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Early Modern English: The Seventeenth Century: Part Two   Leave a comment


Aubrey, Cooper, Dryden and Meriton

John Aubrey (1626-97) was an antiquary, archaeologist and biographer, but only one book of stories and folklore, Miscellanies, was published in his lifetime in 1696. None of his many other books were finished when he deposited all his manuscripts in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1693. These included a collection of ‘lives’ of notable sixteenth century men and women entitled Brief Lives. The 426 ‘lives’ range in length from two to twenty-three thousand words, so any published version is an edited selection. Some of them are in no more than note-form, but the longer ones are examples of writing that give the impression of spoken narrative, a record of his unselfconscious gossip with his friends. Consequently, they provide examples of standard educated English of the seventeenth century in informal and colloquial styles:

Mr Gore. He is a fidling peevish fellow.

Thomas Willis, M.D. was middle stature: darke brindle haire (like a red pig)… stammered much.

William Sanderson dyed at Whitehall (I was then there): went out like a spent candle before Dr Holder could come to him with the Sacrament.

William Outram was a tall spare leane pale consumptive man; wasted himself much, I presume, by frequent preaching.

Mrs. Abigail Sloper borne at Broad Chalke, near Salisbury, A.D. 1648. Pride; lechery; ungratefull to her father; married, runne distracted; recovered.

Richard Stokes, M.D. His father was Fellow of Eaton College… Scholar to Mr. Oughtred for Mathematics (Algebra). Made himselfe mad with it, but became sober again, but I feare like a crackt-glasse. Became a Roman-catholique; married unhappily at Liege, dog and catt, etc. Became a Scott. Dyed in Newgate, Prisoner for debt… April 1681.

Thomas Fuller was of middle stature; strong sett; curled haire… walking and meditating before dinner, he would eate-up a penny loafe, not knowing that he did it. His natural memory was very great, to which he added the Art of Memorie: he would repeat you forwards and backwards all the signes from Ludgate to Charing-crosse.

The ‘lives’ were anecdotal, each one a collection of facts and stories that Aubrey had gathered about his subject – he was sometimes inaccurate, it is true, but he was never untruthful. The following example is from his Life of Richard Corbet (1582-1635), who became first Bishop of Oxford and then of Norwich, and is typical of the amusing stories that Aubrey liked to collect and record about his subjects:

… His conversation was extreme pleasant. Dr Stubbins was one of his cronies; he was a jolly fatt Dr and a very good house-keeper; parson in Oxfordshire. As Dr Stubbins and he were riding in Lob Lane in wett weather… the coach fell; and Dr Corbet sayd that Dr Stubbins was up to the elbowes in mud, and he was up to the elbowes in Stubbins.

… The Bishop sometimes would take the key of the wine-cellar, and he and his Chaplaine (Dr Lushington) would go and lock themselves in, and be merry. Then first he lazes downe his Episcopall hat – There lyes the Doctor. Then he putts off his gowne – There lyes the Bishop. Then ‘twas ‘Here’s to thee, Corbet, and Here’s to thee, Lushington…

Christopher Cooper, Master of the Grammar School of Bishop-Stortford in Hertfordshire, published The English Teacher or The Discovery of the Art of Teaching and Learning the English Tongue in 1687. In his English Pronunciation 1500-1700 (1968), E J Dobson described him as the best phonetician and one of the fullest recorders of pronunciation that England (and indeed modern Europe) produced before the nineteenth century, the obscure schoolmaster of a country town. Cooper’s book provides us with good evidence of the pronunciation of English at his time, although there was no phonetic alphabet at that time to provide a reference for the sounds. This was complicated by the Great Vowel Shift, which had taken place in the South of England, but not in the North, and was not complete until the end of the century. Therefore, the educated speech of London and the Home Counties, the emerging standard language, was changing, which meant that the same vowel letter now represented different sounds. Cooper distinguished as different the vowels in certain pairs of words which today are identical homophones in RP and other dialects in different parts of the North of England and East Anglia, for example pane with a pure vowel and pain with a diphthong. Cooper differentiated diphthongs in pronunciation from digraphs in writing. He did not, however, use the word digraph but the phrase improper diphthong for pairs of letters that represented only one sound. From Cooper’s work, we know that the words boil, oil, loin, moil had exactly the same pronunciation as bile, isle, line and mile. This can be checked in the poetry of the seventeenth century, such as that of John Dryden, in which many similar pairs of words consistently rhyme together. The following extracts from Cooper’s 1687 book, The English Teacher, show his attempts to reconcile vowel sounds to letters:


