Reading Early Modern English

Uniquely positioned between the medieval and the modern, the period of Bess of Hardwick's life, from c.1521/2-1608, was also a transitional one for the English language. On the one hand, the functions of the language were being elaborated, as an increasingly literate population began to use English in contexts previously occupied by French or Latin. On the other hand, it was not until later, in the eighteenth century, that everyday writing in English took on the standardised forms with which we are familiar today. The linguistic variation in early modern English is reflected nowhere so profoundly as in the spellings, punctuation, grammar and syntax found in handwritten correspondence, such as that of Bess of Hardwick.

During the period of Bess's life, there were many similarities between English as it was written in letters and English as it was spoken. This observation goes back to the sixteenth century itself: Angel Day's The English Secretorie (first printed in 1586 and perhaps the best known of Elizabethan letter-writing manuals) follows Erasmus's quintessentially Renaissance dictum that letters are 'familiar speeche of the absent'. More recently, modern linguistic descriptions of the speech-like features of letters have proven particularly useful for the study of eras that predate sound recording. Yet writing is never really speech, and the relationship between speech and writing is a complex one. Like many other aspects of early modern life, letter-writing was a ritual unto itself with its own specialised conventions of expression (commodified by writers like Day).

The diversity of linguistic variation coupled with rhetorical specialisation can make early modern English letters peculiar reading for modern audiences. For this reason, the aim of this web-essay is to provide suggestions for how to approach reading Bess's letters and to discuss some of the features that may seem odd or off-putting to anyone new to early modern English (for example, spelling). At the same time, this web-essay aims to review and draw attention to some features of the language and composition of the letters that would have been especially important to the original senders and recipients.

References and Further Reading

  • The standard authoritative collection of essays on aspects of early modern English is Roger Lass (ed.), The Cambridge History of the English Language Volume 3: 1476-1776 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
  • An accessible introduction to early modern English is Terttu Nevalainen, An Introduction to Early Modern English (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006).
  • Rhetorical elements of early modern letters are discussed by Lynne Magnusson, Shakespeare and Social Dialogue: Dramatic Language and Elizabethan Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
  • A collection of various forms of early modern English in original spelling from different kinds of texts (including letters) is provided by Bridget Cusack, Everyday English 1500-1700 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998).
Author(s): Graham Williams, April 2013

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Developed by The University of Glasgow

Technical Development

Technical development by The Digital Humanities Institute

Funded by

Funded by the AHRC

'Bess of Hardwick's Letters' was developed by The University of Glasgow with technical development provided by The Digital Humanities Institute at The University of Sheffield
Version 1.0 | ISBN 978-0-9571022-3-1
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