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The English Language During the 17th Century
The desire for order and certainty, which emerged amidst the turmoil of the seventeenth century, was reflected in the development of the language. Particularly in the latter half of the century, Englishmen, reacting against the novelties and unregulated spontaneity which characterised Elizabethan expression, began to call for an ordered, rational language.

English was discovered to have no body of grammatical rules that could serve as a systematic and unfailing guide to "correct" expression, and therefore Latin models were turned to once more. John Dryden, who was one of the loudest in his outcries against the unruly language of his predecessors ("we . . . have not so much as a tolerable dictionary, or a grammar, so that our language is in a manner barbarous", he wrote) is said at one point in his career to have translated his thoughts first into Latin to discover their most proper form of expression in English.

The Royal Society, founded in 1660 by a group of learned men and scientists, objected to the Elizabethan love of verbal gymnastics on the ground that it was unscientific, and demanded of its members instead "a close, naked, natural way of speaking positive expressions, clear sense, a native easiness, bringing as near the mathematical plainness as they can". The scientists were supported in this matter by the Puritans, who objected to display of any kind, whether in matters of religion, dress, or language.

As Englishmen expanded their interests abroad in the seventeenth century, their language continued to absorb foreign words. Increased commercial rivalry with the Dutch brought in such terms as bowsprit, brandy, cruise, freight, keel, smack, and sloop. From the American colonies came such words as canoe, maize, papoose, and squaw. The popularity of Italian music in the latter half of the century gave rise to terms such as aria, oratorio, allegro, contralto, cantata, opera, piano, soprano, and trombone. The main change, however, was the growing emphasis on ease and clearness of expression, which came to full bloom in attempts to standardise, refine, and give permanent order and status to English in the eighteenth century.

Contributed by Gifford, Katya
10 June 2002


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