"I take this present period of our English tung to be the verie height thereof..."

External History

By the Early Modern Period (the English "Renaissance"), spelling had become far more fixed, at least in part because of the introduction of printing by William Caxton in 1476. By 1640, over 20,000 titles in English--counting pamphlet-sized works as well as hefty books--had appeared in print: works that appealed to a broad range of social classes and tastes (it is estimated that between one-third to one-half of the population of London in Shakespeare's day were literate). The availability of mass-produced literature contributed materially to the education of the rising middle class, who demanded works written in the vernacular.

Pronunciation, as today, continued to be variable, and this is most dramatically in evidence in changes in the pronunciation of English "long" (or "tense") vowels, changes known collectively as the Great Vowel Shift. At the beginning of this linguistic era, English is still perceived by many as an inferior language as compared with Latin and French. Caxton apologizes for his "symple and rude englissh" that translates the French of Le Fèvre's Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, the first book printed in English (but before Caxton had relocated his shop from Bruges to England). In the prologue to his translation of a French translation of the Æneid (Eneydos, 1490), Caxton laments his inability to find appropriate and equivalent language in English for the French he is translating, and worries that he will not be able to construe the work in language widely accessible to his reading public:

And whan I had aduysed me in this sayd boke. I delybered and concluded to translate it in to englysshe And forthwyth toke a penne & ynke and wrote a leef or tweyne / whyche I ouersawe agayn to correcte it / And whan I sawe the fayr & straunge termes therin / I doubted that it sholde not please some gentylmen whiche late blamed me sayeng yt in my translacyons I had ouer curyous termes whiche coude not be vnderstande of commyn peple / and desired me to vse olde and homely termes in my translacyons. and fayn wolde I satysfye euery man / and so to doo toke an olde boke and redde therin / and certaynly the englysshe was so rude and brood that I coude not wele vnderstande it. And also my lorde abbot of westmynster ded do shewe me late certayn euydences wryton in olde englysshe for to reduce it in to our englysshe now vsid / And certaynly it was wreton in suche wyse that it was more lyke to dutche than englysshe I coude not reduce ne brynge it to be vnderstonden /

[And when I had thought about this book (the French translation of the Æneid), I deliberated and decided to translate it into English. And directly I took a pen and ink and wrote a leaf or two, which I looked over again to correct it, and when I saw the fair and strange terms therein, I doubted that it would please those gentlemen who recently blamed me, saying that in my translations I had used obscure terms that could not be understood by the common people, and they wished me to use old and homely terms in my translations. And certainly, I would rather satisfy every man, and in order to do so I took an old book and read therein and certainly the English was so rude and broad that I could not well understand it. And also my Lord Abott of Westminster showed me recently certain documents written in Old English in order to translate it into the English we now use. And certainly it was written in such manner that it was more similar to German that English, (and) I could not make it comprehensible.]

George Pettie, in The ciuile conuersation (1581), voices his concern that his work will not be accorded a proper level of respect because it is written in English:

There are some others yet who wyll set lyght by my labours, because I write in Englysh: and those are some nice Trauaylours, who return home with such quæsie stomackes, that nothyng wyll downe with them but Frenche, Italian, or Spanishe, and though a woorke be but meanely written in one of those tongues, and finely translated into our Language, yet they wyll not sticke farre to preferre the Originall before the Translation. (quoted in Barber 66)

Despite these kinds of sentiments, English had by this time much in its favor: a sense of nationalism, growing literacy, and the Reformation. The Reformation contributed to the ascendancy of English because the religious disputations were for the most part conducted in English, and as a consequence of Reformation, translations of the Bible into the vernacular now had government and Church sanction. If English were good enough for the Bible then it could no longer be relegated to an inferior status (Barber 71).

Richard Mulcaster, in "The Peroration" section of the Elementarie (1582), defends his decision to write in English:

For som be of opinion, that we should neither write of anie philosophicall argument, nor philosophicallie of anie slight argument in our English tung, bycause the vnlearned vnderstand it not, the learned esteme it not, as a thing of difficultie to the one, and no delite to the other. For both the penning in English generallie, and mine own penning in this order, I haue this to saie.

No one tung is more fine then other naturallie, but by industrie of the speaker, which vpon occasion offered by the kinde of gouernment wherin he liueth, endeuoreth himself to garnish it with eloquence, & to enrich it with learning. The vse of such a tung, so eloquent for speche, and so learned for matter, while it kepeth it self within the naturall soil, it both serues the own turn with great admiration, and kindleth in the foren, which com to knowledge of it, a great desire to resemble the like. (253-54)

After arguing that all languages are equally capable, given opportunity and application (as he does above), he then disputes the absurdity of divided language loyalties, as was the circumstance in Britain:

For is it not in dede a meruellous bondage, to becom seruants to one tung for learning sake, the most of our time, with losse of most time, whereas we maie haue the verie same treasur in our own tung, with the gain of most time? our own bearing the ioyfull title of our libertie and fredom, the Latin tung remembring vs, of our thraldom & bondage? I loue Rome, but London better, I fauor Italie, but England more, I honor the Latin, but I worship the English. (54)

Barber, citing Jones's argument in The Triumph of the English Language, summarizes the situation succinctly: "Before 1575, nearly everybody agrees that English is barbarous; after 1580 there is a whole chorus of voices proclaiming that English is eloquent" (76-7). The criteria used to assess a language's eloquence are (Barber 77-8, again citing Jones):

  1. Important works are written in it.
  2. The vocabulary is adequate to the demands made on it (in the case of English, this meant that it had to expand its lexicon).
  3. The language exhibits the "devices of classical rhetoric."
  4. The language has a achieved a "fixed," codified state. (For this, English would need authoritative grammars and dictionaries to retard unruly change.)

