Week 15  Module 6 Lesson 6.2.3 History of English: Modern English

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.


The Diamond Sutra 金剛般若波羅蜜多經 "The Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom of the Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion" dated 868 AD. A woodblock print copy is owned by the British Museum

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.

Hand Illustrated Book, The Luttrell Psalter (picture book of the Luttrell family), c. 1325

Gutenberg's invention revolutionized not just linguistics but the whole world. Why is this an important development?

Guttenberg's Printing Press

Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1400 - 1468)

Gutenberg's Printing Press, Deutches Museum, Munich, Germany.


  • Mass-produced books are cheaper to create than hand illustrated books. More people can afford to own and read books.
  • No longer the property of the monasteries, more people are able to access books, flyers, and other printed materials. The availability of books encouraged literacy, thus influencing the whole economic system of nations. 
  • The speed of printed books means information can be distributed faster. 
  • The spelling of words becomes standardized. Before the press, words were spelled in whatever way the writer wished. With the printing press, spelling of words is set and rules created.

Gutenberg Bible copyright British Library Board

Copy on paper vol 1 folio 1r

Pages from the Gutenberg Bible 

It is believed that about 180 copies were printed. Significant parts of 48 copies still survive. The British Library has two complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible and a small but important fragment of a third copy. One copy (shown, left) was transferred in 1829 to the British Library with the library of King George III (1738-1820).

Close up of British Library Gutenberg Bible



Printed Materials

  1. Read all about The Diamond Sutra and see woodcut prints owned by the British Museum.

  2. Learn more about wood cuts at the Library of Congress website A Heavenly Craft: The Woodcut in Early Printed Books

  3. Learn about the Gutenberg Bible at two good websites: The University of Texas Austin (which owns one of the 48 complete copies of the GB) OR Treasures in Full: The Gutenberg Bible from the British Museum (which own 2 copies)


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.  


King James Bible, First Edition, 1611

Psalm 23 KJV 1611

Close up, Psalm 23 from the King James Bible, First Edition, 1611

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):

Our father which art in heauen,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth as it is in heauen.
Giue us this day our daily bread.
And forgiue us our debts as we forgiue our debters.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliuer us from euill.

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
theod-cyninga thrym gefrunon,
hu tha aTHelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceathena threatum.

Lo! the Spear-Danes' glory through splendid achievements
The folk-kings' former fame we have heard of,
How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.
Oft Scyld the Scefing from scathers in numbers...

Now compare this to a passage from Hamlet:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 't is nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
(Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1)


Example of Early Modern English

A famous passage from Shakespeare's Hamlet (written sometime between 1599 - 1601) : "To be or not to be" lines




To Be or Not To Be

Shakespeare's plays were meant to be watched and listened to. Here are two versions of the "To be or not to be" soliloquy 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.


My finger in thine eye, thou qualing pox-marked fustilarian!

William Shakespeare's writing contained a number of very colorful insults, including words that he simply invented. Insult your friends with these websites:
  • Shakespeare's Insults from No Sweat Shakespeare
  • Pete Levin's Shakespearean Insult Kit. Just pick the words form the column, and there you have it, "Phui" I say, thou churlish urchin-snouted mumble-news (I could do this all day.)


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:

  • some irregular verbs have become regularized:  spake>spoke
  • 3rd singular present tense verb forms change:  he doest/doth/does.
  • the old 2nd singular pronoun forms, thou, thee, thy/thine, have been replaced by: you, your.
  •   The Middle English plural was formerly /es/ in all cases.  The vowel dropped out except after sibilants.
  • the -th of some verb forms became -s (loveth, love; hath, has). auxiliary verbs also changed (he is risen, he has risen). The period of modern English is said to have begun after the merger of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French into a single language.

Phonological changes: These seemed to be spontaneous and internal rather than caused by any external influence.

