Early modern English – an overview

By Edmund Weiner, deputy chief editor, OED

Boundaries of time and place

The early modern English period follows the Middle English period towards the end of the fifteenth century and coincides closely with the Tudor (1485–1603) and Stuart (1603-1714) dynasties. The battle of Bosworth (1485) marked the end of the long period of civil war known as the Wars of the Roses and the establishment of the Tudor dynasty under Henry VII (1485–1509), which brought a greater degree of stable centralized government to England. Not long before, the introduction of the craft of printing in 1476 by William Caxton marked a new departure in the dissemination of the written word.

The end of the period is marked by the religious and political settlement of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ (1688), the transition to the Augustan age during the reign of Queen Anne (1702–14), and the achievement of political unity within the British Isles through the Act of Union between England and Scotland (1707).

The defining events of the sixteenth century were those of the Reformation, initiated under Henry VIII in the 1530s, which severed both religious and political links with Catholic Europe. During the seventeenth century the new science gradually achieved prominence, beginning with the writings of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and issuing in the foundation of the Royal Society (chartered in 1662).

At the start of our period English was spoken throughout England except in western Cornwall, where it was rapidly replacing Cornish.

The English speach doth still encroche vpon it [Cornish], and hath driuen the same into the vttermost skirts of the shire. Most of the Inhabitants can no word of Cornish; but very few are ignorant of the English. Richard Carew, The Survey of Cornwall (1602)

Wales was integrated administratively and legally into England by parliamentary acts of 1536 and 1543; the former made English the only language of the law courts and excluded those who used Welsh from any public office in Wales. However, apart from the ruling gentry, the inhabitants remained Welsh-speaking throughout the period. In Scotland, Scots (see below) was spoken in most of the Lowlands, Gaelic (called Erse in this period) in the Highlands and Galloway, and the Scandinavian language Norn in Shetland and Orkney.

The Tudor monarchs asserted their claim to the lordship of Ireland. Hitherto the English speaking presence had been small, restricted to the English pale. A series of military conflicts and plantations under Elizabeth, James I, and Oliver Cromwell led to the political domination of the country by English-speakers.

The era of overseas commercial venture and colonization was initiated in 1496–7 by the visit to Newfoundland (compare new-found adj. 2) of the Italian explorer John Cabot, commissioned by Henry VII. Newfoundland was subsequently claimed for England in 1583. Settlement on the mainland of North America began with Jamestown (1607); the mainly Puritan Pilgrims [pilgrim n. 4a] or ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ founded the Plymouth Colony (1620). During the last part of the seventeenth century economic hardship led to large-scale Scottish emigration to Ireland and North America.

Bermuda was colonized in 1612, followed by St Kitts (1623) and Barbados (1627) in the West Indies. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) English merchant voyages to the Indian Ocean began. The East India Company established its first trading factory in India in 1612 and took possession of Bombay in 1668.

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Variations in English

During the Middle English period numerous regional dialects existed in England and Scotland. Middle English manuscripts, even copies of the same work, differ linguistically from one another to a greater or lesser degree. In the later Middle Ages London gradually emerged as the seat of administration and the court. The speech of the capital acquired social prestige and written forms of it became usual in official documents and literature, though it could only loosely be called a ‘standard’. Since printing was based in London this form of English was adopted by the early printers. But Caxton himself was acutely aware of variation and change within English.

Certaynly our langage now vsed varyeth ferre from that which was vsed and spoken whan I was borne. William Caxton, Prologue to Eneydos (1490).

Nevertheless, compared with Middle English texts, early modern texts seem much more uniform. It was recommended that literary English should be based on the speech of the London area.

Ye shall therfore take the vsual speach of the Court, and that of London and the shires lying about London within lx. myles, and not much aboue. George Puttenham, Arte of English Poesie (1589).

A high degree of spoken regional variety still existed and was generally recognized. Although regional dialects were scarcely recorded, their extent can be deduced from dialect study undertaken from the eighteenth century onwards. Within England, northern and western dialects were generally known to be markedly different from written English. Evidently (as today) particular differences were specially prominent.

Pronouncing according as one would say at London I would eat more cheese if I had it, the Northern man saith Ay suld eat mare cheese gin ay hadet, and the Westerne man saith Chud eat more cheese an chad it. Richard Verstegan, A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence (1605).

