Neologism in Early Modern English

Term Paper, 2007

15 Pages, Grade: 2,3

Tim Küpper (Author)


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Significant historical processes

3. What is a word?

4. Shakespeare’s word usage

5. Neologisms

6. Sources of neologisms

7. Loan words

8. Loans from Latin

9. Word-formation
9.1 Affixation
9.2 Compounding
9.3 Conversion

10. Conclusion

11. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Since mankind uses language it formed sentences to communicate. Therefore it is necessary to put words together in a meaningful way. “But although a word is a unit which is familiar in our culture, the notion that it has an internal structure is not.” (Matthews 1974 : 9). That is where morphology comes in. Being a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Cambridge Peter Matthews published his well known book ‘Morphology’. It is about his thoughts and results of research in that concern.

What is morphology? Morphology is beside syntax, semantics and phonology and phonetics one major subfield of linguistics. Its origin is in nineteenth century as the first reference for morphology in the Oxford English Dictionary was in the 1860s. It deals with the word itself. That means morphology is about forms of words in different uses and constructions. It is divided into subfields like lexical or inflectional morphology. Lexical morphology is concerned with relations among lexemes such as compounding whereas inflectional morphology deals with paradigms which show a lexeme in terms of categories like Singular and Plural.

This term paper is to regard both subfields of morphology in reference to creating new words (neologisms) in the Early Modern period. It is beside from borrowing aiming a special aspect of word structure namely word-formation because this two means represent the most significant ways out of which many neologisms arose.

But what is it that makes words and their structure or formations so interesting? Words help us to express ourselves. We produce them every day. So everybody is involved in that concern. I personally have never asked before where all these words that we use more or less every day have come from. That is one reason for writing this term paper. I have chosen the Early Modern period because this time enlarged the English lexicon extremely: “An examination of the language itself shows that the period was indeed one of great vocabulary expansion...” (Barber 1976 : 219). Moreover it is to be presented what kind of words came up and whereby they occurred in that time.

2. Significant historical processes

As a first approach to neologisms in Early Modern English the most important historical facts and figures in terms of the English language in that time are supposed to be presented in this paragraph. First of all, Modern English can be divided into the period Early Modern English which begins in 1500 and ends in 1700 and the period of Late Modern English from 1700 to present time. The Early Modern English period was marked by a political, economic, technological and social change in Britain.

It was so heavily influenced that as a consequence the English language changed when in 1500 roughly speaking the Renaissance began and the printing press was introduced. The Renaissance is of high importance because it promoted borrowing from Latin which is a significant topic when thinking of the enlargement of the English lexicon in that time and will in later chapters therefore be presented in more details. It was not until 1539 when an English translation of the Bible was in every church which can be considered as a huge success in terms of translating Latin into English and as a consequence again brought quite a lot of Latin loans: “By 1539 there was an English translation of the Bible in every church, marking an important milestone in the history of the use of Latin in the British Isles.” (Fennell 2001 : 136).

The Early Modern English period was also the time of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Terttu Nevalainen selects him in his book ‘An Introduction to Early Modern English’ as a typical representative of the language of that period which implies that Shakespeare who straddled the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods must have had a great impact throughout his time. If we can compare or distinguish Shakespeare’s English especially in spelling and grammar from our own must be analysed but is not content in this term paper.

The Elizabethan Age was the age of colonial expansionism which gives another significant historical process when thinking of the enlargement of the English lexicon.

In this way, English spread throughout the world and absorbed many hundreds of words.

But what was the effect of these historical events and how did it enriched the English lexicon in that time? To give an answer we should take a closer look at those relevant processes that brought up new words. Therefore it could be helpful as a first step to define the term ‘word’.

3. What is a word?

In our mental lexicon which is inside our heads there is stored thousands of information about words. This information includes the phonological/phonemic form, the meaning of each word or sign, the grammatical category and the orthography. So a human know and can make use of a huge number of words: “It has been estimated that average speakers of a language know from 45,000 to 60,000 words.” (Plag 2003 : 4).

