When we engage with Shakespeare and his contemporaries, we engage with a culture radically unfamiliar to us at the start of the twenty-first century. The past is a foreign country, and so too are many of its texts.
In the development of languages particular events often have recognizable and at times far-reaching effects. The Norman Conquest and the Black Death are typical instances that shaped the Middle English.
In the Modern English period, the beginning of which is conveniently placed at 1500, numerous new conditions began to play an important role, conditions that previously either had not existed at all or were present in only a limited way, and they caused English to develop along somewhat different lines from those that had characterized its history in the Middle Ages. The new factors were the printing press, the rapid spread of popular education, the increased communication and means of communication, the growth of specialized knowledge, and the emergence of various forms of self-consciousness about language.
The role of English was given impetus by the Protestant Reformation, which placed a religious duty of literacy on all, and provided national texts for the purpose: the vernacular Bible and Prayer Book. This national role coincided with the standardization of written English and with the emergence during the sixteenth century of a prestigious form of pronunciation. Evolving class structures in society, notably the rise of a powerful London bourgeoisie, provided audiences for sophisticated vernacular texts, such as the dramas of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and the prestige of the vernacular was reinforced by the victories of the rising middle classes in the mid-seventeenth-century Civil War.
Above everything however, there is the factor which should be referred to as self-consciousness about language. This had two aspects, one individual, one public. At the individual level one may observe a phenomenon that has become intensely important in modern times: as people lift themselves into a different economic or intellectual or social level, they were likely to make an effort to adopt the standards of grammar and pronunciation of the people with whom they have identified, just as they tried to conform to fashions and tastes in dress and amusements.
However superficial such conformity might be, people were as careful of their speech as of their manners. Awareness that there were standards of language was a part of their social consciousness. Most people were less aware that such standards were largely accidental rather than absolute, having developed through the historical contingencies of economics, culture, and class.
At the public level a similar self-consciousness has driven issues of language policy over the past four centuries, long before “language policy” acquired its modern meaning. The beginnings of this public discussion are evident in the sixteenth-century defense of English and debates about orthography and the enrichment of the vocabulary which this thesis will discus broadly.
The following paper has been written with the purpose of presenting the reader all the possible aspects of the fascinating phenomenon which is the Early Modern English. It starts with the roots of the Early Modern English, goes through the possible external factors that had an impact on the language development, shows the finest expert of English of the times – William Shakespeare and finally ends with internal changes which English undergone during this period. The main goal of the whole work is to demonstrate the way in which English language was evolving in the period from 1476 to the early eighteenth century.
Moreover, it shall provide the reader with all the substantial facts connected with the topic of the paper such as the Great Vowel Shift, the linguistic innovations of Shakespeare, sources of various words in English and much more.
Chapter One Historical Background of Early Modern English
Languages, in short, are systems in which everything is connected to everything else (tout se tient, in the words of de Saussure, Grammont and their followers; see Grammont 1933, passim). This structural notion is the major insight of linguistics since the modern discipline was founded in the nineteenth century, and it is at the heart of the subject's claim for non-trivial status. In sum, we must expect that any given linguistic event is the result of complex interaction between levels of language, and between language itself and the sociohistorical setting in which it is situated.
One can state that language is fundamentally the means by which people communicate with each other and with themselves, and by which they express themselves. All societies of human beings use language and there are no known exceptions. A given person’s linguistic destiny is determined by his birth and early circumstances, and in this way the individual becomes a speaker and hearer of the language or languages thrust on him. The sole existence of a usable language gives human beings a potential social, historical, and intellectual dimension, linking them to each other – to the past, present and to the surrounding world.
Language is a product of human culture, and speech is an aspect, a very important aspect, of human behavior. In all cultures: “there occur, among others, certain events known as utterances, or single instances of speech produced at given times and places by individual speakers.” In order to perform their social function, the noises that people make must be grouped somehow into shared and understandable wider similarities, or what are taken to be similarities in the conventions of the language, so that recognition of meaning in each other’s speech may take place. Without this recognition, any speech utterance would be a mere jumble of noise.
The best example of how the human beings are used to own, well-known sounds they hear is that they find it difficult to pronounce sounds of a foreign language with which they are not familiar.
All the above proves how important the rules of language are in practice. Rules are the fundamental principles by which people can both use and understand own noise signs; without them they should not be understood nor should they understand others. When one knows a language one knows its rules thoroughly, though obviously not consciously, and indeed tries to impose them, even without knowingly intending to do so, on other languages. Therefore:
Language is not only a creature of society, but like other social institutions, it is also a creator of society: sharing a language is a necessary result and a necessary condition of people living together. But a language is also of the most intimate importance for individuality as such. The acquisition of language in the life of an individual is closely bound up with his mental development and growth. His sense of the world, for example, depends to a great extent on the language he uses. Language enables man both to express himself and to orient himself to the world and society.