002 (2)

John Dryden (1631-1700) was one of the greatest writers in the English literary tradition, a poet, dramatist and critic. He was largely responsible for the cherished superstition that prepositions must, in spite of the incurable English instinct for putting them late, … be kept true their name and place before the word they govern (H. W. Fowler, 1926). Dryden went through all his prefaces, contriving away the final prepositions that he had been guilty of in his first editions (ibid.) This is incidental to his recognised eminence as a prose writer, so that it has been said that Modern English prose began with him.

Dryden admired Chaucer’s poetry, but some aspects of his assessment of Chaucer throw as clear a light on Dryden himself, and the way his contemporaries thought about language and writing, as they do on Chaucer. His summary of Chaucer’s achievement is well-known:

‘Tis sufficient to say according to the Proverb, that here is God’s Plenty.

Dryden’s remarks on Chaucer’s language are relevant to our understanding of the development of Standard English, and of the attitudes to acceptable usage. He was concerned with the idea of the ‘purity’ of English and the notion that it had reached a state of perfection in his day. He wrote that, from Chaucer the Purity of the English tongue began… Chaucer lived in the Dawning of our Language. However, Dryden also felt that Chaucer’s diction stands not on an equal Foot with our present English. He therefore tried to ‘polish’ Chaucer by reversifying some of the Canterbury Tales, making his choice from those as savour nothing of Immodesty. In his preface to the fables, he quotes from Chaucer’s prologue, where the narrator thus excuses the Ribaldry, which is very gross… Dryden then goes on to discuss Chaucer’s language:

You have here a ‘Specimen of Chaucer’s’ Language, which is so obsolete, that his Sense is scarce to be understood; and you have likewise more than one Example of his unequal Numbers, which were mention’d before. Yet many   of his verses consist of Ten Syllables, and the Words not much behind our present ‘English’.

When reading poetry from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, we often find pairs of words that should rhyme, but do not do so in present-day pronunciation. Rhymes therefore not only provide good evidence of changes in the pronunciation and structure of words up to the end of the fourteenth century, but they can also provide some evidence of such changes to the end of the seventeenth century and, by extension, into standard MnE. The following rhymes from Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneis occur frequently throughout the translation, so cannot be mistaken for false-, eye-, or half-rhymes:


At length, in dead of Night, the Ghost appears

Of her unhappy Lord: the Spectre stares,

And with the erected Eyes his bloody bosom bares.

When rising Vapours choak the wholsom Air,

And blasts of noisom Winds corrupt the Year.


His Pow’r to hollow Caverns is confin’d,

There let him reign, the jailor of the wind.


 Did I or Iris give this mad Advice,

Or made the Fool himself the fatal Choice?


Yet one remain’d, the Messenger of Fate;

High on a craggy cliff Celaeno sate,

And thus her dismall errand did relate.


O more than Madmen! You your selves shall bear,

The guilt of Blood and Sacrilegious War…


…The Brambles drink his Blood;


The  Pastor pleas’d with his dire Victory,

Beholds the satiate Flames in Sheets ascend the Sky.

However, many of these words, like blood (also rhymed with God) appear to have at least two pronunciations by this time, evidence that the Great vowel shift was nearing its completion. It seems odd at first sight that enemy could apparently rhyme with both free ( /fri:/ in MnE pronunciation) and high ( /hai/ ). The vowel of high was still in the process of shifting, in Dryden’s time, from /i:/ to /ai/ and the vowel of free from /e:/ to /i:/, so that pronunciation could vary. This explains the following rhymes:

… the coast was free

From Foreign or Domestick Enemy: 

He heav’d it at a Lift: and poiz’d on high,

Ran stagg’ring on, against his Enemy.

For researchers into language variety, it becomes increasingly rare to find texts from the late fifteenth century onwards which provide continuing evidence of surviving regional variations after the educated London dialect became the standard written form. Once the grammar and vocabulary of written English were standardised, other dialects were recorded only in texts written for the purpose of presenting dialects as different.