A general distinction can be made between a word in a text called an orthographic word and a word as an entry in the dictionary. Speaking of an orthographic word, Plag (2003 : 4) provides following definition: “...a word is an uninterrupted string of letters which is preceded by a blank space and followed either by a blank space or a punctuation mark.” He underlines his definition by giving a corresponding example: “Linguistics is a fascinating subject.” (Plag 2003 : 4). Here five words can be counted whereas in his second example: “Benjamin’s girlfriend lives in a high-rise apartment building” (Plag 2003 : 4), the number of words is not clear and with it the given definition is not convincing. The problem is that orthography is often ambiguous as far as outlining a word number in a sentence is concerned. Here ‘girlfriend’ for example could also be written like ‘girl-friend’ or even ‘girl friend’ what makes the problem more concrete. That leads to one type of word-formation namely compounding which is of special significant for coming up with new words in Early Modern English and about which later paragraphs will deal with.

Moreover, Plag (2003 : 5) gives another definition by saying a word is: “A unit in speech surrounded by pauses.”. But when listening carefully to a speaker you realize that no one really makes pauses before or after a word. This brings us to the idea of making potential pauses between words but additionally a speaker can make pauses within a word namely between syllables. So this try seems to be taking the field of phonology into consideration which is not supposed to be the topic of this term paper.

Giving a precise and entirely reliable definition on what a word is seems to be not unproblematic. So the ‘word’ as unit must be paid attention at because it is not as straightforward as we might expect. In order to come back to the period of Early Modern English the next chapter will shortly give some interesting facts about employing a word with special focus on Shakespeare’s word usage.

4. Shakespeare’s word usage

As we have seen before it is not easy to say what a word is. If assumed that a word is a unit or text element out of which phrases and sentences are built of we would come to the result that Shakespeare as the famous text writer of that time would make use of a enormous amount of orthographic words. When evaluating this statement it has to be said that he uses certain words several times among his texts: “Shakespeare’s works consist of 884,647 words of this kind or, more specifically, word-form tokens, since the most frequent ones are of course repeated hundreds of times.” (Nevalainen 2006 : 45). So we have to take into consideration that words can be divided into word-forms. Thus the number of Shakespeare’s word usage is much smaller: “In all, Shakespeare’s works contain only 29,066 word form types.” (Nevalainen 2006 : 46).

Various word-forms are different realisations of a lexeme which is a rather abstract vocabulary item and always represented in capital letters. For example, crawler, crawling, crawls, crawled and so on are different word-forms of the lexeme CRAWL.

Shakespeare’s texts consist of approximately 17,750 lexemes (Nevalainen 2006 : 46). In order get an idea what this number means it was compared to Chaucer’s vocabulary: “...while Chaucer’s vocabulary equals that of the Authorised Version of the Bible, it is only one third of Shakespeare’s.” (Nevalainen 2006 : 46).

As a consequence from that it is questionable how someone could come up with so many words. How was it possible at that time to create a text and make use of all these numerous different words and slight nuances like Shakespeare as an exceptionally innovative writer did? One solution among others might be to simply create new words (neologisms) out of existing ones.

5. Neologisms

In the word corpus of Standard Present-day British English the most common words are grammatical ones like the, of, and, to, a, in, that, is, was, it and so on.

It is interesting to see that the top ten most frequent word-forms in the Early Modern English section of the Helsinki Corpus of English Texts are the same as in the Present-day corpus except that they include I but not was. These words are all native Germanic in origin. (Nevalainen 2006 : 48)

The vocabulary of English in the time period under consideration was not an unchanging list of words. Neologisms which are new words coming into language in a given period can enrich the lexicon and can even be one reason that old words the so called archaisms are not used frequently any more. (Hughes 2000 : 55). By which means a new word exist or is created will be described in the next chapter.

How strongly neologisms influenced the vocabulary of a time like Early Modern English can be investigated by simply counting the new entries that means new words in an adequate dictionary. But which one can let us reliably determine the number of neologisms in a given period?

There is no denying the fact that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as an outstanding dictionary for English with about 500,000 entries can be chosen when willing to get information in that concern.

The power of the OED as an instrument to count neologisms should however not be overestimated as not all new words might be registered in Early Modern English.

What made it possible then to create a new word? Which methods can be taken to form a new word out of an existing or old word? What were the sources of neologisms in Early Modern English?


Excerpt out of 15 pages


Neologism in Early Modern English
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
The English Lexicon
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neologisms, early, modern, english
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Tim Küpper (Author), 2007, Neologism in Early Modern English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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