Early Modern English
Shakespeare's English, King James English
William Shakespeare's Sonnet 132 in the 1609 Quarto
RegionEngland, Wales, Scottish Lowlands, Ireland and English overseas possessions
Eradeveloped into Modern English in the late 17th century
Early forms
Language codes
ISO 639-3
ISO 639-6emen
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Early Modern English (sometimes abbreviated EModE,[1] or EMnE) or Early New English (ENE) is the stage of the English language from the beginning of the Tudor period to the English Interregnum and Restoration, or from the transition from Middle English, in the late 15th century, to the transition to Modern English, in the mid-to-late 17th century.[2]

Before and after the accession of James I to the English throne in 1603, the emerging English standard began to influence the spoken and written Middle Scots of Scotland.

The grammatical and orthographical conventions of literary English in the late 16th century and the 17th century are still very influential on modern Standard English. Most modern readers of English can understand texts written in the late phase of Early Modern English, such as the King James Bible and the works of William Shakespeare, and they have greatly influenced Modern English.

Texts from the earlier phase of Early Modern English, such as the late-15th-century Le Morte d'Arthur (1485) and the mid-16th-century Gorboduc (1561), may present more difficulties but are still closer to Modern English grammar, lexicon and phonology than are 14th-century Middle English texts, such as the works of Geoffrey Chaucer.


English Renaissance

See also: English Renaissance

Transition from Middle English

Further information: Late Middle English

The change from Middle English to Early Modern English was not just a matter of changes of vocabulary or pronunciation; a new era in the history of English was beginning.[1]

An era of linguistic change in a language with large variations in dialect was replaced by a new era of a more standardised language, with a richer lexicon and an established (and lasting) literature.

Tudor period (1485–1603)

Henry VIII

Elizabethan English

Title page of Gorboduc (printed 1565). The Tragedie of Gorbodvc, whereof three Actes were wrytten by Thomas Nortone, and the two laste by Thomas Sackuyle. Sett forthe as the same was shewed before the Qvenes most excellent Maiestie, in her highnes Court of Whitehall, the .xviii. day of January, Anno Domini .1561. By the Gentlemen of Thynner Temple in London.
Elizabethan era (1558–1603)

Further information: Elizabethan literature and English Renaissance theatre

17th century

Jacobean and Caroline eras

Jacobean era (1603–1625)

Further information: Jacobean era

Caroline era and English Civil War (1625–1649)

Further information: Caroline era and English Civil War

Interregnum and Restoration

The English Civil War and the Interregnum were times of social and political upheaval and instability. The dates for Restoration literature are a matter of convention and differ markedly from genre to genre. In drama, the "Restoration" may last until 1700, but in poetry, it may last only until 1666, the annus mirabilis (year of wonders), and in prose lasts until 1688. With the increasing tensions over succession and the corresponding rise in journalism and periodicals, or until possibly 1700, when those periodicals grew more stabilised.

Development to Modern English

Main article: Modern English

The 17th-century port towns and their forms of speech gained influence over the old county towns. From around the 1690s onwards, England experienced a new period of internal peace and relative stability, which encouraged the arts including literature.

Modern English can be taken to have emerged fully by the beginning of the Georgian era in 1714, but English orthography remained somewhat fluid until the publication of Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language, in 1755.

The towering importance of William Shakespeare over the other Elizabethan authors was the result of his reception during the 17th and the 18th centuries, which directly contributes to the development of Standard English.[citation needed] Shakespeare's plays are therefore still familiar and comprehensible 400 years after they were written,[4] but the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland, which had been written only 200 years earlier, are considerably more difficult for the average modern reader.


Shakespeare's writings are universally associated with Early Modern English.

The orthography of Early Modern English was fairly similar to that of today, but spelling was unstable. Early Modern English, as well as Modern English, inherited orthographical conventions predating the Great Vowel Shift.

Early Modern English spelling was similar to Middle English orthography. Certain changes were made, however, sometimes for reasons of etymology (as with the silent ⟨b⟩ that was added to words like debt, doubt and subtle).

Early Modern English orthography had a number of features of spelling that have not been retained:

Many spellings had still not been standardised, however. For example, he was spelled as both he and hee in the same sentence in Shakespeare's plays and elsewhere.