However, during the seventeenth century, there was a revival of interest in antiquarian studies and of language variety in written forms, two of the topics discussed by members of The Royal Society. Writings on language included descriptions of the Saxon language of the past and contemporary dialects. Many of the latter had found fresh expression in the Leveller writings of the relatively uncensored pamphlets of the Commonwealth period.

One form that this interest in dialect took can be found in George Meriton’s A Yorkshire Dialogue, published in York in 1683. Meriton was a lawyer, practising in the North Riding town of Northallerton. Meriton’s dialogue is a lively representation of a Yorkshire farming family, written in verse couplets, and is deliberately full of proverbial sayings. It is only indirect evidence of the authentic North Riding English of the time, but it does provide plenty of examples of dialectal and colloquial vocabulary and grammar.

The spelling of written English in the seventeenth century remained virtually unchanged, and took little account of the shifts in pronunciation that had taken place since the fourteenth century. Consequently, the spelling of Standard English did not accurately indicate the genteel accent of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. However, when writing in dialect, it was (as now) usual to spell many of the words as they were spoken, so that features of dialectal pronunciation and colloquial idioms were shown, as is demonstrated in the following short extract from Meriton’s A Yorkshire Dialogue (1683):

Niece: How duz my Cozen Tibb Naunt I mun nut stay,

I hard she gat a Cawd the other day.

(How does my Cousin Tibb Aunt, I must not stay,

I heard she got a Cold the other day)

Mother: Ey wallaneerin, wilta gang and see,

Shee’s aboun ’ith Chawmber,

Thou may clim upth Stee.

Shee’s on a dovening now gang deftly Nan,

And mack as little din as ee’r Thou can.

(Ey, alas, will thou go and see,

She’s above in the Chamber,

Thou may climb up the Ladder.

She’s in a doze now go gently Nan,

And make as little din as ever thou can.)

Source: Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Early Modern English: The Sixteenth Century   1 comment

Tudor Styles and Spellings       

Just as the private letters of the Pastons and the Celys written in the fifteenth century give us some idea of everyday speech among the merchant families of the time, so the letters of the Lisle family, from the early sixteenth century, give us some idea of colloquial language fifty years later.

Writers at that time were still not using a nationally standardised form of spelling, but this does not mean that their spelling was haphazard or that they simply ‘wrote as they spoke’. There were inconsistencies, particularly in the use of the now redundant final ‘e’ in many words, but the authors of letters had clearly learnt a system of spelling. Variations were the result of the lack of dictionaries until the latter part of the century.

The Lisle letters were written to and by Lord Lisle, his family, friends and staff, when he was Governor of Calais, then still an English possession under Henry VIII, from 1533 to 1540. The letters reveal a wide range of styles of correspondence, both formal and informal, therefore providing important primary evidence of the state of the language in the first half of the century before the Anglican Reformation.

A letter of 1539, written by George Bassett, Lady Lisle’s fourteen-year-old son by her first marriage, reveals the use of purely formal family correspondence. George has no news to convey, being a servant in the household of Sir Francis Bryan in order to further his education, but he addresses his mother in the approved Tudor manner, according to Muriel St Clare Byrne, the editor of The Lisle Letters:


Ryht honorable and my most dere and singler goode lorde and ladye/ in my most humble man(ner) I recomaunde me unto yow besechynge to have yor dailye blessynge/ and to here of yor goode and prospus helth/ fore the conservatione of whiche/ I praye dailye unto almyghty godde… ffurthermore I beseche yor lordship and ladishipe to have me heartilye recomendyde unto my Brother and Systers. And thus I praye godde to conserve yor ladyshipe ever in goode/ longe/ and prosperus helthe wt honor. ffrom Woburn the firste daye of Julye

By yor humble and

owne Son George


So, George’s formal ‘duty letter’ to his parents does not tell us much about him, except that he can write very competently and in beautiful handwriting (see the facsimile above). He uses the ‘strike’ or ‘virgule’ (/) as a mark of punctuation, and the occasional full-stop, then called a ‘prick’.

