When studying the development of English as a language, it can be argued that early modern English is perhaps the most vital point of reference. This period brings with it a richness in material that provided clues as to how the tongue developed phonetically and geographically from its roots as a secondary, regional language in an arena dominated somewhat by the French language, and largely by Latin. Although the amount of available information isn’t enough to paint a sufficient scenario of the linguistic lay of the land at the time, these materials are a great help in discerning the stages of development of the English language.
During the latter age of transition from Middle English, the language was mostly spread about in regions. This period is “. . . notoriously [known] as the time when linguistic variation is fully reflected in the written mode . . . ” (Nevalainen 13). Due to the heavy presence of French and Latin as the dominant vernaculars, middle English didn’t have enough room to develop as a real language and was limited to regional variants that were shaped by the grammar rules of the more prominent languages at the time.
This was, mostly, due to the lack of standardized spelling – it was difficult to come up with a fixed set of grammar rules if the people didn’t have any idea of how to spell the words to be used in each situation. This changed during the sixteenth century. With the shift to early modern English came the streamlined version of the language, thanks to major standardizations in the way words were spelled throughout various regions. But you can’t ever get rid of local variations in language, and the early form of modern English is no different.
Most of the available materials from the period concern themselves mostly with grammar reforms and the instruction of the language. The most curious thing about these documents is that despite dealing with a language that was gaining more and more popularity as a serious vernacular, the method of instruction was still largely conducted in Latin. This proved to be difficult in unifying the language since the two tongues were different from each other both grammatically and in inflection.
Alexander Gil wrote Logonomia Anglica in 1619 as an attempt to describe the chief variants of English according to region. These are the general, northern, southern, eastern, western and poetic variants. Interestingly, these are the same regional distinctions of middle English, save for the unifying general vernacular that could be similar to what we call standard English. The weakness in Gil’s study is his partiality to the northern style although this feature gives us an outstanding view of how the morphology of early modern English developed.
His renditions of spelling and pronouncing some words are indicative of the Germanic roots of English, including the use of /v/ for /f/ (the example given by Nevalainen is vill for fill). Another method of dialectal segregation was recorded by George Puttenham in The Arte of English Poesie (1589). Here, Puttenham gives us a view of how early middle English was segregated according to social standing, and was focused mostly on improving the aesthetic appeal of the language by identifying the speech of the court and the aristocrats as well-sounding and favorable, as opposed to the speech of a craftsman, or that of the thieves (thieves’ cant).
Still, the dominant tongue at the time remained to be Latin, and it was in Latin that the English grammar was taught and written. This was to accommodate foreigners who wished to learn English; these people learned English via the structure of Latin, whereas locals who already practiced English learned Latin through the structure of their mother tongue.
The effect of Latin in the grammar manuals during the first part of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were apparent – the use of Latin categories, or at least a system derived from Latin, to describe English grammar left out a chunk of what formed the structural core of English, and while the regional dialects flourished, very little attention was given to them and the focus of learning instead went to the General dialect, which would eventually go on to become the basis for the structure of the language today.
A lot of the development that transformed the English language occurred at this time. In Pamphlet for Grammar (1586), William Bullokar gives us insight to the transformation of the personal noun ye into modern-day you. He also noted the possible conversion of the suffix –eth¬ (e. g. loveth) into the more economical –s pronounced with a /z/-like crescendo. The latter, incidentally, is an example of northern dialect curiosities that made it to the general dialect.
The continuous development and popularity of English as a language both written and spoken led to the precursors of modern-day newspapers. Newsletters by eminent individuals were handwritten and sent out as manuscript circulations back in 1620 as a means of spreading important information around. A fair example is the Newdigate Newsletters that were addressed to Sir Richard Newdigate of Warwickshire from the Secretary of State’s office. A selection of the newsletters would go as follows:
“The King of Poland desireing a nearer Correspondence with this Crowne then has been formerly and haveing sent Over to desire his Maty to be godfather to his Daughter, his Maty was preparing to send an Envoy ExtraOrdnary thither to stand for him, when the last post brought news ye young Princess was dead. ” (21) This selection, in its original form, contains plenty of scripting nuances of the period – such as superscripts for the abbreviations – and resembled, in all intents and purposes, formal letters of the period.
In closing, it is worth to note that while the instruction and growth of English as a language during the early modern period isn’t as clear as we’d like it to be, there really is no denying that this period yielded a huge wealth of material to study. Thanks to works like Gil’s Bullokar’s and the missives to sir Newdigate, we can continue to study and piece together the broken pieces of the puzzle of how today’s universal language evolved into what it is. WORKS CITED Nevalainen, Terttu. Introduction to Early Modern English, An. USA: Oxford University Press, 2006. 12-27
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