The Early Modern English Period

1. Discuss the interplay between politics and the development of English in the period.

The period of the Tudors was relatively peaceful which provided the circumstances for economic stability and growth. The centre of market was London and South East where many people migrated (=> dialect contact). The stability of the period also contributed to standardization of the language (compare to the unrest of the 15th century when people did not care about the language that much). The rule of the Stuarts led to the Civil War and, consequently, to Commonwealth: theatres were closed, the whole set of social norms became extremely Puritanic. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the situation radically changed, there was more freedom. Besides, the new king, Charles II, brought French back in fashion (=> loan words).

It was agreed that the standard English would be based upon Southern dialects, particularly upon the speech of the well-bred and well-educated. This led to the split between a highly prescriptive, 'correct', Standard English (for writing) and the colloquial General English (a covert norm). Since dialect contact offered sets of linguistic alternatives, the choice made by the speaker turned out to be a marker of his identity.

2. Discuss the interplay between religion and the development of English in the period.

Although Latin still was the language of the Church, the influence of Lutheran Reformation on the Continent could not be ignored. William Tyndale, inspired by the example of Martin Luther, translated the New Testament (his base were Greek and Hebrew texts, not their Latin translation). His translation was influential due to printing and due to the fact that later translations drew on his. From the linguistic point of view, religious texts were quite conservative.

Since Puritanism and Quakerism, flourishing at the time, were reflections of the concerns of the middle and the lower classes respectively, and people of these classes rarely knew Latin, their growing influence meant the growing influence — and usage — of English.

3. Assess the role on the following fields in the development of English in the period.

a) technology: The printing press caused a high degree of regulation of ortography, influencing spelling (which in fact became more Latin-like, respecting the etymologies of the words), letters of alphabet and capitalization (mainly in nouns).

Public spelling was determined by printers. At that point all the letters in the alphabet are familiar to the present day speaker of English, although their use somewhat differed. Another important point is that the clients of printers usually belonged to the middle class and they rarely knew any Latin; that is why printers preferred to publish books in English.

b) science: The period was marked by strong lexical borrowing from classical languages (although generally the trend in the middle of the 16th century was against it) in specific fields such as science, medicine or religion. Scientists used Latin to achieve a style both simple and clear and in popular science writing the authors had to make the Latinized vocabulary clear either by offering a gloss, or by coupling a new term with an old, approximately synonymous one.

Scientists mostly used the classical languages (=> borrowings from Latin), not so much for the sake of style but because terms seldom had English equivalents; besides, Latin and Greek terms were more preferable in terms of international discourse. The Royal Society, established in 1662, decided to improve the language; it was influential due to the style of writing which was short and factual.

c) translation: The former major act of translation was Wycliffe's vernacular translation of the Bible. Tyndale's translation of the Bible (finished only the New Testament), the most imporatnt translation of the period, differed from the previous one because it was based on the Greek and Hebrew texts, not on their Latin translation. This became influential for all the important translations to follow, such as the King James / Authorized Version (1611).

A substantial number of classical works were translated into English during the 16th century thus a lot of words were introduced where there was no satisfactory English equivalent.

d) literature: It was the period marked by the beginning of the literary boom including Marlowe, Shakespeare, Johnson, Spenser o Milton; the spread of literacy brought along also the discussion on freedom of expression (within certain limits).

It is especially important for the language as it marks the process of re-evaluation of sciences, renewed interest in classical writing. The spread of literacy was happening among the middle class who knew little or no Latin.

Restoration literature was very wide ranging, much of the period is a confirmation of earlier traditions, there is also a great deal of emphasis on the theatre and on comedy. There is a steep distinction between the language of religious literature and that of drama. While religious literature remained linguistically rather conservative (Milton - difficult text, meandering syntax, referential opacity), the language of Restauration comedies ridiculed the affected colloquial speech (Congreve - straightforward text, expressing the superficial ideals of the society in London).

Restoration ended antipathy toward foreign ideas with consequences for the language: French ideas, ideals as well as the use of French loan world started to increase bringing the time of politeness and rejection of provincial language.

4. What subsystems of English (such as e.g. spelling) were most strongly affected by the process of standardisation in this period?

  • spelling: regulation of the alphabet.
  • Pronunciation: Great Vowel Shift.
  • Consonant Inventory: because of the establishment of /ŋ/ and /ʒ/ as phonemes.
  • Vocabulary:
    • borrowings from French, Dutch and Latin
    • word formation
  • Meaning:
    • change of semantic field relations
    • broadening/narrowing
    • amelioration/pejoration
  • Verbs:
    • do-periphrasis
    • periphrastic expressions of aspect, voice and tense
    • weakness of inflections
  • Noun Phrase
    • demostratives: distinction of the distance between the hearer and the speaker (this/that/yon)
    • who = animate; which = all others
    • adjective comparison: more/most
  • Word Order:
    • affirmative declarative sentences: S-V.
    • interrogatives without do-periphrasis: V-S
    • initial adverb triggers V-S inverstion
  • Pragmatics:
    • you/thou
    • titles

5. The Great Vowel Shift [1]

  • mismatch between spelling and pronunciation: begun in ME, spelling fixed by early XVI century, but the sound kept changing).
  • change of quality of all long vowels (stressed syllables)
  • standardization of the language: synthetic -> analytic
  • most significant of all phonological developments in English
  • change in pronunciaion of verb tense[2]350px-GVS.jpg

6. What kind of social relationship does the usage of singular you and thou reflect in Elizabethan society?

  • used to express power relations
  • thou becoming an exceptional form
  • you used in order to show respect (everyone regarded due to his/her social status)
    • children addressing their parent as you and being addressed as thou
  • Bruti: use of you/thou based on social distance and emotional attitude
    • inferiors addressed as thou, equals as you/thou and superiors as you
    • anger/contempt or familiarity/intimacy expressed by the use of thou, neutrality/indifference with you

7. Explain the terms:

  • koineization is dialect levelling due to the dialect contact; the process by which a new variety of a language emerges from the mixing, leveling, and simplifying of different dialects; it can be also called dialect mixing. A new variety of a language that develops as a result of this process is called a koine.
  • prescriptivism is "a view of language which is largely motivated by the move to define what is 'correct' and to condenm what is, consequently, 'incorrect'."[3]
  • codification is the process of standardasing and developing a norm
  • hard words (inkhorn terms) — a derogatory way to refer to the new words which have Latin origin, hence their meaning is opaque


  1. GRAMLEY STEPHAN. The history of English: an introduction. New York: Routledge, 2012, xxv, 123-154 pp.
  3. Chapter resources for The History of English: The Introduction by Stephan Gramley