The discussed similarities and knowledge of sounds or noises make up a bigger picture which the English language falls into. The aspect of its development and, most of all, the foreign influence on English which for most of the language history caused so much trouble in fixing one standard form will be discussed in details in the following sub-chapters.
English is now used as a first language by about 700 million speakers, and is a second language for many millions more. It appears in many guises, ranging from the ‘new’ Englishes of Africa and Asia, e.g. Indian English, through the usages of North America to the oldest established varieties (the English of England, Hiberno-English and Scots in Lowland Scotland). English is now the most widespread language in linguistic function and geographical extent that the world has ever seen.
Jen Waters a writer for The Washington Times claims that the English of today may not be the English of tomorrow. Moreover, she recalls Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics at American University who says: “The nature of language is that it’s always changing. If today you go to a play of Shakespeare, there is a chunk of vocabulary and grammar you’re not going to understand, but you can sort of make your way through it. You ignore the things you don’t understand. It’s what we do when we’re trying to understand language.”
The English language is a progressively altered form of the languages spoken in previous generations, all the way back to the origin of language itself – and English continues to evolve.
Baugh and Cable claim, that: “The English language of today reflects many centuries of development. The political and social events that have in the course of English history so profoundly affected the English people in their national life have generally had a recognizable effect on their language.” And no one can assume it different.
First of all, the Norman Conquest made English for two centuries the language mainly of the lower classes while the nobles and those associated with them used French on almost all occasions. And when English once more regained supremacy as the language of all elements of the population, it was an English greatly changed in both form and vocabulary from what it had been in 1066.
Secondly, in a similar way the Hundred Years’ War, the rise of an important middle class, the Renaissance, the expansion of the British Empire, and the growth of commerce and industry, of science and literature, each in its own way, contributed to and influenced the development of the language. References in scholarly and popular works to ‘Indian English’, ‘Caribbean English’, ‘West African English’, and other regional varieties point to the fact that the political and cultural history of the English language is not simply the history of the British Isles or of North America but a truly international history of quite divergent societies, which have caused the language to change and become enriched as it responds to their own special needs, as the above mentioned Baugh and Cable say.
According to Hogg and Devison: “The individual character of early Modern English was recognized only in the second half of the twentieth century.” Moreover, Emerson points out that:
Compared with English in the Old and Middle periods, the history of the modern standard speech is exceedingly simple. First, the language of London has remained the standard written form since its establishment, subject only to the changes incident to any language. There has been since Middle English times no great revolution affecting language materially, no conquest by a foreign nation such as that of the Danes or the Normans in the Old English period. Nor has there been any such radical change from within, as that by which West Saxon English in the oldest age was finally replaced by Midland English as the standard speech of later times. Yet there have been some changes of a general nature that may be rightly chronicled in a chapter on the modern speech, while the dialects of Modern English, although not so important in some respects as those of other periods, also deserve attention.
It is worth remembering that after the decline of French in the Middle English period, a new English standard began to develop and in this process two factors where highly influential: first of all the economic and cultural centre within the East-Midlands triangle of Oxford – Cambridge – London, and secondly the introduction of the printing press.Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthaltenThe Early Modern English period saw the continuation of this process and the increasing social status of English as an effect of printing and other far-reaching social, political, religious, and cultural changes in the Renaissance. In a nutshell, English established itself as a standard language in the Early Modern English period, but it was still in search of its identity.
Therefore, according to Smith: “It is traditional to distinguish between external history, i.e. the changing functions of varieties of the vernacular in relation to other languages and to broader developments in society, and internal history, i.e. the changing forms of the language.” Shortly after a brief part devoted to definition and time frames of the Early Modern English, the author of this thesis will approach several chosen factors that had impacts on shaping the language.
1.1. Defining Early Modern English
Three major periods are usually distinguished in its history: Old English (before c. 1100), Middle English (c. 1100–1500) and Modern English (after c. 1500). Many historians divide the Modern English period further into Early and Late Modern English with 1700 as a dividing line.
In order to appreciate the extent of transformation the language has undergone, it is interesting to take a look at the three Bible translations (Genesis 1: 3) in Figure 1 below.
