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The English Language During the Elizabethan Age
The last years of the fifteenth century mark the end of the Middle English period and the beginning of what is called the early Modern English period. The development of the language during the sixteenth century seems at first both paradoxical and chaotic. On the one hand, there was a movement to make the language more uniform; on the other hand, it continued to be, in both its spoken and written forms, more plastic than it is now, and it was commonly moulded to suit the requirements of individual expression.

Some of the confusion during the sixteenth century was due to the persistence of regional dialects. William Caxton, England's first printer, commented on the problem with some exasperation:

. . . That comyn englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from another. In so moche that in my dayes happened that certayn marchautes were in a ship in tamyse for to haue sayled ouer the see into zelandeand for lacke of wynde thei taryed atte forlond. and wente to land for to refreshe them And one of thaym named sheffelde a mercer came in to an hows and axed for mete and specyally he axyd after eggys And the goode wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaut was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe. but wolde haue hadde egges and she vnderstode hym not And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstod hym well Loo what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte. egges or eyren certynly it is harde to playse euery man by cause of dyuersitie & chauge of langage.

Contributing to the problem of regional variations was the lack of any standard system of spelling and pronunciation. A writer spelled according to his own tastes, and a reader had to have a certain amount of agility and imagination. The world fellow, for example, was spelled variously as fallow, felowe, felow, fallowe; and where might be spelled where, whear, were, wheare, whair. Strangely, with all these variations, the Elizabethans seem to have had little difficulty in communicating.

But problems existed, and of these the Elizabethans seem to have been very conscious; during the sixteenth century the first attempts to "improve" and regulate the language were made. Among the forces promoting regulation was the printing press, which eliminated the vagaries and mistakes in hand-written manuscripts and greatly enlarged the number of books and pamphlets available. With the growth of printing came a renewed interest in education (a word, by the way, first used in English in 1531). By Shakespeare's time about half the population of London could at least read, and that number continued to grow.

Among the tens of thousands of items run off the presses during the latter part of the century were numerous "how to" books on spelling and usage, and many pamphlets and introductions defending the English vernacular over Latin as the language for all occasions. The preoccupation with a uniform language grew out of the strong sense of national identity; the experimentation with new vocabulary and new means of expression grew out of the adventurous spirit of the Elizabethans and also out of the concern for elegance and style; there was a realisation that, in the newly flexible social structure, an elegant style could contribute to upward social mobility.

Of necessity the language had to grow to accommodate the new discoveries being made in scholarship and science. During the later years of the sixteenth century, English vocabulary was tremendously expanded by energetic and sometimes indiscriminate adaptation of words from Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and Spanish to supply terms the native idiom lacked. (Experts estimate that more than ten thousand words were added to English during this period) So widespread was the importation of foreign terms that the first dictionaries printed in England were listings not of English, but of foreign terms. Some of the new coinings from other languages, such as obstupefact, splendidious, deruncinate (to weed), illecebrous (delicate), and aspectable (visible), died by the wayside as the language developed, but many of the borrowings survived.

Latin and Greek contributed thousands of words, among them antipathy, catastrophe, external, erupt, halo, anachronnism, encyclopedia, appendix, emphasis, submerge, strenuous, inflate, infrringement. From French came Bigot, alloy, chocolate, and detail, while balcony, cameo, stanza, and violin were borrowed from Italian. Spanish and Portuguese added alligator, negro, potato, tobacco, cannibal, and many others.

Together with, and partially in reaction to, this habit of borrowing and experimenting with foreign terms, there arose a movement to revive and adapt Old English words, adding to the language such forms as wolfish, briny, astound, doom, filch, and freak. It was largely through scholarly writing and literature that most of the new terms gained admittance to the language. The poets of the period - particularly Spenser and Shakespeare - were notorious coiners and borrowers of words.

In contrast to the tremendous embellishment of its vocabulary, the grammatical structure of English underwent relatively few changes in the sixteenth century. Some time in the last part of the century, a shift in the pronunciation of long vowels settled the pronunciation of English close to what it is today.

Irregularities and variations within the language remained, however. Elizabethan idiom observed no rigid grammatical rules. Shakespeare could, for instance, use phrases like "stranger'd with an oath", "nor this is not my nose neither", "it dislikes me". The grammar seems foreign, but the sense does not. Kneen and knees, shoon and shoes, have wrote or have written, most boldest or most bold - all were equally correct. Service could be pronounced "sarvice", smart could be pronounced "smert". Not surprisingly, the major focus of the following centuries was to be on the continuing movement to standardise English.

Contributed by Gifford, Katya
10 June 2002


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