Early Modern English

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This article is about the stage of the language. For the historical period, see Early Modern Britain.
Early Modern English
Region England, southern Scotland, Ireland, Wales and British colonies
Era developed into Modern English, late 17th to 18th centuries
Early forms
Old English
Language codes
ISO 639-3
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Early Modern English (sometimes abbreviated to EModE[1] or EMnE) is the stage of the English language used from the beginning of the Tudor period until the English Interregnum and Restoration, or from the transition from Middle English in the late 15th century to the transition to Modern English during the mid- to late 17th century.[2]

Prior to and following the accession of James I to the English throne in 1603, the emerging English standard began to influence the spoken and written Middle Scots of Scotland.

Modern readers of English are generally able to understand texts written in the late phase of the Early Modern English period (e.g. the first edition of the King James Bible and the works of William Shakespeare), while texts from the earlier phase (such as Le Morte d'Arthur) may present more difficulties. The Early Modern English of the early 17th century forms the base of the grammatical and orthographical conventions that survive in Modern English.


English Renaissance[edit]

Transition from Middle English[edit]

Further information: Late Middle English

The change from Middle English to Early Modern English was not just a matter of vocabulary or pronunciation changing; it was the beginning of a new era in the history of English.

An era of linguistic change in a language with large variations in dialect was replaced by a new era of a more standardised language with a richer lexicon and an established (and lasting) literature.

  • 1476 – William Caxton starts printing in Westminster; however, the language he uses reflects the variety of styles and dialects used by the authors who originally wrote the material.
Tudor period (1485–1603), English Renaissance
  • Caxton publishes Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, the first print bestseller in English. Malory's language, while archaic in some respects, is clearly Early Modern, possibly a Yorkshire or Midlands dialect.
  • 1491 or 1492 – Richard Pynson starts printing in London; his style tends to prefer Chancery Standard, the form of English used by government.

Henry VIII[edit]

  • c. 1509 – Pynson becomes the king's official printer.
  • From 1525 – Publication of William Tyndale's Bible translation (which was initially banned).
  • 1539 – Publication of the Great Bible, the first officially authorised Bible in English, edited by Myles Coverdale, largely from the work of Tyndale. This Bible is read to congregations regularly in churches, familiarising much of the population of England with a standard form of the language.
  • 1549 – Publication of the first Book of Common Prayer in English under the supervision of Thomas Cranmer (revised 1552 and 1662). This book standardises much of the wording of church services. Some have argued that, since attendance at prayer book services was required by law for many years, the repetitive use of the language of the prayer book helped to standardize modern English to a degree greater than even that of the Authorized Bible (King James Version, 1611).[3]
  • 1557 – Publication of Tottel's Miscellany.

Elizabethan English[edit]

Elizabethan era (1558–1603)

The 17th century[edit]

Jacobean and Caroline eras[edit]

Jacobean era (1603–1625)
Caroline era and English Civil War (1625–1649)

Interregnum and Restoration[edit]

The period of the English Civil War and the Interregnum was one of social and political upheaval and instability.

The dates for Restoration literature are a matter of convention, and they differ markedly from genre to genre. Thus, the "Restoration" in drama may last until 1700, while in poetry it may last only until 1666, the annus mirabilis; and in prose it might end in 1688, with the increasing tensions over succession and the corresponding rise in journalism and periodicals, or not until 1700, when those periodicals grew more stabilized.

Development to Modern English[edit]

Main article: Modern English

The 17th-century port towns (and their forms of speech) gained influence over the old county towns. England experienced a new period of internal peace and relative stability, encouraging the arts including literature, from around the 1690s onwards.

Modern English can be taken to have emerged fully by the beginning of the Georgian era in 1714, although English orthography remained somewhat fluid until the publication of Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755.

The towering importance of William Shakespeare over the other Elizabethan authors was the result of his reception during the 17th and 18th century, directly contributing to the development of Standard English. As a consequence, Shakespeare's plays are familiar and comprehensible today, 400 years after they were written,[4] but the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland, written only 200 years earlier, are considerably more difficult for the average reader.


Shakespeare's writings are universally associated with Early Modern English

The orthography of Early Modern English was fairly similar to that of today, but spelling was unstable. Early Modern English as well as Modern English had inherited orthographical conventions predating the Great Vowel Shift.

