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EARLY MODERN ENGLISH

EARLY MODERN ENGLISH Short forms EModE, eModE. From one point of view, the earlier part of the third stage of a single continuously developing English language; from another, the first stage of a distinct language, MODERN ENGLISH, that evolved from an earlier language, MIDDLE ENGLISH. Scholars differ in deciding the best approximate date for both the beginning of the period (c.1450, c.1475, or c.1500) and its end (1660, the year of the Restoration of Charles II, or c.1700, a convenient point during the Augustan Age). In this volume, the span is c.1450–c.1700. EModE was an unsettled language whose great variability can be seen in the following excerpts of prose texts from the beginning, middle, and end of the period.

1490

. William CAXTON, printer. The opening words of the Prologue to his translation of The Aeneid:
After dyuerse werkes made / translated and achieued / hauyng noo werke in hande. I sittyng in my studye where as laye many dyuerse paunflettis and bookys. happened that to my hande cam a lytyl booke in frenshe. whiche late was translated oute of latyn by some noble clerke of fraunce whiche booke is named Eneydos / made in latyn by that noble poete & grete clerke vyrgyle / whiche booke I sawe ouer and redde therin. How after the generall destruccyon of the grete Troye. Eneas departed berynge his olde fader anchises vpon his sholdres / his lityl son yolus on his honde.

1582.

Richard MULCASTER, headmaster. From ch. xiii of his textbook The First Part of the Elementarie, entitled ‘That the English tung hath in it self sufficient matter to work her own artificial direction, for the right writing there of’:
As for the antiquitie of our speche, whether it be measured by the ancient Almane, whence it cummeth originallie, or euen but by the latest terms which it borroweth daielie from foren tungs, either of pure necessitie in new matters, or of mere brauerie, to garnish it self withall, it cannot be young. Onelesse the Germane himself be young, which claimeth a prerogatiue for the age of his speche, of an infinit prescription: Onelesse the Latin and Greke be young, whose words we enfranchise to our own vse, tho not allwaie immediatlie from them selues, but mostwhat thorough the Italian, French, and Spanish: Onelesse other tungs [ … ] will for companie sake be content to be young, that ours maie not be old.

1712.

Jonathan Swift, clergyman and writer. From ‘A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue’:
To examine into the several Circumstances by which the Language of a Country may be altered, would force me to enter into a wide Field. I shall only observe, That the Latin, the French, and the English, seem to have undergone the same Fortune. The first, from the days of Romulus to those of Julius Caesar, suffered perpetual Changes. and by what we meet in those Authors who occasionally speak on that Subject, as well as from certain Fragments of old Laws, it is manifest, that the Latin, Three hundred Years before Tully [Cicero], was as unintelligible in his Time, as the English and French of the same period are now; and these two have changed as much since William the Conqueror, (which is but little less than Seven hundred Years) as the Latin appears to have done in the like Term.All three texts exhibit great differences in their written conventions. Sometimes these differences grew less over the centuries; for example, compare Caxton's spelling variants lytyl and lityl (little), Mulcaster's consistent tung and young (repeated in the same forms several times), and Swift's distinctly modern spelling. Where Caxton has frenshe and destruccyon, Mulcaster and Swift have French and Mulcaster has prescription. Sometimes, however, variability runs through the whole period: compare Caxton's nouns in lower-case roman letters (including most of his proper nouns such as fraunce, vyrgyle, anchises, but excluding Eneydos, Eneas, Troye), Mulcaster's lower-case roman for common nouns but initial capitals and italic for proper nouns, and Swift's nouns all with initial capitals, the proper names set in italic. Punctuation achieved relative standardization during the period: for example, contrast Caxton's unfamiliar use of virgule (slash) and full point with the familiar uses of comma and full point by Mulcaster and Swift. A grammatical change that took place mainly in the 17c is shown where Mulcaster uses -th for the third-person singular of the verb (it cummeth, it boroweth, which claimeth) but Swift uses -s (the Latin appears, not *appeareth).

In general terms, EModE was marked by: (1) A major change in the vowel system of south-eastern English: see GREAT VOWEL SHIFT. (2) The development of a single literary and administrative variety of the language that was later to be called ‘STANDARD ENGLISH’. (3) The spread of English throughout Britain and Ireland and the beginning of the retreat of the Celtic languages of Wales, Ireland, the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man. (4) The further spread of English to colonies in North America and the Caribbean, and to trading stations in Africa and Asia. (5) Massive lexical borrowing from other languages during the Renaissance and Reformation, especially from LATIN and GREEK for scholarly purposes, from ITALIAN for literary and artistic purposes, and particularly through SPANISH and PORTUGUESE from sources beyond Europe. (6) The translation into English of many major foreign works, including a succession of versions of the BIBLE, classical Greek and Latin works, and contemporary writings from the European mainland. (7) The growth of a strong vernacular literature marked by the flowering of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and the precursors of the novel.

See AUREATE DICTION, BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER, EUPHUISM, HISTORY OF ENGLISH, INKHORN TERM, PROSE, SHAKESPEARE.

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