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Early Modern English
Spoken in England, southern Scotland and British colonies
Language extinction developed into Modern English
Language family Indo-European
Language codes
ISO 639-1 None
ISO 639-2
ISO 639-3

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, although the King James Bible intentionally keeps some archaisms that were not common even when it was published. 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 standardization of English spelling falls within the Early Modern English period and is influenced by conventions predating the Great Vowel Shift, 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

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 tu and vous). (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, (compare modern German; thou - du, thee - dich, thine - dein); 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; thus, 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 (its)[2] his / hers / his (its)[2]
plural they them their theirs
  1. a b In a deliberately archaic style, the possessive forms are used as the genitive before words beginning with a vowel sound (for example, thine eyes) similar to how an is used instead of a in an eye. This practice is followed irregularly in the King James Bible but is more regular in earlier literature, such as the Middle English texts of Geoffrey Chaucer. 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. a b 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. Later, the neologism its became common. "Its" appears only once in the 1611 King James Bible (Leviticus 25:5).
Shakespeare's writings are universally associated with Early Modern English

Orthographic conventions

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]
  • <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".
  • 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).[4]

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.


Verb conjugations in the "thou" form (second person informal singular) end in -(e)st (e.g. "thou takest"). In Early Modern English, third person singular conjugations end in -(e)th instead of -s (e.g. "he taketh"). Both the second person informal singular and third person singular lost their endings in the subjunctive, which uses the bare stem of the verb.

The perfect tenses 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.


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. The most glaring is that the passage "Suffer the little children" meant, "Permit..." (this usage of the word "suffer" is still sometimes used in some dialects in formal circumstances).

Development from Middle English

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, but the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland, written only 200 years earlier, are considerably more difficult for the average reader.


  • 1476 – William Caxton starts printing in Westminster, but the language he uses reflects the variety of styles and dialects used by the authors whose work he prints.
  • 1485 – Tudor dynasty established; start of period of (relative) political and social stability.
  • 1491 or 1492 – Richard 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.[5]
  • 1557 – Publication of Tottel's Miscellany.
  • c. 1590 to c. 1612 – William 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. 1640–1660 – Period of social upheaval in England (the English Civil War and the era of Oliver Cromwell).
  • 1651 – Publication of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes.
  • 1662 – 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

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 British 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 and some parts of Yorkshire. 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. Retrieved 2009-03-12.  
  2. ^ Burroughs, Jeremiah; Greenhill, William (1660). The Saints Happinesse.   Introduction uses both happineſs and bleſſedneſs.
  3. ^ Sacks, David (2004). The Alphabet. London: Arrow. p. 316. ISBN 0-09-943682-5.  
  4. ^ 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.)
  5. ^ Stephen L. White, "The Book of Common Prayer and the Standardization of the English Language" The Anglican, 32:2(4-11), April, 2003

External links



Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary


Proper noun

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Early Modern English


Early Modern English

  1. the form of the English language written and spoken from the end of the 15th to the mid 17th centuries


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