- God cwæð ða: Gewurðe leoht, & leoht wearð geworht. (literally: ‘God said then: Be light, and light was made.’ Ælfric, early 11th century)
- And God seide, Liɜt be maad, and liɜt was maad. (John Wycliffe, 1380s)
- And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. (Authorized Version, 1611)
Fig. 1 Three Bible translations in OE, ME and ModE
There is no doubt, that Middle English may be distinguished from Old English or Anglo-Saxon (OE), the form of the language spoken and written before c.1100, and from Modern English (ModE), which is the term used to categorize English after c.1500.
The beginning of the period is usually associated with the introduction of printing by Caxton in 1476, its end in the second half of the seventeenth century with the end of the Stuart period and the accession of William of Orange to the throne in 1689. Therefore, the period starts out in the late Middle Ages, and includes the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment which undoubtedly were the periods of important cultural, political and intellectual upheavals. It also marks the rise of a written and spoken standard, it saw a substantial growth of literacy throughout the population, and the vernacular was extended to practically all contexts of speech and writing, i.e. also to the sciences, especially in the latter half of the eighteenth century.
Nevertheless, after Knowles, it is worth reminding that Modern Standard English can be traced to about the time of Chaucer, but was for a long time variable in spelling, in the use of words, and in the details of English grammar. After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, there was considerable interest in fixing the language, and in 1712 Jonathan Swift proposed the setting up of an Academy to do this. By default, however, it was left to scholars to decide on what should be included in Standard English.
Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 did much to standardize spellings and fix the meanings of words. Several grammars were produced, among the more influential being Lowth’s grammar of 1762. From the 1760s there was increasing interest in fixing a standard of English pronunciation, which resulted in a tradition of pronouncing dictionaries, of which the most influential was Walker’s dictionary of 1791. It was not until the present century that a standard pronunciation was described in detail. This is Daniel Jones’s Received Pronunciation, which was adopted by the BBC in the 1920s as a standard for broadcasting.
1.2. Factors that Shaped Early Modern English
Compared with English in the Old and Middle periods, the history of the modern standard speech is exceedingly simple. First, the language of London has remained the standard written form since its establishment, subject only to the changes incident to any language. There has been since Middle English times no great revolution affecting language materially, no conquest by a foreign nation such as that of the Danes or the Normans in the Old English period. Nor has there been any such radical change from within, as that by which West Saxon English in the oldest age was finally replaced by Midland English as the standard speech of later times. Yet there have been some changes of a general nature […] while the dialects of Modern English, although not so important in some respects as those of other periods, also deserve attention.
First of all, it is worth noting that the Early Modern period saw the re-establishment of English as a multi-functional language, used in spoken and written contexts throughout England, and in parts of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The language was also used in different contexts at all points on the social scale. This situation contrasts directly with the Middle English period, where the use of English in written contexts was relatively restricted (Latin and Anglo-Norman were far more common), and the use of spoken English was not automatically associated with the highest social classes. The contrast with the Old English period is less clear, while English at that time was employed in many written contexts (however, still in competition with Latin), and was the normal spoken language throughout Anglo-Saxon society.
Even from this broadly sketched outline it is immediately clear that the history of the language has been determined in various ways by social change. For many years of its history English has been subjected to a pattern of continuous small-scale change interrupted by major events which have brought about dramatic and sudden change. In order to understand the details of language change, it is important to investigate the kind of social changes that are involved and how they can bring about changes in the language.
In the Modern English period, the beginning of which is conveniently placed at 1500, certain of these new conditions come into play, conditions that previously either had not existed at all or were present in only a limited way, and they cause English to develop along somewhat different lines from those that had characterized its history in the Middle Ages. The new factors were the printing press, the rapid spread of popular education, the increased communication and means of communication, the growth of specialized knowledge, and the emergence of various forms of self-consciousness about language.
The reader should be aware of the fact that the period to define the historical context of Early Modern English is the Renaissance. While the Renaissance had already begun in Italy in the fourteenth century, its beginning in Northern Europe was around 1500. The English Renaissance lasted from about 1500 to 1650.
But what does in fact Renaissance mean one may ask. The name for this historical era simply means rebirth; it was coined by the French historian Jules Michelet and was later used by Jacob Burckhardt, a Swiss historian.
The notion of rebirth tries to capture the fact that the cultural and political ideas that shaped this period were fundamentally influenced by a new interest in the classical cultures and civilizations of ancient Rome and Greece. This conceptual rebirth triggered a great number of cultural and political changes that mark the transition from medieval to modern life.
These changes concern the structure and organization of society, people’s world-views and national identity, the organization of religious life, and the development of literature and art.
The following sub-chapter discusses the social and cultural issues that shaped the directions in which the English language evolved during this period; specifically, the author of this thesis decided to focus on the marvelous discovery of the above mentioned printing press, Renaissance as well as the growth of population.