Sir William Kingston’s letter of September 1533 to Lord Lisle (see facsimile below) is an interesting example of an educated man’s style, since Kingston was not only a member of the King’s Privy Council, but also Constable of the Tower of London. The presentation of the letter would be unacceptable to modern readers, since there is no punctuation. The content, however, refers to the gentlemanly pursuit of hawking, or falconry, and gives the names of several birds used in the activity.


In January 1536, Sir Thomas Audley wrote to Lord Lisle as Governor of Calais to request a post of ‘Spear’ in the Retinue on behalf of Robert Whethill, whose father had been Mayor of Calais and was still resident there. He had been constantly at loggerheads with Lisle, who nevertheless replied affirmatively, though with obvious reluctance, to the request:


Rhyt honorabyll after my most hymbylyst wyse I commend me unto you & have reseyvyd yor yentyll letter in the favour of R whethyll cosrnyng the next speris rome within myn offyce her hit shall plesse yor good lordshype that ther is not the trustit srvat in yor house nother in yngland that shall gladlyer do yor commandment & plessur then I wold w owght desemylassion as evr deuryng my lyffe shall aper toward you & yors thys whethill & his father orderyd me opynly at lantern gate w word & countenans that I nevr sofferyd so muche of no degre sens I whas xvj yer old notwstandyng I woll at yor comandement forget all.


An example of formal written language contemporary with the Lisle letters is Sir Thomas Elyot’s The boke named the Governour, printed in London in 1531. It was dedicated unto the most victorious prince King Henry VIIIth, King of England and France, Defender of the True Faith and Lord of Ireland. Elyot’s purpose was to to describe in our vulgare tunge/ the fourme of a just publike weal (= welfare/ prosperity/ (common)wealth)… for as much as this present boke treateth of the education of them that hereafter may be demed worthy to be governors of the publike weal. He wrote it in English, but – in common with all educated men – regarded Latin and Greek as the essential languages of learning. He refers to the insufficience of our own langage when defining the words publike and commune which he borrowed from Latin. His ‘commune’ is the equivalent of the modern ‘common’, used in the sense of ‘commoner’ as compared with ‘noble’ or ‘lord’. Both words were taken from Old French during the Middle English period, but their sources were the Latin publicus and communis. Elyot, like many other scholarly writers of the period, anglicised many Latin and Greek words in order to express his meaning.


Sir Thomas Elyot set out a programme of education for young noblemen, beginning with the learning of Latin from the age of six. Strong feelings were aroused over accents and dialects, and Elyot directed that a young nobleman of this age should only be placed in the care of a nurse or serving woman who spoke none Englisshe but that which is cleane, polite, perfectly and articulately pronounced. The texts from The Governour, one of which is shown in facsimile below,  reveal not only matters of substance and style, but also features of grammar and lexis, which mark out Elyot’s language as being in transition from archaic forms to standard English. He expressed a scholar’s view on the superiority of Latin and Greek, from which hundreds of words were borrowed into English in anglicised forms. These words were referred to, somewhat disparagingly, as ‘inkhorn terms’, words coming from the scholar’s horn of ink and therefore often pedantic in use. George Puttenham called this development a ‘corruption’ of the English language, the result of the peevish affectation of clerks and scholars, introducing unnecessarily long, polysyllabic words.


There were some who went even further in their rejection of not just the ‘inkhorn terms’ but of any borrowings from other languages:


Above: Richard Verstagen’s

A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence, 1605

During the latter half of the sixteenth century, the first dictionaries, spelling books and grammars of English began to be published. The writers of them were responding to a growing sense that the language needed agreed forms. They noticed that there were too few letters in the alphabet to match the sounds in English, and that the spelling of many words did not match their pronunciation. The common view was that the language had become ‘corrupted’. One of the earliest books to advocate a reform of English spelling was John Hart’s Orthographie, published in 1569 (see facsimile below). Hart pointed out two spelling conventions which are still part of the modern English system, but which he did not use in his reformed spelling. The first was the use of a final ‘e’ to mark a preceding ‘long’ vowel, as in hate/hat. The second was the use of double consonants to mark a preceding ‘short’ vowel, as in matting/ mating and robbing/ robing.


