Enquiry into aspects of style and vocabulary of the Puritan language

Term Paper, 2008

18 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Puritans and their language
2.1 What is Puritanism and when was it
2.2 About the Puritan language

3. Analysis of sources of Puritan language and discussion of the findings
3.1 Analysis of the sermons
3.1.1 Discussion of the Sermons
3.2 Analysis of the letters
3.3 Analysis of religious treatises and literary examples
3.3.1 The religious treatises
3.3.2 The literary examples
3.4 Discussion of the findings on the Puritan vocabulary

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

During the Early Modern English period, the Puritans in England developed certain language usages of their own that were mainly on the lexical level. Their language showed variation especially in the vocabulary (Barber 1997: 23). In the standard work Early Modern English by Charles Barber, he claims that repetition is probably a feature of Puritan public speech and takes as a foundation a character from Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair (1997: 24). So the first aim of this paper is to prove or refute Barber’s assertion that Puritans used the stylistic device of repetition in public speaking. The second aim of this paper is to find out to what extent the Puritans used their vocabulary in different literary genres. There will also be a short explanation of the meaning of Puritan words that are found in the text. This aspect cannot be considered in full detail as it would go beyond the scope of this paper. Furthermore, the paper will comment on whether the depiction of Puritans in 16th and 17th century drama is realistic concerning the use of Puritan vocabulary and repetition of words and phrases.

Van Beek writes in An enquiry into puritan vocabulary, which served as a main source for this paper, that there had hardly been done any similar work on the Puritan vocabulary before his study (1969: 5). According to the online bibliography of the Modern Language Association (MLA), there have not been published any similar studies from 1969 till today. In fact, there are only some references to Puritan vocabulary in larger studies, e.g. in the latest books on Early Modern English by Manfred Görlach and Barber’s above mentioned work from 1997. However, they also do not look closely at some specific features of their vocabulary. The only detailed study on a particular aspect of the Puritan vocabulary is Die Self-Komposita der Puritanersprache by Karl Waentig dated 1932. One can say that there has not been done any quantitative research so far on the Puritan vocabulary in the Early Modern period. Concerning the other interest of this paper one can also say that there has not been done research on the repetition of words and phrases in Puritan public speech.

In order to verify Barber’s assumption that Puritans repeat words or phrases, one has to find a text-type that is representative for Puritan public speech. Of course, when a Puritan spoke in public he or she did it usually for religious purposes and therefore, it would be advisable to consider sermons as the appropriate type of text to look at. This paper concentrates on 6 different sermons by Richard Baxter, John Rainolds and Thomas Watson. Out of each sermon a passage of 1000 words is scanned, so that there is a total of 6000 words for this text-type.

For the investigation on the Puritan vocabulary, there are used the mentioned sermons and in addition to that, there will be looked at 6 letters by John Rainolds, Oliver Cromwell and Martin Marprelate, which is a pseudonym for a secret press in the 16th century. The extracts of the letters add up to 5250 words in total. Further there are taken two extracts from religious treatises by Martin Marprelate and Thomas Cartwright that consist together of 2000 words. Finally there are also taken two extracts from John Milton and John Bunyan, which consist of 1000 words each. Thus, the total number of words for the study in the Puritan vocabulary is 15250. In order to check whether a word belongs to the Puritan vocabulary or not, Van Beek’s word list at the end of the book, served as a good source.

In chapter 2 of this paper, there will be delineated the theoretical background about Puritans and their language that is necessary to know for a better understanding of this study. Following that chapter, which has only an introductive character, there is the main part of this paper in which the said sources are introduced in more detail, scanned and then put up for discussion. After that, there is the conclusion with regard to the aims of this paper.

