Modern English History

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On the cusp between late Middle and early Modern English are texts like the Paston family letters, mostly from the 1450s-1480s. Here is a letter from an English gentlewoman named Agnes Paston to her son John in London, written in 1465. Paston lived in Norwich in East Anglia, not far north of London today, but quite a distance to travel 533 years ago.

"Tho my wele be-louyd son John Paston be þis delyuered in haste.

Sonne, I grete 3ow wele and lete 3ow wete þat, for as myche as 3oure broþir Clement leteth me wete þat 3e desyre feythfully my blyssyng, þat blyssyng þat I prayed 3oure fadir to gyffe 3ow þe laste day þat euer he spakke, and þe blyssyng of all seyntes vndir heven, and myn, mote come to 3ow all dayes and tymes. And thynke veryly non oþer but þat 3e haue it, and shal haue it wyth þat þat I fynde 3ow kynde and wyllyng to þe wele of 3oure fadres soule and to þe welfare of 3oure breþeren. Be my counseyle, dyspose 3oure-selfe as myche as 3e may to haue lesse to do in þe worlde, 3oure fadyr sayde, 'In lityl bysynes lyeth myche reste.' þis worlde is but a þorugh-fare and ful of woo, and whan we departe þer-fro, ri3th nou3ght bere wyth vs but oure good dedys and ylle. And þer knoweth no man how soon God woll clepe hym, and þer-for it is good for euery creature to be redy. Qhom God vysyteth, him he louyth. And as for 3oure breþeren, þei wylle I knowe certeynly laboren all þat in hem lyeth for 3ow. Oure Lorde haue 3ow in his blyssed kepyng, body and soule. Writen at Norwyche þe xxix day of Octobyr. "

The main difficulties we have in reading this text are the variable spelling (remember that this text comes from before the introduction of printing to Britain) and the use of the letters þ "thorn" (which we'd now spell "th") and 3 "yogh," which mostly in this passage would be the modern consonant "y." With those spelling changes in mind, we can see that this is still very much English – very little vocabulary is strange here, especially if you know a little Old or Middle English.

The spelling and usage of Paston's text looks odd to us, for one thing, because it was written just a few years before printing was introduced to England by William Caxton in the 1470s. (If you had never seen a printed book, your spelling wouldn't be too good either.) When government documents and literary texts began to be printed in London and distributed across England, the process of standardization begun by the Chancery clerks in the early 1400s moved into a modern and high-tech mode.

The pronunciation of words has (probably) also changed since Paston's time, and in fact may have been changing in her neighborhood during her lifetime. The most significant of these phonological changes is probably the Great Vowel Shift. Even as printing helped to freeze the spelling of English vowels in the 1400s, people continued to drift in their spoken language, to adopt new values for the vowels they used.

One element of the Great Vowel Shift had begun to move in Early Middle English. Recall that the vowel in stone, home, and road is, in Old English, a low back vowel: stan, ham, rad. In Middle English, this vowel had moved up to the position now present in Standard Modern caught or bought. (The words were variously spelled in Middle English: stoon, hoom, road, rod, stane, hame can all be observed.)

In Standard Modern American English, of course, the vowel in these words is /o/ – it has gone up still further since the Middle English period. That's the basis of the whole Great Vowel Shift. It is a moving-up of positions of long vowels.

So in Old and Middle English we have words like bote, fode (boot, food); nu, hus (now, house); make and take (with a "Spanish" value for "a"); me and thee (with a "Spanish" value for "e"), and like and mind (with a "Spanish" value for "i"). Along with stoon and home, these words illustrate the six major shifts of the Great Vowel Shift.

Why is this interesting? First, because it explains why the letters for the front vowels a, e, and i have such different values in Spanish, French, Italian and German than they do in English. Second, because vowel shifts are still going on. For instance, the Standard American pronunciation of stone and home is /ow/ but the Received Pronunciation reflects yet another shift in the vowel, to a much different diphthong. The American pronunciation is conservative; the RP has shifted since Early Modern English.


The century 1450-1550 is never much studied in English Lit courses. There was a good deal written in English during this period, both poetry and prose. Steven Reimer says that "there is a growing consensus that the fifteenth-century in English literature is not the literary wasteland of bad Chaucer impersonators as it has been traditionally characterized. There is in fifteenth-century English poetry a range of genre, theme, and tone which is worthy of serious study, and much of that poetry is actually European in inspiration and context rather than Chaucerian." He mentions Lydgate from the early 1400s especially. But the great age of early Modern English literature is generally seen to come after the mid-1500s. Much of the reason for this is, again, institutional. The century 1450-1550 saw great upheaval in England, politically, dynastically, and ecclesiastically. For all the upheaval of Chaucer's lifetime, it was fairly clear to him that the next king would be like the old one and that he would continue to be a Roman Catholic and get his stipend from the government. With the Wars of the Roses and the Reformation that followed, English people could not be quite so sure. Until the flourishing of Tudor court culture in the mid-1500s, a stable system of patronage and audience was hard to guarantee.

Under Elizabeth I (born 1533, reigned 1558-1603), a massive court apparatus and a strong Protestant government led to a great "English Renaissance" of letters. Under Elizabeth's successor James I (reigned 1603-1625), the process of standardizing Protestant worship led to the definitive Bible translation of 1611, the "King James Bible." The Bible and Shakespeare are major factors in the standardization of Early Modern English. The King James Version was the standard Bible in English for almost 300 years, and remains a powerful influence on 21st-century English. Shakespeare, in his own day, was just another popular playwright, one of many whose works were revived after the reopening of English theatres in 1660; but the 18th and 19th centuries made him the supreme English literary writer, and his influence on popular culture and education continues strong in the 21st century.