1.2.1. The Printing Press
The obvious fact referring to the Medieval writing is that it was done manually. The centers of this unique art were from the very beginning monasteries. However, with the change of times and after first “attack” on handwriting which was the arrival of Normans in 1066, the next enemy arose. It was a printing press.
According to Baugh and Cable: “The invention of the process of printing from movable type, which occurred in Germany about the middle of the fifteenth century, was destined to exercise a far-reaching influence on all the vernacular languages of Europe.”
Printing came to England through the work of William Caxton, a merchant born in Kent, who travelled extensively in Europe as a diplomat. He was sent for exile to Cologne and it was where he came across the new art of printing. When Caxton returned to Bruges, he began to translate a romantic epic Recounting of the History of Troy by Raoul Le Fevre. After finishing the translation in 1471 he started the business of printing. It was in Bruges. The work was done by the year 1475. This was the first book to be printed in the English language.
As Hogg and Devison claim:
Caxton spent thirty years (or so he claims) on the continent, where he had learnt about movable type. This greatly speeded up the process of book production, both in comparison with manuscript production and with the printing of pages from wooden blocks. Caxton, who had previously been involved in the lucrative trade in luxury goods, which included manuscripts, soon realized the economic prospects of the new invention, and he decided to become a publisher himself.
Caxton returned to England in the spring of 1475, and by the autumn of 1476 had established a printing press in Westminster Abbey, where he remained until his death in 1491. The first full book to come from his press and therefore, the first book printed in England was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, printed in 1477. It was followed by many other editions.
Caxton had various ideas what will be a top best seller and amongst them we may find his own translations, the works of contemporary English poets, prose of various kind and also religious works. He was careful in choosing material to be printed. Moreover, he added own prologues and epilogues to the chosen writings. Worth mentioning is also the fact that he continually imported printed books from the continent.
Language was an important matter to Caxton which appears from a number of comments in his prologues to the books he printed. In the prologue to the Eneydos from 1490, for example, he wrote:
And certaynly our langage now used varyeth ferre from that whiche was used an spoken whan I was borne, for we Englysshemen ben borne under the domynacyon of the mone whiche is never stedfaste but ever waverynge: wexynge one season, and waneth & dyscreaseth another season. And that comyn Englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from another. In so moche that in my dayes happened that certayn marchauntes were in a shippe in Tamyse for to have sayled over the see into Zelande. And for lacke of wynde thai taryed atte forlond and wente to lande for to refreshe them. And one of theym named Sheffelde, a mercer, cam into an hows and axed for mete and specially he axyd after egges. And the goode wife answered that she coude speke no Frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no Frenshe, but wolde have hadde egges; and she understode hym not. And thenne at laste another sayd that he wolde have eyren; then the good wyf sayd that she understod hym wel. Loo! what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, ‘egges’ or ‘eyren’? Certaynly it is harde to playse every man bycause of dyversite & chaunge of langage. For in these days every man that is in ony reputacyon in his countre wyll utter his commynycacyon and maters in suche maners & termes that few men shall understonde theym.
 J.S. Warren, Early Modern English Literature. p. i.
 J. J. Smith, Essentials of Early English. p. 9.
 J. Smith, An Historical Study of English: Function, Form, and Change. p. 5.
 M. W. Bloomfield and L. Newmark, A Linguistic Introduction to the History of English. p. 3.
 R. L. Beals and H. Hoijer, An Introduction to Anthropology. p. 507.
 M. W. Bloomfield and L. Newmark, A Linguistic Introduction to the History of English. p. 6.
 J. J. Smith, Essentials of Early English. p. 5.
 J. Waters, Whither English?: Language Shifts with Cultural Changes. p. 1.
 A. C. Baugh and T. Cable, A History of the English Language. p. 1.
 Ibid. p. 2.
 R. Hogg and D. Davidson, A History of the English Language. p. 256.
 J. J. Smith, Essentials of Early English. p. 7.
 T. Nevalainen, An Introduction to Early Modern English. p. 1.
 G. Knowles, A Cultural History of the English Language. p. 1.
 O. F. Emerson, The History of the English Language. p. 84.
 H. Mommna, M. Mato, A Companion to the History of the English Language. p. 216.
 A. C. Baugh, T. Cable, A History of the English Language. p. 187.
 R. Hogg and D. Davidson, A History of the English Language. p. 277.
 D. Coleman, “William Caxton”. The Literary Encyclopedia. The Literary Dictionary Company. 19 October 2009. http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=801
 R. Hogg and D. Davidson, A History of the English Language. pp. 277-278.
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