Early Modern English
excerpts from the works of
Dr. Micheal Crafton

Department of English
State University of West Georgia

Carrollton, Georgia
(Spring 2000)



I. Odd characters:

1. The thorn hangs around though rarely in its old form; instead, the thorn and th sound are represented by a "y." as in ye and yt.

"Ye Olde Soda Shoppe"

Thus, "ye" represents "the," not "ye," a variant of you.

2. N and M are sometimes represented as a tilde. The with a ~ over the e for Then

3. i and j are reversible as are u and v; sometimes I and V are reserved for capitals and sometimes for j and v are reserved for initial positions whereas i and u for medial.

4. S and long s interchange.

II. Pedantic Spellings

1. By analogy with French.

a. Insertion of "s" in ile (< OE iland) creating Island on analogy with isle of OF.

b.Spelling rime as rhyme on analogy with Fr rhythm

2. By Latin etymology.

a. Insertion of d in doubt and debt due to etymology dubito and debitum

b. Addition of ch in school ME scole from L schola

c. The same with ME cedule or sedule so schedule from L schedula

d. Also ME cisme schism cism is skism.

3. Misc. respellings.

a. Insertion of silent letters: gh in ME delit so delight; also h in gast or gost so ghost,ghastly, aghast.

b. Prefixing w to hal or hol so whole

c. After b had been lost after m, some were erroneously put in as in limb and thumb OE lim and thuma.

On analogy with ME wolde and sholde a silent l was inserted in could OE cuthe.

Finally a lot of fluctuation between -or (honor) and -our (honour) and -ick (publick) and -ic (public).



I. Great Vowel Shift: all stressed vowels raised by one level

OE              ME                    EModE
grene [e]      grene,deep [e]    green [i]

ME             EmodE             ModE
a                ae                    e
e                i                      e
open e        e                      e
i                schwa I             aI
o               u                       u
open o       o                       o
u               schwaU             aU

Thus we have such spelling confusion: for example 7 ways to say [i]

1. ea--mead, leaf
2. ee--eel, sheep 
3. e --mere, fever 
4. ie--thief
5. ei--either
6. ey--key
7. ay--quay (key) loading shore

Why did such a thing occur?

  1. Euphony
  2. Racial, climatic
  3. Error
  4. Imitation of prestige dialect
  5. Force of diphthongization
  6. Is it always occuring
  7. Phonetic drift (toward the target
  8. Functional load (too many words sounding alike)

      ...Just don't know.


II. Other vowels: Many ME -er became ModE -ar

1. lowering before -r- ster --> star
sterre star
derke dark
ferthing farthing
herte heart
sterve starve
fer far
werre war
sergeant sergeant
hearth hearth (harth)
learn lairn
earth arth
certain sartain

I, e , U ---> schwa

girl, fern, hurt

2. a --> æ
that --thæt

3. al --> open o + l
all -- awll; salt -- sawlt

4. ME U unrounded to schwa
run to run cup to cup

5. E followed by a nasal changed to I
weng --> wing; heng --> hinge

6. ow before l became o
bolt bolt; cold cold

7. Unstressed vowels tended to fall into schwa.


1. All smoothed to the four we have today -- aI, aU, oi, ju Tuesday (perhaps not a true diphthong)

III. Consonants: Both loss and gain of consonant sounds.

I. Loss of consonants:

1. Initial k,g,w in the combination kn, gn, wr
Knight; know; knee
gnat, gnaw
wrong, wry wright

2. Loss of gh sounds
night, nought early 17th cent.
Some changed to f
enough, rough, cough, laugh

3. Final b in -mb
limb, comb, lamb

4. Loss of r
far, stir, hard, work

5. Loss of d and t generally in two consonants
castle, whistlle, mistletoe, Charistmas
andvell --> anvil; behind --> behin

6. Loss of final f
hastif, tardif, joliffe

7. Loss of final g in -ing

8. Loss of l
half --> haf


II. Addition of consonants:

1. Addition of d

2. Addition of t
agens, amongs against, amongst

3. Addition of h
ost host
omage homage
erb herb

4. Insertion of n
passager passenger
messager messenger

5. addition of long n (ing) phoemic distinction
sin vs. sing :: most dialects the g drops off

