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Early Modern English

Early Modern English can be defined as the stage of the English language used in Britain from the beginning of the Tudor period (say from 1485, when Henry Tudor usurped the throne from Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field), until the gradual transition to Modern English during the mid-seventeenth century. The orthography of Early Modern English is similar to that of today, but spelling is unstable. It can, with very little practise, be easily read. Below are some notes which might help upon a first encounter with Early Modern English texts.

Spellings

Dictionaries hardly existed at the beginning of the Tudor period, and those that did were strongly influenced by the idiosyncrasies and prejudices of the compiler. Therefore, without any standard guide to follow, the spellings used by individual authors often seem peculiar to modern readers. Only slowly did a consensus on correct spellings emerge.  

f  f        ſ  ſ       s  s

In short, and for example, expect to read modern spellings such as sum, divisor and just,

as ſomme, diuiſor and ivst in roman, and ſomme, diuiſor and ivst in italic.

Punctuation

Punctuation often appears eccentric to modern eyes – for example, commas are sometimes present when (by modern standards), their use is not required. Conversely they are often missing where present-day usage would insert them. Full stops . and the colon : are often used arbitrarily and interchangeably, and the ends of sentences are sometimes not terminated by any punctuation at all. The first word of a following sentence might or might not be capitalised.

Printers Contractions

Often the words “the”, “that” and “with” are contracted to ye , yt , and wt respectively, with the small letters e and t placed directly above the y or w. Of course, these contractions should be read in the text with their full pronunciation  “the”, “that” and “with”.

Diacritical Marks

Diacritical marks have been used to abbreviate printed words ever since Gutenberg, and early English printers adopted the same conventions that Gutenberg did for Latin texts (which he copied, in turn, from the handwritten texts of medieval scribes). Diacritical marks are used in most texts printed in Early Modern English to indicate the omission of the consonant m or n where this follows a vowel. The missing letter is indicated by placing the mark (a bar, wavy line, or similar) over the vowel. Instances are exāple (example), scā (scan), takē (taken), quotiēt quotient), ī (in), frō (from), nōber for nomber (number) and chaūce for chaunce (chance). Words abbreviated with diacritical marks should also be read, of course, with their full pronunciation.

Typographical Features

All the contractions and abbreviations found in the pages of books printed in Early Modern English are compositors tricks to help in the justification of entire paragraphs – something that was considerably easier in the days before orthography and standardised spellings. Justification of paragraphs was not merely a cosmetic feature (as it is today). Early printers would be laying out discrete pieces of movable metal type into a square wooden frame and if the frame was not completely filled, the types would move under the action of the press and perhaps even fall out. In other words, each line of each paragraph had to extend fully from left to right, with the letters ‘jammed’ in the frame or the page would be unprintable.

One way for early printers to do this might have been by inserting blank spaces of suitable lengths between the words on each line, but this is not a satisfactory solution. The result is usually ‘rivers’ of blank space flowing down the page, which seriously interrupt reading and which was recognised as a problem from the very earliest days of printing. Hence the use of aggressive hyphenation, contracted words, diacritical marks and variant spellings of the same word, like hed (which has three letters), head (which has four), or hedde (which has five), all very useful when striving to obtain justification and spelling is not a problem. The compositor would use any or all of the above described “tricks” at will in order to obtain a solid block of text on each page.

It was also an early printing convention to enclose numbers within dots, like this ․75․ ostensibly to distinguish counting numbers from the cardinal numbers, 1 2 or 3 etc., used to abbreviate words like first, second, third, etc.

A little practice at reading Early Modern English soon renders the text intelligible.

Here are some examples for you to try, together with a modern English transliteration.


Ye Olde Tea Shoppe

Do NOT pronounce this phrase as “Ye Old-ee Tea Shop-ee” - our forbears did not. Remember the final e is silent - it was the spellings of words which altered, not the sound (always excepting local dialects). Every person in the Tudor age would have known that “ye” was just a shorthand way of writing “the” and would have pronounced it as such. So the correct way to speak the words is “The Old Tea Shop”, just like today. (To confuse matters a little, “ye” could also mean “you”, as in “Ye rascally knave”).
















In the above example, a master set a problem for his scholar to solve. “S” is an abbreviation for “Scholar” and “M” for “Master” (not generally but in this particular case only). Note the obsolete words “nomber” meaning “number, “thirdles”, meaning “thirds”, “remaineth” for “remain” and “unpossible” for “impossible”

(from The Grounde of Artes by Robert Recorde, 1543)




























In the above example is another problem to be solved. Note the words ending in “eth”, where today we would place an “s” - meets instead of meeteth, knows instead of knoweth, etc. Also note the obsolete words “condempneth” for “condems”  and “compte” for “count” or “compute”. “Moder” for “mother” is more problematic. It is likely that this is an untranslated word from Dutch, the language in which this work was first written.

(from An Introduction for to Lerne to Recken by an anonymous author, 1539)

































This final example is an admonition from a sixteenth century physician, against persons providing him with false urine samples, from which he makes his diagnosis of a patient’s state of health or sickness.

(from The Urinal of Physick by Robert Recorde, 1547).


Visit our collection of books written in Early Modern English







A lord delivered to a bricklayer, a certain number of loads of brick, whereof he willed him to make twelve walls, of such sort that the first wall should receive two thirds of the whole number: and the second two thirds of that, that was left. And so every other two thirds of that that remained. And so did the bricklayer. And when the twelve walls were made, there remained one load of brick. Now I ask you how many load went to every wall, and how many load was in the whole?

S. Why sir? It is impossible for me to tell.

M. Nay, it is very easy if you mark it well. Mark well, that I...




A young maiden beareth eggs to the market for to sell, and her meeteth a young man that would play with her, in so much that he overthroweth & breaketh the eggs every one, and will not pay for them. The maid doeth him to be called afore the judge. The judge condempneth him to pay for the eggs. But the judge knoweth not how many eggs there were. And that he demandeth of the maid. She answereth that she is but young, and cannot well compte, but she and her moder had ordained and disposed them by two and two & there remained one egg. Then by three and three and there remained one. Then by four and four and there remained one. Then by five and five, & there remained one. Then by six and six & there remained one. And at the last by seven and seven and there remained  none...

Copyright © TGR Renascent Books 2009  - [renascent adj. Coming into being again - Latin renasci, to be born again] (OED)

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And like ways I shall exhort all men, not to mock and jest with any Physician (as some light wits do) tempting them with Beast’s stale instead of men’s Urine. Or bringing to them men’s water for woman’s, and such like things. For in this doing they deceive not the Physician but themselves. For a man’s water to be like a woman’s, it need seem no strange thing. How be it, again, there is notable difference, in so much that that water which in a man declareth certain health, if it were a woman’s, might declare some disease. And like ways that that in a woman pretendeth health, if it were a man’s water, it might betoken sickness. And if a man’s water and woman’s be like and betoken both diseases, those diseases may be diverse, and not one. Yea, two men’s waters being both like shall not declare always one grief, except they also agree in age diet, exercise....