Modern English

Is Modern English just a term to describe the English we use today? Not quite... Modern English describes the English use from a certain period and has several distinct and differing features from Middle and Old English. Read on to learn more! 

Modern English Modern English

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Table of contents

    Modern English Language Definition

    Modern English is typically defined as the English used after the Great Vowel Shift, which took place approximately between the late 15th century and 18th century (we'll cover this more shortly). Before Modern English came Middle English, and before Middle English came, you guessed it, Old English.

    Modern English and Old English are so different you wouldn't even know they were the same language, and if you picked up an original copy of Beowulf, it's unlikely you'd understand it.

    The emergence of Modern English coincided with the invention of the printing press, which saw the mass production of books and newspapers and required a standardized language (i.e., an agreed-upon set of spelling, grammar, etc.), and with the spread and adoption of English worldwide due to British colonization.

    Today there are thousands of dialects of Modern English spoken all over the world, such as American English, British English, Australian English, Indian English, and more.

    While some linguists refer to the English we use today as 'late' or 'contemporary' Modern English, others call it Present Day English (PDE). Additionally, some linguists call for a further classification of English titled 'World English,' which would begin in the 1940s and reflect English's use as a global language.

    Modern English Period

    The birth of Modern English began in the late 15th century (i.e., at the end of the 1400s). We know this sounds like a very long time ago, but believe it or not, English hasn't changed all that much since the late 1500s. Modern English is actually as old as Shakespeare, and many of his plays and poems were written in what we now call 'Early Modern English' - that's why we can still read them today without getting too much of a headache!

    Modern English is often divided into two sections; Early Modern English (the 1500s-1700s) and Late or Contemporary Modern English (the 1700s - today).

    Modern English, Image of Shakespeare, StudySmarter Fig. 1. - Modern English is actually as old as Shakespeare.

    Development of Modern English

    So, we know that English went through several changes, but how did we get to modern English? To understand that, we need to start at the beginning - Old English (don't worry, this won't take too long!).

    Old English

    Old English, otherwise known as Anglo-Saxon English, was brought to Britain in the 5th century by the Anglo-Saxons (migrants from Northern Europe), where it was spoken and written from 450 CE to 1150 (that's around 1500 to 900 years ago!). Old English had a mainly Germanic vocabulary and was very different from the English we know today.


    Here is a famous example of Old English. As we said, it's pretty unrecognizable to English speakers today.

    Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,

    þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,

    hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

    Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,

    monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,

    egsode eorlas. - Beowulf, Author unknown

    Let's look at a version translated into Modern English:

    LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings

    of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,

    we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!

    Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,

    from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,

    awing the earls.

    Middle English

    The term Middle English refers to the everyday language spoken and written in Britain during the years 1100 and 1500 (that's approximately 900 to 500 years ago!). This period saw significant changes in English, primarily due to the Norman (Vikings who came from the North of France) conquest of Britain in 1066. Changes included;

    • The borrowing of Norman (French) words

    • A simplification of grammar

    • A change in orthography (the writing system) to reflect the French style

    • The emergence of dialects, such as Southern, Midland, and Northern dialects

    • The Great Vowel Shift

    The Great Vowel Shift

    The Great Vowel Shift refers to a period of time that saw several changes to the pronunciation of vowels in the English language. The shift took place between 1400 to 1750 (from Middle to Modern English) and primarily saw a change in how long vowel sounds were pronounced. For example, the diphthong /aɪ/ (long I sound) used to sound like the long E sound (/i:/).

    It's because of this shift that many words in English today appear to be spelled differently from how you might expect them to sound. The cause of The Great Vowel Shift is still unknown.

    Here is an example of Middle English:

    Whylom, as olde stories tellen us,

    Ther was a duk that highte Theseus;

    Of Athenes he was lord and governour,

    And in his tyme swich a conquerour,

    That gretter was ther noon under the sonne. - The Knights Tale, The Cantbury Tales, Geoffery Chaucer, 1392

    Now compare the text to its Modern English translation:

    Once on a time, as old stories tell to us,

    There was a duke whose name was Theseus:

    Of Athens he was lord and governor,

    And in his time was such a conqueror,

    That greater was there not beneath the sun.