Early Modern English consonants
Labial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
Stop pb td kg
Fricative fv θð sz ʃʒ (ç) x h
Approximant r j ʍ • w
Lateral l

Most consonant sounds of Early Modern English have survived into present-day English; however, there are still a few notable differences in pronunciation:


Early modern English vowels
Monophthongs Diphthongs
Short Long +/j/ +/w/
Close Front ɪ ɪw
Back ʊ
Close-mid Front
Mid ə əj əw
Open-mid Front ɛ ɛj
Back ɤ ɔː ɔj ɔw
Near-open Front
Back ɒ
Open a

The following information primarily comes from studies of the Great Vowel Shift;[15][16] see the related chart.

The difference between the transcription of the EME diphthong offsets with j w, as opposed to the usual modern English transcription with ɪ̯ ʊ̯ is not meaningful in any way. The precise EME realizations are not known, and they vary even in modern English.

Rhoticity/rhotic vowels

The r sound (the phoneme /r/) was probably always pronounced with following vowel sounds (more in the style of today's General American, West Country English, Irish accents and Scottish accents, although in the case of the Scottish accent the R is rolled, and less like the pronunciation now usual in most of England.)

Furthermore, at the beginning of the Early Modern English period there were three non-open and non-schwa short vowels before /r/ in the syllable coda: /e/, /i/ and /u/ (roughly equivalent to modern /ɛ/, /ɪ/ and /ʊ/; /ʌ/ had not yet developed). In London English they gradually merged into a phoneme that became modern /ɜːr/. By the time of Shakespeare, the spellings ⟨er⟩, ⟨ear⟩ and perhaps ⟨or⟩ when they had a short vowel, as in clerk, earth, or divert, had an a-like quality, perhaps about [ɐɹ] or [äɹ].[17] With the spelling ⟨or⟩, the sound may have been backed, more toward [ɒɹ] in words like worth and word.[17]

In some pronunciations, words like fair and fear, with the spellings ⟨air⟩ and ⟨ear⟩, rhymed with each other, and words with the spelling ⟨are⟩, such as prepare and compare, were sometimes pronounced with a more open vowel sound, like the verbs are and scar. See Great Vowel Shift § Later mergers for more information.

Specific words

Nature was pronounced approximately as [ˈnɛːtəɹ][14] and may have rhymed with letter or, early on, even latter. One may have been pronounced own, with both one and other using the era's long GOAT vowel, rather than today's STRUT vowels.[14] Tongue derived from the sound of tong and rhymed with song.[17]



Early Modern English had two second-person personal pronouns: thou, the informal singular pronoun, and ye, the plural (both formal and informal) pronoun and the formal singular pronoun.

"Thou" and "ye" were both common in the early 16th century (they can be seen, for example, in the disputes over Tyndale's translation of the Bible in the 1520s and the 1530s) but by 1650, "thou" seems old-fashioned or literary. It has effectively completely disappeared from Modern Standard English.

The translators of the King James Version of the Bible (begun 1604 and published 1611, while Shakespeare was at the height of his popularity) had a particular reason for keeping the informal "thou/thee/thy/thine/thyself" forms that were slowly beginning to fall out of spoken use, as it enabled them to match the Hebrew and Ancient Greek distinction between second person singular ("thou") and plural ("ye"). It was not to denote reverence (in the King James Version, God addresses individual people and even Satan as "thou") but only to denote the singular. Over the centuries, however, the very fact that "thou" was dropping out of normal use gave it a special aura and so it gradually and ironically came to be used to express reverence in hymns and in prayers.[citation needed]

Like other personal pronouns, thou and ye have different forms dependent on their grammatical case; specifically, the objective form of thou is thee, its possessive forms are thy and thine, and its reflexive or emphatic form is thyself.

The objective form of ye was you, its possessive forms are your and yours and its reflexive or emphatic forms are yourself and yourselves.

The older forms "mine" and "thine" had become "my" and "thy" before words beginning with a consonant other than h, and "mine" and "thine" were retained before words beginning with a vowel or an h, as in mine eyes or thine hand.

Personal pronouns in Early Modern English
Nominative Oblique Genitive Possessive
1st person singular I me my/mine[# 1] mine
plural we us our ours
2nd person singular informal thou thee thy/thine[# 1] thine
singular formal ye, you you your yours
3rd person singular he/she/it him/her/it his/her/his (it)[# 2] his/hers/his[# 2]
plural they them their theirs
  1. ^ a b The genitives my, mine, thy, and thine are used as possessive adjectives before a noun, or as possessive pronouns without a noun. All four forms are used as possessive adjectives: mine and thine are used before nouns beginning in a vowel sound, or before nouns beginning in the letter h, which was usually silent (e.g. thine eyes and mine heart, which was pronounced as mine art) and my and thy before consonants (thy mother, my love). However, only mine and thine are used as possessive pronouns, as in it is thine and they were mine (not *they were my).
  2. ^ a b From the early Early Modern English period up until the 17th century, his was the possessive of the third-person neuter it as well as of the third-person masculine he. Genitive "it" appears once in the 1611 King James Bible (Leviticus 25:5) as groweth of it owne accord.