In 1595, Philip Sidney, near the end of The Defense of Poetry, sings the praises of his English tongue, not least of which is its lack of "grammar":

I know some will say [English] is a mingled language. And why not so much the better, taking the best of both the other? Another will say it wanteth grammar. Nay truly, it hath that praise, that it wanteth not grammar; for grammar it might have, but it needs it not; being so easy in itself, and so void of those cumbersome differences of cases, genders, moods, and tenses, which I think was a piece of the Tower of Babylon's curse, that a man should be put to school to learn his mother tongue. But for the uttering sweetly and properly the conceit of the mind, which is the end of speech, that hath it equally with any other tongue in the world; and is particularly happy in compositions of two or three words together, near the Greek, far beyond the Latin: which is one of the greatest beauties can be in a language.


The expansion of the English lexicon (vocabulary) during this period was to generate considerable controversy. Although the debate over the appropriateness of introducing loanwords into English was usually characterized as being about the purity of the language, it really came down to disagreements over taste. The infusions of Latin, Old Norse, and French words during the Old and Middle English periods had already insured that a "pure" (i.e., limited to Anglo-Saxon word stock) English had ceased to exist. In this age, as throughout the history of English, words that are singled out as "abominable" by some may subsequently come to be regarded as intrinsically English.

As the demand for translations of classical and foreign-language texts grew, English writers succumbed to the attraction of the ready-made terminology available in the source text, resulting in the wholesale importation of Latin and Greek rhetorical, scientific, and technical terms. Thomas Eliot, for instance, the author of The boke named the Gouernour (1531), which was a treatise on humanist education, produces the earliest attestations in English for the words animate, education, encyclopedia, frugality, metamorphosis, obfuscate, and persist, among others (Barber 79). William Shakespeare probably introduced more words into the language than anyone, but he was sensitive to the inclination to over-neologize. He is surely satirizing those with less finely-tuned ears than his own in the character of Holofernes, the schoolmaster, in Loves' Labours Lost (5.1.15-24):

He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument. I abhor such fanatical phantasimes, such insociable and point-devise companions; such rackers of orthography, as to speak 'dout', sine 'b', when he should say 'doubt'; 'det', when he should pronounce 'debt'--'d, e, b, t', not 'd, e, t': he clepeth a calf, 'cauf'; half, 'hauf'; neighbour vocatur 'nebor'; 'neigh' abbreviated 'ne'. This is abhominable--which he would call 'abominable': it insinuateth me of insanire --ne intelligis, domine? to make frantic, lunatic.

Holofernes, as Biron says of Armado in the same play, is "A man of fire-new words, fashion's own knight" (1.1.176). He exemplifies those who 'black their mouths with ink,' to paraphrase George Pettie, who himself defends the practice that generated what is known as the Inkhorn Controversy:

Wherefore I marueile how our english tongue hath crackt it credite, that it may not borrow of the Latine as well as other tongues; and if it haue broken, it is but of late, for it is not vnkowen to all men how many woordes we haue fetcht from thence within these fewe yeeres, which if they should be all counted inkepot termes, I know not how we should speake any thing without blaking our mouthes with inke. (Preface to The ciuile conuersation, cited in Barber 86)

Pettie may here have been responding to John Cheke, who in a letter to Thomas Hoby, printed along with Hoby's 1561 translation of Castiglione's Courtier, articulates clearly the belief of the Purists that English was being corrupted by its reliance on borrowings from other tongues:

I am of this opinion that our own tung shold be written cleane and pure, vnmixt and vnmangeled with borowing of other tunges, wherein if we take not heed bi tijm, euer borowing and neuer payeng, she shall be fain to keep her house as bankrupt. (Quoted in Barber 91)

As Barber points out, Cheke's own sentence "includes no less than five non-Germanic words, one of them (bankrupt) not recorded before 1533; moreover, Cheke uses the Latin form of this word, which also existed as bankrout." Sir Thomas Chaloner (1549), whose own prose is replete with loanwords, exemplifies the critics of such borrowing:

Such men therfor, that in deede are archdoltes, and woulde be taken yet for sages and philospohers, maie I not aptelie calle theim foolelosophers? For as in this behalfe I have thought good to borowe a littell of the Rethoriciens of these daies, who plainely thynke theim selfes demygods, if lyke horsleches thei can shew two tongues, I meane to mingle their writings with words sought out of strange langages, as if it were alonely thyng for theim to poudre theyr bokes with ynkehorne termes [emphasis added], although perchaunce as unaptly applied as a gold rynge in a sowes nose. That and if they want suche farre fetched vocables, than serche they out of some rotten pamphlet foure or fyve disused woords of antiquitee, therewith to darken the sence unto the reader, to the ende that who so understandeth theim maie repute hym selfe for more cunnyng and litterate: and who so dooeth not, shall so muche the rather yet esteeme it to be some high mattier, because it passeth his learnyng.