2. Puritans and their language

2.1 What is P]uritanism and when was it

For an investigation of the Puritan language it is first of all important to clarify what a Puritan or Puritanism actually is. The terms have been used throughout history in a vague way so that it will be difficult to give a general definition. This problem is a linguistic one, as one can apply the term Puritan to a large number of people, due to the wide definitions that are given (Van Beek 1969: 11). When the term was used the first time in 1564, it characterized “opposers of the hierarchy and church-service.” (Fuller 1655) During the time more definitions appeared.

Some authors equate Puritanism with Reformation as one can see when Brown writes that “Puritanism and the Reformation are more of less synonymous.” (1912: 1) Also Houghton claims in the Ecclesiastical History of England that “the pent-up waters of Protestantism found a vent through Puritanism.” (1867: 55)

A further definition is given by Hill, when he describes the word Puritan as a “political nickname.” (1964: 14) In fact it was used as a nickname as one can see in Rutherford’s citation: “I assure you, howbeit we be nicknamed Puritans, all the powers of the world shall not prevail against us.” (Rutherford 1637: 263) Even if a nickname can describe a certain characteristic of a person relatively precise at the beginning, it raises a problem when this nickname is later used to stigmatise or ridicule a person. Then it is no longer useful as a description (Van Beek 1969: 12).

Along with Fuller’s above mentioned original definition of a Puritan, Lewis says that they “desired reform from within” rather than separate themselves from the Establishment. Further they had “a strong emphasis on justification by faith”, they regarded preaching as a “means of grace” and they had “an attitude toward bishops which varies from reluctant toleration to implacable hostility.” (Lewis 1959: 17) When the Puritans started opposing not just the bishops but also the king they became a kind of enemy of the state.

Considering some of the characteristics mentioned above, one could assume that there have always been Puritan ideas in the world (Van Beek 1969: 9) as people throughout history have “stood up to advocate reform.” (Campbell 1892: 91)

The ground for this paper will be the definition given by Van Beek in which he says that a Puritan is a person who “opposed the hierarchy and ritual of the Church of England”, had “varying degrees of loyalty to this church”, was “strict in morals” and “profoundly concerned with conscience, which concern eventually compelled them to challenge not only spiritual but also worldly authority.” (1969: 14) These attributes serve as an appropriate background for the following study in Puritan language. A further question that is not concerned with their ideology is to what social classes the Puritans usually belonged to. For example the Puritans from East Anglia who settled in the Massachusetts Bay (Nevalainen 2006: 146) were “largely educated and middle class, with a notable absence of lower-class members” (Algeo 2001: 8). But Puritans cannot be regarded as a social class in that time, due to the fact that their believes and way of thinking was found almost across the whole society. Nevertheless, they were an important group within the society (Barber 1997: 23).

The next question is where one can locate the Puritan period in time. Van Beek locates it from the early 1560s to the early 1640s (1969: 14), referring to the fact that the names Presbyterian, Independent and Baptists were increasingly used after 1640. This problem can be seen again as a linguistic one and because there are texts published later than 1640 which can be considered a good source for Puritan writing this paper will focus on the period from 1560 to roughly the late 17th century. American Puritanism will not be included, as it does not coincide in time or substance with the English Puritanism (1969: 2).

2.2 About the Puritan language

Even if Puritanism cannot be located in a particular region in England and neither in a certain social class, their language can be regarded as a dialect. According to John Bullokar, who included the term “dialect” the first time in a dictionary, a dialect is “a difference of some words, or pronunciation in any language” (Bullokar 1616). Puritans used existing words more frequently or in different contexts than other people did, or they coined completely new words, which were used exclusively by them (Barber 1997: 24). Considering this definition one can talk about a puritan dialect.

