deletion of /-*C/ in weak position

·       plural –es becomes -s

·       possessive –es becomes –s

·       verbal –(e)s becomes –s

o      except after sibilants: churches, lurches


Variation between synthetic and (newer) analytic strategies, e.g.

·       noun ‘possession’: ‘s vs of  (pretentious in C16th?)

o      more likely with higher animates & subjective function: the boy’s arrival

§       Syracusa’s sack ‘the sack of Syracuse’

o      John’s painting vs the painting of John


·       adjective comparison: -er/-est vs more and most

o      nothing certainer


·       inflected subjunctive vs other strategies

o      inflection: If it be th’affliction of his loue, or no

o      subordination (if it is…)

o      modal periphrasis (if it could be …)

o      word order: had it been


Continuing proliferation of phrases

·       multi-word prepositions and conjunctions

o      “They called us, for our fierceness, English dogges”

o      “Let’s assist them, for our case is as theirs”


·       noun adjuncts:

o      Hackney coach


§       but Cook: village of the natives


·       ‘group-verbs’, ‘multi-word lexical item with verbal function’ (Denison/Beal)

o      Wise up!

o      Don’t mess it up!

o      Deal with it!

o      You can’t get away with this!


·       verb phrases indicating ‘aspect’

o      progressive:

§       That thus he suffers for ‘that he is suffering for’

§       What do you read my Lord? ‘are you reading’

o      progressive passive:

§       the grammar is printing ‘is being printed’

§       Now showing at a theatre near you!

§       early occurrence in Southey’s private letter of 1795 describing dental pain: like a fellow whose uttermost upper grinder is being torn out by the roots


·       auxiliary DO

o      in negation, questions

§       analogy with modal constructions?

·       Will/did he receive you well?

·       I won’t/didn’t make my bed.

o      for emphasis:

§       I do believe in fairies, I do, I do!

o      now obsolete: unemphatic

§       “What we do determine, oft we break”


o      ‘Grammaticalization’ of modal verbs: from ‘lexical’ to ‘attitudinal’

§       lexical: e.g. OE willan ‘to want’

§       attitudinal: e.g. “That will be the doctor”

1.    tension in EmodE between the two (Hamlet ex in class)


Lots of variation generally (from PDE perspective!)

·       e.g. strong verb forms OE wrītan, wrāt, writon, gewriten

o      I wrote, I writ

o      I have written, I have writ, I have wrote

·       e.g. adverbs without and with –ly

o      “She will speake most bitterly and strange

o      Excellent, excellent well”

o      “to knocke you indifferently well”

·       e.g. emphatic/redundant negation

o      “This was no Damosell neyther”

·       e.g. emphatic/redundant comparison of adjectives

o      “This was the most unkindest cut of all”

·       ‘codification’ of English grammar began later

·       ‘control’ of variation in the C18th: stay tuned …


Are there any patterns? Adamson has synthesized some of the changes

·       development of possessive its (OE his)

o      connected with rise of biological gender

·       specialization of other pronouns

o      newer relatives: who vs which

·       “the senseless windes … who in contempt shalle hisse at thee again”

·       “John Mortimer, which now is dead, …”

o      interrogative: who vs what

·       decline of certain impersonals: it dislikes me -> I dislike it, it yerns me not

·       specialization of prepositions by and with

o      ‘He was torne to pieces with a Beare”

o      “I saw him put down the other day, with an ordinary foole