Tense and number

During the Early Modern period, the verb inflections became simplified as they evolved towards their modern forms:

Modal auxiliaries

The modal auxiliaries cemented their distinctive syntactical characteristics during the Early Modern period. Thus, the use of modals without an infinitive became rare (as in "I must to Coventry"; "I'll none of that"). The use of modals' present participles to indicate aspect (as in "Maeyinge suffer no more the loue & deathe of Aurelio" from 1556), and of their preterite forms to indicate tense (as in "he follow'd Horace so very close, that of necessity he must fall with him") also became uncommon.[28]

Some verbs ceased to function as modals during the Early Modern period. The present form of must, mot, became obsolete. Dare also lost the syntactical characteristics of a modal auxiliary and evolved a new past form (dared), distinct from the modal durst.[29]

Perfect and progressive forms

The perfect of the verbs had not yet been standardised to use only the auxiliary verb "to have". Some took as their auxiliary verb "to be", such as this example from the King James Version: "But which of you... will say unto him... when he is come from the field, Go and sit down..." [Luke XVII:7]. The rules for the auxiliaries for different verbs were similar to those that are still observed in German and French (see unaccusative verb).

The modern syntax used for the progressive aspect ("I am walking") became dominant by the end of the Early Modern period, but other forms were also common such as the prefix a- ("I am a-walking") and the infinitive paired with "do" ("I do walk"). Moreover, the to be + -ing verb form could be used to express a passive meaning without any additional markers: "The house is building" could mean "The house is being built".[30]


A number of words that are still in common use in Modern English have undergone semantic narrowing.

The use of the verb "to suffer" in the sense of "to allow" survived into Early Modern English, as in the phrase "suffer the little children" of the King James Version, but it has mostly been lost in Modern English.[31] This use still exists in the idiom "to suffer fools gladly".

Also, this period includes one of the earliest Russian borrowings to English (which is historically a rare occasion itself[32]); at least as early as 1600, the word "steppe" (rus. степь)[33] first appeared in English in William Shakespeare's comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is believed that this is a possible indirect borrowing via either German or French.

The substantial borrowing of Latin and sometimes Greek words for abstract concepts, begun in Middle English, continued unabated, often terms for abstract concepts not available in English.[34]

