Early Modern English: The Seventeenth Century, Part One   Leave a comment

The Progress of the Language from John Donne to John Bunyan:


Although all varieties of seventeenth century writing are clearly different in style from those of the twentieth century, the underlying grammatical structures do not contrast so greatly and there are few recorded developments in the grammar of English overall. The spelling of individual words also became more regular, so that the look of the seventeenth century printed page is far more familiar to the late modern reader than that of the previous century. Nevertheless, there was still a lack of conformity in spelling and punctuation in handwriting. In addition, vocabulary was always shifting and changing in meanings, as well as losing and gaining words according to the needs of communication. A greater range of texts provide us with a wealth of evidence about the uses of the language, from ordinary uses in letters and diaries, to examples from literary prose, both colloquial and rhetorical.

Of course, all living languages are in a constant state of evolution in grammar and vocabulary. A standard language, however, changes more slowly, because new forms tend to be resisted, and the very fact of it being ‘standard’ means that it is, or was, often regarded as being fixed and unchangeable. At the same time, social standards of pronunciation were also established, and the speech of those with prestige or authority was imitated by others. In these ways, there was a polarisation of opinion in attitudes to language use, which was derived from differences in social class. In the seventeenth century, the speech of rural artisans was often referred to as barbarous, meaning uncultured or unpolished as contrasted with polite, civilised and genteel language. The evidence for pronunciation is not as easy to interpret as that for vocabulary, spelling and grammar, in spite of the publication of a series of books on spelling and pronunciation in the century itself, because, unlike today, there were no phonetic symbols to provide agreed points of reference for the relationship of sounds to letters. Other evidence comes from a study of rhyming couplets in poetry and prose drama, from Chaucer to Shakespeare and then on to Dryden’s verse, written in the latter part of the century.

A further source of evidence of changing pronunciation patterns is in the spelling of handwritten documents. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, printers tended to regularise more and more the spellings as they set up their presses, even though there were still variations and no fixed standard of spelling had yet been established. However, in letters even educated writers still used ‘phonetic’ spellings, providing us with clues as to their pronunciation. The range of differences in dialectal pronunciation were far greater than now since people moved from all parts of the country into London and their varieties of dialectal accent were in competition with each other for wider acceptance. Sometimes, as in East London, it was the ‘vulgar’ speech of East Anglia which eventually became the social standard, as distinct both from the ‘genteel’ English of the West end and the ‘cockney’ of the East end, both of which were eighteenth century developments. For example, the Middle English word ‘lernen’ becomes ‘learn’ in Modern English standardised spelling, but in seventeenth century manuscripts it can often be seen written as ‘larne’. Similarly, but with varying consonants, ‘instruccion’ in Middle English was often written as ‘instrochshen’ in written form, whereas standardised spelling would have it as ‘instruction’.

Hundreds of lines of verse were written in Elizabethan and Jacobean English by Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare and Ben Johnson, among other dramatists, using lines in iambic pentameter. A line consisted of ten syllables, alternating unstressed and stressed. From reading these lines in the intended rhythm, we can tell that words like passion, division and proportion were once pronounced ‘pass/i/on‘, ‘di/vi/si/onand ‘pro/por/ti/on‘.

After studying medicine on the Continent, Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82), practised as a physician in Norwich for the rest of his life, but he is remembered today as a writer. His first book Religio Medici (‘the faith of a doctor’) had been written as ‘a private exercise directed to myself’, but a pirated edition had been published ‘in a most depraved Copy’, so he decided to publish his own version. The book explores the tension that then existed between religious faith and new scientific ideas. This conflict had been expressed earlier by John Donne in 1611 in An Anatomy of the World:

And new Philosophy calls all in doubt,

The Element of fire is quite put out;

The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no mans wit

Can well direct him where to looke for it…

‘Tis all in peeces, all coherence gone;

All just supply, and all Relation.

Thomas Browne expressed his religious faith in his book Religio Medici as follows:

As for those wingy Mysteries in Divinity, and airy subtelties in Religion, which have unhing’d the brains of better heads, they never stretched the ‘Pia Mater’ (= a membrane in the brain) of mine. Methinks there be not impossibilities enough in Religion for an active faith; the deepest Mysteries ours contains have not only been illustrated, by Syllogism (= a logical argument consisting of two propositions plus a conclusion) and the rule of Reason. I love to lose my self in a mystery, to pursue my Reason to an ‘O altitudo’! ‘Tis my solitary recreation to pose my apprehension with those involved Enigma’s and riddles of the Trinity, with Incarnations, and Resurrection. I can answer all the Objections of Satan and my rebellious reason with that odd resolution I learned of ‘Tertullian, Certum est quia impossibile est’ (= Latin for ‘it is certain because it is impossible’).