Some authors of that time mention that Puritan speech is characterized by nasality, which is later called the “nasal twang” (Macaulay 1913: 71). As an example, where this phonological feature is mentioned, one can take the extract from Ben Jonson’s play The Case is Altered (1609), when Aurelia says: “beleeue me, if I had not some hope of your abiding with vs, I should neuer desire to go out of black whilst I liued: but learne to speake i’the nose, and turne puritan presently.” The generalization that all Puritans have a nasal speech is doubtful, as Puritans could be found all over England and they cannot be located in a particular area. This nasality was probably a feature that was common in the citizenry in East Anglia and as Puritans were quite influential in this class (Barber 1997: 23), the people unjustifiably gave all of them this attribute. Therefore, this paper will not focus on the phonology of the Puritan language, as one can consider the above mentioned feature of nasality as an unfounded prejudice of that time.

The Puritans were often depicted in dramas in an amusing way. For example, there is the famous figure Zeal-of-the-Land Busy in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (1614), who uses a lot of the puritan vocabulary and biblical expressions in everyday discourse, which is also an alleged feature of their speaking, but that will not be considered in this paper. Another characteristic of his speech is the repetition of words and phrases. As an example, one can take the following extract of Ben Jonson’s play, when Busy says:

I was mov’d in spirit, to bee here, this day, in this Faire, this wicked, and foule Faire; and fitter may it be called a foule, then a Faire: To protest against the abuses of it, the foule abuses of it, in regard of the afflicted Saints, that are troubled, very much troubled, exceedingly troubled, with the opening of the merchandize of Babylon againe, and the peeping of Popery upon the stals, here, here, in the high places. (Jonson 1972: 78)

Here one can see that his speech is marked by many repetitions and he uses the words “afflicted”, “Saints” and “Babylon”, which are part of the Puritan vocabulary according to Van Beek’s inquiry.

3. Analysis of the sources and discussion of the findings 3.1 Analysis of the sermons

There are six sermons taken, serving as the base for the investigation in this paper. The first one by Thomas Watson (d. 1686), called “Fight of Faith”, was written in 1678 and preached at the funeral of Henry Stubs. The second one is called “Light in darkness” and was printed in 1679. The next two are by John Rainolds (1549-1607) and are called “A Sermon vpon part of the Prophesie of Obdiah”, preached on the 28th October 1584 at Saint Maries in Oxford and “A sermon upon part of the eighteenth psalm”, that was preached in Oxford University in 1586. The first sermon by Richard Baxter (1615-1691) was printed in 1683 and called “Farewel Sermon”. It was prepared to be preached at Kidderminster but forbidden, as it says on the first page. The second one from 1660 is called “The life of faith”. All three authors were known Puritans of that time. The sermons however, are chosen randomly for this investigation and considered to be representative. In order to ensure comparability, the extracts taken from these sermons consist all of thousand words.

In the first Watson sermon, the author repeats the word “armour” eight times in a one- hundred-word passage and in the following three-hundred words, two further times. It is written four times with a capital letter. In another passage, consisting of two-hundred fifty words, “helmet” recurs eight times. Again, it is written five times capitalized and one time used in the word “Paper-helmet”. In the next short passage of seventy-five words, there is the word “shield” repeated five times and spelled always the same. In the second sermon “Light in darkness”, Watson uses three times “Psalms” in a fifty-word passage and three times “fetch” in twenty-five words. In a further section of two-hundred words, there is ten times the word “Upright” and three times “right” and in addition five times in the rest of the text. In a short part of 73 words, Watson uses ten times “light” plus four times in the remaining text. In a thirty-five-word passage he uses seven times “Darkness” and a further six times in the rest. What is noticeable here, is the fact that the author does not repeat certain words throughout the whole text under consideration, but uses them very frequently within the paragraph, in which a specific topic is dealt with.


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Enquiry into aspects of style and vocabulary of the Puritan language
University of Cologne
Early Modern English
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ISBN (Book)
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Puritans, Puritanism, Puritan, Early Modern English, Sermons, Letters, Religious Treatises, Van Beek, Vocabulary, Words, Religious Language, Theatre, Language, Stereotypes
Quote paper
André Valente (Author), 2008, Enquiry into aspects of style and vocabulary of the Puritan language, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/163189


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