See also


  1. ^ a b For example, Río-Rey, Carmen (9 October 2002). "Subject control and coreference in Early Modern English free adjuncts and absolutes". English Language and Linguistics. 6 (2). Cambridge University Press: 309–323. doi:10.1017/s1360674302000254. S2CID 122740133. Archived from the original on 21 February 2016. Retrieved 12 March 2009.
  2. ^ Nevalainen, Terttu (2006). An Introduction to Early Modern English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
  3. ^ Stephen L. White, "The Book of Common Prayer and the Standardization of the English Language" The Anglican, 32:2(4-11), April 2003
  4. ^ Cercignani, Fausto, Shakespeare's Works and Elizabethan Pronunciation, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1981.
  5. ^ Burroughs, Jeremiah; Greenhill, William (1660). The Saints Happinesse. M.S. Introduction uses both happineſs and bleſſedneſs.
  6. ^ Sacks, David (2004). The Alphabet. London: Arrow. p. 316. ISBN 0-09-943682-5.
  7. ^ a b Salmon, V., (in) Lass, R. (ed.), The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. III, CUP 2000, p. 39.
  8. ^ Sacks, David (2003). Language Visible. Canada: Knopf. pp. 356–57. ISBN 0-676-97487-2.
  9. ^ W. W. Skeat, in Principles of English Etymology, claims that the substitution was encouraged by the ambiguity between u and n; if sunne could just as easily be misread as sunue or suvne, it made sense to write it as sonne. (Skeat, Principles of English Etymology, Second Series. Clarendon Press, 1891, page 99.)
  10. ^ Fischer, A., Schneider, P., "The dramatick disappearance of the ⟨-ick⟩ spelling", in Text Types and Corpora, Gunter Narr Verlag, 2002, pp. 139ff.
  11. ^ a b "Early modern English pronunciation and spelling". Archived from the original on 26 June 2019. Retrieved 26 June 2019.
  12. ^ a b See The History of English (online) Archived 9 December 2014 at the Wayback Machine as well as David Crystal's Original Pronunciation (online). Archived 9 December 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ The American Language 2nd ed. p. 71
  14. ^ a b c d e f Crystal, David. "David Crystal – Home". Archived from the original on 20 October 2017. "Hark, hark, what shout is that?" Around the Globe 31. [based on article written for the Troilus programme, Shakespeare's Globe, August 2005: 'Saying it like it was'
  15. ^ Stemmler, Theo. Die Entwicklung der englischen Haupttonvokale: eine Übersicht in Tabellenform [Trans: The development of the English primary-stressed-vowels: an overview in table form] (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1965).
  16. ^ Rogers, William Elford. "Early Modern English vowels". Furman University. Archived from the original on 13 January 2015. Retrieved 5 December 2014.
  17. ^ a b c d e Crystal, David (2011). "Sounding out Shakespeare: Sonnet Rhymes in Original Pronunciation Archived 20 October 2017 at the Wayback Machine". In Vera Vasic (ed.) Jezik u Upotrebi: primenjena lingvsitikja u cast Ranku Bugarskom. Novi Sad and Belgrade: Philosophy faculties. P. 298-300.
  18. ^ Cercignani, Fausto (1981), Shakespeare's Works and Elizabethan Pronunciation, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  19. ^ Barber, Charles Laurence (1997). Early modern English (second ed.). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 108–116. ISBN 0-7486-0835-4. Archived from the original on 9 November 2023. Retrieved 31 August 2020.
  20. ^ Wells, John C. (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 199. ISBN 0-521-22919-7. (vol. 1). (vol. 2)., (vol. 3).
  21. ^ Crystal, David. "Sounding Out Shakespeare: Sonnet Rhymes in Original Pronunciation". In Vera Vasic (ed.), Jezik u upotrebi: primenjena lingvistikja u cast Ranku Bugarskom [Language in use: applied linguistics in honour of Ranko Bugarski] (Novi Sad and Belgrade: Philosophy Faculties, 2011), 295-306300. p. 300.
  22. ^ E. J. Dobson (English pronunciation, 1500–1700, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968, passim) and other scholars before him postulated the existence of a vowel /y/ beside /iu̯/ in early Modern English. But see Fausto Cercignani, On the alleged existence of a vowel /y:/ in early Modern English, in “English Language and Linguistics”, 26/2, 2022, pp. 263–277 [1] Archived 9 November 2023 at the Wayback Machine.
  23. ^ Lass, Roger, ed. (1999). The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III. Cambridge: Cambridge. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-521-26476-1.
  24. ^ Lass, Roger, ed. (1999). The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III. Cambridge: Cambridge. pp. 165–66. ISBN 978-0-521-26476-1.
  25. ^ Charles Laurence Barber (1997). Early Modern English. Edinburgh University Press. p. 171. ISBN 978-0-7486-0835-5.
  26. ^ Charles Laurence Barber (1997). Early Modern English. Edinburgh University Press. p. 165. ISBN 978-0-7486-0835-5.
  27. ^ Charles Laurence Barber (1997). Early Modern English. Edinburgh University Press. p. 172. ISBN 978-0-7486-0835-5.
  28. ^ Lass, Roger, ed. (1999). The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III. Cambridge: Cambridge. pp. 231–35. ISBN 978-0-521-26476-1.
  29. ^ Lass, Roger, ed. (1999). The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III. Cambridge: Cambridge. p. 232. ISBN 978-0-521-26476-1.
  30. ^ Lass, Roger, ed. (1999). The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III. Cambridge: Cambridge. pp. 217–18. ISBN 978-0-521-26476-1.
  31. ^ Doughlas Harper, https://www.etymonline.com/word/suffer#etymonline_v_22311 Archived 4 November 2018 at the Wayback Machine
  32. ^ Mirosława Podhajecka Russian borrowings in English: A dictionary and corpus study, p.19
  33. ^ Max Vasmer, Etymological dictionary of the Russian language
  34. ^ Franklin, James (1983). "Mental furniture from the philosophers" (PDF). Et Cetera. 40: 177–191. Archived (PDF) from the original on 23 November 2008. Retrieved 29 June 2021.