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A brief history of English part four: Modern English

We continue the story of the English language, and we now enter the period known as ‘Modern English’.


Now we arrive at the fourteenth century, and we find that English was now being widely spoken across England. But it was not always the same kind of English.


The problem was that communities were not the metropolises we have now, and those that did have large populations tended to be a distance from other communities. Travelling between these places was only available by horse (or on foot), and not everybody was able to afford a horse (or the time taken to walk between places!). So it was only natural that, because of their relative isolation, these areas subsequently developed their own accents, dialects and spellings as regards the English language. Writing certainly existed, but there was still nothing agreed as to how English should be expressed nationally. Spelling and grammar varied widely. For now, certainly among the well-educated, Greek and Latin were still considered as 'superior' languages, the latter still very much used by the Catholic church.


Many events took place after the fifteenth century that had their effect on English: the Rennaissance (or a period known as 'the revival of learning'), increasing trade with other European nations, the Reformation (the breaking away from the Roman Catholic faith), and the increase in scientific research. But the real trigger for most of these events to happen began when Johannes Gutenberg introduced mechanical movable type printing to Europe. This started the printing revolution, and was - and is - widely regarded as the most important event of the modern period.

William Caxton was making regular trips to Europe where he observed the printing industry take shape, and eventually set up his own printing press in 1476; the first book was Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories by a group of pilgrims as part of a contest. Many more books followed, and although there were many that were translations from Europe, most were printed in English. But apart from the problems faced with translations, Caxton had another problem - with his own native language.

The English language was changing all the time, and the books Caxton was given for printing were written and presented in all kinds of styles and dialects. What we would regard as Standard English did not exist. So to unify the books to make them available for anyone to read, Caxton had to choose a standard, one form of the language to be used in all the books he would print - and the dialect he settled on was East Midlands English. Standardisation had begun - and so did the era of modern English.

There were other events that were to have further effects on the language. As mentioned, the Renaissance was a period where all forms of artistic, literature, and scientific learning increased, and the need to get the results down on paper. As a result, many new words came into the language; between 1500 and 1700 over 30,000 words were added. (That does not seem many by today's standards, but there was not so much to think about in those early days.) Words were adopted from Greek and Latin; many were invented and many were old words that were no longer used but were brought back, often with new meanings. This period saw writers develop a sense of loyalty and pride in the English language.

Another period with linguistic consequences was the Reformation. Henry VIII had broken away from the Catholic Church and set up his own Church of England. There were many religious consequences that lasted for generations afterwards, but the effects on the language were immense. Catholic laws presented in Latin were now being translated. Old English manuscripts in the now-closed Catholic monasteries were translated into modern English, along with the Bible. The focus was now on English and not Latin, Greek or other European languages. English was a serious subject of study; it was now being taught at schools. 

As far as the teaching of grammar, many of the books in this period still had their roots and rules based on Latin. Despite the increased interest in speaking and writing, many scholars of English at the time would stick to Latin rules as regards grammar. That particular influence is still being felt today (the split infinitive, for example), despite the fact that English and Latin are two different languages. However, the long-term effects of the Reformation led to a rapid growth in scientific discovery, and the need to find new words other than those provided by Latin. The Puritans (so-named as they favoured an even 'purer' form of worship) favoured English over Latin as this celebrated Anglo-Saxon culture and uniting all English people in the eyes of God.

Even during this period, the word 'standard' was still being given to the classical languages such as Latin or Greek, but around the 18th century the writer Jonathan Swift applied the term to English. He was also concerned that the language was continually changing, not often in the way of his liking; and so he proposed some kind of academy that would 'fix' and standardise the language. Although nothing was done to address this, it was Doctor Samuel Johnson who came up with the idea of a definitive dictionary. His desire to do so came from the fact that at the time the only books that dealt with vocabulary were only specialised, so he took it on himself to study the works of various writers as his main source for word definitions. His dictionary was followed by - from other scholars - several new grammar books that recommended 'correct' usages, but many of these have their roots from an idea that 'standardisation' was an expression of God's order, and to not use the correct grammar would be seen to displease him. In other words, the first prescriptive books had appeared: authors telling people what they think they should write and say. Just as Latin, these books still have their influence today and are the subject of much debate and considerable argument as to what is logical and what was a rule that was 'simply made up'.

The 19th century saw changes in technology and social life. The term 'Standard English' was now well used, people felt a sense of national identity, and the British Empire was spreading. National institutions and societies were increasing. However, there was still a sense of disapproval in the many dialects around the country, particularly among the wealthy and well-educated who had been taught using 'Received Pronunciation', a highly-focussed form of pronunciation. State education was aimed at teaching Standard English across the country, including Scotland.


But there was still a sense of pride in the dialects within the regions away from London and the South of England, and a lot of literature was being produced and sold by local publishers in the North of England around this time. Industrial cities such as Liverpool and Sheffield were proud of their traditions. Indeed, this difference in pronunciation was reflected well into the 20th century, and the split between the North and the South was very much reflected in the early days of the BBC as the London-based organisation set itself out to be an instructor on how the English language should be spoken.


 The BBC would only took on those proficient in RP in the early days of radio and television, with its then boss - or director general as he was called - insisting that all its presenters has a uniform accent. In effect, they were telling the listening public that their English was right and their English was wrong. 


Indeed, many of the old newsreel films shown in cinemas during the first half of the 20th century and into the fifties followed this policy with commentary only by RP speakers, leading to the long-held myth that English was 'plummy' - i.e. the language was spoken as if you had plums in your mouth. Only a few British movies showed the regional accents and dialects as they were (e.g. George Formby), and it was perhaps not until the early sixties that Lancastrian - or Manchester, to be precise - accents and dialects were exposed to a national TV audience in the form of ITV's Coronation Street - a soap opera that still continues to the present day. (The BBC would quickly follow, its best known example of the day was a police series called Z-Cars, based near Liverpool and so bringing the 'scouse,' i.e. the accent widely used around the Liverpool area, to national exposure). Eventually the BBC saw sense, and if you ever get the chance of watching early David Attenborough documentaries from the late fifties and early sixties (bound to be examples on YouTube), the difference is obvious..


But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. We need to step back to the 19th century for one more major influence on the language...

In 1858 the Philogical Society forwarded the idea of a dictionary that truly reflected the national language and setting strict rules as to how they should be compiled. It had to be thoroughly researched: all English books that were available at the time were treated as authorities; quotations would be included, and the origins of each word and its relationship with other words would also be added. It would be a descriptive guide - that is, a book that would describe the grammatical patterns that speakers and writers follow, and that occur regularly, even if they are not necessarily correct (as opposed to prescriptive  which sets out rules about what are the correct and incorrect stylistic choices, but are not always in the ways that many people understand). These were the basic principles of the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED, and it is perhaps the closest thing we have to an authoritative guide to the English language. It was not published until 1884, and in 1928 the full dictionary was republished in ten bound volumes. The second edition was not published until 1989. A print version of a third edition is believed to be unlikely, and is almost certain to be made available only electronically.

In the final section, we look at the language today, its spread across the world and its future.

Introduction    Pre-English    Old English    Middle English    Modern English    World English and the Future

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