    Standardization - Early Modern English

    Whereas Middle English was largely fragmented and improvised, Early Modern English underwent a standardization process. In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg invented the modern printing press - this required an agreed-upon language to print, and a standardized Modern English, based on the London dialect, was formed.

    Early Modern English soon grew in popularity, and dictionary creators, writers, lawyers, grammarians, and the government all began using and sharing this new standardized version of English.

    Over the years, Early Modern English underwent a simplification process (e.g., simpler syntax and removal of many inflections), and, by the late 18th century, English looked a lot like how it looks today.

    Inflection - A word formation process where letters are added to the end of a word to express grammatical meaning. For example, walked - here the letters 'ed' show the action happened in the past.

    Here is an example of Early Modern English:

    As I remember, Adam, it was upon this fashion

    bequeathed me by will but poor a thousand crowns,

    and, as thou sayest, charged my brother, on his

    blessing, to breed me well: and there begins my

    sadness. - As you like it, William Shakespeare, 1600

    Early Modern English looked very similar to today's English but still sounded slightly different. Although Early Modern English might sound a little strange to the ear today, we would still be able to understand it. We wouldn't, however, be able to understand Beowulf - this is because Early Modern English is an example of English after The Great Vowel Shift.

    Late Modern English

    English, as we know it today, evolved from Early Modern English. We typically consider 'late' or 'contemporary' to be the use of English from the 1800s onwards. The main change from Early to Late English was the vocabulary, as the spelling, pronunciation, and grammar largely remained the same.

    Differences in vocabulary included the introduction of more Latin and Greek words and Skakespearian words, such as majestic, obscene, amusement, suspicious, and many more.

    Technical and scientific advancements in the 19th century also created a need for the creation of new vocabulary, many of which had Greek roots.

    Here is an example of Contemporary Modern English:

    If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is

    where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were

    occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I

    don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. - The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger, 1951

    Global English and Colonization

    From the 17th century, Modern English began to spread, and in 1607 the first British settlers arrived in the United States, bringing Modern English with them. By the mid-18th century, there were more than thirteen established British colonies in North America, and features of their speech and accent can still be heard today.

    By the end of the 18th century, The British Empire had facilitated the further spread of Modern English to places such as Africa, India, Australia, and Southeast Asia, through colonization and geopolitical dominance.

    Today, English is spoken worldwide with differing vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar. Each dialect is considered a version of Late Modern English or Present Day English and should arguably not be considered any more or less correct than any other form of English.

    Modern English, Map of the British Empire, StudySmarter Fig. 2 - By the 1920s, the British Empire had spread Modern English to a quarter of the world.

    If you're keen to learn more about the global use of English today, check out the explanation on World Englishes.

    Modern English Features

    Let's now look at some common features of Modern English. We'll cover some features that are prominent in defining what Modern English is, as well as features that differ from Middle and Old English.

    Phonology

    • Modern English underwent a consonant cluster reduction, meaning clusters of two or more consonant sounds were reduced to singular sounds. This resulted in many 'silent' letters, e.g., knight, gnat.

    • The emergence of rhotic and non-rhotic accents. The American accent is typically considered rhotic (i.e. does pronounce the /r/ sound), whereas the British accent is considered non-rhotic (doesn't pronounce the /r/ sound).

    • Several changes in vowel sounds, resulting in the approximate 20 distinct vowel sounds used in English today.

    Morphology

    • A reduction in the use of the article 'the'
    • A move from the use of 'whom' to 'who'
    • Simplified inflection, e.g., adding 's' or 'es' for plural nouns, adding 'ed' for past tense verbs, and 'ing' for progressive verbs
    • The introduction of more compound nouns, e.g., sunflower, landmark, aircraft
    • An increase in phrasal verbs, e.g., pick up, put down, turn off

    Syntax

    • Using auxiliary (helping) verbs in interrogatives (questions) becomes compulsory, e.g., Are you happy?

    • An increase in using 's to show a possession, e.g., Hannah's laptop

    • Increased standardization in using the 'subject-verb-object' structure

    • Increased use of modal verbs to show modality, e.g., could, can, might, may, etc.