Early Modern English orthography had a number of features of spelling that have not been retained:

  • The letter S had two distinct lowercase forms: s (short s) as used today, and ſ (long s). The short s was used at the end of a word, and the long s everywhere else, except that the double lowercase S was variously written ſſ or ſs (cf. the German ß ligature).[5] This is similar to the alternation between medial (σ) and final lower case sigma (ς) in Greek.
  • u and v were not yet considered two distinct letters, but different forms of the same letter. Typographically, v was used at the start of a word and u elsewhere;[6] hence vnmoued (for modern unmoved) and loue (for love). This is because in Latin, u (of which v was a graphical variant) represented /w/ and /ʊ/, meaning that in English u represented /ʊ/, /ʌ/ (for the dialects that have it) and /v/.
  • i and j were also not yet considered two distinct letters, but different forms of the same letter, hence "ioy" for "joy" and "iust" for "just". Again, this is because in Latin, j was simply a graphical variant of i. In Latin i represented /j/ and /ɪ/, in English it represented /ɪ/, /aɪ/, and /dʒ/.
  • The letter Þ (thorn) was still in use during the Early Modern English period, though increasingly limited to hand-written texts. In print, Þ was often represented by Y.[7]
  • A silent e was often appended to words. The last consonant was sometimes doubled when this e was appended; hence ſpeake, cowarde, manne (for man), runne (for run).
  • The sound /ʊ/ was often written o (as in son); hence ſommer, plombe (for modern summer, plumb).[8]

Nothing was standard, however. For example, "Julius Caesar" could be spelled "Julius Cæſar", "Ivlivs Cæſar", "Jvlivs Cæſar", or "Iulius Cæſar" and the word "he" could be spelled "he" or "hee" in the same sentence, as it is found in Shakespeare's plays.




Early Modern English has two second-person personal pronouns: thou, the informal singular pronoun, and ye, both the plural pronoun and the formal singular pronoun.

Thou was already falling out of use in the Early Modern English period.[citation needed] It remains in customary use in Modern Standard English for certain solemn occasions such as addressing God, and sometimes for addressing inferiors, while it remains in regular use in various English dialects.

The translators of the King James Version of the Holy Bible intentionally preserved, in Early Modern English, archaic pronouns and verb endings that had already begun to fall out of spoken use. This enabled the English translators to convey the distinction between the 1st, 2nd and 3rd person singular and plural verb forms of the original Hebrew and Greek sources.[citation needed]

Like other personal pronouns, thou and ye have different forms dependent on their grammatical case; specifically, the objective form of thou is thee, its possessive forms are thy and thine, and its reflexive or emphatic form is thyself.

The objective form of ye was you, its possessive forms are your and yours, and its reflexive or emphatic forms are yourself and yourselves.

My and thy become mine and thine before words beginning with a vowel or the letter h. More accurately, the older forms "mine" and "thine" had become "my" and "thy" before words beginning with a consonant other than "h", while "mine" and "thine" were retained before words beginning with a vowel or "h", as in mine eyes or thine hand.

Personal pronouns in Early Modern English
  Nominative Oblique Genitive Possessive
1st person singular I me my/mine[# 1] mine
plural we us our ours
2nd person singular informal thou thee thy/thine[# 1] thine
plural or formal singular ye, you you your yours
3rd person singular he/she/it him/her/it his/her/his (it)[# 2] his/hers/his[# 2]
plural they them their theirs
  1. ^ a b The possessive forms were used as genitives before words beginning with a vowel sound and letter h (e.g. thine eyes, mine heire). Otherwise, "my" and "thy" are attributive (my/thy goods) and "mine" and "thine" are predicative (they are mine/thine).
  2. ^ a b From the early Early Modern English period up until the 17th century, his was the possessive of the third person neuter it as well as of the third person masculine he. Genitive "it" appears once in the 1611 King James Bible (Leviticus 25:5) as groweth of it owne accord.


Marking tense and number[edit]

During the Early Modern period, English verb inflections became simplified as they evolved towards their modern forms:

  • The third person singular present lost its alternate inflections; -(e)th became obsolete while -s survived. (The alternate forms' coexistence can be seen in Shakespeare's phrase, "With her, that hateth thee and hates vs all").[9]
  • The plural present form became uninflected. Present plurals had been marked with -en, -th, or -s (-th and -s survived the longest, especially with the plural use of is, hath, and doth).[10] Marked present plurals were rare throughout the Early Modern period, though, and -en was probably only used as a stylistic affectation to indicate rural or old-fashioned speech.[11]
  • The second person singular was marked in both the present and past tenses with -st or -est (for example, in the past tense, walkedst or gav'st).[12] Since the indicative past was not (and is not) otherwise marked for person or number,[13] the loss of thou made the past subjunctive indistinguishable from the indicative past for all verbs except to be.