There was a stylized stage version of western speech, as, for example, used by Edgar when posing as a countryman in King Lear.

Good Gentleman goe your gate, let poore volke passe: and chud haue been zwaggar’d out of my life, it would not haue bene zo long by a vortnight: nay come not neere the olde man, keepe out cheuore ye, or ile try whether your costard or my bat be the harder, chill be plaine with you. Shakespeare, King Lear, IV. vi (2nd Quarto, 1619).

Scots was a special case. In 1500 Scotland and England were separate countries and during the sixteenth century Scots can be regarded as a language distinct from the English spoken south of the border. In Scotland under James IV (1488–1512) there was a cultural flourishing, with the beginnings of Renaissance influence from the continent. After the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England in 1603 the status of Scots declined. The court moved to London with the king, so that Scots lost its social prestige. Moreover writers like John Knox, who were in the forefront of the Scottish Reformation (1560) and greatly influenced Scottish literary culture, wrote mainly in southern English. Already, around 1590, the number of books printed in Edinburgh in English had overtaken those printed in Scots and after 1603 Scots ceased to be a book language.

Gif ȝe, throw curiositie of nouationis, hes forȝet our auld plane Scottis quhilk ȝour mother lerit ȝou, in tymes cuming I sall wryte to ȝou my mynd in Latin, for I am nocht acquyntit with ȝour Southeroun. Ninian Winȝet, Letter to John Knox (1563).

Social dialects (essentially those used by people regarded as inferiors) were also widely recognized by contemporaries, but we can make only very partial reconstructions from the surviving evidence, such as comments by grammarians and the dialogue in stage plays. A particular, though perhaps somewhat artificial, social dialect that received special attention was the canting slang of rogues and vagabonds (see, for example, John Simpson on the first dictionaries of English).

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Attitudes to English

Early in the period, English was frequently compared unfavourably as a literary language with Latin. It was also initially seen as not possessing advantages over other European languages, as this dialogue shows.

‘What thinke you of this English, tel me I pray you.’ ‘It is a language that wyl do you good in England but passe Dover, it is woorth nothing.’ ‘Is it not used then in other countreyes?’ ‘No sir, with whom wyl you that they speake?’ ‘With English marchants.’ ‘English marchantes, when they are out of England, it liketh hem not, and they doo not speake it.’ John Florio, Florio his firste fruites (1578), ch. 27.

The inferiority of English was often explained in terms of the mixed origin of its vocabulary.

It is a language confused, bepeesed with many tongues: it taketh many words of the latine, and mo from the French, and mo from the Italian, and many mo from the Duitch, some also from the Greeke, and from the Britaine, so that if every language had his owne wordes againe, there woulde but a fewe remaine for English men, and yet every day they adde. Florio, Florio his firste fruites, ch. 27.

English was also criticized for being inelegant and uneloquent. But there was a sudden change between 1570 and 1580. English began to be praised, in contrast with other languages, for its copious vocabulary, linguistic economy (in using words of mainly one or two syllables), and simple grammar. For example, a lengthy and spirited defence of English, as compared with Latin, is given by the educationist Richard Mulcaster.

The English tung cannot proue fairer, then it is at this daie. Richard Mulcaster, The First Part of the Elementarie (1582).

During the seventeenth century the status of Latin rapidly declined and by the end of the century even works of science were being written in English.

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Vocabulary expansion

The vocabulary of English expanded greatly during the early modern period. Writers were well aware of this and argued about it. Some were in favour of loanwords to express new concepts, especially from Latin. Others advocated the use of existing English words, or new compounds of them, for this purpose. Others advocated the revival of obsolete words and the adoption of regional dialect.

A notable supporter of the introduction of new words was the humanist and diplomat Sir Thomas Elyot (c.1490–1546). Among now common words, he introduced participate v. in five of the senses given in OED and persist v. in three. Among less popular words, he introduced obtestation n. and pristinate adj. Elyot frequently explained his coinages: for example his use of the words maturity (maturity n. 3: he was unaware that the word had already been used in other senses in English) and modesty (modesty n. 1) in The Boke Named the Gouernour (1531).