Students of both language and literature value Browne’s writings for their style rather than their content, in showing how an author exploits and expands the discourse features of his time. Although the ‘educated classes’ that Donne and Browne came from continued to write in Latin, and to use Latinate words and forms in the vernacular, by 1618 the classical language was no longer used for communication, even in London. A Hungarian sojourner in London in that year, Márton Szepsi Csombor, who knew no English, was amazed above all at the people’s ignorance of Latin, something that Miklós Bethlen also complained about with reference even to the professors at Oxford whom he met during his 1664 visit. No doubt the publication of the King James Bible in 1611 was a major factor in the decline of Latin among the ‘middling sort’ of English people. Csombor went along three whole streets among merchants, furriers, tailors etc. and nowhere found a single person that could speak to him in Latin, eventually finding an Italian from whom he could get directions. Without knowledge of English, Scots or Gaelic, Csombor could only make one valid comment on the use of the vernacular, which is nonetheless of interest with regard to pronunciation:

The language of the inhabitants… is a mixture of those of such adjacent lands as Hybernia, Gallia and Germany, and their pronunciation is extremely bad, for every ‘u’ they pronounce ‘ü’ (the Hungarian letter for the weakened vowel in English, known in MnE phonetics as the ‘schwa’).

George Fox (1624-91) was the son of a Leicestershire weaver, and the earliest of vernacular writers to demonstrate the influence of what the historian Christopher Hill described as the heady egalitarian wine of the New Testament in English. He experienced an intense spiritual conversion or conviction of ‘the Inner Light of Christ’, so that he left home in 1643 to become a preacher and founder of the Quakers (Religious Society of Friends). Failure to conform to the doctrines and practices of the Church meant civil penalties and often persecution, at least until 1651. He was imprisoned many times, and it was after the Restoration, between 1673 and 1674, during a long stay in Worcester jail, that he dictated an account of his experiences to his fellow prisoner Thomas Lower, who was also his son-in-law. This account is not only a moving account of his life but also, for students of the language, an insight into colloquial English of the second half of the seventeenth century, as transcribed from his spoken narrative. The name ‘Quaker’ was originally a term of abuse, but was quickly adopted by Friends themselves because of their natural tendency to shake with a combination of nervousness and inspiration when speaking to large congregations. Fox and his followers also called themselves ‘Children of the Light’ and ‘Friends of Truth’ as well as, simply, ‘Friends’. In his Journal, Fox explained how they first gained the nickname:

… this was Justice Bennett of Darby yt first called us Quakers because wee bid ym tremble att ye Word of God… this was in ye year 1650.

For Fox, the word ‘Church’ meant the people of God; he refused to use the word for the building in which religious worship took place, which he referred to as steeplehouses. This, much like much of Fox’s preaching, his use of thee and thou, and his principled refusal to remove his hat before a magistrate, caused much offence. In one of the many references to this in his Journal, Fox turns the meaning of the word professor into a description of one who ‘professes’ or ‘pretends’ to be religious, but is not truly so:

And when I was at Oram before ye steeplehouse there came a professor and gave me a push in ye brest in ye steeplehouse and bid me get out of ye Church: alack poore man saide I dost thou call ye steeplehouse ye Church: ye Church is ye people whome God has purchased with his bloode: and not ye house.

George Fox gave offence to the religious and civil authorities both during the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s and the Restoration of Charles II after 1660. John Milton (1608-74), on the other hand, devoted years of political activity to the Puritan cause in the 1640s and 1650s, writing books and pamphlets on behalf of, religious, domestic and civil liberty. One of his best-known pamphlets was Areopagetica (the Areopagus was the highest civil court of Ancient Athens), ‘A Speech of Mr John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenced Printing, to the Parliament of England, Printed in the Yeare 1644’. It is called a speech although in fact it was printed, and uses the rhetorical model of Greek and Latin oratory – as if it were written to be spoken. Its style, as seen in the facsimile below, is in complete contrast to the artless narrative of George Fox:



The letters of Dorothy Osborne (1625-95) give a lively and personal picture of the manners of the times, and contain a moving portrait of her constancy at a time when other suitors than William Temple (1628-99, whom she met in 1648 and married in 1654) were urged upon her by her family. Most of her letters to William that have survived date from 1652-54 (see facsimile below, 25 March 1653). It was not fashionable, even by the mid-seventeenth century, to marry for love, and marriages for men and women in landed gentry families were more often than not arranged for them. Dorothy believed that letters should be ‘as free and easy as one’s discourse’, so they provide us with an authentic account of mid-seventeenth century informal, yet genteel, speech, as if we were overhearing her turns in a conversation.