The Great Vowel Shift  

Between the time of Chaucer in the late fourteenth century and Shakespeare two centuries later, all the long vowels in English spoken in the Midlands and South of England shifted their pronunciation in what has been called the Great Vowel Shift. John Hart’s reference to the ‘i’ vowel in exercise – that it was being pronounced as a diphthong by some speakers – is contemporary evidence of this shift. It was not complete by 1569, and there were both regional and social variations in dialect, but in time all the vowels were either raised or became diphthongs. However, right up until the present day, the spelling system in English has never been altered to fit these changed pronunciations. As a consequence, there are still only five letters corresponding to the fifteen vowels and diphthongs in Modern English.

Just as in Middle English there was no standard language, but a number of interrelated dialects, English today also consists of these dialects, spread throughout the world. However, in England people now tend to regard the Standard English dialect, with its ‘received pronunciation’ as ‘good’ or ‘correct’ English, looking down on the other regional and social dialects of English as substandard or inferior. This tendency is not new. Concern over differences in dialect dates back to the fourteenth century, with both Chaucer and Caxton referring to the ‘diversity’ of the English language. A written standard was the first form to develop. Educated men and women wrote in this standard form but continued to speak in the dialects of their regions. John Aubrey, writing in the seventeenth century, commented on Sir Walter Raleigh’s enduring dialect:

Old Sir Thomas Malett, one of the Justices of the King’s bench… knew Sir Walter, and I have heard him say, that notwithstanding his so great Mastership in Style and his conversation with the learnedest and politest persons, yet he spake broad Devonshire to his dying day.


Aubrey implies that this was somewhat unusual, and that gentlemen in his time did not speak in regional dialects at the Stuart Court, hinting that this would have been considered unfitting for learned and polite society. We also know, from surviving documents, that Raleigh often signed his name Rawley, clear evidence of how he himself must have pronounced it. Standard vocabulary and grammar eventually spread to spoken English as well as to written forms. By the end of the fifteenth century, there is less evidence in both printed and manuscript documents of the range of dialects in English. Regional and social varieties still flourished, but evidence for them is much more difficult to find. The language of informal letters or the dialogue of characters in prose drama is probably the nearest we can get to everyday speech in Elizabethan and Jacobean times. George Puttenham, writing in 1589 in The Arte of English Poesie, illustrates his awareness of the range of available regional and social varieties available before Standard English became a fully defined and accepted written variety (see the facsimile below):


Puttenham was expressing a concern that was common to many sixteenth century scholars and writers, that there was too great a ‘diversity’ in the language. These were not simply social and regional, but also national in their characteristics. The dialogue of characters in plays cannot be taken as completely authentic evidence of the spoken language, but may indicate some of the more obvious dialectical features of speech. In Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fift, there is a comic episode involving four captains – Gower (an Englishman), ‘Fluellen’ (Llewelyn – Welsh), Mackmorrice (Scottish) and Iamy (Irish):


In general, reading texts from Shakespeare’s time onwards into the seventeenth century, we find fewer and fewer features of vocabulary and grammar that are archaic and unfamiliar, and it becomes more difficult to specify exactly what differences there are between older and contemporary English. Facsimiles or exact reproductions make the language of the 1620s look more unfamiliar than it really is. There were some obvious differences in spelling and punctuation, but commas, colons, full stops (‘pricks’) were all in use, as were exclamation and question marks. In pronunciation, the raising or diphthongisation of long vowels in the South and Midlands (the ‘Great Vowel Shift’) had taken place, but was not yet complete. In vocabulary, the adoption of a large number of Latin words into written language had been made easy by the previous adoption of hundreds of French words. At the same time, a number of prefixes and suffixes were also adopted and used with English words. In general terms, the grammar of English at the end of the sixteenth century was the same as English today, except for the use of personal pronouns such as thou, thee, thy, thine and ye. The relative pronoun ‘which’ was still common, but ‘who’ and ‘whom’ had also come into regular usage. With verbs, the third person, the ending ‘-eth’ (southern) as well as ‘-s’ (northern) was still in use, as in ‘he maketh’ and ‘she makes’. The inversion of subject and verb in the simple present and past interrogative forms was also still in use, as in ‘knowest thou?’ and ‘came he?’, but the use of the auxiliary ‘do’ had also become common, as in ‘dost thou know?’ or ‘did he come?’.

Source: Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

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