    • Sentences classified into simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex

    • Adjectives always precede a noun, e.g., A black cat

    Vocabulary

    Modern English contains vocabulary from three main backgrounds, about a quarter Germanic (e.g., Old English, Dutch, and German), and two-thirds Romance (e.g., Latin, French, and Italian) and Greek. It also contains a significant and increasing number of loanwords from languages worldwide. Let's look at a few examples from each category;

    • Germanic words - Abseil, Bagel, Angst, Waltz, Noodle

    • Romance words - Ambiguous, Plausible, Flux, Sport

    • Greek words - Galaxy, Democracy, Acrobat, Dinosaur

    • Loanwords - Karaoke (Japanese), Ketchup (Malay), Caravan (Arabic), Bungalow (Hindi)

    Orthography

    Orthography refers to the alphabet and spelling system of a language. Modern English is based on the Latin alphabet, which originally had 20 letters (the present English alphabet minus J, K, V, W, Y, and Z). The Romans then added K, Y and Z to help them transcribe Greek words, and the English later added W, J, V, resulting in the 26-letter alphabet we use today.

    The spelling of Modern English words have largely remained the same since the late 15 the century; however, the pronunciation differs greatly.

    Modern English Examples

    To best understand the journey of English, let's look at some examples of Modern English compared to Old and Middle English. Let's begin by looking at the opening verse of The Lord's Prayer.

    Old English

    Fæder ure şu şe eart on heofonum,

    si şin nama gehalgod.

    to becume şin rice,

    gewurşe ğin willa,

    on eorğan swa swa on heofonum.

    urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg,

    and forgyf us ure gyltas,

    swa swa we forgyfağ urum gyltendum.

    and ne gelæd şu us on costnunge,

    ac alys us of yfele soşlice.

    Middle English

    Oure fadir şat art in heueneshalwid be şi name;şi reume or kyngdom come to be.Be şi wille donin herşe as it is dounin heuene.yeue to us today oure eche dayes bred.And foryeue to us oure dettis şat is oure synnysas we foryeuen to oure dettouris şat is to men şat han synned in us.And lede us not into temptacionbut delyuere us from euyl.

    Modern English

    Our father which art in heaven,hallowed be thy name.Thy kingdom come.Thy will be donein earth as it is in heaven.Give us this day our daily bread.And forgive us our trespassesas we forgive those who trespass against us.And lead us not into temptation,but deliver us from evil.

    What changes do you notice in terms of vocabulary, syntax, phonology, and morphology?

    Modern English - Key Takeaways

    • Modern English is typically defined as the English used after the Great Vowel Shift
    • Modern English is often divided into two sections; Early Modern English (the 1500s-1700s) and Late or Contemporary Modern English (1700s - today)
    • The emergence of Modern English coincided with the invention of the printing press, which required a standardized and simplified language, and the spread of English via the British Empire
    • The Great Vowel Shift (1400-1700) occurred between the movement from Middle English to Modern English
    • The plays and poems of William Shakespeare were written in Early Modern English
    Frequently Asked Questions about Modern English

    How is Modern English different from Old English?

    Modern English is incredibly different from Old English, in fact, you'd barely recognize them as the same language. The two differ in terms of vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation, and orthology. 

    Is there a Modern English?

    Yes. The term Modern English describes the English used from the 1600s to today. 

    Modern English is often divided into two sections; Early Modern English (the 1600s-1700s) and Late or Contemporary Modern English (1700s - today).

    When did the Modern English language begin?

    Early Modern English began in the 1500s (the 16th century).

    What is the basis of Modern English?

    Old English (Anglo-Saxon English) and Middle English serve as the basis for Modern English. Modern English contains Germanic, Romance, and Greek vocabulary, as well as loan words from other modern languages. 

    What are the features of Modern English?

    Modern English uses a Lati-based alphabet with 26 letters. Uses an orthology system that resembles French, and contains Germanic, Romance, and Greek vocabulary. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who wrote using Modern English?

    Is American Modern English pronunciation considered rhotic or non-rhotic?

    Fill in the blank:Around a quarter of Modern English vocabulary is ____.

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