  • Great Vowel Shift: The greatest phonological change -- the Great Vowel Shift that occurred towards the end of Middle English that we looked at in the previous lesson on Middle English -- continued to affect vowels. Modern English spelling, despite the efforts of every generation of schoolchildren since Shakespeare, still reflects the pronunciation in early modern English, BEFORE the great vowel shift.  
  • the velar fricative [gh] dropped out:  night, light, though (Compare modern German words, where this sound did not disappear: Nacht, Licht, sorge.)  These changes, alas, are not reflected in modern English spelling which reflects pronunciation during the time of Henry VIII (early 1500's).

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. 

How did ancient Latin and Greek terms come to be borrowed into English? Although English was then the spoken language of England, most scientific and religious writing was done in a scholarly version of Latin rather than in the English vernacular.  As the Norman-French nobility forgot French and shifted to the mixed English-French that we call middle English, Latin came to replace French as the language of writing. This is yet another example of diglossia, using two forms of speech by the same people in a single society, each of which has its own particular sphere of usage.  The use of Norman French and Anglo-Saxon in the early period of Norman rule in England was another example of diglossia, although at first each group spoke its own language exclusively. 

Latin words were easily borrowed into spoken English during the late Middle Ages because of their similarity to earlier French borrowings:  example/exemplary,  pensive/ponder,  enormous, item, suicide, etc.     

Many of the Latin terms which were already in the language--either from the time of West Germanic (the first Latin borrowings), or from the Christianization (the second Latin borrowing), or from Norman French--were revised to match their classical Latin spelling by well-meaning scholars.  This accounts for other idiosyncracies of modern English spelling and morphology:   thus, painture was turned into picturedette began to be spelled as debt, verdit became verdict.  Some Latin and Greek plurals were borrowed:  datum/data;  cactus/cacti, formula/formulae.

Latin eventually lost out as the medium of intellectual communication. The rise of nationalism led to increased use of native spoken languages rather than Latin.  The appearance of the King James Bible in the early 17th century did much to popularize the use of English over Latin and Greek in writing.  By 1700 English had virtually replaced Latin as the accepted means of written communication.

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

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

Detail of the hieroglyphic text from the Rosetta Stone.

Detail of the demotic text from the Rosetta Stone.

Detail of the Greek text from the Rosetta Stone.


Demotic Greek
The Rosetta Stone displayed the same text in three different scripts: Egyptian hieroglyphs, Egyptian Demotic and Greek.

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.

Thomas Young

Jean Francois Champollion

Thomas Young (1773 - 1829) Jean Francois Champollion (1790 - 1832)

The painstaking work of deciphering was done by Young and Champollion lead to the translation of all ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing possible.


Make your own cartouche

What does your name look like in Egyptian hieroglyphics? Try one of these two websites: Hieroglyphic Translator from Virtual Egypt or Make Your Own Cartouche from Hartcourt School.


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.

  1. North European aboriginal terms into Common Germanic (before 2000BC)
  2. Latin terms from the Romans into West Germanic (100BC-400AD)
  3. Christianized Latin terms into Anglo Saxon (after 587AD)
  4. Old Norse into Anglo Saxon (700-900AD)
  5. Norman French into Old English (1066-1300AD)
  6. Ancient Latin and Greek into Modern English 1500- through the present)

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. . .


Mod 6 Activity 1 The Etymology of Common English Words

The origins of English words is a fascinating field. Follow these directions to complete this activity successfully:
  1. Download and complete Mod 6 Activity 1 (.doc) form.
  2. Follow the directions. Provide (1) the language(s) the word originated from and (2) the approximate year the word entered the English language.
  3. You'll find word etymology in a dictionary, or try Online Etymology Dictionary.
  4. Be sure NOT to simply copy and paste from the website onto the activity form.
  5. Save as yourlastname_mod6activity1. Be sure to save as Word .doc or .docx or rich text .rtf. Do not save as .wps, wpd, or .html.
  6. Submit this activity in the drop box by the calendar deadline.


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Ling 102/WI Introduction to the Study of Language, University of Hawai'i - Leeward Community College
Professor Pat Kamalani Hurley

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