Yet of these two [sc. celeritie and slownesse] springeth an excellent vertue, whervnto we lacke a name in englishe. Wherfore I am constrained to vsurpe a latine worde, callyng it Maturitie. Sir Thomas Elyot, The Boke Named the Gouernour (1531)

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‘Inkhorn’ versus purism

Many early modern writers criticized the use of Latinate expressions (usually loanwords from Latin, sometimes words modelled on Latin) in order to elevate the style of writing, especially in inappropriate contexts or for concepts which had ordinary English equivalents. These were known as inkhorn terms (an inkhorn being ‘a small portable vessel, originally made of horn, for holding writing-ink’). A notable critic was Thomas Wilson, writing on the important art of rhetoric.

This should first be learned, that we neuer affect any straunge ynkehorne termes, but so speake as is commonly receiued. Sir Thomas Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique (1553).

Further on Wilson holds up to ridicule an example of a (probably fictitious) ‘ynkehorne letter’. A typical clause from this runs ‘I obtestate your clemencie, to inuigilate thus muche for me’: all three italicized words were quite new in 1553; two of them have survived. It is notable that many of the words that were objected to then as unnecessary were soon accepted into the language. Such controversy waned after about 1600, partly because so many Latinate words had been accepted and were now regarded as an enrichment.

By contrast the royal tutor Sir John Cheke translated part of the New Testament avoiding loanwords wherever possible. (This translation was not, however, published until 1843.) For example, he uses moond for ‘lunatic’, onwriting for ‘inscription’, and tabler for ‘banker’.

Our own tung shold be written cleane and pure, vnmixt and vnmangeled with borowing of other tunges. Sir John Cheke, in his letter to Thomas Hoby, printed at the end of Hoby’s translation of Castiglione’s Courtier (1561).

Ralph Lever, in his Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft (1573), attempted to render Latin logic terms with English compounds such as nay-say ‘negation’, but none caught on. Nathaniel Fairfax, a Baconian scientist, managed to write a book devoid of obviously learned loanwords, called A Treatise of the Bulk and Selvage of the World (1674), ‘bulk and selvedge’ here meaning ‘volume and boundary’; other terms include bodysome ‘corporeal’, nowness ‘the quality of being always present’, and onefoldness ‘singleness’. However, Fairfax’s language is often misleading and sometimes incomprehensible.

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Archaism and rhetoric

The poet Edmund Spenser was the leading proponent of the use of archaic and dialectal words, especially in The Shepheardes Calender (1579) and The Faerie Queene (1590). The former has a preface defending the practice, written by Spenser’s friend ‘E.K.’

And firste of the wordes to speake, I graunt that they be something hard, and of most men vnused, yet both English, and also vsed of most excellent Authours and most famous Poetes. ‘E.K.’, preface to Edmund Spenser, The Shepheardes Calender (1579).

Examples of Spenser’s archaisms include nempt ‘named’ (nemn v.), prow adj. ‘worthy, valiant’, and queme ‘please’ (queem v.). A number of seventeenth-century poets imitated Spenser, although they did not always use his archaic and dialectal words correctly. Even errors, however, played a part in the formation of poetic vocabulary: derrynge do (derring do n.) arose as a misprint for the verbal phrase dorryng do ‘daring to do’ in sixteenth-century editions of Lydgate’s History of Troy, which was then misunderstood by Spenser as a noun phrase, explained in the Glossary to the Shepheardes Calender as ‘manhood and chevalrie’.

An eloquent language was one which made use of the devices of classical rhetoric. Rhetoric, originally referring to the art of public speaking, had come to be applied to literature in general. It was a normal part of the study of Latin and was carried over by educated writers into their use of English. From the mid-sixteenth century onwards books on rhetoric began to appear in English, such as Thomas Wilson’s The Arte of Rhetorique (1553) referred to above. The figures of rhetoric covered a wide range of literary devices and their presence in a work was noticed and praised. They would have been immediately spotted, for example, in Mark Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, III. ii.