Shakespeare wrote at a time of quick and thorough standardization of written English. His characters, unlike Chaucer's, have a strong sense of standard English, and in plays like the Henry IV series or King Lear, you can see dialects other than London standard being represented as sub-standard: "clownish," inferior. Some Internet and print sources will tell you that Shakespeare added innumerable phrases and words to the English language, but that's not really so; his impact comes slightly from his own very large vocabulary, which was "sticky" as well as inventive (he represents an unusually large slice of the usage of his own times), but it comes much more from the social decision to revere him as the greatest English author. Harold Bloom would have you believe that Shakespeare changed the entire moral and cognitive psychology of the Western world, but that's nonsense. When did he do that, exactly? Shakespeare has been an important part of world culture, but hardly ever a dominant part – unless you're a professor of English :-D


Modern English, since about 1650, has been more stable than any previous stage in the history of the English language. If you compare the English of 1300 to the English of 1650, and then the English of 1650 to that of 2000 – well, there's just no comparison. The various non-standardized dialects of 1300 are remote from the standardized language of 1650, but the English of 1650 is near enough to our own to need no "translation" and hardly any adaptation. The poetry of John Milton, for instance, from the 1650s is difficult for modern readers, but only because it expresses difficult concepts in deliberately thorny language.

When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide,-

Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?

I fondly ask:-But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies; God doth not need

Either man's work, or his own gifts: who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best: His state

Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed

And post o'er land and ocean without rest:-

They also serve who only stand and wait.

The syntax of this sonnet may seem tortuous, but only because it is poetic; every word is common today (though some like "fondly," which for Milton meant "foolishly," have shifted in meaning). This is Modern English, from 350 years ago.

There have been few major changes in the pronunciation and morphology of standard English since Milton's day – I mean relative to the great changes in the three centuries before Milton. Even the word "doth" in Milton's sonnet above is slightly archaic, "poetic" for the mid-1600s. We wouldn't say "lest" anymore except in a formulaic phrase like "lest we forget."

Two significant changes since 1650 or so are the loss of the second-person singular pronoun and a vowel-shift in the RP "ask" words.

In Shakespeare's English, "thou" and "you" are quite distinct. "You" is both the plural form and the form used in respectful address. When people addressed others of higher rank, when children addressed adults, when they addressed a stranger whom they wanted to show respect, they would say "you." To close friends, children, social inferiors, and to God, the pronoun of address was "thou."

In many ways, English of the early 1600s was much like French today – the plural 2nd-person form was also the polite form of address to one person. English speakers alternated very purposefully between "thou" and "you," as French speakers do today between tu and vous. (Cf. the pattern in Mexican Spanish, which has tu and both singular and plural polite forms (Usted and Ustedes).

By the early 1700s, "thou" was almost unknown – so much so that contemporary memoirs by Friends, like the American Elizabeth Ashbridge, who died in 1755, recount incidents like this one:

In this Condition I continued till my Husband came, & then began the Tryal of my Faith. Before he reached me he heard I was turned Quaker, at which he stampt, saying, "I'd rather heard She had been dead as well as I Love her, for if so, all my comfort is gone." He then came to me & had not seen me before for four Months. I got up & met him saying, "My Dear, I am glad to see thee," at which he flew in a Passion of anger & said, "the Divel thee thee, don't thee me."

By the early 1700s, use of "thou" and "thee" was a sign of belonging to the Society of Friends – unless you were addressing God in prayer or public worship, where the older sense of God as "thou" has persisted till very recently and still has a place in hymns and the King James Bible.

What happened? The linguistic change here reveals a social change – the breakdown of a hierarchy of respect that is still deeply encoded in Europe. It's hard to specify an exact origin or course of events, but we simply have chosen to eliminate the familiar form, to treat all people, including strangers and children, with respect. In a sense, we lack a form to use to social "inferiors," perhaps because the concept of social inferiority, though alive and well in English-speaking countries today, is now considered somewhat "unspeakable."

The second change is more trivial but interesting. In the early 1800s, another smaller vowel shift occurred in British English, between an older /æ/ and a newer /ɑ/ before certain consonant clusters. Say the words "gas mask." If you are a native speaker of American English, you probably have an /æ/ in both words. Speakers of the RP, by contrast, have /æ/ in "gas" and /ɑ/ in "mask." Speakers from the West Indies or from India frequently have /ɑ/ in both words.

And if you have /ɑ/ in "gas" and /æ/ in "mask"? You are doing a bad American attempt at a British accent. :-)


Some of the references in the last paragraph, of course, point to our next direction: the consideration of English as a world language. In the reign of Elizabeth, the English government, though an international player, was largely concerned with its own island, and not the whole of that – Scotland being a co-equal and sometimes ornery neighbor. James I was also King of Scotland, and the thrones were officially united in 1701; the throne of Ireland was united to that of Britain in 1798. As this consolidation went on at home, Britain won and lost empires overseas – America and the West Indies in the 1600s, India in the 1700s and 1800s, Australia in the 1800s, and Africa in the 1800s and 1900s. From the margins of Western Europe, the English language came into common use on all the world's continents. England also became the world's greatest economic power, the motor of the expansion of capitalism that we call the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s and 1800s. One of the driving forces in this imperialist expansion was the homogeneity of standard written English.

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