Early Modern English (about 1450 - 1800)
Modern English began around 1450 with the invention of the printing press, which would change the world.
The Guttenberg Printing Press (1454)
Johannes Gutenberg is credited as the inventor of the printing press in 1454. But neither printing nor movable type was actually invented by Johannes Gutenberg, nor did he print the first book. The Chinese actually printed from movable type in 1040, but later discarding the method.
Even before printing books from movable type, the Chinese used wooden blocks to print Buddhist writings by hand on scrolls. While there are no surviving examples of the Chinese printing presses of the 11th Century, the oldest surviving dated printed book on record is the Buddhist Diamond-Sutra of 868 AD. However, recent excavations at a Korean pagoda have unearthed a Buddhist woodblock text even older than the Diamond-Sutra. Known as The Great Dharani Sutra of Immaculate and Pure Light (Mugu jeonggwang dae darani-gyeong), it is dated to 750-751 AD.
In Europe, books were hand written manuscripts produced by monks. Most books were bibles with illustrations helpful to priests teaching illiterate peasants about religion. Wealthy people commissioned scribes and artists to produce books for them called psalters which contained the person's favorite psalms and other personal information. One of the most important of these was the one commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, in about 1325. By the 15th century artists in the towns began to takeover this work. Although they rarely signed their work, tax records suggest that these artists were often women.
Gutenberg's invention revolutionized not just linguistics but the whole world. Why is this an important development?
Elizabethan English and Beyond: William Shakespeare (c. 1564 - 1616) and the King James Bible (1611)
The earlier half of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, though not lacking in literary effort, produced no work of permanent importance. After the religious difficulties of half a century, time was required for the development of the internal quiet and confidence from which a great literature could spring. At length, however, the hour grew ripe and there came the greatest outburst of creative energy in the whole history of English literature.
The great literary period is taken by common consent to begin with the publication of Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar in 1579, and to end in some sense at the death of Elizabeth in 1603, though in the drama, at least, it really continues many years longer.
The first edition of the King James Bible was published in 1611 and is considered Modern English although it intentionally keeps some of the old fashioned language that was not common even when it was published.
Although the language of the King James Bible isn't contemporary, it is considered modern. Most modern English speakers should be able to understand this version of the Lord's Prayer (note the use of u in place of v. It is not until fairly recently that u an v have been considered separate letters):
One of the most important writers to emerge from this time is preeminent poet and playwright William Shakespeare, who wrote in modern English. Yes - MODERN English.
Shakespeare's complex sentence structures and use of now obsolete words lead many students to think they are reading Old or Middle English. In fact, Shakespeare's works are written in Early Modern English. Recall what Old English looks like with this passage from Beowulf:
Hwat! we Gar-Dena in gear-dagum
Now compare this to a passage from Hamlet:
His famous 154 Sonnets and numerous highly successful, often quoted dramatic works, while unlike contemporary English (such as his usage of pronouns ("thou" vs. "you"), the rise of the auxiliary "do", the point of double negation, and the distinction (or lack thereof) between adjectives and adverbs), is not completely different that we cannot, with some careful reading, understand him. In addition, his creative use of invented words, borrowed words, derived words, inkhorn words, puns, and malapropisms, as well has his colorful cuss words make Shakespeare a good representative of this Early Modern English period.
Features of Early Modern English
Early Modern English saw three main sets of changes:
Grammar changes: The grammatical structure of English has changed comparatively little since the 17th century. There have been a few minor changes in grammar, as anyone who reads Shakespeare or the King James Version of the Bible can notice. These include:
Phonological changes: These seemed to be spontaneous and internal rather than caused by any external influence.
Vocabulary changes and the Third Latinate Influence: The most important changes to English occurred in vocabulary and were brought on by cultural influences stemming from Continental Europe. The Renaissance and subsequent interest in science ushered in a period of wholesale borrowing of Greek and Latin terms. Unlike earlier instances of borrowing, these words were borrowed from dead languages (especially Latin) rather than live ones, and were borrowed through the activity of intellectuals rather than through the mixing of peoples. This was the third phase of Latin borrowings, and it continues through the present day.
Contemporary Modern English (1800 - Present)
The period around the year 1800 was a notable in history. The United States was a new country, and that year marked the first presidential election. The Library of Congress was founded, the US Congress met for the first time, and the White House was completed in 1800. The French and Napoleonic wars were engulfed much of Europe. And in Egypt, an object was found that would be the key to understanding Egyptian culture and history: the Rosetta Stone.