‘I am no Orator, as Brutus is; But..a plaine blunt man [topos of modesty]…I..Shew you sweet Cæsars wounds, poor poor [epizeuxis] dum mouths [oxymoron and metaphor] And bid them speak [prosopopoeia] for me: But were I Brutus, and Brutus Antony [synoeciosis]…’

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Regulation and spelling reform

The classical languages, not being current spoken languages, do not change, and can therefore be described by a set of fixed grammatical rules. This was frequently regarded as the ideal condition of a language. From about 1660 there were proposals for an academy similar to the Académie Française which would regularize and purify the language: supporters included John Dryden and later Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift. Dryden’s Defence of the Epilogue (1672) marks the beginning of the tradition of criticizing supposed grammatical errors in English.

From Jonsons time to ours, it [English] has been in a continual declination. John Dryden Defence of the Epilogue (1672).

Dryden criticizes Ben Jonson himself for such mistakes as placing a preposition at the end of a sentence and using the plural ones. This desire for regulation was to some extent met by the expansion of the number and coverage of dictionaries and by the development of English grammars, most of which, however, were modelled on grammars of Latin and had very little to say about sentence structure. (For more on this see the related article on grammar in early modern English.)

The Restoration period also saw the beginnings of criticism of affected vocabulary, focusing initially on the adoption of French expressions.

We meet daily with those Fopps, who value themselves on their Travelling, and pretend they cannot express their meaning in English, because they would put off to us some French Phrase of the last Edition. Dryden, Defence (1672).

But this by no means implies the rejection of all foreign loanwords: John Evelyn in his Letter to Sir Peter Wyche (20 June 1665; published in 1908) suggested for adoption a number of French and Italian words which ‘we have hardly any words that do so fully expresse’: a number of these did indeed become current at around this time, including bizarre, chicanery, concert, and naiveté.

Between about 1540 and 1640 there was a movement for spelling reform in England. Early advocates were Sir John Cheke (see above) and Sir Thomas Smith, who as classical philologists were conscious of the disparity in spelling between English and Latin. John Hart produced three works on the subject between 1551 and 1570 and proposed a phonetic spelling system using a number of additional symbols. In opposition to this approach, Richard Mulcaster (above) advocated only mild reform, and there are very few improvements in his word-lists when compared with modern spelling. (For more, see early modern English pronunciation and spelling.)

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Fresh perspectives: Old English and new science

Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) began to be studied during this period. Manuscripts were collected and Old English texts published. The first Old English dictionary (edited by William Somner) appeared in 1659 and the first grammar of the language (edited by George Hickes) in 1689. The original motivations for the undertaking were mixed: either to demonstrate the continuity of the Church of England, to show that the English legal system descended from Anglo-Saxon law, or to support the cause of biblical translation. Nevertheless it had the effect of introducing a historical understanding of the English language and paved the way for later etymological and philological investigation.

At the same time the seventeenth-century scientific movement, heralded pre-eminently by Francis Bacon, had the effect of establishing English finally as an adequate medium of technical writing in place of Latin. It also led to the cultivation of a plain style of writing, without the use of the devices of rhetoric. Bacon, who wrote in both English and Latin, himself criticized the valuing of style above matter. His followers carried the attack much further. The Royal Society, according to its historian, Bishop Thomas Sprat, was to be praised for correcting stylistic excesses in writing.

They have therefore been most rigorous in putting in execution, the only Remedy, that can be found for this Extravagance, and that has been, a constant Resolution, to reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men deliver’d so many things, almost in an equal number of words. Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal-Society of London (1667).

Suggested reading

  • Charles Barber, Early Modern English (1976)
  • Manfred Görlach, Introduction to Early Modern English (1991)

Where now with the OED Online?

  1. there’s a growing list of commentaries on English in time, charting historical lexicography from Old English to the modern day. As well as this introduction to early modern English (1500-1700), you can read an overview of Old English by Philip Durkin of the OED.
  2. the early modern period witnessed a huge expansion of the English language: the OED includes nearly 90,000 words with a first reference in these two centuries; between 1600 and 1700 over 8000 words entered the language to describe aspects of the life and physical sciences.
  3. for the decade after 1660, the OED includes more than 250 new words of French origin, including apropos, bijou, en passant, and lemonade.

How do I search for these? With subscriber access to the OED Online you can search for entries by date, usage, origin, region, and subject using the Advanced Search option. To group entries by time period, use Advanced Search/date of entry or entry range; use the Subject and Origin options to focus on words relating to particular categories or derived from other languages.

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