6. Addition of th in certain words
orthography, anthem, throne, author
Anthony, Thames, Theresa, still not pronounced

Changes in consonants

7. Assibiliation -- final unstressed vowels reduced to I or schwa; a semivowel after s,z,t,d, after a major stress and before an unstressed vowel; this then palatalized so:
sj --> sh nation, pressure, ocean
zj --> z seizure, pleasure, usual, vision
tj --> ch creature, ancient, lecture, fortune
dj --> zh soldier, gradual, residual, grandeur



 Changes in Early Modern English are not difficult to understand.  For the most part, the changes that occur in this period simply make the language more recognizable.  However, some of the differences between Early Modern English and Modern or Present Day English are differences that you may recognize in non-Standard dialectal versions, such as "between you and I" and opposed to the correct form "between you and me."


 The Noun

 Regular Plurals and Genitives:

 Has the basic -s inflection of plurals and the 's inflection of genitives (possessives) become the primary inflection of all nouns.

  Irregular Plurals

 The exceptions to the 's plurals are the few -en and mutated exceptions (the same seven mutated plurals that we have in PDE -- mice, feet, teeth, men, women, geese and lice). 

 The -en plural hung on much longer in the early Renaissance as in toon and shoon but finally gave out through the forces of analogy and simplification and uniformity. Also, kine, eyen, housen, hosen.

 Many of the -en plurals in the Renaissance do not date back to OE; many were created by analogy with other -en plurals.  Children and brethren were all -r- plurals, but in EmodE the -en was added because the -r had lost its sense of plurality.  In the case of brethren we have a triply marked plural because a mutated vowel was added as well. So from brother we get breth (mutated plural) brethr (-r plural) and brethren (-en plural).

 Some new uninflected plurals: fish, fowl were created on analogy with the old unmarked plurals deer, sheep, swine, folk, and kind.

 Some new -s plurals were developed from unmarked plurals, to wit: folks, kinds.



Generally the -s possessive ruled the day; however, some unmarked possessives existed: those connected with family relations (father land, mother tongue) and those with nouns ending in fricatives (for peace sake).

His Genitive

The most interesting thing about the noun is the his genitive, basically a phrase to indicate possession, for example, "the King his book," "the Duke his house."

His was the masculine genitive form, but the generic genitive was -es pronounced the same as him with unstressed h.  As a consequence of this, some non natural forms were created, for example, "the Queen his reign."

In time, the "hi" of his could be dropped and an apostrophe added to indicate the omission, hence the origin of the apostrophe s genitive.

"The King his book" becomes "the king's book."


The Group Genitive

Group genitives became even more popular.

The -es became an enclitic and developed into a group genitive: King of England's nose.

Still some uninflected genitives: measure and holiday, for God sake, etc

Adjectives and Adverbs


 The final -e as vestigial weak adjective inflection as in Chaucer's "smale fowles" disappears.

 The comparative and superlatives become regularized to -er and

-est without change in root vowel, those some hang on old, elder, eldest: one also sees older and oldest.

 Much more freedom with periphrastic comparison than today -- the most stillest night, the most unkindest cut.



The suffix -ly is used much more freely to indicate adverbs as they lost their final -e inflection (which was of little use anyway since it looked just like the -e ending of weak adjectives.)

In fact, the number of "plain adverbs" was becoming greatly reduced.


Pronouns: The Really Big News

1. The ye, you, your system collapses into just you your, though the King James Bible uses the older system correctly.

Accordingly, both "you were" and "you was" were correct.

The "thee, thine, thy" fall out except for poetic and religious usages: especially among the Pennsylvania Amish whose use is generally systematic because it is based on their native language German.

In the Renaissance there would occasionally be the use of the thee, thou group for informal address and ye, your for more formal address.

The development of the regular attributive and nominal forms of the genitive is significant. So my, mine, her, hers, their, theirs, our, ours, your, yours become used regularly as they are today.  The short form indicates attribution (my hat, your dog), and the longer form is used for a genitive in a nominal function (mine is good; yours is missing).


2.  The impersonal, neuter pronoun:

Originally hit, hit, his ---> unstressed h renders it and is; and thus this becomes the neuter form.

Picked up the genitive form its in 1590 Florio's trans of Plutarch, although it is still used as a possessive in King James Bible 1611.

Since is sounded like other genitives it's was developed on analogy with other noun inflections, like stone's, down to 1800; later the apostrophe was removed, thus its is now fully developed on  analogy with theirs, hers, ours.


