1902 Encyclopedia > English Language > Modern English

English Language
(Part 4)

Modern English

MODERN ENGLISH thus dates from Caxton. The language had at length reached the all but inflexionless state which it now presents. A single older verbal form the southern –eth of the third person singular, continued to be the literary prose form throughout the 16th century, but the northern form in –s was intermixed with it in poetry (where it saved a syllable), and must ere long, as we see form Shakespeare, have taken its place in familiar speech. The fuller an, none, mine, thine, in the early part of the 16th century at least, were used in positions where their contracted forms a no, my, thy are now found. But with such minute exceptions, the accidence of the 16th century was the accidence of the 19th. While, however, the older inflexions had disappeared, there was as yet no general agreement as to the mode of their replacement. Hence the 16th century shows a syntactic licence and freedom which distinguishes it strikingly from that of later times. The language seems to be in a plastic, unformed state, and its writers, as it were, experiment with it, bending it to constructions which now seem indefensible. Old distinctions of case and mood have disappeared from noun and verb, without fashion having yet decided what pre-positions or auxiliary verbs shall most fittingly convey their meaning. The laxity of word-order which was permitted in older states of the language by the formal expression of relations was often continued though the inflexions which expressed the relations and disappeared. Partial analogy was followed in allowing forms to be identified I one case, because, in another, such identification was accidentally produced, as for instance the past participles of write and take were made wrote and took, because the contracted participles of bind and break were bound and broke. Finally, because, in dropping inflexions, the former distinctions even between parts of speech had disappeared, so that iron, e.g., was at once noun, adjective, and verb, clean, adjective, verb, and adverb, it appeared as if nay word whatever might be used in any grammatical relation, where it conveyed the idea of the speaker. Thus as has been pointed out by Dr Abbott, "you can happy your friend, malice or foot your enemy, or fall an axe on his neck. You can speak and act easy, free, excellent, you can talk of fair instead of beauty (fairness), and a pale instead of a paleness. A he is used for a man, and a lady is described by a gentleman as ‘the fairest she he has yet beheld." An adverb can be used as a verb, as ‘they askance their eyes;’ as a noun, ‘the backward and abyss of time;’ or as an adjective, a ‘seldom pleasure,’" [Footnote 399-1] For, as he also says, "clearness was preferred to grammatical correctness, and brevity both to correctness and clearness. Hence it was common to place words in the older in which they came uppermost in the mind without much regard to syntax, and the result was a forcible and perfectly unambiguous but ungrammatical sentence, such as

The prince that feeds great natures they will slay him.
-- Ben Jonson.

Or, as instances of brevity,

Be guilty of my death since of my crime.
-- Shakespeare.

It cost more to get than to lose in a day.
-- Ben Jonson."

These characteristics, together characteristics, together with the presence of words now obsolete ort archaic, and the use of existing words in senses different from our own, as general for specific, literal for metaphorical, and vice versa, which are so apparent to every reader of the 16th century literature, make it useful to separate early Modern or Tudor English from the subsequent and still existing stage, since the consensus of usage has declared in favour of individual senses and constructions which are alone admissible in ordinary language.

The commencement of the Tudor period was contemporaneous with the Renaissance in art and literature, and the dawn of modern discoveries in geography and science. The revival of the study of the classical writers of Greece and Rome, and the translation of their works into the vernacular, led to the introduction of an immense number of new words derived from these languages, either to express new ideas and objects, or to indicate new distinctions in or grouping of old ideas. Often also it seemed as if scholars were so pervaded with the form as well as the spirit of the old, that it came more natural to them to express themselves in words borrowed from the old than in their native tongue, and thus words of Latin origin were introduced even when English already possessed perfectly good equivalents. As has already been stated, the French words of Norman and Angevin introduction, being principally Latin words in an altered form, when used as English supplied models whereby other Latin words could be converted into English ones, and it is after these models that the Latin words introduced during the since the 16th century have been fashioned. There is nothing in the form of the words procession and progression to show that the one was used in England in the 11th, the other not till the 16th century. Moreover, as the formation of new words from Latin has gone on in French as well as in English since the Renaissance, we cannot tell whether such words, e.g., as persuade and persuasion, were borrowed from their French equivalents or formed in England independently. With some words indeed it is impossible to say whether they were formed in England directly from Latin, borrowed from contemporary late French, or has been in England since the Norman period; even photograph, geology, and telephone have the form that they would have if they had been living words in the mouths of Greeks, Latin, French, and English from the beginning, instead of formations of the 19th century. [Footnote 399-2] While every writer was thus introducing new words according to his idea of their being needed, it naturally happened that a large number were not accepted by contemporaries of posterity; a portentous list might be formed of these mintages of the 16th and 17th centuries, which either never became current coin, or circulated only as it were for a moment.

