The History of English

Linguistics/English 395

Prof. Suzanne Kemmer
Rice University
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Early Modern English


Some Early Modern English Bible translations include the following:

John Wycliffe's English Bible translation, 1382 (two versions). Banned in England before the Protestant Reformation, but widely circulated among Lollards.

William Tyndale's Bible translation, 1525 and new Testament 1526.

Miles Coverdale's Bible, based on Tyndale's, 1539

The King James Bible or King James Version (KJV), 16ll
This Bible, written by different authors, is a masterpiece of Early Modern English literature. It is somewhat archaic in language and uses a larger proportion of native vocabulary than many literary texts of the time, although there are some Latinate and French borrowings from the period. By resisting the new fashion of incorporating large numbers of Latinate loanwords, the KJV acquired a flavor of directness and timelessness that made it one of the most popular Bibles of all time. Many expressions from it still permeate the modern language (see Expressions from the King James Bible.

Other literature - by author

A very incomplete list, hitting a few highlights:

Edmund Spenser - among many other poems, wrote the epic The Fairie Qveene (1596), a landmark of Early Modern English poetry celebrating Queen Elizabeth and England under her reign. The language is rather archaic. In a way this poem brought Renaissance poetry in the style of Petrarch to England.

William Shakespeare - published between 1590 and 1616. Shakespeare was a genius of the language who seemed to come up with an inexhaustible supply of striking images, neologisms, and language play (puns, malapropisms, dialect caricatures, and manipulation of morphology, syntax and style), not to mention deeply meaningful poetry and interesting dramatic characters. His career spanned the later reign of Elizabeth, who enjoyed his plays, and the reign of King James I (of KJV fame). See Shakespeare's Legacy for an overview of his work and a list of popular expressions that he apparently originated: they are first recorded in his works.

Ben Jonson - a contemporary of Shakespeare and Marlowe. Wrote satirical plays like Volpone and The Alchemist, and lyric poetry (e.g. the famous line "drink to me only with thine eyes" from his poem To Celia.)

Christopher Marlowe - often known as Kit Marlowe. Wrote Tamburlaine and also Dr. Faustus. Seems to have been a larger-than-life character if even half of the stories that have come down to us from the Elizabethan era are true. He may have been a government spy, and was apparently stabbed to death in a pub brawl. He has caught the imagination of modern writers and appears as a character in numerous fictional works. See Christopher Marlowe in Wikepedia.

William Gilbert (early investigator of magnetism), William Harvey (discoveer of the circulation of blood), Francis Bacon (one of the first true Renaissance men of Britain--philosopher, poet, and promoter of the scientific revolution), Robert Boyle (chemistry pioneer), and Isaac Newton, physicist, discoverer of gravity and the inventor of the calculus in England (Leibniz shares the honors for doing the same in Germany). Most of these authors wrote their treatises in Latin, the scientific lingua franca of the time, but English writings also survive, such as Newton's letter describing optics which appeared in the Philosophical Transactions (Ch. 7 Appendix E in our textbook).

Samuel Pepys -- pronounced "peeps" - left behind a marvelously detailed journal from the 1660s that gives an insight into what it was like to live in late 17th century London. Saw the development of paper money, the stock market, coffee houses, newspapers, and all sorts of aspects of the modern urban world. Witnessed the Great Fire of London and duly recorded it in his diary. The diary includes descriptions of his rather lecherous behavior--parts were originally written in a kind of code and left out of 19th century publications of the diary, but have been restored in modern times.

John Bunyan - author of Pilgrim's Progress, an allegorical religious work of the reformation. The book was one of the most influential moral works of the 17th century. It was told as the story of a man's journey and all the strange and interesting events that happened to him along the way (allegorical for life as a journey), and was a popular book to give to children.

John Milton - author of the epic religious poem Paradise Lost, as well as a large number of other poems and tracts. A political supporter of Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth, he defended the execution of Charles I. He was a Puritan in religious views and took positions that were rejected by most others of the time (e.g. he wrote in support of divorce). Milton acquired a considerable reputation in his lifetime that only grew after his death and he was long considered the greatest of English poets, right through the Victorian era.

© Suzanne Kemmer