The Early Modern English Period

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

15 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 About the Early Modern English Period

3 The Development of the Early Modern English
3.1 First Development
3.2 Second Development

4. Linguistic Developments
4.1 Phonology
4.2 Morphology
4.3 Vocabulary

5 Groups of authors from the late 16th to the mid 18th century
5.1 The Metaphysical Poets
5.2 Jacobean Drama
5.3 Restoration Drama
5.4 Augustan Age

6 Shakespeare

7 Conclusion

8 References

1 Introduction

This work should give a short overview of the Early Modern English Period.

It should give an idea how and when this period developed and which were the certain aspects of development.

This will be followed by some examples of changes and developments in linguistics. These examples will be from the areas of phonology, morphology and vocabulary.

During this period there were several groups of authors which should be regarded. Which famous and still-known authors were parts of which group?

What was characteristic or special for each group or the period of time when it occurred?

This will be followed by a short chapter about William Shakespeare who was an important person at that time and in his works one can also see linguistic changes.

2 About the Early Modern English Period

The Early Modern English (“EME”) (Fennell 2001: 135) period followed after the Middle English period. The Early Modern English period extends from “1500-1800.” (Fennell 2001: 1) During this period there were a lot of changes in politics, economy, technology and society in Britain. (Fennell 2001: 135) The periods beginning cannot be found by certain military or political event. It may be caused by some developments, leading to standardisations in speech. (Hickey 2003) The structure of this standard “was very close to its structure in Present-Day English (PDE).” (Fennell 2001: 138) This is a reason why “texts written after that period are remarkably easy for a modern reader to comprehend.” (Fennell 2001: 138) Which developments played an important role will be regarded in the next chapter.

3 The Development of the Early Modern English

The developments were established by London’s linguistic hegemony. (Hickey 2003) The development happened in the following two steps.

3.1 First Development

There were some non-clerical scribes at the end of the 14th century. They made use of a “conventionalised orthography”, that “was accepted for official usage” (Hickey 2003) in the middle of the 15th century.

In the emergence of a written standard the Chancery – an official department in London which prepared documents for the court – played an important role. Because of the different background of the people working there, a linguistic norm was needed. (Hickey 2003)

3.2 Second Development

The second development was influenced by the introduction of printing by William Caxton. He was living from 1422-1491 and was a merchant first. Later he was also a writer. (Hickey 2003) He “learned printing in Cologne and Bruges” (Alexander 2000: 68) and set up the first printing press in England in 1476. He established his base in Westminster and produced more than 90 editions off well-known and also lesser known authors. (Hickey 2003) “By 1500 over 35,000 books had been printed, though most were in Latin. However, by 1640 there were approximately 20,000 titles available in English.” (Fennell 2001: 156) This had an effect on “literacy and the uniformity of the language, most directly on the standardization of spelling, and perhaps indirectly on the differences among dialects.” (Fennell 2001: 156) With these printings a higher percentage of the population became literate. (Fennell 2001: 156) For his printings he imported paper from Low Countries. (Kastan 2002: 87)

Also import business was one of the parts of “Caxton’s activity in the book trade.” (Kastan 2002: 85) “The demand for printed books gradually increased” (Kastan 2002: 85) so that other printers followed Caxton when they recognized the opportunities in commerce.

“Caxton’s books reflected his own sophisticated intellectual interests and the tastes and means of his noble patrons.” (Kastan 2002: 86) The business of William Caxton “depended upon his contacts with an elite coterie of readers and the support of aristocratic patrons.” (Kastan 2002: 87)

At Caxton’s time, the English language changed very rapidly. So a lot of varieties and dialects can be found in his printings. It often was a problem for him how much he should standardize the language in his printings. (

4 Linguistic Developments

An important thing during the Early Modern English period was the Great Vowel Shift which altered the majority “of the English long vowel system.” (Fennell 2001: 158) and which “rendered the spelling system of English less phonetic in character.” (Fennell 2001: 158) “The Great Vowel Shift began in about the fifteenth century and was largely completed by the late sixteenth or seventeenth century.” (Fennell 2001: 159)

This chapter gives some examples how the language changed in phonology, morphology and vocabulary during the Early Modern English period.

4.1 Phonology

“/l/ was lost in pronunciation (as inalmond,folk,palm)” (Fennell 2001: 139) “after low back vowels and before labial or velar consonants” (Fennell 2001: 139) “or before dental or palatal consonants (belch,malt).” (Fennell 2001: 139)

In the late seventeenth century “/k/ and /g/ were no longer pronounced initially before /n/:knee,knight,gnome.” (Fennell 2001: 139) The reducing from unstressed vowels “to [i] and [q] in Middle English” (Fennell 2001: 140) continued into the EME period.

The British Standard is we know it today developed from the Great Vowel Shift and some other changes. Some of the changes, for example, were that the final [q] was lost and that “the earlier rounded vowel /u/ was unrounded and lowered somewhat, resulting in the mid-central /v/, /q/, as inhumandcup.” (Fennell 2001: 141)

4.2 Morphology

There had also been some changes in morphology during the Early Modern English Period.

“Nouns were essentially the same as in PDE.” (Fennell 2001: 141) There were two kinds of them: the common and the possessive. “The possessive apostrophe [likeKing’s crown] did not appear with any consistency until 1700.” (Fennell 2001: 141)

Regarding the pronouns “the main change to be noted is the development of the second person personal pronoun.” (Fennell 2001: 142) “The use ofyoubecame signifantly more frequent.” (Fennell 2001: 142) This was the result of the opportunity to pronounce the vowels in “the nominativeyeand accusativeyou”(Fennell 2001: 142) “almost identically as [jq] [jv].” (Fennell 2001: 142)

“All inflections of adjectival forms have been lost by the EME period, with the exception of the comparative–erand–est.” (Fennell 2001: 142)


Excerpt out of 15 pages


The Early Modern English Period
University of Duisburg-Essen
Aspects of the History of English
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ISBN (eBook)
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461 KB
This work should give a short overview of the Early Modern English Period. It should give an idea how and when this period developed and which were the certain aspects of development.
Early, Modern, English, Period, Aspects, History, English
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Kathrin Brandt (Author), 2006, The Early Modern English Period, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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