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Modern English

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 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

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. 

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).

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

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. 

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

Final Modern English Quiz

Question

Modern English is often divided into two categories. What are they?

Show answer

Answer

Early Modern English and Late or Contemporary Modern English

Show question

Question

Name a key reason for the need to standardize English

Show answer

Answer

The invention of the printing press and mass production of books and newspapers

Show question

Question

List two ways Modern English was simplified compared to Old or Middle English 

Show answer

Answer

  • Fewer inflections
  • Simpler syntax, i.e. following Subject-Verb-Object order

Show question

Question

What period does Modern English typically cover? 

Show answer

Answer

1600s - present 

Show question

Question

Who wrote using Modern English?

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Answer

William Shakespeare 

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Question

How many letters are in the Modern English alphabet?

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Answer

26

Show question

Question

Which languages came before Modern English?

Show answer

Answer

Old English and Middle English

Show question

Question

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

Show answer

Answer

Rhotic 

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Around a quarter of Modern English vocabulary is ____.

Show answer

Answer

Germanic

Show question

Question

What are loan words?

Show answer

Answer

Words borrowed from other modern languages 

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Question

Fill in the blank:


Due to technical and scientific advancements, English needed new vocabulary, many had _____ roots.

Show answer

Answer

Greek

Show question

Question

Discuss why English may have undergone a simplification process 

Show answer

Answer

Reasons could be:

  • Shorter and therefore easier and cheaper to print
  • Easier to teach 


Show question

Question

Why do many English words look different from how they are pronounced?

Show answer

Answer

Because of the Great Vowel Shift. The spelling of words remained the same but the pronunciation changed.

Show question

Question

Which language is English's orthography based on?

Show answer

Answer

French

Show question

Question

What does orthography mean?

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Answer

The writing system of a language

Show question

Question

What is a colon?

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Answer

A piece of punctuation used to connect two related statements, introduce a list, or to introduce a long quote.

Show question

Question

What does a colon look like?

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Answer

Two dots, one above the other.

:

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Question

Which of these is a colon?

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Answer

:

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Question

Which of the following isn't a function of a colon?

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Answer

To separate items in a list

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Question

True or false: A colon can only be used to introduce a bullet point list.

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Answer

False

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Question

True or false: A colon can introduce both a list and a single item.

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Answer

True

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Question

Why is this sentence incorrect?

Tigers need: space, water, and food.

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Answer

The colon should only be used at the end of a sentence that has a subject, verb, and object. This sentence only has a subject and verb before the colon.

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Question

Which of these sentences uses a colon correctly?

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Answer

Flowers need two things too survive: water and light.

Show question

Question

True or false: The items in a bullet point list have to be capitalized.

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

Tue or false: Before introducing a bullet point list, you need a full sentence with a subject, verb, and object.

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Answer

True

Show question

Question

Can a numbered list be introduced in the same way as a bullet point list?

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Answer

Yes, the only difference is that one list uses bullet points and the other uses numbers.

Show question

Question

What sort of quote would you use a colon to introduce?

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Answer

A long quote

Show question

Question

True or false: You need to always use quotation marks when you've introduced a quote with a colon.

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Answer

False

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Question

When using a colon to connect two statements, what must the second statement do?

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Answer

Add information to the first statement.

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Question

Does this sentence use a colon correctly?

Jenny was excited for her sunflowers to flower: she'd grown them from seed.

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Answer

Yes, the second statement adds information to the first.

Show question

Question

True or false: You have to capitalize the first letter of the word that follows a colon.

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

When would you need to capitalize the first letter of the word following a colon?

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Answer

When that word is a proper noun or when it's the beginning of a long quote (the beginning of a sentence in the quote).

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Question

How many uses are there of colons?

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Answer

4

Show question

Question

What other piece of punctuation often gets mixed up with a colon?

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Answer

Semicolon

Show question

Question

What is used to separate long items in a list?

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Answer

semicolon

Show question

Question

What does a semicolon look like?

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Answer

A comma with a dot over the top ;

Show question

Question

Which of these is a semicolon?

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Answer

;

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Question

Which of these is a general use of a semicolon?

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Answer

To represent a pause in speech or writing.

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Question

Where can a semicolon appear in a sentence?

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Answer

Middle

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Question

True or false: The first word after a semicolon is always capitalized.

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Answer

False

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Question

When would you capitalize the first word after a semicolon?

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Answer

When that word is a proper noun.

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Question

True or false: A semicolon can be used instead of a comma.

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

Which of these isn't a use of semicolons?

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Answer

To introduce a list

Show question

Question

When would you use a semicolon to separate items in a list?

Show answer

Answer

When the items are long, or if the items have internal punctuation.

Show question

Question

Does this sentence use semicolons correctly?

Mike wanted to travel to Spain; Italy; and France.

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Answer

No, these are short items that should only be separated by commas.

Show question

Question

What sort of clauses can be connected by a semicolon?

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Answer

Independent clauses

Show question

Question

What is an independent clause?

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Answer

A clause that makes sense on its own, with a subject, verb, and object.

Show question

Question

Why is this sentence misusing a semicolon?

Charlie liked to paint in his spare time; and draw.

Show answer

Answer

The clause after the semicolon isn't an independent clause. Semicolons should be used to connect two independent clauses.

Show question

Question

True or false: Semicolons can't be used with a coordinating conjunction.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Which of these sentences is correct and why?

A: Sami didn't want to go back to school, but he had been caught skipping too many times though.

B: Sami didn't want to go back to school; he had been caught skipping too many times though.

Show answer

Answer

B, because a semicolon shouldn't be used with a coordinating conjunction (but).

Show question

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