Patterns of Semantic Change due to Latin Influences on the English Language in the Early Modern English Period

Examination Thesis, 2010

68 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents


1. Introduction

2. The Early Modern English Period
2.1 Time Frame
2.2 Setting
2.3 Growing Literacy
2.4 Standardisation

3. Latin versus English in the Early Modern English Period
3.1 The Integration of Latin Loanwords
3.2 The Inkhorn Controversy

4. Language Change
4.1 Lexical Change
4.2 Semantic Change

5. Patterns of Semantic Change due to Latin Influences on Early Modern English
5.1 The Method
5.2 The Oxford English Dictionary
5.3 Analysis in the Field of Human Anatomy
5.3.1 Backbone and Spine
5.3.2 Body and Corpus
5.3.3 Brain and Cerebrum
5.3.4 Finger and Digitus
5.3.5 Head and Caput
5.3.6 Midriff and Diaphragm
5.3.7 Navel and Umbilicum
5.3.8 Nostril and Nare
5.3.9 Throat and Fauces
5.3.10 Womb and Abdomen, Intestine, Uterus, Matrix
5.3.11 Interim Result
5.4 Analysis of other Subjects
5.4.1 Medicine
5.4.2 Botany
5.4.3 Architecture
5.4.4 Interim Result

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography


Since I am a major of English and Latin, I chose to combine these two subjects in my final paper. My great interest in the history of the English language further encouraged this decision: I was going to analyse the influences of Latin borrowings on their semantics of English equivalents with the help of the Oxford English Dictionary Online. I chose the Early Modern English period because it is a time of massive influx of Latin loanwords into the English language on several fields, such as anatomy, medicine, botany or architecture. In this way, I planned to examine several synonymous couplets belonging to different fields. However, I found out during my research that the subject of human anatomy was the one which was most affected in our time frame. This is why I concentrated on examples from this field. Concerning secondary literature, the analysis of semantic change due to Latin influences appears to be a rather unexplored issue, since I was hardly able to find works that are related to this topic. Hence, I developed my very own method of coping with the research, using various glossaries, the Ist Hhkjhfds Historical Thesaurus of English[1] and primarily the Oxford English Dictionary Online. This method will also be described in detail in this paper.

During my work I was well supported by Prof. Dr. Thomas Honegger, who always gave me valuable advice about questions concerning content and form. I am very grateful for all his help. Moreover, I want to thank my girlfriend Annabelle for having been so encouraging but also so patient with me all the time. Last but not least, I appreciate the great support of my family and my dear friends, who were simply there for me.

1. Introduction

Throughout the history of English the language was changing steadily. Not only was the English grammar, pronunciation or vocabulary being altered over the centuries but also the semantics of the lexemes. The changes in the field of semantics might have had several reasons. According to Antoine Meillet[2], a French linguist, there are basically three major causes of semantic change: changes of the socio-cultural circumstances, the linguistic context in which a word is used, or changes of the respective concept itself or of the point of view from which the concept is seen. The third and most significant factor that has a considerable impact on the semantics of words is the influence of foreign languages and, to be more precise, the influence of borrowings. Lehmann explains the phenomenon of semantic change due to the impact of borrowing in his book Historical Linguistics: an Introduction (1992: 260-61) as follows:

The third basis for semantic change, and change in the lexical component of language, Meillet found in the influence of other languages [...]. The process by which words are imported into a language is known as borrowing. It has by far the greatest effect on the lexicon of the three processes discussed by Meillet [...].

Apart from Greek and French, Latin had a remarkable influence on English at each stage of the development of the language. As a result of the contact with Roman invaders and the Roman civilisation, for instance, and due to the Christianisation of the Anglo-Saxons by Roman missionaries during the Dark Ages, a considerable number of Latin words were constantly pouring into Old English, as Baugh and Cable (cf. 2002: 70) state.[3] In Middle English times after the Norman Conquest in 1066 a huge amount of Latin words made their way into English via French predominantly in the fields of administration, religion, law, military, food, fashion, social life, art and education (cf. ibid: 155ff, 171). Finally, Latin as the prestigious, international language of scholarship still had a significant influence on Early Modern English. Thus, Nevalainen (2006: 52) points out that “Latin was the most common source for Early Modern English loan words.” However, Latin was gradually losing its massive impact on the language during these centuries, while English was gaining more and more prestige in many respects, also in the fields of scholarship.

This paper deals with semantic changes due to these Latin influences on the English language in the Early Modern English period. The aim of the following analysis is to determine potential patterns of meaning alterations of English lexemes that were caused by the influx of Latin-derived equivalents between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries. In the subsequent sections the Early Modern English period is portrayed including its historical and social-cultural backgrounds. Afterwards, the roles of Latin and English in that time will be illustrated, also considering the integration of Latin loanwords into English. In order to discuss meaning changes due to Latin influences, we will then take a closer look at language modifications in general, lexical change and the various types of semantic change by which English words might have been affected. The sections following these illustrations are going to contain the semantic analysis of exemplary synonymous pairs, each consisting of an English element and its Latin-derived equivalent, with the help of the Oxford English Dictionary Online. Pairs belonging to the subject of human anatomy are to be considered primarily, but also words of other lexical fields, such as medicine, botany and architecture, in order to determine common patterns of semantic change.

