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shakespeareHere is the Lord’s Prayer in Early Modern English (from the Geneva Bible of 1587):

Our father which art in heauen,
halowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdome come.
Thy will be done
euen in earth, as it is in heauen.
Giue vs this day our dayly bread.
And forgiue vs our dettes,
as we also forgiue our detters.
And leade vs not into tentation,
but deliuer vs from euill:
Amen.

Early Modern English (1474-1660) is English from about the time of Caxton in the late 1400s, when he printed the first book in English, to Milton in the middle 1600s. It is the English of Shakespeare and the Authorized King James Bible, of Hobbes, Bunyan,  Marlowe, Spenser, Bacon and Donne. It was considerably different from the English of Chaucer in the late 1300s, yet it was easily understood up until the late 1800s.

It was when English had become a respectable language, like French. It was taking in huge numbers of Latin words. Shakespeare showed its beauty and power. Even so, it was not the giant world language it is now – only about 5 million people in a corner of Europe spoke it. English was just beginning to spread its wings.

It was the English that was brought to America. The American use of –ize instead of -ise and mad in the sense of angry, for example, go back to this time.

It was during this period that English spelling became more or less fixed. This started with Caxton in the late 1400s, who pretty much wrote words the way they sounded. Most of what makes English hard to spell comes from the Great Vowel Shift that came soon after in the 1500s: that was when the silent e became silent, as did the k in knife, the w in wrong, the t in listen, the l in half and so on. It is when words like food and good or sweat and meat stopped rhyming in spite of how they were spelled.

The most noticeable difference between our English and theirs are all those thous and -eths. But even in the early 1600s they were already falling out of use. They are more common, for instance, in the King James Bible, which preserves an older English from the middle 1500s, than they are in Shakespeare. By the 1600s -eth was probably said as -es regardless of how it was spelled.

Some notes:

  • My became mine before a vowel: “mine apple”.
  • Is could still sometimes take the place of has in the perfect tense: “He is come”.
  • Its was just coming into use in the 1600s: before then his and whereof were used instead: “the weight whereof was an 130 shekels.”
  • Ye was used instead you when it was the subject of a sentence: “But be ye doers of the word.”
  • Thou was the familiar form of “ye”, but it was falling out of use.
  • Instead of using do to make a question you could just put the main verb first: “Have ye three apples?”

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