The voyages of English navigators in the latter part of the 16th century also introduced a considerable number of Spanish words, and American words in Spanish forms, of which potato, tobacco, cargo, armadillo, alligator, galleon may serve as examples.

The date of 1611, which coincides with the end of Shakespeare’s library work and the appearance of the Authorized Version of the Bible (a compilation from the various 16th century versions), may be taken as making the close of Tudor English. The language was thenceforth Modern in structure, style, and expression, although the spelling did not settle down to present usage till about the Restoration. The distinctive features of modern English have already been anticipated by way of contrast with preceding stages of the language. It is only necessary to refer to the fact that the vocabulary is now much more composite than at any previous period. The immense development of the physical sciences has called for a corresponding extension of terminology which has been supplied from Latin and especially Greek; and although these terms are in the first instance technical, yet with the spread of education and general diffusion of the rudiments and appliances of science, the boundary line between technical and general, indefinite at the best, tends more and more to melt away, in addition to the fact that words still technical become general in figurative or metonymic senses. Ache, diamond, stomach, comet, organ, tone, ball, carte, are none the less familiar because once technical words. Commercial, social, artistic, or literary contact has also led to the adoption of numerous words from modern European languages, especially French, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch (these two at a less recent period): thus form French soirée, séance, depot, debris, programme, prestige; from Italian bust, cartoon, concert, regatta, ruffian; from Portuguese caste, palaver; from Dutch yacht, skipper, schooner, sloop. Commercial intercourse and colonization have extended far beyond Europe, and given us words more or fewer form Hindu, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Malay, Chinese, and from American, Australian, Polynesian, and African languages. [Footnote 399-3] More important even than these perhaps are the dialectal words that form time to time obtain literary recognition, restoring to us obsolete Old English forms, and not seldom words of Celtic or Danish origin, which have been preserved in local dialects, and thus at length find their way into the standard language. As to the actual proportion of the various elements, it is probable that original English words do not now form more than a third or perhaps a fourth of the total entries in a full English dictionary; and it might seem strange, therefore, that we still identify the language with that of the 9th century, and class it as a member of the Law German division. But this explains itself, which we consider that of the total words in a dictionary only a small portion are used by any one individual in speaking or even in writing; that this portion includes all or nearly all the Anglo-Saxon words, and but a small fraction of the others. The latter are in fact almost all names,—the vast majority names of things (nouns), a smaller number names of attributes and actions (adjectives and verbs), and, from their very nature, names of the things, attributes, and actions which come less usually or very rarely under our notice. Thus in an ordinary book, a novel or story, the foreign elements will amount to form 10 to 15 per cent. of the whole; as the subject becomes more recondite or technical their number will increase, till in a work on chemistry or abstruse mathematics the proportion may be 40 per cent. But after all, it is not the question whence words may have been taken, but how they are used in a language that settles its character. If new words then adopted conform themselves. If new words when adopted conform language, it makes absolutely no difference whether they are transferred from some other languages, or invented off at the ground. In either case they are new words to begin with; in either case also, if they are needed, they will become as thoroughly native; i.e., familiar from childhood to those who use the, as those that possess the longest native pedigree. In this respect English is still strictly the same language it was in the days of Alfred; and comparing its history with that of other Low German dialects, there is no reason to believe that its grammar or structure would have been different, however different its vocabulary might have been, if the Norman Conquest had never taken place.