3. Relative and Interrogative

Who comes in as a late relative in ME and becomes much more frequently used in EMnE.  The relative pronouns were used much the same way as they are now, except that we find which in many instances where we would expect who.

A good example is the King James' version of the Lord's Prayer: "Our father which art in heaven."


4.  Flexible pronoun case:  The Renaissance had a much looser attitude toward pronoun case.

a. Nominative case after conjunction "and": "between you and I"

b. Mostly objective case after "than" or "as": "He eats more than me."

c. Objective after "be": "It's me."

d. Regarding "who and whom," whom before verb and after preposition regardless of the grammar: "I don't care about whom writes this."  Often whom is used as a nominative as well.



Strong Verb Classes

1. Of the original seven classes of strong verbs – the number is greatly reduced, but some of the classes remain remarkably stable; class I and III stand out as survivors.

2. The double past tense forms of strong verbs are leveled to one:

Thus old I sang and we sungen become I,we sang (have sung)

I rood, we riden become I,we rode (have riden)

2. The -en is used unevenly: hence forgotten but got and gotten

Weak Verb Classes

  1. Great increase in the number of weak verbs, although some weak verbs took on strong forms by analogy

dive – dived – dived --> dive – dove – dived

Personal Endings

  1. The endings of -est and -eth become just -s for 3rd per pres ind by the end of the period. Although in some sophisticated circle, such as Thomas Hobbes’ philosophical text Leviathan the –est endings remain.
  2. The thou forms reamin –est, -st in the present and –est, st in the past.

Conjugation of Irregular Verbs (to be and modals)

  1. Always irregular, in Early Modern English, the forms of to be differed from contemporary use only in the th- forms (thou art, thou wast and thou wert) and in the odd use of "be" for plural present.

"Rub a dub dub / Three men in a tub / And who do you think they be?"

"The powers that be."

2. The modals cause trouble: would and should are past tense version of will (variants of will are wull and woll) and shall. Could was developed by adding an l on analogy with would and should; otherwise, it should be "coud."


Progressive Verb Forms

Progressives do not become frequent until the 17th century

E.g., I am working.

Progressive Passives do not develop until the 18th century

E.g., I am being pressed.


The develop of "do" as an auxiliary dates from this period, although the use does differ somewhat from modern use.



Prepositions take on a much greater role as inflections are no longer even a memory in English. Shakespeare’s use is different on occasion from ours today, but not so much as to prevent understanding.

On of the most frequently used prepositions, on, was contracted to "a" and used with compounds like a-board, a-field, a-back, and with verbal nouns ending in –ing, a-hunting, a-fishing, a-walking.

"Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in." Thoreau.


Contracted Forms

The contractions that we take for granted date in written form from the seventeenth century.

Won’t is derived from a variant of will, woll and not --> wo(ll)n’t

Pronunciation of don’t makes no sense; it should be [dunt] but it may take on the [o] sound on analogy with won’t.

An’t (pronounced aent) developed in the 17th century as a form of am not, are not, and is not.

In the 18th century the variant ain’t developed as well as the regular contraction of aren’t for are not.

Later the pronunciation shifted ae to a and and the loss of r after vowels; so that an’t and aren’t became homophonic; therefore, people adopted aren’t as the standard version even thought aren’t I is ungrammatical.


One important consequence of the death of inflectional endings is that words could perform the functional shift. One can Shakespeare a noun into a verb or make a noun and adjective or adverb--a payday, a day worker; he day labors. To out-Herod Herod.

In early ModE (the following examples are from Shakespeare) we find some preceding negative adverbs: I not doubt it. Double negatives: say nothing neither.

Also double comparatives: most unkindest cut of all

Uninflected adverbs: to speake plaine; exceeding wise

Objective form of subjective complement: To speake as plaine as me; with the hand of she here; between my good men and he.



1. I becomes regularly capitalized at this time.

Other capitalization erratic.

2. No commas until about 1550

Before only slashes and mid periods and periods or nothing

3. Semicolon as question mark in 1515

Turned it upside down for question mark in 1650 regularly; but before it had been used as a hard stop.

4. The apostrophe -- used in EModE for contractions, but not regularly: Shakespeare's First Folio contains both Ile and I'le and I'll for I will.

The apostrophe was not used for possessives regularly until late in the period.

by 1700 the semicolon and question mark are completely regular.

