Modern English

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For the '80s pop band, see Modern English (band).

Modern English is the term used for the contemporary use of the English language. In terms of historical linguistics, it covers the English language after the Middle English period; that is, roughly, after the Great Vowel Shift, which was largely concluded after 1550.

Despite some differences in vocabulary, material from the early 17th century, such as the works of William Shakespeare and the King James Bible, is considered to be in Modern English, or more specifically, they are referred to as Early Modern English, and most people who are fluent in the English of the early 21st century can read these books with little difficulty.

Modern English has a large number of dialects, spoken in diverse countries throughout the world. Most of these, however, are mutually comprehensible. This includes American English, Australian English, British English, Canadian English, Caribbean English, Hiberno-English, Indian English, and Pakistani English.

According to Ethnologue, there are over 508 million speakers of English as a first or second language as of 1999, a number dwarfed only by Chinese in terms of the number of speakers. However, Chinese has a smaller geographical range: it is spoken primarily in mainland China and Taiwan, and by a sizable immigrant community in the United States. In contrast, English is spoken in a vast number of territories, including Great Britain, Canada, the United States of America, Australia, and India. Its large number of speakers, plus its worldwide presence, have made English a common language for use in such diverse applications as controlling airplanes and developing software.


Outline of changes in Modern English

The following is an outline of the major changes in Modern English compared to its previous form (Middle English). Note, however, that these are generalizations, and some of these may not be true for specific dialects:


  • instability of with varying, semi-random results, causing meat, bread, and steak no longer to rhyme. (after 1550; perhaps the last event of the Great Vowel Shift in England.)
  • (Southern England, after 1700): changed to before alone or preceded by , for instance bath pronounced "bahth". (the British broad A)
  • (Some accents of England, particularly cockney after 1800): intervocalic became a glottal stop () for example for bottle.
  • (Southern England, after 1850): loss of , replaced by ; compare the southern English and North American pronunciations of boat.
  • varying degree of prestige of Southern English changes in North America; some are imitated in North America, but most changes fail to penetrate past East Coast.
  • (North America, after 1800): intervocalic becomes ; ladder and latter sound very similar or identical, distinguished perhaps by degree of aspiration of consonant or length of preceding vowel.
  • (Scotland, parts of North America, date uncertain): become /əi/, /əu/ before voiceless consonants; house (unvoiced) has a different diphthong from houses (voiced); see Canadian raising.


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