Early Modern English

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Early Modern English (often abbreviated EModE[1]) is the stage of the English language used from about the end of the Middle English period (the latter half of the 15th century) to 1650. Thus, the first edition of the King James Bible and the works of William Shakespeare both belong to the late phase of Early Modern English. Prior to and following the accession of James I to the English throne the emerging English standard began to influence the spoken and written Middle Scots of Scotland.

Current readers of English are generally able to understand Early Modern English, though occasionally with difficulties arising from grammar changes, changes in the meanings of some words, and spelling differences. The standardisation of English spelling falls within the Early Modern English period and is influenced by conventions predating the Great Vowel Shift, thus explaining much of the non-phonetic spelling of contemporary Modern English.



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
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

In Early Modern English, there were two second-person personal pronouns: thou, the informal singular pronoun, and ye, which was both the plural pronoun and the formal singular pronoun (like modern French toi and vous or the German du and Sie). (Thou was already falling out of use in the Early Modern English period, but remained customary for addressing God and certain other solemn occasions, and sometimes for addressing inferiors.) Like other personal pronouns, thou and ye had different forms depending on their grammatical case; specifically, the objective form of thou was thee, its possessive forms were thy and thine, and its reflexive or emphatic form was thyself, while the objective form of ye was you, its possessive forms were your and yours, and its reflexive or emphatic forms were yourself and yourselves.

In other respects, the pronouns were much the same as today. One difference is that, much as a becomes an before a vowel, my and thy became mine and thine before vowels as well; hence, mine eyes, thine uncle, and so on.

Personal pronouns in Early Modern English
  Nominative Objective 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 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. 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" is attributive (my/thy goods) and "mine" and "thine" are predicative (they are mine/thine). Shakespeare pokes fun at this custom with an archaic plural for eyes when the character Bottom says "mine eyen" in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
  • 2. 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 3rd person masculine he. Genitive "it" appears once in the 1611 King James Bible (Leviticus 25:5) as groweth of it owne accord.

Orthographic conventions

Shakespeare's writings are universally associated with Early Modern English
Shakespeare's writings are universally associated with Early Modern English

The orthography in Early Modern English was fairly similar to that of today, but spelling was unphonetic and unstable; for example, the word acuity could be spelled either <acuity> or <acuitie>. Further, there were a number of features of spelling that have not been retained:

  • The letter <S> had two distinct lowercase forms: <s> as today, and <ſ> (long s). The former was used at the end of a word, and the latter everywhere else, except that double-lowercase-S was variously written <ſſ> or <ſs>.[2] This is similar to the alternation between normal (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[3]; hence vnmoued (for modern unmoved) and loue (for love).
  • <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".
  • The letter <Þ> (thorn (letter)) 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>.[4]
  • A silent <e> was often appended to words. The last consonant sometimes was doubled when adding this <e>; hence ſpeake, cowarde, manne (for man), runne (for run).
  • The sound /ʌ/ was often written <o> (as in son); hence ſommer, plombe (for modern summer, plumb).[5]

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 found being spelled "he" or "hee" in the same sentence in Shakespeare's plays.


Marking tense and number

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").[6]
  • 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).[7] 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.[8]
  • 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).[9] Since the indicative past was not (and is not) otherwise marked for person or number[10], the loss of thou made the past subjunctive indistinguishable from the indicative past for all verbs except to be.

Modal auxiliaries

The modal auxiliaries cemented their distinctive syntactical characteristics during the Early Modern period. Thus, modals' use without an infinitive became rare (as in "I must to Coventry"; "I'll none of that"). Use of modals' present participles to indicate aspect (from 1556: "Maeyinge suffer no more the loue & deathe of Aurelio"), and of their preterite forms to indicate tense ("He follow'd Horace so very close, that of necessity he must fall with him") also became uncommon.[11]

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.[12]

Perfect and progressive forms

The perfect of the verbs had not yet been standardized to all use 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 were followed as to which verbs took which auxiliaries were similar to those still used 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."[13]


Although the language is otherwise very similar to that current, there have in time developed a few "false friends" within the English language itself, rendering difficulty in understanding even the still-prestigious phrasing of the King James Bible. An example is the passage, "Suffer the little children"; meaning, "Permit..." (this usage of the word "suffer" is still sometimes used in some dialects in formal circumstances; it is also from where we get the words "sufferance" and "suffrage").