John Evelyn (1620-1706) travelled widely on the continent and had a great variety of interests, publishing books on engraving, tree-growing, gardening, navigation, commerce and architecture, but he is best known for his diary, covering most of his life. During the Civil Wars of 1642-1648, Evelyn was royalist in sympathy. After the execution of Charles I in 1649, a Commonwealth was established, with Oliver Cromwell later named as Lord Protector. One of the many ordinances or regulations imposed by the Parliamentary regime was the abolition of Church festivals, including Christmas. On Christmas Day, 1657, Evelyn recorded in his diary a raid on the celebration of the day by Parliamentary soldiers. The object of such raids was political as well as religious, as the authorities were afraid of royalist plots against the government. Evelyn’s diary entry for 25 December contrasts sharply with that published in The Public Intelligencer, the ‘Roundhead’ newspaper, on 28 December:


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After the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, The Royal Society was founded under the patronage of Charles II. Evelyn was a founder member of the society, whose members met regularly to present and discuss scientific papers. The poet John Dryden was also a member, and two verses of a poem, Annus Mirabilis (The Year of Wonders, 1666) contain what he called an ‘Apostrophe to the Royal Society’ (an apostrophe in rhetoric is a term meaning a figure in which a writer suddenly stops in his discourse, and turns to address some other person or thing):

This I fore-tel, from your auspicious care,

Who great in search of God and nature grow:

Who best your wise Creator’s praise declare,

Since best to praise his works is best to know.

O truly Royal! Who behold the Law,

And rule of beings in your Makers mind,

And thence, like Limbecks, rich Ideas draw,

To fit the levell’d use of humane kind.

Evelyn’s diary entries show his interest in the detailed scientific observation of natural phenomena, expressed obliquely in Dryden’s poem as the Law and rule of beings in your Makers mind’. Members of The Royal Society like John Evelyn and John Dryden were dedicated to new ways of scientific thinking and experiment, and the style of writing that they began to adopt in the 1660s also changed. The following statement, written by Thomas Sprat, Secretary of the Royal Society, in 1667, concerned the prose style being developed by members of the Society in their scientific papers:


John Bunyan (1628-88) was the son of a Bedfordshire brass-worker, who followed his father’s trade after learning to read and write in the village school at Elstow. He served in the parliamentary army during the Civil War in the 1640s, and joined a nonconformist church in Bedford in 1653, where he preached. His first writings were against George Fox and the Quakers, but he too came into conflict with the authorities in 1660 for preaching without a licence, and spent twelve years in Bedford jail, during which time he wrote nine books. In 1672, he returned to the same church and was again imprisoned for a short time in 1676, when he wrote the first part of The Pilgrim’s Progress. It was published in 1678, with a second part following in 1684. The book is an allegory, in which the characters are fhe personifications of abstract qualities. The narrative is in the form of a dream, in which the narrator tells of Christian’s progress ‘from this world into a world which is to come’. The following extract, in facsimile, is from the first edition of the book. Bunyan’s use of the language brings us closer to hearing the colloquial, everyday speech of the 1670s. It is ‘the language of artisans, countrymen and merchants’, not of ‘wits and scholars’ that Thomas Sprat commended. The text also shows that spelling in printed books was by then standardised in a form that has hardly changed since. There are only a few unfamiliar conventions, like the capitalising of some nouns and adjectives and the use of italics to highlight certain words:



Bunyan was not a scholar of the universities in Latin or Greek. His own use of the language was heavily influenced by his reading of the King James Bible of 1611, while also revealing popular, everyday usage. We can therefore use The Pilgrim’s Progress, with reasonable confidence, as evidence of the language of ‘ordinary’ people in the 1670s. Although there has been little change in the basic grammatical patterns of the language since the seventeenth century, there are many superficial features, part of the idiom and usage of that period, that date it. Some of these are listed in the appendix below, together with a number of everyday phrases from the times.

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Appendix – Colloquial Variations in Seventeenth Century English:

  • Third person singular present tense inflections…

… by reason of a burden that lieth hard upon me;

Why came you not in at the Gate which standeth at the beginning of the Way?