The Rosetta Stone
Soldiers in Napoleon's army discovered the Rosetta Stone in 1799 while digging the foundations of an addition to a fort near the town of el-Rashid (Rosetta). On Napoleon's defeat, the stone became the property of the English under the terms of the Treaty of Alexandria (1801) along with other antiquities that the French had found.
The Rosetta Stone, located since 1802 in the British Museum, is an irregular piece, 3 feet 9 inches long and 2 feet 4-1/2 inches wide. It is dark grey-pinkish granite stone (originally thought to be basalt in composition) with writing on it in two languages, Egyptian and Greek, using three scripts, Hieroglyphic, Demotic Egyptian and Greek. Because Greek was well known, the stone was the key to deciphering the hieroglyphs.
Until the Rosetta Stone was discovered, no living person could read Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The Rosetta Stone was the crucial key to the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs and the foundation of modern Egyptology. Its importance lay in the fact that the Egyptian hieroglyphic text was accompanied by the Greek translation which could be read and understood by scholars. A third inscription on the stone was written in Demotic, a cursive script developed late in Egyptian history and used in most cases only for secular documents.
English physicist Thomas Young (1773 - 1829) was the first scholar to prove that the elongated ovals (known as cartouches) in the hieroglyphic section of the Rosetta stone contained a royal name that was written phonetically, in this case, that of Ptolemy
The French scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832), who understood Greek, then realized that hieroglyphs recorded the sound of the Egyptian language and laid the foundations of our knowledge of ancient Egyptian language and culture. The stone's inscriptions, as written by the priests of Memphis, listed contributions of Ptolomy V Epiphanes. It was written in the ninth year of his reign (i.e. about 196 B.C.) to mark his accession to the throne.
The painstaking work of deciphering was done by Young and Champollion lead to the translation of all ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing possible.
Features of Contemporary English
The main difference between Early Modern English and Late Modern English is vocabulary. Late Modern English has many more words, arising from two principal factors: firstly, the Industrial Revolution and technology created a need for new words; secondly, the British Empire at its height covered one quarter of the earth's surface, and the English language adopted foreign words from many countries.
Since the 16th Century, because of the contact that the British had with many peoples from around the world, and the Renaissance of Classical learning, many words have entered the language either directly or indirectly. New words were created at an increasing rate. Shakespeare coined over 1600 words. This process has grown exponentially in the modern era.
The influence of new lands and new peoples in the colonial era has brought to English many new words. Enthusiastic pursuit of the sciences has also led to a great increase in vocabulary; often the new scientific words are coined on the basis of Latin and Greek in much the same way as occurred at the beginning of the scientific age. The tendency of English to borrow words has never abated since the earliest times. Let's review the main sources of borrowing.
Modern English, although still classified as a Germanic tongue because of its grammar and basic vocabulary are Germanic, is actually a mixture that contains words from nearly every major language of the world. Many of these words we don't even think of as borrowed: mosquito (Portuguese or Spanish); pajamas (Hindi); bungalo (Bengali); tulip, turban (Turkish); taboo (Tahitian); okay (Chocktaw); So long (Malay).
As a result of this propensity to borrow, and due to mixing with Old Norse and Norman French, English has changed more radically over the past 1000 years than any other European Language. English is the only European language that has become more analytical than synthetic; there are only eight surviving inflectional morphemes.
Looking back, we can see that even with all these borrowings the heart of the language remains the Anglo-Saxon of Old English. Only about 5000 or so words from this period have remained unchanged but they include the basic building blocks of the language: household words, parts of the body, common animals, natural elements, most pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and auxiliary verbs. Grafted onto this basic stock was a wealth of contributions to produce, what many people believe, is the richest of the world's languages.
And English, like every language ever spoken, continues to change. . .
Ling 102/WI Introduction to the Study of
Language, University of Hawai'i - Leeward Community College
Copy Right Statement: The fair use, according the 1996 Fair Use Guidelines for Educational Multimedia, of materials presented on this Web site is permitted for noncommercial and classroom purposes. This site may be mirrored, intact including these notices, on any server with the public access and may be linked to any other Web pages. The material here is a set of lecture notes prepared from various sources. Where I have drawn from the works of others, I make absolutely no claim to copyright. This page is intended for the educational use of my students only. Please send email to firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or comments or to use or link these web pages.