Early Modern English



“Modernity”? common linguistic identity among citizens

·       one language: English

o      decline in status of Latin and French

§       (no native speakers of French for a long time)

o      rise in status and expansion in function of English

·       one dominant variety becomes ‘supraregional’

o      not university towns

o      London English


Selection of London English as supraregional standard

·       political and commercial prestige

·       because of immigration, already a mixed dialect

o      are, verbal -s from northern England

o      GVS may reflect accommodation & divergence


GVS “major change in vowel system of SE English”

·       another criterion of EModE


How could London English influence other regions?

·       prestige of individual speakers

·       influence of civil service (“Chancery Standard”)

·       printing: Caxton chose Westminster in 1476


“Modern”? linguistic development

·       written, printed, standardized (writing before speech)

o      “selection” first stage of standardization


Printing (1476!)

·       initially multiplied variation

o      translations

o      foreign employees

·       later standardizing influence

o      London-based

o      mass-produced

o      cheaper

§       doesn’t change to reflect later sound changes


“Modernity”? cultural-linguistic developments

·       “adaptable to the demands of social, intellectual, and technological advancement”

·       contemporary cultural highlights include

o      Reformation: decline in authority of Catholic church, rise of vernacular in religion and education

o      Renaissance: veneration for classical culture and languages

§       drew attention to inadequacies of English

§       raised status of English

·       concomitant translation of classical culture into European vernaculars

§       epitome: Bible translated into English from Hebrew and Greek


Elaboration of English so that it can express new concepts

o      took over domains of Latin and French, e.g.

§       literature, scholarship, religion, law, science

§       growth of strong literature in the vernacular

§       don’t take it for granted that Milton wrote PL in English


o      borrowed Latin and French vocabulary

§       first English dictionaries were ‘hard word’ dictionaries for the non-classically educated


Last bastions of Latin include science

·       watershed ca. 1700

o      Newton: Latin before 1700, English after it

·       even in vernacular, terms still very classical

o      common to many languages (ISV)

o      opaque, intimidating (“autochthonous”!)

§       need dictionaries

Codification and control e.g. in dictionaries and grammars

·       make standard known, teachable

o      standard languages are felt to be common, most widely understood

·       reduce variation

o      standard languages are felt to be uniform

o      put one variant at top of hierarchy on grounds of criteria

§       purism

§       politeness

§       custom … but whose?

·       confirm its status

o      standard languages are felt to be prestigious

§       associated with social, political, economic status

§       reinforced by educational system

·       standard English || Latin


Sources of linguistic authority

§       state-sponsored academies?

§       individual teachers, man of letters?

o      e.g. Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster

§       universities?

o      SJ’s last-minute MA

§       publishers?

o      commissioning of Johnson, Lowth by bookseller Dodsley

o      Webster plagued with debt


Another criterion of EModE: spread of English beyond Britain

·       through Scotland and Ireland at expense of Celtic languages

·       to trading stations and colonies (why 1776?)


Lexical borrowing into English (sometimes via European languages)

·       motivation: need

·       medium: often oral


Development of new varieties of English

§       reflect state of British English at the time of separation

o      first diaspora (e.g. Canada):

§       rhotic

§       /æ/ in words like class

o      second diaspora (e.g. New Zealand):

§       non-rhotic

§       /ɑ/ in words like class

Early Modern English


Transformation of vowel system of SE English


Rise in status and standardization of English

-replaces French and Latin in domains like religion and law


Selection of a single statusful variety of English: London English

-reflects political, commercial prestige of capital


Elaboration of its vocabulary

-from Latin and Greek

-from colonial languages


Standardization of its vocabulary and grammar

-texts: dictionaries and grammars



Spread of English

-through Britain

-into trading posts and colonies