Modal auxiliaries[edit]

The modal auxiliaries cemented their distinctive syntactical characteristics during the Early Modern period. Thus, the use of modals without an infinitive became rare (as in "I must to Coventry"; "I'll none of that"). The use of modals' present participles to indicate aspect (as in "Maeyinge suffer no more the loue & deathe of Aurelio" from 1556), and of their preterite forms to indicate tense (as in "he follow'd Horace so very close, that of necessity he must fall with him") also became uncommon.[14]

Some verbs ceased to function as modals during the Early Modern period. The present form of must, mot, became obsolete. Dare also lost the syntactical characteristics of a modal auxiliary, evolving a new past form (dared) distinct from the modal durst.[15]

Perfect and progressive forms[edit]

The perfect of the verbs had not yet been standardised to use uniformly the auxiliary verb "to have". Some took as their auxiliary verb "to be", as in this example from the King James Bible, "But which of you ... will say unto him ... when he is come from the field, Go and sit down..." [Luke XVII:7]. The rules that determined which verbs took which auxiliaries were similar to those still observed in German and French (see unaccusative verb).

The modern syntax used for the progressive aspect ("I am walking") became dominant by the end of the Early Modern period, but other forms were also common. These included the prefix a- ("I am a-walking") and the infinitive paired with "do" ("I do walk"). Moreover, the to be + -ing verb form could be used to express a passive meaning without any additional markers: "The house is building" could mean "The house is being built."[16]


A number of words which remained in common use in Modern English have undergone semantic narrowing.

An example would be the verb to suffer, which literally means "to endure pain or hardship" (used alongside the native to thole), but which since the 14th century could carry the extended meaning of "to allow, to permit", similar to suffrage today.

This sense survived into Early Modern English, as in the phrase "suffer the little children" of the King James Bible, but has mostly been lost in Modern English.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ e.g. Río-Rey, Carmen (2002-10-09). "Subject control and coreference in Early Modern English free adjuncts and absolutes". English Language and Linguistics (Cambridge University Press) 6 (2): 309–323. doi:10.1017/s1360674302000254. Retrieved 2009-03-12. 
  2. ^ Nevalainen, Terttu (2006). An Introduction to Early Modern English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
  3. ^ Stephen L. White, "The Book of Common Prayer and the Standardization of the English Language" The Anglican, 32:2(4-11), April, 2003
  4. ^ Cercignani, Fausto, Shakespeare's Works and Elizabethan Pronunciation, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1981.
  5. ^ Burroughs, Jeremiah; Greenhill, William (1660). The Saints Happinesse.  Introduction uses both happineſs and bleſſedneſs.
  6. ^ Sacks, David (2004). The Alphabet. London: Arrow. p. 316. ISBN 0-09-943682-5. 
  7. ^ Sacks, David (2003). Language Visible. Canada: Knopf. pp. 356–57. ISBN 0-676-97487-2. 
  8. ^ W.W. Skeat, in Principles of English Etymology, claims that the o-for-u substitution was encouraged by the ambiguity between u and n; if sunne could just as easily be misread as sunue or suvne, it made sense to write it as sonne. (Skeat, Principles of English Etymology, Second Series. Clarendon Press, 1891, page 99.)
  9. ^ Lass, Roger, ed. (1999). The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III. Cambridge: Cambridge. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-521-26476-1. 
  10. ^ Lass, Roger, ed. (1999). The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III. Cambridge: Cambridge. pp. 165–66. ISBN 978-0-521-26476-1. 
  11. ^ Charles Laurence Barber (1997). Early Modern English. Edinburgh University Press. p. 171. ISBN 978-0-7486-0835-5. 
  12. ^ Charles Laurence Barber (1997). Early Modern English. Edinburgh University Press. p. 165. ISBN 978-0-7486-0835-5. 
  13. ^ Charles Laurence Barber (1997). Early Modern English. Edinburgh University Press. p. 172. ISBN 978-0-7486-0835-5. 
  14. ^ Lass, Roger, ed. (1999). The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III. Cambridge: Cambridge. pp. 231–35. ISBN 978-0-521-26476-1. 
  15. ^ Lass, Roger, ed. (1999). The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III. Cambridge: Cambridge. p. 232. ISBN 978-0-521-26476-1. 
  16. ^ Lass, Roger, ed. (1999). The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III. Cambridge: Cambridge. pp. 217–18. ISBN 978-0-521-26476-1. 

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