2. The Early Modern English Period

In many respects, the step from Middle English to Modern English is by far too great to take it without identifying a transitional period. This period is usually referred to as the “Early Modern English period”, which is frequently dated from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. On the one hand, Early Modern English is somewhat different from Middle English. As an example, the pronunciation changed to a great extent due to the Great Vowel Shift.[4] On the other hand, although Early Modern English looks quite familiar to us, it is in some respect still unlike Modern English in terms of orthography, syntax, morphology and semantics and, hence, worth being considered separately.

The beginning of the Early Modern English period is characterised by the introduction of the printing press to England by Caxton and, thus, by the change from handwritings to printed books, essays or pamphlets. The printing press is also seen as one reason for the growing literacy among the people of that time and for the gradual standardisation processes of written English due to the publications of grammar and spelling books. By the eighteenth century the Great Vowel Shift and the standardisation and regularisation of written English were finished to a great extent. While Latin and French were still the languages of the elite and of international scholarship in the Middle English period and at the beginning of Early Modern English times, the attitude towards the English language was changing due to several factors and, thus, English was gaining more and more prestige even in fields like sciences and theology. In addition, as a result of colonisation and the expansion of the British Empire, the English language has started to spread all over the world from then on. This is also why this time is typically regarded as the end of the Early Modern English period.

The following subsections provide a deeper insight into the period of Early Modern English. First, its time frame and its setting will be illustrated and discussed. Secondly, we will take a closer look at the growing literacy and the standardisation processes. The roles of Latin and English in that time are going to be analysed afterwards. Then, we will take into consideration how Latin loanwords were integrated into the English language, and that the influx of loanwords was thoroughly debated in the so-called “Inkhorn Controversy”.

2.1 Time Frame

The English language was changing to a great extent over the centuries. In general, its development is divided into three major stages: the Old English period, which is said to be before circa 1100, the time of Middle English, between circa 1100 and the fifteenth century, and the Modern English period, from the fifteenth century onwards. Concerning the Modern English period, many linguists, as Nevalainen (2006: 1) points out in his book An Introduction to Early Modern English, further distinguish between “Early Modern English and Late Modern English with 1700 as a dividing line.” However, there is disagreement among scholars on the exact starting and end point of the Early Modern English period, which is in the focus of this paper. Thus, this section is aimed to determine this time frame.

In The Stories of English, David Crystal (cf. 2005: 285) claims that it is hard to find a particular starting point and an exact date for the end of the Early Modern English time. He agrees with Kastovsky (cf. 2006: 256) who considers the introduction of the printing press in England in 1476 and, as a consequence of that, the growing literacy among the people as the beginning of the era. Jucker (cf. 2000: 41), van Gelderen (cf. 2006: 155) and Lass (cf. 1999: 1) largely concur with this view and regard the time around 1500 as the starting point as well.

Moreover, the linguist Nevalainen (cf. 2006: 8) determines linguistic developments, especially developments in grammar, as “conventional, but basically arbitrary cut-off points”. The verb do, for instance, was introduced as an auxiliary to negative and interrogative clauses during the Early Modern English period. Furthermore, which was replaced by who with reference to humans. The second person singular pronoun thou and constructions of multiple negations disappeared from most contexts. As Nevalainen points out, “some of these changes are shared by most varieties of English, while others have come to be associated with the rise of the standard language.” However, as the scholar admits, those linguistic developments may occur during a certain time, “[...] but need not last throughout the period, or [necessarily] form the beginning and end-points for it.” (both quotations from Nevalainen 2006: 8)


[1] This is still a test project. The thesaurus is going to be included into the Oxford English Dictionary Online at the end of 2010.

[2] After Lehmann (1992: 260): Cf. Antoine Meillet, Linguistique Historique et Linguistique Générale (Paris: Champion, 1926-28) 230-71.

[3] Latin “[...] was the language of a highly regarded civilization, one from which the Anglo-Saxons wanted to learn. Contact with that civilization, at first commercial and military, later religious and intellectual, extended over many centuries and was constantly renewed. It began long before the Anglo-Saxons came to England and continued throughout the Old English period.” (Baugh and Cable, 2002: 70).

[4] Basically, the Great Vowel Shift, a set of phonological changes, means the raising and/or diphthongisation of long vowels (cf. Jucker 2000: 53-54).

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Patterns of Semantic Change due to Latin Influences on the English Language in the Early Modern English Period
College  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
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Semantik, semantics, latein, latin, anatomy, Anatomie, linguistics, Sprachwissenschaft, Early Modern English, Frühneuenglisch, Beispiel, exemplarisch, OED, Oxford English Dictionary, Human Anatomy, spine, corpus, body, backbone, brain, cerebrum, finger, digitus, head, caput, diaphragm, midriff, navel, umbilicum, nostril, nare, throat, fauces, womb, abdomen, indestine, uterus, matrix, medicine, botany, architecture, study, words, etymology, etymological, development, Sprachwandel, Bedeutungsverschiebung, lateinische Einflüsse, englische Sprache, Muster, patterns
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David Stehling (Author), 2010, Patterns of Semantic Change due to Latin Influences on the English Language in the Early Modern English Period, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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