The Rise of Dictionaries and Grammars

The Period is the Restoration and Eighteenth Century

General characteristics of this period apply to the interest in ascertaining and fixing the English Language.

Influential historical items:

The "Spirit of Age": Traditionally described as increase in passion for order, reason, classical restrain, conservatism, permanence, science, reason, balance, order, and restraint.

The intelligentsia recognize that English was unruly; therefore, they concluded that it had to be disciplined or ascertained: They thought it needed a grammar and to be reformed.

The result was the movement to ascertain the language:



1) to reduce to rule and establish standards

2) to refine, polish, improve

3) to fix permanently.

Dryden (Preface to Troilus - 1679) "we write by guess, more than any stated rule."

1. The problem of refining: Swift's hatred of

A. Clipped words

B. Contractions

C. New words

2. Desire to fix the language (Professional writers have a professional concern here).

3. One option to fix the language was to follow the examples of Italy (1582) and France (1635) and set up an Academy.

Since the Royal Society has been established in 1662, the ascertainers tried to develop it there.

The interest waxed and waned for a time, reaching its climax in Swift's infamous Proposal for Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining the English Tongue (1712).

Swift generated the most support and perhaps would have succeeded had it not been for Queen Anne's death in 1714 and thus the death of his support. The victory of the Whigs and the Hanovarian kings meant the end of his clout.

4. The Interest in the Academy idea decreased.

A. The interest in an academy decreased further as Englishmen became less enchanted with imitating the French Academy.

B. General loss of faith in the idea of fixing any language.

C. An increasing desire for and interest in liberty; Englishmen associated an academy with a loss of personal liberty.



Since the neoclassical desire was still influential, conservative substitutes for academy appeared in three forms:

1. Lexicography -- Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary 1755

Very important publication: The dictionary until the OED in the early twentieth century

2. Grammar -- Bishop Lowth's Short Introduction to Grammar 1762

3. Rhetoric -- Thomas Sheridan’s treatise British Education 1756 argues that a revival of the art of speaking might cure all the ills of England, "the evils of immorality, ignorance, and false taste."


Out of this mid-century impetus arises the tradition of prescriptive grammar -- i.e. establishing laws for settling matters of usage:

1. Reduce to rule

2. Decide disputed cases

3. Point out cautions

The results of the grammarians’ prescriptive grammar:

1. lay/lie

2. would rather instead of had rather

3. different from / instead of different than or to

4. between you and me / instead of between you and I

5. larger of two / instead of largest of two

6. perfect / not more perfect

7. his doing / him doing

8. contra double negatives

9. shall will /

Simple futurity: shall 1st; will 2nd and 3rd

Promise will 1st; shall 2nd and 3rd



1. analogy to reason or rules of logic.

Double negative – two negatives make a positive

2. etymology

Decimate, to destroy by tens, or deca, the root from Greek.

3. Analogy to Greek and/or Latin

Split infinitive – Infinities are not split in Latin; therefore, they should not be split in English. Of course, the difference is that in Latin infinitives are composed of single words.

The result is that we still today labor under the assumptions that the rules of Standard English must have fallen from the sky or been discovered in a lab or issued from the "linguistic Yaweh". There were very intelligent writers of the period that argued for usage rather than rule, but their voices did not win out against the spirit of the age and the rage for order.





We left off last time with the 18th century and the story of prescriptive grammar.  Let us now dip back in to the 18th century and before really and tell the story of the coming of dictionaries.  The story of the dictionary will take us in into the 20th-century.


The dictionary does not come of age until the neoclassical period.  Why so late?  Why no need one earlier?

            There was not need to spell correctly.

            English was not a language for serious business anyway.

The earliest dictionaries come about in the Renaissance. Why and what were their purposes?

            The enrichment movement, education reform, created a new vocabulary of “hard words,” as they called them, that many did not know.

            The vernacular needed to move toward a uniform orthography in order to be recognized as a respectable medium for England.


