Changes in language : Modern English

As we know, that the English Language had gone vigorous transformation through ages and through various courses of modifications, it paved its journey from Anglo- Saxons to Old Age period, from Middle Age to Modern English period.

This is one of the most virtuous languages in the world, that is being used by more than half of the world’s population to date.

As already been discussed about the history of the English language and literature through the other ages, in this article we will be discussing the language modifications and transformation took place in the Modern Ages.

What is modern English

Modern English( sometimes called New English or NE) is particularly described as the English Language used in around 1450 or 1500 – 1800.

With some vocabulary and dialect changes from the early 17th century, from notable works of William Shakespeare to King James Bible, significantly can be constituted as Modern English, or particularly as the Early Modern English Period or the Elizabethan English Period.

Modern English evolved from Early Modern English which was used from the beginning of the Tudor period until the Interregnum and Restoration in England.

Modern English period can be distinguished into two parts notably

i) Early Modern English Period ii) Late Modern English Period.

How is Modern English different from Middle English?

The major factors that lead to separate Middle English from Modern English

i) The Great vowel Shift marks many alterations in the pronunciation of the English language that gained its popularity between 1400 and 1700, it begins with southern parts of  England and has significant influences on the dialects.

This vowel shift is the only reason why the pronunciation of the entire Middle English long vowels was altered. Many of the sounds that the consonants carried changed as well, particularly those that became silent; the phrase the Great Vowel Shift is often used to keep these consonant changes.

The spellings in English started standardizing during the 15th and 16th centuries,  the Great Vowel Shift is the significant reason English spellings are now being deviated, like how they represent pronunciations.

Otto Jespersen (1860–1943), a Danish linguist and Anglicist, who studied and coined the terminology The Great Vowel Shift .

ii) vigorous Alteration in pronunciation, during the 15th and 16th century especially vowel sounds which are long.

ii) Long vowels are to be seen pronounced more as the Romance languages generating from Latin

Mate as ” maat, House as ” hoose”, Out as “oot”

After the great Vowel shift, the pronunciation would have been much closer to today’s therefore, while we are more or less able to read Chaucer today, Chaucer’s own pronunciation would be almost impossible to understand for the modern era.

The English Renaissance

The later phase of innovation in English vocabulary came with the revival of the Renaissance.

The English Renaissance roughly ages from the 16th and early 17th Century (the European Renaissance tppk place in Italy as early as the 14th Century) and is referred to as the “Elizabethan Era” or the “Age of Shakespeare”- the golden age for literature the most important literary personnel and most famous thinker and writer of the period.

The additions to English vocabulary during this period were deliberate borrowings and not the result of any invasion of new nationalities.

Notable Events occurred during The Modern English Period

i) Printing Press introduced in England by William Caxton in 1476.

Up to Twenty Thousand books got printed in the next 150 years – among Caxton’s best were the Canterbury Tales and Tales of King Arthur.

Mass-produced books were cheaper and more easily available everywhere, and so literacy grew and English books became more commonly available than Latin ones.

ii) Standardization – When printing was invented, there were five major dialect divisions within England – West Midlands, Northern, East Midlands (extended region including London), Kentish and Southern – and even within these demarcations, there was a huge variety of different dialects and spellings that are offered.

For example :

The expression “eth” and “-the” verb endings used in the south of the country (e.g. goeth) appears as”-es” and “-s” in the Northern and most of the North Midland area (e.g. goes), a premium version was ultimate to become the standard of these kinds.

Early Modern period progresses to the limits and double vowels began to get used and their usage increased (for example like soon) like a silent  “e”  that is being used in ‘end’ (for example name) which marks the long vowels. Consonants which were doubled for a leading short vowel ( for example we can say sitting), although there was much less consensus about consonants at the end of words ( for example we can see that the words glad, bed, glasses, and well etc.

The letters we see like  “u” and “v”, were more or less latered in Middle English language, gradually marked their establishment and also existence as a vowel and also a consonant, as letters “i” and “j”did.

Therefore a huge variety of spelling occurred for example “church” could have up to 30 different spellings, while “people” could have up to 22 different spellings, receive up to 45,she” having 60 and “though” having 500 different spellings altogether.

The process went underway by 1650, helped by dictionaries – the first in 1604, also the newspapers – came out in 1622.

People’s names were particularly varied in spelling for example- Shakespear’s name varies and can be written in 80 different spellings. He himself spelt it differently in each of his 6 different signatures.

Introduction to The Bible

In the Early Modern period, the development grew evident, as a man called William Tyndale published a translation of “The Bible” in 1526. He was hounded by the church, persecuted, they caught him and found him guilty for “heresy” (crimes against religion) and was executed for publishing ” The Bible” in English.

Tyndale’s Bible included many new words and phrases, which are noted as standard Bible language today.

For example i) let there be light

ii) my brother’s keeper 

iii) salt of the earth

iv) let my people go!

In “1549 – ” Book of Common Prayer“, being introduced in churches followed by king James, version of “The Bible”, produced after the culmination of two centuries- the efforts to produce in the native language of the English people. As we also saw in the previous section, John Wycliffe had made the first English translation of “The Bible” in early 1384, and prohibited handwritten copies started circulating ever since.

In 1611, a committee of 54 scholars assembled and published “King James Bible” there were various attempt to standardize the plethora of new Bibles that had to materialize lead up to 70 years and counting.

It seemed that it was intentionally conservative, and backwards-facing, in both vocabulary and grammar, and shown in various outlooks where these already had largely excluded and not used anymore, or were in the way to die (e.g. gat and gotten for got, dag for dug, bare for bore, spake for spoke, clave for cleft, holpen for helped, wist for knew, etc), like the many other obsolete forms like kine twain and brethren.

Dictionaries and Grammars

The first-ever English dictionary was published by English schoolteacher Robert Cawdrey in 1604. It was called “A Table Alphabetical”, (8 years prior to the first Italian dictionary and 35 years earlier than first dictionary in French approximately 800 years post the first dictionary in Arabic and 1,000 after the dictionary in Sanskrit was published ).

The dictionary of Cawdrey nearly contained more or less 2,543 words of which he termed as the “hard words”, particularly those he took from Greek, Hebrew , French and Latin .

Though it was not a very legitimate resource (namely the word “words” being spelt differently in two ways, alone on the title page as “wordes” . Many other dictionaries, containing the grammar, pronunciation and spelling guides, paved during the 17th and 18th Century.

The very first trial was to list up the entire list words in the English language was “A Universal Etymological English Dictionary”, Nathaniel Bailey was the person who assembled it in 1721.

Early Modern English: The Golden Age

Age of Shakespeare

Whatever the merits of the other major or minor contributions to this golden age, though, it is clear that one man, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), who single-handedly changed the outlook of English language and literature to the most significant extent during the late 16th and early 18th Century.

Shakespeare took full advantage of the relative freedom and flexibility and the protean nature of English at that time and played free and easy with the already liberal grammatical rules and regulations mentioned in those days. for example, we can see in his use of nouns as verbs, adverbs, adjectives and significant other changes – an instance of the ” verbification” of nouns, in his literary works, which in modern language purist often deny. In phrases like –

“he pageants us”, or

“it out-Herods Herod”,

dog them at the heels, the good Brutus ghosted,

“Lord Angelo dukes it well”, “uncle me no uncle”, etc.

These phrases are quite evident in having verbification of nouns, along with the other notable works that he came up with, which are still celebrated as his best works, till date.

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