The preceding sketch has had reference mainly to the inflexional changes which the language has undergone; distinct from, though intimately connected with these (as where the confusion or loss of inflexions was a consequence of the weakening of final sounds) are the great phonetic changes which have taken place between the 8th and 19th centuries, and which result in making modern English words no element has been lost, as in words like stone, mine, doom, day, child, bridge, shoot, A.S. stán, mín, dóm, daog, cild, brucg, sceót. The history of English sounds has been treated at length by Mr A. J. Ellis and Mr Henry Sweet [Footnote 400-1] (with whose results those of Dr Weymount [Footnote 400-2] should be compared); and it is only necessary her to indicate the broad facts, which are the following. (1) In an accented closed syllable, original short vowels have remained nearly unchanged; thus the words at, men, bill, God, dust, are pronounced now nearly as in O.E., though the last two were more like the Scotch o and North English u respectively, and in most words the short a had a broader sound like the provincial a in man. (2) Long accented vowels and diphthongs have undergone a regular laut0vershieburg or shift towards higher and more advanced positions, so that the words, bán, haer, soece, or séce, stól (i.e., bahn or bawn, hêr, sök and saik, st_le) are now b_ne, hair, seek, stool; while the two high vowels ú (=oo) and I (ee) have become diphthongs, as hús, scír, now house, shire, though the old sound of u remains in the north (hoose), and the original I in the pronunciation sheer, approved by Walker, "as in machine, and shire, and magazine." (3) Short vowels in an open syllable have usually been lengthened, as in n_-ma, c_fa, now name, cove; but to this there are many exceptions. (1) Vowels in terminal unaccented syllables have all sunk into short obscure _, and then, if final, disappeared; so oxg, séo, wudu, became ox-e, se-e, wood-e, and then ox, see, wood; oxan, lufod, now oxen, loved, lov’d; writan, writon, later writ-en, writ-e, now write, i.e., wr_t. (5) back consonants, c,q, sc, in connection with front vowels, have often become palatalized to ch, j, sh, as circe, ryeg, fisc, now church, ridge, fish. A final g has passed through a guttural or palatal continuant to w or y, forming a diphthong or new vowel, as in boga, laga, daeg, heg, drig, now bow, law, day, hay, dry. W and h have disappeared before r and l, a sin write, wlisp; h final (=gh) has become f, k, w, or nothing, as ruh, hoh, boh, deah, heag, now rough, hough, bough, dough, high=rug, b_w, d_, h_. R after a vowel has practically disappeared in standard English, or at most become vocalized, or combined with the vowel, as in hear, bar, more, her. These and other changes have taken place gradually, and in accordance with well-known phonetic laws; the details as to time and mode may be studied in the special works already named. It may be mentioned that the total loss of grammatical gender in English, and the almost complete disappearance of cases, are purely phonetic phenomena. Gender was practically (whatever its remote origin) the us of the adjectives and pronouns with certain distinctive terminations, in accordance with the kind of nouns to which they were attached; when these distinctive terminations were uniformly leveled to final _, or other weak sounds, and thus ceased to distinguish nouns into kinds, the distinction into kinds having no other existence disappeared. Thus when poet gode hors, _one godan hund, _a godan bóc, became, by phonetic weakening, _e goode hors, _e goode hownd, _e goode boke, the words horse, hound, book were no longer different kinds of nouns; grammatical gender had ceased to exist. The concord of the pronouns is now regulated by rationality and sex, instead of gender, which ahs no existence in English. The man who lost his life; the bird which built its nest.

