Modern English (language)

Black and white drawing of William Shakespeare
Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote during the period now known as Early Modern English.

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Modern English is conventionally defined as the English language since about 1450 or 1500. Distinctions are commonly drawn between the Early Modern Period (roughly 1450-1800) and Late Modern English (1800 to the present). The most recent stage in the evolution of the language is commonly called Present-Day English (PDE). However, as Diane Davies notes, "[L]inguists argue for a further stage in the language, beginning around 1945 and called 'World English,' reflecting the globalization of English as an international lingua franca," (Davies 2005).

Old English, Middle English, and Modern English

"Old English (used until the 12th century) is so different from Modern English that it has to be approached as we would a foreign language. Middle English (used until the 15th century) is very much more familiar to modern eyes and ears, but we still feel that a considerable linguistic difference separates us from those who wrote in it--Chaucer and his contemporaries.

"During the 15th century, a huge amount of change affected English pronunciation, spelling, grammar, and vocabulary, so that Shakespeare would have found Chaucer almost as difficult to read as we do. But between Jacobethan times and today the changes have been very limited. Although we must not underestimate the problems posed by such words as buff jerkin, finical, and thou, we must not exaggerate them either. Most of early Modern English is the same as Modern English," (David Crystal, Think on My Words: Exploring Shakespeare's Language. Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Standardization of English

"The early part of the modern English period saw the establishment of the standard written language that we know today. Its standardization was due first to the need of the central government for regular procedures by which to conduct its business, to keep its records, and to communicate with the citizens of the land. Standard languages are often the by-products of bureaucracy ... rather than spontaneous developments of the populace or the artifice of writers and scholars.

"John H. Fisher [1977, 1979] has argued that standard English was first the language of the Court of Chancery, founded in the 15th century to give prompt justice to English citizens and to consolidate the King's influence in the nation. It was then taken up by the early printers, who adapted it for other purposes and spread it wherever their books were read, until finally it fell into the hands of school teachers, dictionary makers, and grammarians. ... Inflectional and syntactical developments in this early Modern English are important, if somewhat less spectacular than the phonological ones. They continue the trend established during Middle English times that changed our grammar from a synthetic to an analytic system," (John Algeo and Carmen Acevdeo Butcher, The Origins and Development of the English Language, 7th ed. Harcourt, 2014).

"The printing press, the reading habit, and all forms of communication are favorable to the spread of ideas and stimulating to the growth of the vocabulary, while these same agencies, together with social consciousness ... work actively toward the promotion and maintenance of a standard, especially in grammar and usage,"
(Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language. Prentice-Hall, 1978).

The Normative Tradition

"From its very early days, the Royal Society concerned itself with matters of language, setting up a committee in 1664 whose principal aim was to encourage the members of the Royal Society to use appropriate and correct language. This committee, however, was not to meet more than a couple of times. Subsequently, writers such as John Dryden, Daniel Defoe, and Joseph Addison, as well as Thomas Sheridan's godfather, Jonathan Swift, were each in turn to call for an English Academy to concern itself with language—and in particular to constrain what they perceived as the irregularities of usage," (Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, "English at the Onset of the Normative Tradition." The Oxford History of English, ed. by Lynda Mugglestone. Oxford University. Press, 2006).

Syntactic and Morphological Changes by 1776

"By 1776 the English language had already undergone most of the syntactic changes which differentiate Present-Day English (henceforth PDE) from Old English (henceforth OE) ... Older patterns of word order with the verb at the clause end or in second constituent position had long been replaced by an unmarked order framed by the sequence subject-verb-object or subject-verb-complement. A subject noun phrase was virtually obligatory in simple clauses other than imperatives.

"Great simplifications had taken place in morphology, so that the noun and adjective had already reached their present, vestigial inflectional systems, and the verb nearly so. The number and frequency of prepositions had expanded greatly, and prepositions now served to mark a variety of nominal functions. Prepositions, particles and other words frequently joined simple lexical verbs to form group verbs like 'speak to,' 'make up,' 'take notice of.' Such formations as the prepositional and indirect passives had become commonplace.

"The complexity of the English auxiliary system had grown to encompass a wide range of mood and aspect marking, and much of its present systemic structure was already in place, including the dummy auxiliary do. Some patterns involving finite and nonfinite subordinate clauses had been rare or impossible in OE; by 1776 most of the present repertoire was available. However, the English of 1776 was linguistically by no means the same as that of the present day," (David Denison, "Syntax." The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume 4, ed. by Suzanne Romaine. Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Global English

"As for the view of English beyond Britain, the tentative optimism of the 18th century gave way to a new view of 'global English,' an outlook in which confidence turned into triumphalism. A turning point in this emergent idea occurred in January 1851 when the great philologist Jacob Grimm declared to the Royal Academy in Berlin that English 'may be called justly a language of the world: and seems, like the English nation, to be destined to reign in future with still more extensive sway over all parts of the globe.' ...

"Dozens of comments expressed this wisdom: 'The English tongue has become a rank polyglot, and is spreading over the earth like some hardy plant whose seed is sown by the wind,' as Ralcy Husted Bell wrote in 1909. Such views led to a new perspective on multilingualism: those who did not know English should set promptly about learning it!" (Richard W. Bailey, "English Among the Languages." The Oxford History of English, ed. by Lynda Mugglestone. Oxford University Press, 2006).

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Nordquist, Richard. "Modern English (language)." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Modern English (language). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Modern English (language)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).