From Medieval to Early Modern English


Sources include:

McArthur, Tom., ed.. “Early Modern English”, “History of English,”

“Middle English.” Oxford Companion to the English Language. OUP, 1992.

Joseph, John Earl. Eloquence and power: the rise of language standards and

standard languages. London: Frances Pinter, 1987.

Richardson, Malcolm. “Henry V, the English Chancery, and Chancery

English.” Speculum 55.4 (October 1980). 726-50.

Watson, Nicholas. “Censorship and Cultural Change in late-medieval

England: vernacular theology, the Oxford translation debate, and Arundel’s constitutions of 1409.” Speculum 70 (1995). 822-



Middle English


-prestige of French

          -influx of loanwords esp in certain registers

          -lower status of English

                   -all dialects more or less equally unstatusful


-telling transitional texts:

          -Henry 5’s English correspondence

                   -to and from London mayor and aldermen

                   -and to his brother and privy council

          -illustrates some key ideas

                   -another war: ever-increasing distance from France

                   -association of language and nation

                   -rise in power of the commercial classes of London

                   -importance of royal support of the vernacular


Early Modern English


‘Selection of variety of vernacular to serve as a standard’: by the late 14th century it’s clear that a prestige variety of English was emerging

-based in south, specifically London (though northerners could find fault with southern language)

-argument over specific origins of present-day standard English: more prudent to assume “written English from London” than “Chancery English”


Use of English for important functions, e.g.:



-Henry 5, his secretariat; then the Chancery


If you need an analogy for the status of early modern English, think of Scots English or Jamaican Creole now

          -unproblematic for literature

          -more problematic for other genres

          -and in the educational realm


English also used for biblical translations because of the Reformation (and its precursors)

-illicitly in manuscript (1380s Wycliffite translation), illicitly in print (Tyndale), officially in print (KJV)

-issues (from Watson)

          -whether English capable of expressing religious truths

          -whether readers not educated in Latin capable of understanding them

          -whether the clergy were guardians or disseminators of truth

-key factor was state support (“King James Bible”!)


English had to be able to function in these areas

          -clear and precise grammar

-precise vocabulary: much of it Latin, now borrowed directly and not just in field of religion


It’s interesting that the Renaissance is marked by both

-rise of interest in Latin and Greek

-rise of status of the vernacular

          -vernacular used to learn Latin: Latin->English->Latin

          -vernacular ‘good enough’ as medium for classical texts in translation


Translations were very likely to contain loanwords

-lots of abundance and redundancy (redundance?)

          -sometimes doublets with earlier French reflexes of the Latin

          -sometimes different parts of one Latin word would get borrowed in

-some didn’t stick, but there was lots of variation, e.g. ebullience, ebulliency, ebullition (Bailey)

-only dictionaries were bilingual and ‘hard words’


All these Latin borrowings into English mark early stages of the standardization of the language

          -stage called ‘elaboration’

-augmenting the vocabulary so that English can write about philosophy, etc.

          -next: ‘control’

                   -codification in dictionaries and grammars

                   -reducing variation (which printing didn’t initially dispel, despite mass production of identical texts)


Spelling had fixed sufficiently that PDE spelling doesn’t reflect the Great Vowel shift

-major series of sound changes that distinguish English vowels from those in Europe

          -e.g. French noblesse oblige /iy/ vs English oblige /ay/

-or other sound changes

          -e.g. ones that distinguish ‘early’ from ‘late’ World English

                   -loss of postvocalic /r/


Because the evidence is limited, it’s hard to construct social motivations for it

-some medieval spellings, e.g. doun ‘to do’, bloud ‘blood’ interpreted as attesting change from /o/ to /u/

-some early modern commentators on English spelling show the state of things in the 16th and 17th centuries


Recently historical linguists have begun to hypothesize sociolinguistic motivations for grammatical variation, too

-e.g. Corpus of Early English Correspondence: assign codes to letters reflecting speaker’s age, social class, occupation, region

          -how did double negatives disappear?

          -how did –th replace –s?

          -who calls whom thou in sixteenth century England?