Our remarks form the end of the 14th century have been confined to the standard or literary (form of English, for of the other dialects from that date (with the exception of the northern English in Scotland, where it became in a social and literary sense a distinct language), we have no history. We know, however, that they continued to exist as local and popular forms of speech, as well from the fact that they exist still as from the statements of writers during the interval. Thus Puttenham in his Arte of English Poesie, 1589, says—

"Our maker [i.e., poet] therefore at these dayes shall not follow Piers Plowman, nor Gower, nor Lydgate, nor yet Chaucer, for their language is now not of use with us : neither shall be take the termes of Northern-men, such as they use in dayly talke, whether they be noble men or gentle men or of their best clarkes, all is a [=one] matter; nor in effect any speech used beyond the river of Trent, though no man can deny but that theirs is the purer English Saxon at this day, yet it is not so Courtly nor so currant as our Southerne english is, no more is the far Westerne mans speech: ye shall therefore take the usual speach of the Court, and that of London and the shires lying about London within 1x myles, and not much above. I say not this but that in every shyre of England there be gentlemen and others that speake but specially write as good Southerne as we of Middlesex or Surrey do, but not the common people of every shire, to whom the gentlemen, and also their learned clarkes do for the most part condescend, but herein we are already ruled by th’ English Dictionaries and other bookes written by learned men." Arber’s Reprint, p. 157.

In comparatively modern times, there has been a revival of interest in these long-neglected forms of English, several of which, following in the wake of the revival of Lowland Scotch last century, have produced a considerable literature in the form of local poems, tales, and "folk-lore." In these respects Lancashire, Cumberland, Yorkshire, Devonshire, and Dorsetshire, the "far north" and " far west" of Puttenham, where the dialect was felt to be so independent of literary English as not to be branded as a vulgar corruption of it, stand prominent. More recently the dialects have been investigated philologically, a department in which, as in English philology generally, the name of Richard Garnett takes the lead. The work has been carried out zealously by Prince Louis Louise Lucien Bonaparte, Mr A. J. Ellis, and the Rev. W.W. Skeat, to whom is due the foundation of a Dialect Society for the investigation of this branch of philology. The researches of Prince L.L. Bonaparte and Mr Ellis have resulted in the classification and mapping of the existing dialects. [Footnote 401-1] They recognize a Northern dialect lying north of a line drawn from Morecambe Bay to the Humber, which, with the kindred Scottish dialects (already investigated and classed), [Footnote 401-2] is the direct descendent of early northern English, and a South-western dialect occupying Somerset, Wilts, Dorset, Gloucester, and western Hampshire, which, with the Devonian dialect beyond it, are the descendants of early southern English and the still older West-Saxon and Alfred. This dialect must in the 14th century have been spoken everywhere south of Thames; but the influence of London caused its extinction in Surrey, Sussex, and Kent, so that already in Puttenham it had become "far western." An East Midland dialect, extending from south Lincolnshire to London, occupies the cradle-land of the standard English speech, and still shows least variation from it. Between and around these typical dialects are ten others, representing the old Midland proper, or dialects between it and the others already mentioned. Thus "north of Trent" the North-western dialect of south Lancashire, Cheshire, Derby, and Stafford, with that of Shropshire, represents the early West Midland English, of which several specimens remain; while the North-eastern of Nottingham and north Lincolnshire represents the dialect of the Lay of Havelok. With the North Midland dialect of south-west Yorkshire, these represent forms of speech which to the modern Londoner, as to Puttenham, are still decadently northern, though properly intermediate between northern and midland, and preserving interesting traces of the midland pronouns and verbal inflexions. There is a is an Eastern dialect in the East Anglian counties; a Midland in Leicester and Warwick shires; a Western in Hereford, Worcester, and north Gloucestershire, intermediate between south-western and north-western, and representing the dialect of Piers Plowman. Finally, between the east midland and south-western, in the counties of Buckingham, Oxford, Berks, Hants, Surrey, and Sussex, there is a dialect which must have once been south-western, bit of which the most salient characters have been rubbed off by proximity to London and the east Midland speech. In east Sussex and Kent this South-eastern dialect attains to a more distinctive character. The Kentish form of early Southern English evidently maintained its existence more toughly than that of the counties immediately south of London. If we can trust the fidelity of the dialect attributed to Edgar in Lear, it was still strongly marked in the days of Shakespeare. In the south-eastern corner of Ireland, in the baronies of Forth and Bargy, in county Wexford, a very archaic form of English, of which specimens have been preserved, [Footnote 401-3] was still spoken in the present century. In all probability it dated from the first English invasion. In many parts of Ulster forms of Lowland Scotch dating to the settlement under James I. are still spoken; but the English of Ireland generally seems to represent 16th and 17th century English, as in the pronunciation of tea, wheat (tay, whait), largely affected of course by the native Celtic. Beyond the limits of the British Isles, English is the language of extensive regions, now or formerly colonies. In all these countries the presence of numerous new objects and new conditions of life has led to the supplementing of the vocabulary by the adoption of words from native languages, and special adaptation of English words. The use of a common literature, however prevents the overgrowth of these local peculiarities, and also makes them familiar to Englishmen. It is only in the older states of the American Union that anything like a local dialect has been produced; and even there the so-called archaic English forms which have been lost or have become dialectal in England than a development of the American soil.