Development from Middle English

See Also Middle English Gender in English#Historical development

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 standardized language with a richer lexicon and an established (and lasting) literature. Shakespeare's plays are familiar and comprehensible today, 400 years after they were written,[14] but the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland, written only 200 years earlier, are considerably more difficult for the average reader.


  • 1476William Caxton starts printing in Westminster, however, the language he uses reflects the variety of styles and dialects used by the authors whose work he prints.
  • 1485Tudor dynasty established; start of period of (relative) political and social stability. 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 1492Richard Pynson starts printing in London; his style tends to prefer Chancery Standard, the form of English used by government.
  • 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. This book standardises much of the wording of church services. Since attendance at prayer book services was required by law for many years some have argued that the repetitive use of the language of the prayer book helped to standardize modern English.[15]
  • 1557 – Publication of Tottel's Miscellany.
  • c. 1590 to c. 1612William Shakespeare's plays written; they are still widely read and familiar in the 21st century.
  • 1607 - The first successful permanent English colony in the New World, Jamestown, is established in Virginia. The beginnings of American English.
  • 1611 – The King James Bible is published, largely based on Tyndale's translation. It remains the standard Bible in the Church of England for many years.
  • c. 16401660 – Period of social upheaval in England (the English Civil War and the era of Oliver Cromwell).
  • 1651 – Publication of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes.
  • 1662v – New edition of the Book of Common Prayer, largely based on the 1549 and subsequent editions. This also long remains a standard work in English.
  • 1667 – Publication of Paradise Lost, by John Milton.

Development to Modern English

See Also English language

The 17th century was a time of political and social upheaval in England, particularly the period from about 1640 to 1660. The increase in trade around the world meant that the English port towns (and their forms of speech) would have gained in 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. Another important episode in the development of the English language started around 1607: the English settlement of America. By 1750 a distinct American dialect of English had developed.

There are still elements of Early Modern English in some dialects. For example, thee and thou can still be heard in the Black Country, some parts of Yorkshire and Dawley, Telford. The pronunciation of book, cook, look, etc. with a long [uː] can be heard in some areas of the North and the West Country. However, these are becoming less frequent with each new generation.

See also


  • 1. 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. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?aid=124085. Retrieved 2009-03-12.
  • 2. Burroughs, Jeremiah; Greenhill, William (1660). The Saints Happinesse. http://books.google.com/?id=ByU3AAAAMAAJ. Introduction uses both happineſs and bleſſedneſs.
  • 3. Sacks, David (2004). The Alphabet. London: Arrow. p. 316. ISBN 0-09-943682-5.
  • 4. Sacks, David (2003). Language Visible. Canada: Knopf. pp. 356–57. ISBN 0-676-97487-2.
  • 5. 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.)
  • 6. Lass, Roger, ed (1999). The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III. Cambridge: Cambridge. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-521-26476-1.
  • 7. Lass, Roger, ed (1999). The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III. Cambridge: Cambridge. pp. 165–66. ISBN 978-0-521-26476-1.
  • 8. Charles Laurence Barber (1997). Early Modern English. Edinburgh University Press. p. 171. ISBN 978-07486-0835-5.
  • 9. Charles Laurence Barber (1997). Early Modern English. Edinburgh University Press. p. 165. ISBN 978-07486-0835-5.
  • 10. Charles Laurence Barber (1997). Early Modern English. Edinburgh University Press. p. 172. ISBN 978-07486-0835-5.
  • 11. Lass, Roger, ed (1999). The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III. Cambridge: Cambridge. pp. 231–35. ISBN 978-0-521-26476-1.
  • 12. Lass, Roger, ed (1999). The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III. Cambridge: Cambridge. p. 232. ISBN 978-0-521-26476-1.
  • 13. Lass, Roger, ed (1999). The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III. Cambridge: Cambridge. pp. 217–18. ISBN 978-0-521-26476-1.
  • 14. Cercignani, Fausto, Shakespeare's Works and Elizabethan Pronunciation, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1981.
  • 15. Stephen L. White, "The Book of Common Prayer and the Standardization of the English Language" The Anglican, 32:2(4-11), April, 2003

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