The earliest attempts to explain words in England dates back to the 7th Century

7th-century marginal glosses in manuscripts

9th-century interlinear glosses. English-Latin

1100 Velum sheets with list of words glossed for young monks

1200 Alexander Neckham --trilingual English-Latin-French, De nominibus utensilium

1400 English-Latin, 12,000 words Proptorium Parvoloriam       Sive Clercorum

1480 Caxton, 52 page, French-English Vocabulary List

1483 Catholicon, English-Latin 8,000


The Renaissance works on orthography

1558 A,B,C

1570 John Hart, An Orthographie

1580 William Bullokar, Book at Large

1582 Richard Mulcaster, The Elementarie, lists 8000 Hard Words

1596 Edmund Coote, The English Schoole Master, brief definitions but still not in alphabetical order

1596 Thomas Thomas, Dictionarium Linguae Latinae et Anglicanae


Up to now the groupings were thematic rather than alphabetical. So

1604 Robert Cawdrey, A Table Alphabeticall ...of hard usuall English Words, about 2500 words, marked French and Greek loans

1616 John Bullokar, An English Expositor, 5000 words, 1st scientific dictionary

1623 Henry Cockeram, The English Dictionarie, 3 lists of words: Refined; Vulgar; and Mythology

1656 Thomas Blount, Glossographia: 11,000 entries, 1st to cite sources and 1st to give etymologies

1658 Edward Phillips, The New World of English Words, 20,000 words, largest yet, gained in size by adding common words to the ordinary list of hard words

1676 Elisha Coles, An English Dictionary, expanded to 25,000 words by adding dialect

John Kersey, 1702, 1706, 1707, 1708

Nathan Baily, 1730

Samuel Johnson, 1755


Samuel Johnson’s two-volume dictionary is basically the dictionary until the great OED, but to get to an understanding of the OED we have to move to the next century and to a very different view of the world and of language.


This is the 19th Century: Romantic (and Victorian) period, and this period is characterized by revolutions against established order and reforms of established order.  So in other words there is not so much the rage for order as before and language rather than prescribed could become described.

1770's; 1776, 1789, 1798 -- Four Revolutionary Dates of the Romantic period; they are respectively – the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the poetic revolution by Wordsworth and Coleridge with they published their radical volume Lyrical Ballads.

Two major results of these revolutions:

1. Expanding vocabulary:

   Science, medicine, colonial expansion

2. Changing attitude toward language --

   Sir William Jones 1786 – discovered Indo-European

   Jacob Grimm 1822 – Grimm’s law

   Wordsworth's defintion of a poet, an ordinary man speaking to ordinary men in their language.

   There is a new appraisal of history, antiquarian societies pop up
   For example, F.J. Furnival E.E.T.S (Early English Text Society) (1864)
   1850's philological societies

There is a new appreciation for local dialects

New Dictionaries

It is in this milieu that the OED, arguable the world’s greatest dictionary grew up.

As Albert C. Baugh tells the story in A History of the English Language:

In 1857 at a meeting of the Philological Society in London a committee was appointed to collect words not in the dictionaries, with a view publishing a supplement to them. ... The most important outcome of the committee’s work was a paper read to the Society by Dean Trench, “On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries.”  In it he laid down the historical principles on which a dictionary should be compiled.  As a result of this paper the society decided that a supplement would not be satisfactory, and in January 1858 it passed resolutions calling for a new dictionary.  A formal “Proposal for the Publication of a new English dictionary by the Philological Society” was issued the following year.  The two principle aims of the new project were to record every word which could be found in English from about the year 1000 and to exhibit the history of each—its forms, its various spellings, and all its uses and meaning, past and present.  The last-named feature was especially to be shown by a full selection of quotations from the whole range of English writings. 

The Society issued a call for volunteers to send in slips of paper with quotations on them; in short order, they had more slips of paper than they could manage and thus they found themselves in dire need of an editor and savior.  That person came in the name if Sir James A.H. Murray, who took on the job and got a contract with Oxford University Press to bring out the dictionary.   The first publication was not until 1884.  It covered part of the letter A.  By 1900 installments were published up to H.  The final installment was published in 1928; unfortunately, the editor Sir James died in 1915 and did not see his great work complete.

The work has been supplemented several times; a second edition was brought out a few years ago; and now the OED is on-line and working toward a new edition still and has issues another call for volunteers.

See their web site

(And see a fascinating new book on the development of the OED by Simon Winchester called The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.)

That the OED is a great scholarly accomplishment is no doubt, but you might miss the linguistic theory that animates such a project.  Every word, no matter how regional or non-standard, is worthy of being consider part of the English language.  In this period, the notion of English languages rather than one language was becoming more commonplace.  And it is on that note that we look to dialects and the growth of the American Language... Enter Present Day English