Certainly one of the more extreme positions in the Purist movement is illustrated in Ralph Lever's treatise on logic, The Arte of Reason, rightly termed Witcraft, in which he constructs English compounds to substitute for the classical terminology usually favored in such contexts. The table below illustrates some of these coinages, none of which have survived (from Barber 92):

Lever's English compounds







propositio conditionalis










Early Modern English Grammatical/Syntactic Features

Verb phrases

Notice Shakespeare's construction of a question in the following sentence:

"Ay wherefore else guard we his royal tent /But to defend his person from night foes?" (Richard Duke of York, 4.2.21-2)
How does this method of forming a question differ from your own? How would you recaste this more modern rendering of the question?
Why else guard we his royal tent...?
Consider the way in which questions are constructed in the following extract from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night Act 3, scene iv: 
Why appear you with this ridiculous boldness before my lady?
'Be not afraid of greatness:' 'twas well writ.
What meanest thou by that, Malvolio?
'Some are born great,'--
'Some achieve greatness,'--
What sayest thou?
Ignoring for the moment the strangeness of the speakers' use of thou and the second person singular ending of -est on the verbs, how would you rewrite the phrases to form "grammatical" sentences in your own English? Notice that in each instance, present-day speakers require an additional element in the verb phrase, the auxilliary verb do:
"Why do you appear...?"
"What do you mean...?"
"What do you say?"
Negative constructions
From Julius Caesar, Act 3, scene i:
"Be not fond."
"Talk not of standing."
"O Antony, beg not your death of us!"
"Our hearts you see not..."
"You know not what you do.
Note that as in the question structures above, in both imperative and declarative sentences it is necessary for present-day English speakers to incorporate the auxilliary verb do to make these statements grammatical. There are rare exceptions to this, and such structures, when used today, are always strongly "marked" and used for rhetorical effect, as in the following familiar exhortation from John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address:
"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

The negative also appears in contracted form (with modal auxiliaries) during this period:

But mayn't I Bar points, being the Challenged? (1652 Tatham Scotch Figgaries iv. i)
They can't strike sail..in a trice. (1674 N. Fairfax Bulk & Selvedge 130)
Evidence of..River being more than 11 Miles Long but how Much More dont say. (1670 in Coll. Rhode Isl. Hist. Soc. (1902) X. 102)

He don't know you. (1741 Richardson Pamela I. 65) 

The language was more tolerant of variant forms of the past participle in Shakespeare's time. Both have took and have taken were possible: 

"He might have took his answer long ago." (Twelfth Night, 1.5.232)


Early Modern English Prepositions

Although we may not think about prepositions very often, they can be one of the most difficult features of a language to learn as a second-language speaker because their meaning can be very idiomatic. We can see this clearly when we look at the meanings prepostions were used to convey in earlier forms of English.

For each of the following, select the meaning (or meanings) that best fit your own sense of the meaning intended by the prepositions in boldface (click on the button beside those meanings):

"She is drowned already, sir, with salt water, though I seem to drown her remembrance again with more." (Twelfth Night, 1.5.25)


"by means of"


1526 Tindale Matt. xii. 47 Behold thy moder and thy brethren stond without.




1695 Luttrell Brief Rel. (1857) III. 487 The Commissioners of the Admiralty satt in the new office against Scotland Yard.


"next to"


1520 Myrroure of Our Ladye 258 All the people of the cyte came ageynste hym wyth ioye and wyth praysynge.




1607 Topsell Four-f. Beasts (1658) 241 The Rider must lay the rains in his neck.




1591 Shaks. Two Gent. iv. iv. 3 One that I brought vp of a puppy.


"from (the time it was)"


1626 Bacon Sylva Sect.696 Fleas breed principally Of Straw or Mats.


"out of"


1611 Bible Matt. ii. 12 Being warned of God in a dreame.




1694 Echard Plautus 50 My master Amphitryon's now at bed with Alcmena. 




1535 Coverdale Judith x. 7 They axed no question at her, but let her go.




1611 Shaks. Wint. T. v. ii. 68 He was torne to pieces with a Beare.

"(together) with"

"in addition to"



Now consider the following sentence. What preposition would you supply to complete the sentence?

I feel sick ___ my stomach!







For a full range of the variation in Old English personal pronouns, consult the Oxford English Dictionary.

Gmc Personal Pronouns

OE Personal Pronouns

ME Personal Pronouns

PDE Personal Pronouns


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