  • Perfective aspect…

… but the ground is good when they are once got in at the Gate;

… I thought so; and it is happened unto thee as to other weak men;

… So when he was come in, and set down, they gave him something to drink;

…There was great talk presently after you was gone out…

  • Negatives…

Nay, methinks I care not what I meet with in the way…

Why came you not in at the Gate which standeth at the beginning of the way?

Have you not always done so?

I saw him not.

  • Interrogatives…

… dost thou see this narrow way?

Wherefore dost thou cry?

… how many, think you, must there be?

Know you not that it is written…?

Whence came you, and whither do you go?

Why lurk you here? = What are you doing waiting/ hanging around here (for)?

  • Punctuation…

The hearing of this is enough to ravish ones heart;

A Lot that often falls from bad mens mouths upon good mens Names.

  • Colloquial phrases…

Oh, did he light upon you? = did he find you?

Know him? Yes, he dwelt in Graceless… = yes, he lived in (a state/ condition of…)

I thought I should a been killed there…

If this meadow lieth along by our way side, lets go over into it;

But did you tell them of your own sorrow? Yes, over and over and over;

… the remembrance of which will stick by me as long as I live;

Joseph was hard put to it by her…

… but it is ordinary for those… to give him the slip, and return again to me;

He said it was a pitiful low sneaking business for a Man to mind Religion;

… let us lie down here and take one Nap;

… and he wot not what to do;

Who can tell how joyful this Man was, when he had gotten his Roll again!

The shepherds had them to another place, in a bottom, where there was a door in the side of an Hill;

He went on thus, even untill he came at a bottom…

But is there no hopes for such a Man as this?

They was then asked, If they knew the Prisoner at the Bar?

… but get it off myself I cannot;

… abhor thyself for hearkening unto him.

Have with you = I agree

I thank you for your pains.

I have had a confidence (a talk) with her.

… Fight a fray (duel).

He affects her greatly = he fancies her.

Go to!/ Out upon’t! = you are talking nonsense.

Come hither, sirrah! = come here, boy (servant)!

Ere long = before long; soon.

By my troth = As I pledge/ promise…

We will meet Anon = … sometime later.

Prithee (I pray thee) = I beg you.

Tarry a while = Stay…

Pray come within = please come inside.

… sore frit = (very) frightened.

How long since? = How long ago?

Bid them hasten = Tell them to hurry (up).

I will come directly, sir = … straight away.

Has she lost her wits? = … gone crazy?

Gawping like a bumpkin = staring like an idiot.

Draw him a mug of ale = pull/give him a pint of beer.

Babble of fury = furious behaviour.

You’ll be sore missed = We’ll miss you a lot.

Is it truly so?

You had best be on your way…

Where are you bound? = … going (to)?

We are bidden to dine = … invited to eat.

Chizzly as old grit = bad-tempered.

How’s a plain man to fare? = … an ordinary person to live/ cope?

By keeping his own counsel = By remaining silent.

… gospel true and no gainsaying = … truth which can’t be denied/ contradicted.

I would I could go with you…

It fortuned me to meet… = I happened to meet…

Thank you for coming to my aid = … for helping me.

I am of Norwich = I come from…

Have a care! = Take care/ Be careful.

In sample = for example.

Purpose to go = intend to go.

It will serve = it will (have to) do.

I shall bear thee company.

Your heart’s desire be with you!

Yonder he is coming! = He’s over there!

What is your will? = What do you want?

Hard by = nearby.

Trouble not yourself/ Be not dismayed = don’t worry/ be worried!

Thou art a blab! = you are a gossip/ a tell-tale.

Easy to say, sir, but difficult to accomplish.

I have a favour to beg of you.

An ingrate = an ungrateful person

Whither away? = Where are you going?

It may perchance interest you… = It might…

I pray you, think well what you do = Think very carefully…

I cannot comprehend it…

Plague take the man…

He is fortunate indeed…

  • Greetings and farewells…

Good morrow, master/ (gentle) mistress…

I give you good day/ good day to ‘ee, master!

I trust I find you well, and your mother also?

Well enough!

How is it with you?

Good/ God’s speed!

There is one at the door would speak with you…

How goes my father?

The fever is upon him.

Peace be with you… and also with you.

Fare thee/ you well!

God be wi’you, goodman/ goodwife

You be early abroad


Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English.

Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Liz Smith (ed.) (1986), The King’s English: C17 Words and Phrases.

Leigh-on-Sea: Partizan Press.

Posted September 26, 2015 by AngloMagyarMedia in Uncategorized

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