In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Modern English

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Handbooks
  • Thematic Volumes
  • Anthologies and Surveys
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Digital Data Sources
  • Standardization
  • Regional Variation
  • Social Variation
  • Spelling
  • Phonology

Linguistics Early Modern English
Terttu Nevalainen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0270


The English language spoken and written in the 16th and 17th centuries has many names: it is variously known as Renaissance English, as the language of Tudor and Stuart England, and as Shakespeare’s English. These labels reflect the various criteria used to identify the period. This bibliography follows the common practice of referring to it as Early Modern English (1500–1700), in distinction to Middle English (c. 1150–1500) and Late Modern English (1700–1900). The Middle English period is often characterized as an era of dialects because the textual evidence that has come down to us shows extensive regional variation. In the early modern period, the language of many forms of writing converged to the extent that it could no longer be localized. Cultural historians associate this development with “modernity,” which is also reflected in regional mobility, urban as opposed to rural residence, and contact with mass media, notably through the rise of printing. More people were able to read than those who could also write at the time, but full literacy increased as the period advanced. A related process was vernacularization, the expanding use of English in new registers, which shows in styles of writing and the linguistic means of expressing them. Many features of Standard English were consolidated in the 16th and 17th centuries. Standardization is visible particularly in spelling and the vocabulary that was created as a result of the spread of English into new specializations. Gradual developments were also under way in pronunciation, in processes such as the Great Vowel Shift, and in grammar, where changes often resulted in new means of expression and greater transparency. Word order, for example, became more fixed over time. Many of these processes had started well before the early modern period, and some have continued into the present day. Digital resources have promoted new research not only on the traditional levels of language but also on various other aspects of Early Modern English. Regional variation is increasingly discussed in its own right rather than in the context of language standardization. Furthermore, there is a growing body of work on the users and uses of Early Modern English. Sociolinguistic research has helped tackle the question of what kind of people were the driving force behind language change at the time and whose language was therefore preserved for posterity. Studies in historical pragmatics have, in turn, looked into the ways in which language was used at the time and how these uses gave rise to new means of expressing communicative needs.

General Overviews

Most textbooks on the history of English, such as Baugh and Cable 2013 and Smith 2005, include chapters on Early Modern English. One is also included in Crystal 2018, an illustrated encyclopedia of the English language. These overviews tend to cover the same ground and include concise discussions of the levels of language and varying amounts of the historical and cultural background of the period. A reference to Shakespeare’s language is hardly ever omitted.

  • Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. 2013. A history of the English language. 6th ed. London and New York: Routledge.

    A popular classic that presents the development of English in its historical and cultural setting. The years from 1500 to 1650 are discussed under “Renaissance,” and the next period, 1650–1800, focusing on the rise of prescriptivism, is under “The Appeal to Authority.” Text specimens from each period are appended. First edition in 1935.

  • Crystal, David. 2018. The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language. 3d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The Early Modern English section (pp. 56–79) illustrates some cultural milestones of the period, notably the Inkhorn controversy, Shakespeare, and the King James Bible, and provides a synopsis of the levels of language: spelling, punctuation, sounds (including Shakespeare’s pronunciation), grammar, and vocabulary. First edition in 1995.

  • Smith, Jeremy. 2005. Essentials of early English: An introduction to Old, Middle, and Early Modern English. 2d ed. London: Routledge.

    A concise and systematic introduction to the sound system and grammar of the early stages of the English language with separate sections on Old English, Middle English, and Early Modern English, along with a selection of illustrative texts, a bibliography, and a glossary of key terms. First edition in 1999.

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