Latin words in the English Renaissance - A survey with emphasis on socio-cultural aspects

Term Paper, 2006

25 Pages, Grade: 2,7



1. Introduction

2. Changes and processes affecting language in Renaissance England
2.1 Attitudes towards English
2.2 Attitudes towards Latin

3. The Inkhorn controversy
3.1 The Neologizers
3.2 Purists and Archaisers
3.3 Discussion

4. Latin words
4.1 Fields of Borrowing
4.2 Nouns
4.3 Adjectives
4.4 Verbs

5. Attempts to regulate the language

6. Summary

Table of References

1. Introduction

Latin words have accompanied the English language throughout its entire history. Still on the continent, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes – thus, the English ancestors – learned the first several hundred Latin words from the Romans. These they brought with them, when they settled over to England, where they were replenished with Celtic Latin words. In Old English religious loans came in through Christianization and in the Middle English period Latin usually entered the language via French, not to forget Wycliffe, who, according to Hughes (1989), together with his followers directly borrowed more than one thousand Latin words (p. 94). It is also Hughes who divides Latin loan words of the Early Modern English period roughly into literary and scientific terms, the first usually enriching English in the Renaissance, the second in the (later) 17th and 18th century (p. 4).

This Hausarbeit treats the influence of Latin words on the English language in the Renaissance and, therefore, - following Baugh/Cable (1994) – from around 1500 until 1650. These time borders, however, are rather loose and only provide an orientation. When necessary for a complete understanding there will also be references to earlier or later points in time.

In this work, more precisely in the 4th chapter there will be a concrete overview about Latin words enriching the language during the Renaissance. The main interest of this work, however, is to illuminate the influence of Latin on English from a socio-cultural perspective. In order to achieve this, firstly the focus will be on processes and occurrences which generally affected the English society, but which also had consequences on the language. Subsequently, the attitudes of people – and especially scholars – concerning status and use of both, English and Latin, shall be reflected and brought into relation with social processes outlined before. Since this Hausarbeit deals with Latin words (lexicology), there will be no discussions on Latin grammar or rhetoric.

The third chapter deals with the augmentation of English. Here different strategies for enriching the vocabulary stock will be discussed in relation with some of their representatives. The main goal is to shed light on what is called the inkhorn controversy and to evaluate the latter. As a last point there will be a relatively short overview of the starting dictionary tradition in the late Renaissance, which, as a consequence, emerged out of the massive enrichment of the vocabulary stock.

2. Changes and processes affecting language in Renaissance England

The Middle English Period had witnessed the massive rise and domination of the French language in the 11th and 12th century as well aits steady decline in the 13th, 14th and 15th century. In Renaissance England, French, although it has lost its official status, still is important and influential, representing the second largest source for loanwords (Görlach (1993), p. 167). The most fruitful source throughout the whole period, however, is Latin. The immense interest in the classics not only leads to profound studies in antique ideas, logic and culture, but simultaneously causes intensive language contact with written Greek – and especially written Latin.

An important influence on language, though rather indirectly, has the introduction of printing in England by William Caxton in 1476. As Baugh/Cable (1994) demonstrate, it immediately becomes well successful, nearly completely superseding manuscript books within one hundred years (p. 195). The direct effect printing brings along, is an economically rational method to copy texts many times, and thus to provide them for (or sell them to) as big an audience as possible. Caxton himself undoubtedly was well aware of the latter opportunity when advertising his products, which interested customers should have “good chepe” (Caxton, cited after Hughes (1989), p. 100).

The indirect effect, however, is growing awareness about language use in general, caused by an audience that now is much bigger and socially much more differentiated than in the manuscript age. During this time an author usually wrote for a distinct social group and would coin his language according to his relative status to the members of that group. Now the author’s audience is much bigger and consists of readers from various social fields – citizens, scholars, politicians etc.

This fact puts enormous pressure on that author to choose an appropriate tone and appropriate vocabulary for the whole of his audience he addresses. Hughes (1989) differentiates between 4 kinds of language that can be used: (1) the educational, ostensibly neutral; (2) the promotional; (3) the authoritative and (4) the polemical language (p. 93). As a consequence, the writer is forced to thoroughly reflect upon his use of language when he decides which one he uses and, therefore, needs to raise his consciousness about it. On the other hand consciousness on the side of the reader also increases, simply due to the number of texts he reads. Proof for rising language-awareness is, as Lass (1999) mentions, given by the fact of the emergence of “extensive metalinguistic discourse” (p. 9) – authors now not only write in but also on the language (p. 8).

Besides new requirements when using (written) language, there also is, in times of lacking dictionaries, the chance to set standards for that language. The vernacular and style which proofs to be most useful to the majority of speakers automatically becomes the model, the standard for correct writing. In that sense the printing press indirectly contributed towards an (though inofficial) standard, serving, as Bailey (1991) puts it, “as a source of uniformity in the written language” (p. 35), and even though the first dictionaries where just about to come at the beginning of the 17th century, the conventions of written English by that time already had stabilized (p. 44).

Another feature in Renaissance England is increasing national pride among the people. According to Görlach (1990) it especially develops during the Elizabethan age, often referred to as Golden age, when important attainments in culture, politics and trade are realized (p. 96, 97). Nationalistic tendencies also cause a more positive attitude towards the national (English) language (Barber (2001) p. 45).

Further important processes in the early Renaissance are the Reformation (Barber (2001) p. 47) and the emergence of an influential upper middle class around the area of London (Görlach (1990) p. 96).

Both processes primarily take place as early as in the 15th century and both lead to emancipation processes particularly in the citizen classes, which are mirrored in the latter’s desire for self improvement and education. The key for such improvement lay in the ability to read. This was acquired either in grammar- or in petty schools, which both, due to expansion and secularization of education, prospered. Grammar schools thought reading and writing in English and Latin and therefore were obligatory for young gentlemen, whereas in petty schools only English was thought, usually to average citizens (Barber (2001) p. 45, 46). In 1533 Sir Thomas More estimated already half of the population to be capable of reading, and even though this might be overestimated (p. 46) there definitely was a big reading public with “a voracious appetite […] for knowledge of all kinds” (p. 47).

2.1 Attitudes towards English

The development of the English language itself as well as attitudes towards it is/are influenced a great deal by those processes outlined so far, and the general perceptions of English in the beginning of the Renaissance, compared to those towards the end of it are quite different. In the 15th and throughout the first half of the 16th century it is evaluated as rather underdeveloped and rustic. Writers who publish in English usually write an obligatory excuse into the preface of their works and, like Caxton, apologize for the “simple and rude englissh” (cited after Barber (2001) p. 42) they use. Not only big Latin (and Greek) is regarded as superior, but also the modern continental languages Italian, French and Spanish (p. 43).

Görlach (1990) summarizes the perceived weaknesses of English in comparison to Latin like this: It was not regulated in terms of grammar and orthography, was heterogeneous and lexicographically inappropriately equipped (p. 97). Especially in a field like scholarship which ever since was dealt with in Latin, the English language was hopelessly underdeveloped and could not provide adequate labels (signifiers) for many ancient concepts (Baugh/Cable (1994), p. 210). Other factors are its instability, that means constant change, and the fact that it is not understood outside England (Barber (2001), p. 48).


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Latin words in the English Renaissance - A survey with emphasis on socio-cultural aspects
University of Potsdam  (Institut für Anglistik / Amerikanistik)
Seminar im Hauptstudium
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ISBN (eBook)
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Latin, English, Renaissance, Seminar, Hauptstudium
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Mathias Wick (Author), 2006, Latin words in the English Renaissance - A survey with emphasis on socio-cultural aspects, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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