The steps by which English, from being the language of a few thousand invaders along the eastern and southern seaboard of Britain, has been diffused by conquest and colonization over its present area form a subject too large for the limits of this article. It need only be remarked that within the confines of Britain itself the process is not yet complete. Representatives of earlier languages survive in Wales and the Scottish Highlands, though in neither case can the substitution of English be remote. In Ireland, where English was introduced by conquest much later, Irish is still spoken in patches all over the country; though English is understood, and probably spoken after a fashion, everywhere. At opposite extremities of Britain the Cornish of Cornwall and the Norse dialects of Orkney and Shetland died out very gradually in the course of last century. The Manx, or Celtic of man, is even now in the last stage of dissolution; and in the Channel Isles the Norman patois of Jersey and Guernsey have largely yielded to English within the last thirty years.

The accompanying table (page 402) will graphically represent the chronological and dialectal development of English. [Footnote 401-4] Various names have been proposed for the different stages; it seems only necessary to add to those in the table the descriptive names of Dr Abbott, who has proposed (How to Parse, p. 298) to call the Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, the "Synthetical or Inflexional Period’" the Old English Transition (Late Anglo-Saxon of Mr Skeat), the "Period of Confusion;" the Early Middle English, "Analytical Period" (1250-1350); the Late Middle English, "National Period" (1350-1500); the Tudor English, "period of Licence;" and the Modern English, "Period of Settlement."


399-1 A Shakespearian Grammar, by E.A. Abbott, M.A. To this book we are largely indebted for its admirable summary of the characters to Tudor English.

399-2 Evangelist, astronomy, dialogue, are words that have so lived, of which their form is the result. Photograph, &c., take this form as if they had the same history.

399-3 See extended lists of the foreign words in English in Dr Morris’s Historical Outlines of English Accidence, p. 33.

400-1 See list works at the end of this article. An important work by Mr Henry Nicol, on the history of "French Sounds in English," is in course of publication for the Philological Society.

400-2 On Early English Pronunciation, &c., by R.F. Weymouth, D. Lit., M.A.., London, 1874, and paper On "Here" and "There" to Chaucer, Phil. Soc., 1877.

401-1 See description and map in Trans. of Philol. Soc., 1875-6, p. 570.

401-2 The Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland, its Pronunciation, Grammar, and Historical Relations, with an Appendix on the present limits of the Gaelic and Lowland Scotch, and the Dialectal Divisions of the Lowland Tongue; and a Linguistical Map of Scotland, by James A. H. Murray, London, 1873.

401-3 A Glossary (with some pieces of Verse) of the old Dialect of the English Colony of Forth and Bargy, collected by Jacob Poole, edited by W. Barnes, B.D., London, 1867.

401-4 Brought before the Philological Society on January 1876.

Read the rest of this article:
English Language - Table of Contents

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries